Monthly Archives: May 2013

Love, Ambition, Happiness, Pets and Nationalism

By Liah Greenfeld

Our psychological functioning cannot be understood in isolation from the cultural environment and historical period we inhabit. The mind—not only what we think, but the very ways we perceive reality and feel, our mental experience itself—changes with culture and history. I hope I have proven in the last six posts that human emotions are not universal, not hard-wired into our brains, as neuroscientists would have it [see Are Human Emotions Universal?], and that such emotions as ambition, happiness, love, without which, for us, it would be hard to imagine life, and even the tenderness we feel towards our pets are modern emotions, meaning that people were not ambitious or happy, did not fall in love, and did not love their dogs and cats before the 16th century in the English-speaking world and before much later, if at all, in much of the rest of our world. In the first post of this blog I promised to explore the connection between these emotions and some other seemingly disparate phenomena [see Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?]. I shall begin this exploration now. Its purpose is to show that the cultural and historical environment within which our minds develop and function is exceedingly complex and that factors that create some of our core mental experiences often lie completely outside of the purview of the science of psychology (including neuropsychology) which is entrusted with the task of explaining our mental experiences.

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Can Sexless Love Be Fulfilling?

By Liah Greenfeld

In Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex, I argued that the modern concept of love as an identity-affirming emotion, the way to one’s true self, and the supreme expression of the self, changed the cultural significance (that is, our attitude to) of sex, elevating it far above the base drive, legitimate only in marriage for the purpose of procreation and even then considered sinful within the framework of Christian morality which was dominant in our, Western, civilization throughout the last fifteen centuries of its pre-modern existence. Love became the greatest modern passion, it was presented from the outset–in Romeo and Juliet–as sexual love between a man and a woman, and the involvement of sex in it purified sex and added to it an important spiritual dimension. The essence of the modern ideal of love, and of love-relationship, however, has always remained its identity-affirming power, the fact that it offered the most direct route to finding oneself and, therefore, to  meaning in life and happiness [see Modern Emotions: Happiness].

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Nationalism, Madness, and Terrorism

By Liah Greenfeld

If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the United States, or in the two wars fought in Chechnya in the last 20 years. Instead, a key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior may perhaps be found in developments in England 500 years ago…

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Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex

By Liah Greenfeld

If you ever wondered, love–the identity-affirming one we all desire–is not dependent on sex and can well thrive without it. Love, as already Shakespeare said (and Shakespeare–see Modern Emotions: Love–was the expert on the subject) is a marriage of minds, after all, and the bodily element in it is at most secondary. Of course, the experience of that love we are discussing here is essentially erotic in the sense that the emotion is ecstatic and self-transcendent–finding that perfect understanding (the understanding that allows one to understand and accept oneself) in another person implies virtually merging with the other person in one’s innermost self, making the other person an essential, vital part of one’s identity. And this self-transcendence, merging of the minds, is naturally felt as a physical longing, a desire to become physically one–expressed as sexual desire. But sex, in this case, is an expression of love, not the other way around, and love can have numerous other expressions, it does not necessitate sex under all circumstances.

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Modern Emotions: Love

By Liah Greenfeld

Surprise! Surprise! Love, too, in the sense we understand it now, is not a universal human emotion. Even today it is not universal: some cultures are familiar with it and some are not. And, historically, only the last five hundred years in human history have known it — the same five hundred years that have known happiness, aspiration, and ambition. The first humans to fall in love also lived in the 16th century and were English. Today, of course, this most powerful feeling is familiar everywhere within the so-called “Western” civilization (which includes all societies based on monotheistic religion, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and it has penetrated into other civilizations as well. But it has spread from England, accompanying other experiences (such as ambition or happiness) which were at first specifically English, and reached other societies in translation from the English language. Love as we understand it, therefore, also does not spring from human “nature”: it is essentially a cultural phenomenon.

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Modern Emotions: Happiness

By Liah Greenfeld

Our Declaration of Independence includes the pursuit of happiness among the inalienable human rights, alongside life itself. It is so included because the founding fathers evidently assumed that such pursuit was a human universal of the most important, that human beings, in other words, have always and everywhere had the capacity for experiencing happiness and have been naturally drawn to it. The readers of this blog would, probably, agree with this assumption and it is quite likely that many would consider happiness the very purpose of human existence. And yet, this assumption is wrong. Happiness is a modern emotion. No one – no society, no language – had a concept of it before the 16th century, when the idea of happiness first appeared in England, and this means that it was inconceivable for people who lived before the 16th century and to those who lived outside of England even for some time after it. If it was inconceivable, it could hardly been experienced, and certainly could not be consciously desired and pursued. As to whether it could be felt, desired, and pursued unconsciously we cannot know, because for obvious reasons, we cannot have any evidence regarding this possibility.

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Psychiatry: Time for a Paradigm Shift

The Division of Clinical Psychologists (DCP) of the British Psychological Society Time for a Paradigm Shift Position Statement, May 13, 2013:  “The DCP is of the view that it is timely and appropriate to affirm publicly that the current classification system as outlined in DSM and ICD, in respect of the functional psychiatric diagnoses, has significant conceptual and empirical limitations. Consequently, there is a need for a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system not based on a ‘disease’ model… This position… recognises the complexity of the relationship between social, psychological and biological factors. In relation to the experiences that give rise to a functional psychiatric diagnosis, it calls for an approach that fully acknowledges the growing amount of evidence for psychosocial causal factors, but which does not assign an unevidenced role for biology as a primary cause, and that is transparent about the very limited support for the ‘disease’ model in such conditions.”

Oliver James, “Do we need to change the way we are thinking about mental illness,” The Observer, May 13, 2013: “While there is some evidence that the electro-chemistry of distressed people can be different from the undistressed, the Human Genome Project seems to be proving that genes play almost no part in causing this. Eleven years of careful study of our DNA shows that differences in it do not explain mental illness, hardly at all.

Liah Greenfeld:

DSM-5’s approach is similar to attempting to salvage a house, falling apart because it is built on an unsound foundation, by adding to it a fresh coat of paint and new shutters. What Mind, Modernity, Madness does, in contrast, is to dismantle the structure, establish a sound foundation, and then rebuild the house on top of it. I begin by questioning and analyzing the fundamental diagnostic categories themselves, consider them against the existing clinical, neurobiological, genetic, and epidemiological evidence, bring into the mix the never-before-considered cultural data, and on this basis propose that the two (schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness) or even three (schizophrenia, manic depression, and unipolar depression) discreet diseases are better conceptualized–and therefore treated–as the same disease, with one cause, which expresses itself differently depending on the circumstances in which this cause becomes operative. Psychiatric epidemiologists, at least, have long suspected that “the black box of culture” is an important contributing factor in these diseases. However, as the phrase indicates, they lack the means to understand or even examine its contribution. By unpacking the “black box” (and showing, specifically, how it is reflected in the logically necessary structures of the mind, such as identity, will, and thinking self), I add a missing yet essential dimension to the diagnostic tool-kit, which the DSM-5, like the previous editions, disregards.