In 1913, Psychiatrist and Philosopher Karl Jaspers had pronounced, in his work, General Psychopathology, that many of the symptoms of mental illness (and particularly of delusions) were "un-understandable", and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Then, in 1956, Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, Donald Jackson, and Jay Haley articulated a theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations where a person receives different or contradictory messages. The perceived symptoms of schizophrenia were therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and trans-formative experience. Laing argued a similar account for psychoses: that the strange behavior and seemingly confused speech of people undergoing a psychotic episode were ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns, often in situations where this was not possible or not permitted. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of "madness" (his term).
Laing was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow on 7 October 1927, the only child of civil Engineer David Park MacNair Laing and Amelia Glen Laing (née Kirkwood). Laing described his parents – his mother especially – as being somewhat anti-social, and demanding the maximum achievement from him. Although his biographer son largely discounted Laing's account of his childhood, an obituary by an acquaintance of Laing asserted that about his parents – "the full truth he told only to a few close friends".
He was educated initially at Sir John Neilson Cuthbertson Public School and after four years transferred to Hutchesons' Grammar School. Described variously as clever, competitive or precocious, he studied Classics, particularly philosophy, including through reading books from the local library. Small and slightly built, Laing participated in distance running; he was also a musician, being made an Associate of the Royal College of Music. He studied Medicine at the University of Glasgow. During his medical degree he set up a "Socratic Club", of which the Philosopher Bertrand Russell agreed to be President. Laing failed his final exams. In a partial autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, Laing said he felt remarks he made under the influence of alcohol at a university function had offended the staff and led to him being failed on every subject including some he was sure he had passed. After spending six months working on a psychiatric unit, Laing passed the re-sits in 1951 to qualify as a medical Doctor.
Laing fathered six sons and four daughters by four women. His son Adrian, speaking in 2008, said, "It was ironic that my father became well known as a family Psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family." His daughter Fiona was born 7 December 1952. His daughter Susan born September 1954 died in March 1976, aged 21, of leukemia. Adam, his oldest son by his second marriage, was found dead in May 2008, in a tent on a Mediterranean island. He had died of a heart attack, aged 41.
Laing spent a couple of years as a Psychiatrist in the British Army Psychiatric Unit at Netley, where as he later recalled, those trying to fake schizophrenia to get a lifelong disability pension were likely to get more than they had bargained for as Insulin shock therapy was being used. In 1953 Laing returned to Glasgow, participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group, and worked at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital The hospital was influenced by David Henderson's school of thought, which may have exerted an unacknowledged influence on Laing; he became the youngest consultant in the country. . Laing's colleagues characterised him as "conservative" for his opposition to Electroconvulsive therapy and the new drugs that were being introduced.
In 1956 Laing went to train on a grant at the Tavistock Institute in London, widely known as a centre for the study and practice of psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalysis). At this time, he was associated with John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicott and Charles Rycroft. He remained at the Tavistock Institute until 1964.
In The Divided Self (1960), Laing contrasted the experience of the "ontologically secure" person with that of a person who "cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy and identity of himself and others for granted" and who consequently contrives strategies to avoid "losing his self". In Self and Others (1961), Laing's definition of normality shifted somewhat.
In 1965 Laing co-founded the UK charity the Philadelphia Association, concerned with the understanding and relief of mental suffering, which he also chaired. His work influenced the wider movement of therapeutic communities, operating in less "confrontational" (in a Laingian perspective) psychiatric settings. Other organizations created in a Laingian tradition are the Arbours Association and the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London.
Laing also wrote poetry and his poetry publications include Knots (1970), and Sonnets (1979).
In October 1972, Laing met Arthur Janov, author of the popular book The Primal Scream. Though Laing found Janov modest and unassuming, he thought of him as a 'jig man' (someone who knows a lot about a little). Laing sympathized with Janov, but regarded his primal therapy as a lucrative Business, one which required no more than obtaining a suitable space and letting people 'hang it all out.'
Laing appears, alongside his son Adam, on the 1980 album Miniatures - a sequence of fifty-one tiny masterpieces edited By Morgan Fisher, performing the song "Tipperary".
Laing was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering from both episodic alcoholism and clinical depression, according to his self-diagnosis in a BBC Radio interview with Anthony Clare in 1983, although he reportedly was free of both in the years before his death. These admissions were to have serious consequences for Laing as they formed part of the case against him by the General Medical Council which led to him ceasing to practise Medicine. He died at age 61 of a heart attack while playing tennis with his colleague and friend Robert W. Firestone.
Laing expanded the view of the "double bind" hypothesis put forth by Bateson and his team, and came up with a new concept to describe the highly complex situation that unfolds in the process of "going mad" – an "incompatible knot".