Category Archives: Culture

Women and Sex

By Liah Greenfeld

The July issue of Vogue magazine carries an article on a significant change occurring in the sex-lives of American women. Many of them, the article claims, must now choose between good mood and good sex, and, in some cases, between having a life and having sex altogether. Many, obviously, choose life. Some of the husbands, as one may well expect, object. Such choice must be made because more and more women (over 20 percent at present, the article points out) are suffering from depression severe enough to seek help; they are medicated; and practically all effective anti-depressants have serious sexual side-effects–they destroy libido. Fully one-third of this over-20-percent of sexually active American women on antidepressants are deprived of sexual pleasures as a result. One thinks with sympathy about American men too, who also often suffer from depression, take medications, and suffer from similar side-effects. Since the 20 percent or so of depressed women do not completely overlap with the 20 percent or so of depressed men, it stands to reason that more than one-third of 20 percent in each group are deprived of sex and its pleasures as a result of medication. Add to this that untreated depression does not encourage sexual activity either, because it discourages any activity, and that it prevents enjoying sex, because it makes any enjoyment impossible, and we end with a pretty large group of people, women and men, who are, we may say, sexually disabled. Of course, they suffer from this disability.

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The Mind as Culture in the Brain

By Liah Greenfeld

In previous posts I have already began the discussion of the possibility that humanity is a reality of its own kind, an emergent phenomenon, based on our animal (biological) nature, but irreducible to it and, instead, defined by culture (on the collective level) and the mind, or as some other languages refer to it, the soul (on the level of the individual). There are three biological conditions for the emergence of this autonomous reality, I suggested: a highly developed brain, signs, and the larynx specific to our species. The first two, I further argued, are reflected in the widespread proofs of the animal abilities for what neuroscientists call “learning” and “memory,” to which I added “imagination.” We share these cognitive abilities with numerous animal species. In this post, I want to continue the discussion of the special human reality, going beyond its biological conditions.

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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