Archive for the ‘culture and evolution’ Category

A follow-up on JasophrenicsWhat “Psychopath” means.  I think it’s interesting to note that sociopaths can do massive amounts of damage to other people in non-physically-violent ways, and if you could measure damage along the same scale, you’d probably find that the amount of interpersonal damage well exceeds the amount of physical damage.  But violent killing gets all the attention…

And a followup on  some posts I’ve made on culture and evolution: Gene-culture co-evolution. A (very, very) quick primer.  Worth the read unless you’re familiar with it already.

I just discovered retrospectacle, a blog by a neuroscience graduate student. She has a variety of good posts like in her “Science Vault” series (Multi-nippled sheep of Alexander Graham Bell, Coffee as treatment for the Plague) as well as in general, but the post I wanted to point you toward has a bit on ancient Egyptian medical understandings of neurological disorders at the bottom.

Reading about things like that makes me appreciate cultural ratchets like databases a whole lot. Sometimes gaining knowledge is surprisingly cheap and can be done without the aid of modern technology (although not necessarily easily). But it’s pretty easy to lose, and then people keep spending time rediscovering it.

A more problematic aspect of the same issue, of course, is that without a cultural ratchet, we can’t keep track of all the knowledge we keep discovering that is inaccurate. So we invent and disprove and invent and disprove the same mistaken but attractive notions again and again throughout history. And again and again within an individual culture, if we don’t have a way of spreading that knowledge.

This is post 2 of Dichotomy Week. Post 1 was on the psychological concept of a division between biological and situational depression.

Conflating what causes depression with whether behavior is someone’s fault is detrimental to everyone, because confusing science about etiology (and subsequent treatment) with moral judgments about blame confuses the science and confuses public understanding about science, and makes developing appropriate treatment and getting people to use it harder, because in that environment treatments also carry undertones of blame (medication = not to blame, meditation/yoga = to blame somewhat, nebulously-defined “life changes” = it’s your fault and you don’t need medication, rather than seeing all of these as useful, some of them as infeasible for some people at some times, and some of them both feasible and necessary, not necessarily in that order).

It’s very hard to disentangle moral judgments from science in most peoples’ minds, as opposed to working within the framework by trying to reclassify depressed people in terms of whether their depression is biological/real versus situational/to blame. I think the framework is the problem, but I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about it; finding who deserves blame for their problems is a ubiquitous human thing to do, even when blame does not contribute to solving problems and other things do.

On the other hand, maybe giving people a distinct classification system to channel moral judgments into might help keep those judgments away from etiology. Personally, if we have to have one, I favor a system classifying people into those who are pursuing vs those who are not pursuing effective treatment, as measured by lowered depression, not by whether they’re pursuing a particular kind of treatment. If we’re going to have blame no matter what, we might as well try to channel it into a better, albeit still very imperfect and problematic, path.

It’s Dichotomy Week! Or at least Dichotomy Several Days.

The question (which I’m not going to answer):

Is it chemical depression, or situational depression?

Endogenous depression, or reactive depression?

Biological depression, or situational depression?

Depression, or normal low mood, sadness, or grief?

I hear these terms used by (for the most part) three sets of people. (Begin anecdotal assertions here.) The first consists of patients who are trying to explain that their problems yes, in fact, are serious enough to require medication, and that they do *not* fall in the (presumably lightweight ) situational/reactive depression category. They’re not necessarily questioning the dichotomy itself, just arguing that they’re on the side that shouldn’t be censured for using medication.

Continue reading ‘the two kinds of depression: depression that sucks, and depression that sucks’ »

Environmental Connections: A Deeper Look into Mental Illness

I love when I see articles discuss environment/biology in ways that are cutting-edge, instead of “nature versus nurture” or even “nature and nurture are both important”. This one is a good one.

Bonobos are a species of chimp, and were for a long time confused with the common chimpanzee. Bonobos are awesome for many reasons:

1) Whereas common chimps solve interpersonal and intergroup problems with violence, bonobos solve them with sex. Human tend to do some of both, and are about equally related to both bonobos and common chimps. Overemphasizing our similarities to common chimps makes us look like nastier critters than we actually are, and remembering our relation to bonobos is something of a check on that self-image. (It’s not that we’re *not* violent, as a species. We have plenty of capacity for violence, and also plenty of capacity for intimacy, love, and yes, lots of gettin’ it on.)

2) Male bonobos are nice and gentle, unlike chimp males who tend to be aggressive. This is because female bonobos have, over evolutionary time, formed female-female coalitions that prevent aggressive male bonobos from gaining sexual access to females. So they didn’t get to have little future-aggressive bonobo sons.

3) Momma bonobos play airplane.

Autism Diva has extensive hypotheses about variation in autism rates within Southern California. This is a good example of how you can start to explain cultural variation: you say could it be this, could it be this, could it be this, and then you move on to asking how to test each of those hypotheses.

I’m updating early because I’m moving apartments this weekend, but my general plan is to post every evening by nine-o-clock meds time (EST).

Nash Suggests Schizophrenia May Serve Adaptive Function

On the mental illness side: schizophrenia is not associated with genius or creativity. None of our evidence says it’s anything but severely impairing. Bipolar is associated with creativity despite fucking everyone over, but schizophrenia mostly just fucks people over, although there are people who do well at times. John Nash is a genius, but that’s not necesarily due to schizophrenia. People who are geniuses can also be crazy without a causal link. People who have bipolar are more likely to be creative, and not necessarily actually more creative. Inability to think clearly or concentrate, or being depressed or manic, can really do a number on your creativity.

On the evolutionary side: the detrimental effects of adaptations sometimes get undermentioned. An “successful” adaptation can severely impair most of the people who have it if, on average, there’s enough benefit for at least some people to “balance that out”. It doesn’t have to benefit an individual person. It doesn’t even have to benefit any of the people who actually have it! It might benefit copies of their genes that reside in their kin, instead. This is where schizophrenia may come into play – family members of people with schizophrenia display increased creativity (can provide cite later, seriously supposed to be packing my remaining crap right now).

Take-home point: If serious mental illnesses are adaptations (I’m not convinced they are, but I’m open to the possibility), they’re not beneficial for most affected people. If they were, we wouldn’t call them mental illnesses – a major requirement in the DSM is that a mental disorder cause marked impairment in functioning. It’s nice to think we’re all geniuses, but that stereotype covers up the crappy reality of just trying to make it day to day, let alone hold down a job or have good relationships.

Sometimes symptoms we think are the central, causative symptoms of a disorder aren’t. For example, in big chunks of the Western world, anorexia involves a distorted body image and the fear of becoming fat. But in Ghana and China you see anorexia without distorted body image, without the fear of becoming fat – and instead with religious beliefs driving the restricted food intake[1][2]

This is one of many awesome things about culturally informed research: it can help point out the deeper, broader phenomenon that we’re seeing different facets of in different cultural circumstances. In this case, the theory is that most symptoms of anorexia are triggered, in susceptible people, by dropping below a certain body weight. But not all susceptible people are going to drop below their trigger body weight – just the ones who are sufficiently obsessed with body weight (in cultures that encourage that) or religion (in cultures that encourage that) or whatever.

Anyway, what it turns out looking like is: some people have a tendency to severely restrict calories and exercise a whole lot if their weight drops below a certain (unhealthy) point. Does that not sound totally stupid? Well, it does in the Western world and China and Ghana. But if you’re in and environment like Africa in the Pleistocene era, and the middle of a famine, getting a lot of exercise by migrating would be a very good idea, and not settling down and eating while you’re supposed to be migrating is also a good idea.

For reasons I’ll go into later, this is both a very good explanation and an inadequate one (in addition to being an explanation I’ve misplaced the cite for, but I will try to remedy that if I bring it up again). In the meantime I’ll just say that a phenomenon that was at least a little bit valuable for someone or their kind in an evolutionary environment can be severely detrimental to someone in a modern environment (as anorexia is theorized to be). Saying something served a purpose in a past context does not mean there is anything desirable or preservation-worthy about it outside of that context.

Edit: Found the cite I misplaced! It was a talk Shan Guisinger gave at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference in 2004. The American Psychological Association published an article on her 2003 article.

^1: Bennett, Sharpe, Freeman, & Carson, 2004 for Ghana; Lee, 1995 for China.^2: Thanks to Michael for writing me the script for footnoting!

Is game addiction a mental disorder? (article)

In the interest of being very clear about what’s been empirically tested and what has not, the following is speculation on my part, albeit speculation I had a lot of fun with.

Here are some immediate answers people might give:

1. No, of course not. People don’t get addicted to video/computer games.

2. No, of course not. That’s stupid.

3. No, of course not. Mental illness can cause game addiction, though.

4. Yes. My son/friend/husband/cousin/I was terribly addicted.

To clear up a misunderstanding:

Let’s talk about #1: “It’s not a real mental disorder because people don’t get addicted to video/computer games.”

Well, they do; people will get addicted to damn near anything. It’s kind of amazing, actually. Does that mean it’s a Real Mental Disorder, though?

The ancient roots of video gaming

#2: “It’s not a mental disorder, that’s stupid.”

Social-cultural-cognitive psychologists (not that there are that many of us, and I’m not even one anymore, but I still) love that crap (regardless of its truth or falsity) because it reflects something very interesting about the way we think. We consider some things deeper and more real than others, more grounded in the natural world. It’s interesting to explore how we make these determinations and what they mean to us. Of course, some things really are more grounded in nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying how we reach conclusions about that (the same way that our senses tell us about things that exist in the real world, but how our senses function is still an important field of study).

Psychologists call this process essentialism. Essentialism has a lot of different effects; one is to help children bootstrap their learning about the natural world (this is a complicated argument I may write more about later), and another is to attribute peoples’ surface characteristics – appearance, behavior, etc. – to their inner nature to the degree that a category they belong to is essentialized. For example, a category like “mentally ill” is essentialized pretty highly.

But a category like “video gamer” or “computer gamer” is not. That’s what I think’s (partly) going on above in #2 – video gaming badly mismatches the heavily essentialized category of mental illness. It sounds absurd.


Video and computer games are incredibly popular and they are incredibly popular for reasons. Some of those reasons involve careful, well-tested calibration to peoples’ reward systems: You want to keep coming back for more. That’s most of the addictive part, I imagine. I’m willing to bet that it’s grounded in other very old parts of the psyche, like the ones that get rewards from foraging and from hunting.

That might make it look more essentialized, although you may want to keep in mind that doesn’t necessarily make it more real.

What’s causing the addiction?

3. “Mental illness causes game addiction, not vice versa.”

In this view, game addiction is a symptom, or maybe better stated, the content of an addiction or of an obsession. People get addicted/obsessed because they have the same kinds of (essentialized, incidentally) mental illnesses we’ve always had.

To continue the bit about about reward systems and hunting and foraging, people might be getting addicted because the same mental illnesses we’ve always had are disrupting/dysregulating the same mental systems we’ve always had – what changes is that culture is symbiotic with those systems, and culture changes (in some ways), and so the content of addictions and obsessions will be different (in some ways), in different times and places.

Does any of this matter?

4. “My son/friend/husband/cousin/I was terribly addicted.”

I am really sorry to hear that, and I hope that you/they are getting help. Don’t get stressed out over anything I’ve said; ignore it unless it manages to be useful in some way.

Is game addiction a real mental illness?

I don’t know. What do you want to call a real mental illness?
I’m not being facetious. This is a tricky problem. It’s absolutely true that mental illness exists and that it’s damaging to sufferers and those around them. It may not be true that mental illness is discretely bounded from mental health. It may not be true that individual mental illnesses are separable from each other – it may all just be a bunch of spectrums. Our current symptom-based criteria for mental illnesses may not describe all the people affected by an illness, or may describe people who are actually affected by a different illness. Some of our mental illnesses may disappear; nobody sees hysterical fugue anymore (and was it a real mental illness? or an expression of an illness that’s always existed?). Others may show up (maybe videogaming addiction is one, although my money’s not on that).

I wouldn’t worry about that too much, though. Our current categories usually work pretty well, with tweaks here and there. It’s just something to keep in mind when weird stuff happens.

Oh, but just so I don’t leave off being all pomo, yes, I think video game addiction is pathological and needs treatment, and given the popularity of videogames, I’m sure someone will do the research to give us actual answers eventually.