How our species is making itself mentally ill.
The WHO estimates that as many as 10% of the world’s population suffer from some form of psychological disorder – over 700 million cases worldwide. Mental illness is a common occurrence in all regions of the world, with no significant difference between rich and poor nations. It is also undertreated everywhere. Even in wealthy countries, less than one-third of those mentally ill are in receipt of treatment and no government spends more than 15% of their total health budget on mental healthcare, despite psychological disorder being a far greater source of human suffering than physical pain.
The chaotic outer world we have created is extremely damaging to our mental wellbeing because it challenges the ability of the mind to sustain itself within a natural, healthy range of equilibrium. Global culture is ultimately the manifestation of thoughts and feelings, because all of our actions must first originate in the human cognitive system. While it may be more obvious that our personal behaviour is the output of our own cognition, it is no less true that our collective actions, as an entire species, are ultimately the result of the thoughts and behaviours of all of us. While we may not wish to admit it, the communities, cultures and conflicts we experience are what emerge when we put our minds together.
In short, we are making ourselves mentally ill. The outer world chaos causing our major life stresses is ultimately the product of the very same brains which are suffering from our self-inflicted, societal sickness.
Our modern minds share many characteristics, not only with each other but also with schizophrenia. Core to the connection is hyper self-consciousness in which, rather than simply experiencing life, we become prone to standing back and analysing our social interactions from a position of detached observation. According to Louis Sass, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, hyper-consciousness can cause people to ‘stare’ at the outside world as if it were an inanimate object, rather than engaging with it as a living organism. In doing so we move beyond a healthy range of equilibrium between thinking and just ‘being’ and start to overthink every encounter, becoming more self-conscious than is good for us. The more we retreat from the outer world, the more we become alienated from our own bodies and from the feelings which make us human and give us a sense of wholeness.
As a result we lose touch with our intuitive sense of context and connection, both of which give meaning to our experiences; experiences which feel fragmented and incoherent as a result, causing us to retreat a little more. However, the further we withdraw the more we become alienated from our own body, leading to a sense of devitalization, listlessness and inner numbness in which everything physical and emotional is cut off from us.
This ‘anaesthetised state of modernism’ can easily lead to social alienation and extreme loneliness, but also to paranoia and other mental illnesses which appear to be peculiarly pervasive in modern times. Instances of schizophrenia appear to be very rare before the 18th century but grew with industrialization throughout the 19th century and increased dramatically in the 20th century - a pattern which can be consistently traced across Europe and North America. Today, the condition is more widespread and more severe in first-world and Western nations and the risk of developing schizophrenia is almost doubled in urban versus rural environments.
There is evidence that a number of very common, modern-day mental illnesses may all find their root cause in an overly dominant left mind and a correspondingly deficient right mind. For example, multiple personality disorder shares many symptoms with schizophrenia and hemispheric imbalance may also be central to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Overreliance on the left mind can lead to a self-image which becomes psychotically distorted, leading to self-loathing and self-harm. Then there are conditions such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome which are both thoroughly modern maladies, first described in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Many of their defining characteristics such as a lack of social intelligence, difficulty in interpreting implicit meaning, low levels of empathy or imagination, obsession with minutiae and feelings of alienation from the body, are all strongly suggestive of left-mind dominance and an underperforming right hemisphere.
What all of these conditions have in common is a sense of ‘dissociation’; either feeling or craving to be cut off from the outer world and from one’s own embodied existence, resulting in a lack of emotion, a lack of connection with other living organisms and a fragmented sense of the unitary self. While no medical professional would suggest that the causes of such complex conditions can be simply defined or that the patterns of dominance and deficiency manifest in the same way in each case, they do all appear to have some degree of hemispheric imbalance, in favour of the left mind, as a core component. What’s more, they have all become much more prevalent in the modern era. While accounts of ailments such as melancholia and manic depression are easily recognizable in texts from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, no such descriptions of schizophrenia or similar conditions appear from those times.
Of greatest concern is when such ailments move from being random, individual afflictions to become culturally-conditioned and endemic within our societies. The more we individually rely on the left mind, the more we collectively empower it to define what is culturally ‘normal’ and to thereby influence the unconscious minds of everyone around us. It is therefore perfectly possible that entire societies have slowly dissociated their collective left mind from an increasingly deficient right, not only causing mental illness to become more widespread but also allowing its behavioural symptoms to become culturally normalized. As psychiatrist R.D. Laing pointed out back in the 1960’s, culture plays a dual role in the development of mental illness by creating the pressures, stresses and strains which increase psychotic behaviour but also by setting the norms against which sanity is judged.
In Western culture the defining characteristics of good mental health - a clear sense of self, positive self-image, temporal awareness plus skills in self-organization and reasoning - all require that an individual’s outlook is consistent with the Newtonian-Cartesian framework. This is not only regarded as the principal frame of reference but also as the only accurate description of reality, so everyone must force fit their experiences into the prevailing framework for fear of being labelled insane. Conversely anyone operating solely in the Newtonian-Cartesian mode is considered to be ‘normal’, as defined by scientific materialism, but cannot truly be considered to be mentally healthy. Such individuals may typically lead a goal-oriented life and be driven, competitive and ego-centric, focussing narrowly on manipulating the outer world and measuring success solely in terms of material wealth. Psychiatry shows that for such people, no level of wealth, status or power can bring sustained satisfaction or lasting happiness, so their inner world becomes infused with a sense of pointlessness which no amount of external success can alleviate.
A life dominated by the left mind is unquestionably ‘the madness of our dominant culture’ yet extends right throughout Western society from the ordinary person to the academic, corporate and political elite. How else might we explain a culture in which political leaders who proclaim their willingness to commit genocide using nuclear weapons are lauded, while any leader who makes it clear they would never push the nuclear button under any circumstances, is considered to be weak and lacking in patriotic loyalty?