Category Archives: Culture

Linking the Mind and the Brain

“An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind”–David Brooks

“The basic elements of psychology, like beliefs, desires, goals, and thoughts, will likely always play a key role in our understanding of human behavior, which is why science needs researchers who study the mind every bit as much as it needs researchers who study the brain. Our aim should not be to pick the brain over the mind, or vice versa, but to build stronger bridges between our understandings of the two”–Gary Marcus

“What most distinguishes Greenfeld’s model of the mind from so much else in the field is that she brings together biological and cultural approaches to mental illness inclusively rather than exclusively, in a way that enlarges rather than diminishes both. While accepting the biological reality of major mental illnesses, her analysis is focused not simply on the brain, in a reductive sense, but on the mind as a product of experience and learning as well as biology. Likewise, she applies cultural concepts to psychiatry not in the reductive, purely social-constructionist manner of Laing, Foucault, and Szasz, but so as to foster understanding of cultural and historical variations in the incidence and expression of mental illness that biology alone cannot explain”Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., Harvard Medical School

Solving the Mind-Body Problem

By Liah Greenfeld

It is hard to exaggerate Darwin’s contribution to the understanding of the world around us. Biology, the science of life, came into existence solely thanks to his theory of evolution through natural selection. The interest in life is very old, of course, and many attempted to study organic phenomena, but their study produced nothing but typologies and classifications, i.e., systematic descriptions of their subject matter, without explaining anything about it: biology was not a science and, not being a science, it did not progress.

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Human Nature Part II: Learning, Memoy, Imagination

By Liah Greenfeld

As I argued in my previous post, in contrast to all other animals who transmit their ways of life genetically, i.e., through their genes and genetic capacities which humans as animals share, humans transmit their ways of life symbolically, i.e., through culture. Culture is irreducible to such genetic capacities, but it could not exist without them. Therefore, to understand the specificity of culture as the distinguishing characteristic of humanity, we must first establish what it is not and discuss these animal capacities which are often confused with culture.

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A New Perspective on Human Nature

By Liah Greenfeld

Despite the widespread rejection of Creationism and Intelligent Design in our society, most of us continue to believe that humanity is “the Crown of Creation.” Even though brought about by an impersonal force, such as Nature or Evolution, we consider ourselves superior to all other living beings, incomparably more intelligent and capable of loftier, more noble, emotions, and for this reason of our cognitive and emotional superiority, fully justified in making whatever use of them we may decide upon to improve our quality of life. If the very same logic were applied to differences between human beings and it were suggested that the more intelligent people with more developed emotional life can use people who are less intelligent and less developed emotionally in whatever way that suits the former to make their lives better, many of us would be appalled. But, if asked to explain this reaction, we would have to resort to the claim of cognitive and emotional superiority again. It is clear that we have the ability to use (that is in various ways exploit, kill for food, convenience, or sport, take over the resources they need to survive, impose conditions that turn their lives into torture) other animals, while they do not have the ability to use us. So, obviously, they are not our equals. But this is not because they are all naturally less intelligent than we are, or because our emotional capacities are naturally better developed.

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Are Souls Real?

By Liah Greenfeld

The soul is an important subject for many people, but few of us would say it is scientific in the sense that it can be studied and understood by science. Science studies real things, which are referred to as “empirical,” and many of us are not entirely sure that souls are real. Many neuroscientists, in fact, don’t even believe that they exist; I would bet $1000 that 99% of them would not consider them “empirical.”

In this post, I would like you, my readers, to participate in proving such neuroscientists wrong. We are going to do this together, you and me, and we are going to do so empirically, that is relying on evidence or data. You and I are going to demonstrate empirically the reality of the soul.

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Gender and Neuroscience

By Liah Greenfeld

Readers’ comments to my recent post raised for me some questions about an important topic: gender. I don’t know how to answer these questions, but it seems interesting to ruminate—chew—on them, and I invite you to do so with me. Perhaps, you will have answers. The comment that specifically drew my attention to the issue was an angry one: The person who sent it strongly disagreed with my suggestion that the actions of many so-called “home-grown jihadists” or “Muslim extremists” in the West are very similar to those of mentally ill perpetrators of violent crime, and that, because their dedication to Islam is often of a recent date, it may not be Islam at all that motivates them, but their mental illness. The commenter called me various names and asked, in so many words, how someone with a Ph.D. can doubt that a wicked and, among other evil things, “misogynistic” religion such as Islam, which advocates the subjugation of women, is the motivation behind heinous crimes such the recent Boston Marathon bombing or the beheading of a soldier in London.

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Is Depression A Real Disease?

By Liah Greenfeld

Last month’s issue of The British Journal of General Practice contains an editorial “Depression as a culture-bound syndrome: implications for primary care” by Dr. Christopher Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society of the University of Liverpool. Dr. Dowrick claims that depression “fulfills the criteria for a culture-bound syndrome,” i.e. , one of the “’illnesses’, limited to specific societies or culture areas, composed of localized diagnostic categories,” like, for instance ataque de nervios in Latin America. In the case of depression the culture area affected is “westernized societies.” Putting the word “illness,” when applied to culture-bound syndromes into quotation marks indicates that Dr. Dowrick does not consider such syndromes real illnesses; it follows that depression–a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies–is also not a real illness. Dr. Dowrick further argues that depression as a diagnostic category cannot be seen as “a universal, transcultural concept,” because it has no validity and utility, and it does not have validity and utility, because “there is no sound evidence for a discrete pathophysiological basis” for depression. I find myself in absolute agreement with Dr. Dowrick’s two specific statements above (that depression is a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies, and that there is no discrete pathophysiological basis for this diagnostic category), and yet completely disagree with the implication that depression is not a real disease.

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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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