I’m suffering from writer’s block today, so I’m rehashing some of my older material. I once hosted a philosophy podcast titled My Life With Kant. Why? Because I’m a huge Immanuel Kant fan. But anyways, I usually covered many different philosophically-related things. Notably mental health problems.
The recording is godawful, so I’m only releasing the transcript. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors. Enjoy!
How much has the human mind changed since we have officially evolved into “homo sapien SAPIENS”, because, apparently there’s a slight distinction between “homo sapiens” and “homo sapien SAPIENS”. If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you’ve heard me ask this question. And from what I gather, apparently it hasn’t really changed at all.
Yeah, like it or not, we’re still that same primate that was simply roaming the land thousands of years ago. We haven’t changed, only the bullshit that we’ve surrounded ourselves with has changed. Thankfully, our forefathers conquered all the beasts and tailored the earth to fit our needs. So I think that this has given us the illusion that we are more evolved or have things more figured out than our ancestors. And maybe we do, we certainly have a better understanding of the universe that we occupy. We can definitely achieve many more things than they ever could. But…what does it matter? I mean, we’re still going to die in the end. Or at least, you probably will. I’m going to live forever.
But I think that there’s this mistake that we all believe, that says, the most optimal time to live is right now. And as the future rolls on, then THAT will be the most optimal time to live. I think I might have also beaten this horse to death as well. But in our modern time, we have exchanged pure survival and minimal existence for material gain and information. Additionally, because we are very social creatures, the increasing population and constant awareness of others have greatly altered what it means to be a human. Does this make sense? So if you’re living in First World Society, there’s a whole NEW set of problems that the mind has to deal with, and isn’t accustomed to dealing with because the human mind and body are adapted for survival, and our social habits are a tool. Now we have to learn to survive in a highly sociable world.
The belief that we have evolved out of animal status, or our methods of living today are superior to those of our ancestors, is an arrogance of modernity. To an extent, we are just trading one set of problems out for another. As much as I hate it, I think to a large degree, the human mind is made to suffer. Instead of having to worry about animals and competing tribes out to kill us, we have exchanged those problems out for more Nietzchien-like struggles. Like how to we bring meaning to what seems to be a meaningless life? So, which problems would you rather face? Immediate survival with your fellow hunter-gatherers, or figuring out your purpose in a world that encapsulates you with its meaningless laws, morals, mythologies?…Probably the latter, I would too.
However, these new sets of problems have created a new set of illnesses. Or at least it has brought awareness to a new set of illnesses. But it’s interesting to consider what causes what…if I’m making sense.
The work I’ll be relying on for this episode is “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders” by Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield. And they start of by saying, quote: “Fears, worries, and apprehensions are painful and ubiquitous aspects of human existence, whether they are common or idiosyncratic, specific, or diffuse, rational or irrational.” End quote. And it is. I think that everyone has suffered from it as some point in their lives. Love it or hate it, it’s a very effective tool that evolution has bestowed upon us. Without fear, who knows where we’d be?….
But Horwitz and Wakefield point out, that in the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Health Disoriders, it stated that only 2 to 4% of people would classify as having an anxiety disorder. Now that number reaches to 1 in 5 persons. And to the authors, this calls for an explanation.
Now us philosophically-inclined folk like to think of anxiety as feelings we get when we try to contemplate life’s meaning. Which, to be honest, I don’t really get anxious. Angstful…hell yeah! But let’s sideline that thought for awhile. When most people get anxious, at least in our comfortable first-world existence, it’s over small things like…I don’t know, being late to a meeting or failing to meet deadlines. However, having those small concerns in-themselves, are not enough to meet the criteria of having a mental illness. Unless, of course, these sorts of concerns come to dominate your life. In that case, these feelings can cross the threshold into a disordered anxiety.
Of course, fear itself is not an unreasonable thing. As I said before, fear is in fact, a very useful thing. However, in our modern sterile world, where a lot of these fears have become irrational, the human mind can sometimes find itself out of place, as it tries to grapple with mundane realities using cognative tools that evolution granted us. This can often lead to disproportionate reactions to problems that the individual has no control over. Then fear and anxiety themselves become things to avoid, even if they are natural reactions from the body. Thus new anxieties are developed out of these incontrollable fears.
But we come to define these anxieties in not only biological or neurological terms, but we also look at them through social terms. Which is why the severity of these disorders vary from person to person. Therefore, to the authors, questions arise, like how can we distinguish between normal and abnormal amount of anxiety, should the fears instilled in us through evolution (but seem out of place to us now) be considered a disorder, and what role does psychiatric evaluation have in making this distinction, in addition to the role of medication, among many others.
But the authors contend that by simply looking at the brain, you cannot adequately recognize any mental health problems. Or as they say, quote: “Looking at the intensity of amygdala activity is not a way to “see disorder” in the brain.” End quote. Only in extreme cases, where physical trauma has been enacted on the brain, you won’t be able to determine any abnormalities. Just because someone’s brain waves are exhibiting anxiety or any other forms of natural stress, doesn’t mean that there’s a disorder in place.
Another popular theory is that undesirable responses to stimuli can be a learned trait. For example, when you see someone else respond with fear to something, you echo that response. And some believe that mental illnesses can be considered a social construct. But either way, Wakefield and Horwitz don’t necessarily reject these positions, but they downplay the significance they might have had in the rise of mental health diagnosis’. Instead the authors support a more evolutionary focus on anxiety. They say, quote: “A disorder indicates that something is wrong with some (possibly inferred and as yet unknown) internal mechanism that is biologically designed to do something but is failing to do it-or is designed NOT to do something that it is doing, as in panic attacks when no threat is present.” End quote.
So as I said earlier, fear, panic, anxiety…those are all natural things. And occasionally…very useful things. It’s only when those functions start firing off at the wrong times, or even if they fail to fire off at the RIGHT times, can that be considered a problem…and therefore a disorder. These mechanisms are designed to respond to the world in a particular way. But perhaps the real problem isn’t the brain, it’s that the environment around it has changed, and so our brains are responding to a world that it’s ill-adapted towards.
This is where Wakefield and Horwitz introduce the idea of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, or EEA. Which, to me, sounds similar to Hobbes’s State of Nature. I don’t know if the author’s agree, but that’s what I’m rolling with. And in this environment, is where humans developed their emotional responses, and a number of other adaptations. And this environment was distinctly different from the one we live in today. I’ve discussed before how much of human history really isn’t history at all. It’s just people wondering around as hunter-gatherers. And our psychology evolved to fit those needs. It’s only been within the last few thousand years, where we haven’t had to fight predators and hunt our food. If we brought a newborn baby from 50,000 years ago, raised it in modern times, that person would function normally. Same thing, vice-versa. We haven’t changed, the world has changed, and our psychology might be struggling to adapt.
How many problems are out there, that aren’t really problems? Am I making sense? You have a report that’s due tomorrow…well what would happen if you don’t turn it in? Are you going to die? You think back to those people 50,000 years ago, and I’m sure that there are millions of people living like this today, but their problems had to do with REAL survival. So those stress mechanisms that fire off in us today, were quite valuable to those ancient peoples. It’s what kept them alive. Unluckily for us, those stress mechanisms didn’t evolve away. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the same stressor that kept the ancient peoples alive, start firing off for a much lesser problem. So society, unintentionally for the most part, manipulates those adaptations. That’s why college students stress the fuck out for completely useless reasons, or why I stress out over this podcast. None of it matters, but because society or high demands on oneself dictate that these first-world problems are akin to survival, people will either react in proportionally to the problem, OR truly believe that this means survival. So this modern world is a cruel machine…
Struggle is a normal, and to a large extend, healthy function of life. And as a sports fan, there are all kinds of quotes from athletes and coaches that explain this, but the one I am reminded of (and is perhaps the most applicable) is the one from Michael Vick (I believe, when he is addressing a group of inmates), where he says: “If you don’t struggle, you can’t make changes”. And you know what…I don’t even if he said that, or if anyone said that…but neither here nor there…the point is that struggling is part of the human experience. Ideally, we all want life to be sunshine and roses, but it doesn’t work that way. There’s almost a movement towards Aldous Huxley’s world, where once when we start to feel bad things, we can just pop a soma, and all of our bad thoughts go away…to move into a sterile world….
…but…not to sound too much like Captain Kirk in Star Trek V…but I need my pain. I need my personal struggles. Because that’s what shapes who I am. And who the hell knows where I’d be without it….probably a lot happier. That’s for damn sure.