Monthly Archives: May 2013

Random Acts of Violence: A Common Psychological Profile?

Bryan Bender, “US officials seek lessons in bombing catastrophe,” The Boston Globe

Government studies of previous large-scale attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, antigovernment groups, and the mentally disturbed have highlighted certain shared patterns, officials say. “When you take motivation out of it,” said one US official involved in reviewing the homeland security implications of the Boston attack, “the indicators that are apparent to people are in many cases common across the board. “In all of these cases there are opportunities for intervention. It may not be law enforcement at all times that is best suited to do it. It may be a teacher. It may be a faith leader,” the official said.

Liah Greenfeld:

Random criminality, especially in the last few weeks, has been on the mind of many Americans. What drives an individual to commit a violent crime against unsuspecting strangers? Why did James Holmes shoot up the Aurora theater? Was Adam Lanza acting out of childhood resentment? Were the Tsarnaev brothers religiously motivated?  Is mental instability behind all violent acts?

Whether the explicit motive is political, religious, or personal, today’s random violent crimes have an overarching societal connection. Uncomfortable in their own skin and maladjusted, the individuals committing them are naturally discontented with their society and blame their deep personal unhappiness on it. Blaming one’s existential discomfort on factors unrelated to it is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed (usually borrowed from ongoing public discussions), which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil: corruption, injustice, imperialism, uncaring environment, what not. In cases of more severe distress, such rationalization alone does not sufficiently assuage it and must be acted upon.  The individual may join an organization or movement dedicated to fighting a particular evil or be impelled, called, to act on one’s own – and led to murder. The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of (schizophrenic) delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents. People are killed because of what they represent, rather than because of what they do.

It is the randomness of such crimes that shocks us, making us eager to find a rational motive behind them.  The only way to prevent them, however, is to understand how very widespread in our society the mental condition behind them is, and to be ready to intervene whenever the common psychological discomfort threatens to turn into a real disease. Such vigilance might save many more lives than have ever been taken by sick criminals, because it is essential to remember that this kind of violence is extremely rare and that the characteristic violence of the mentally ill is suicide.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

 

What’s Really Wrong with DSM-5

By Liah Greenfeld

The essence of the DSM-5 consists in the modifications it introduces in the extensive psychiatric nosology, specifically adding diagnostic categories to diseases of unknown biological origin and uncertain etiology. But the real problem lies much deeper – in the understanding of such diseases itself. It is the problem with the old, fundamental, and universally accepted diagnostic categories of thought disorder- vs. affective disorders, or schizophrenia vs. manic and unipolar depression, on which all the other diagnostic categories of mental illness of unknown etiology, new and not so new, are based. 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.

Modern Emotions: Aspiration and Ambition

By Liah Greenfeld

The claim of this post is that such characteristic emotions as ambition, happiness, and love as we understand it today, which form the very core and define the emotional experience of so many of us, are not universal, but specifically modern in the sense of being a creation of the modern culture; that members of pre-modern societies were unfamiliar with them, i.e., did not experience ambition, happiness, and love; and that even at present these emotions play only a minor role in the emotional life of billions of people living outside modern Western civilization.  The sources of these three emotions, in other words, are to be sought not in human nature, but in modern culture.

The focus of this post is ambition, while the following two posts will be devoted, respectively, to happiness and love. Still later posts will explain what in modern culture called these emotions into being.  (I’d like to remind the reader that this blog is continuous, i.e., it follows the agenda set in the first post, with each new post continuing the arguments of the preceding ones.)  

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Are Human Emotions Universal?

By Liah Greenfeld

It is widely believed that human emotions, from love to ambition to pride or desire for freedom, for instance, are hardwired into our brain and that, therefore, both their range and their nature are universal, shared by humanity as a whole. This belief is wrong and itself reflects the fundamental universalism of modern Western, particularly American, thought and its tendency to consider all human consciousness and behavior as a function of biology. Both comparative zoology and comparative history  show that, above the limited range of emotions we share, as animals, with other animal species, what moves human beings and makes them suffer in one culture or society may be dramatically different from the emotions shaping the living experiences in another one.

Emotions, or feelings, as the name suggests, are experienced through physical sensations. In this they differ from other mental experiences, usually called “cognitive.” The part of sensations in an emotion allows us to place it into one of three categories: primary emotions, secondary emotions, and tertiary emotions. Primary emotions are experienced through specific sensations and represent the direct reaction of the organism to the stimuli of its physical environment. They include such experiences as pain and pleasure, fear, positive and negative excitement (joy and anxiety), hunger and satiation, and their biological function is to increase the individual organism’s survival. It is clear that these primary emotions are common to humans and other animals.

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