Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg


64 thoughts on “Urban Weirdness

  1. This is going to go from bad to worse.

    Trump will not be able to deliver to the economic despair base. It would be great if he actually did get back manufacturing, but thus far, he hasn’t tried.

    Putting CCTV cameras everywhere to monitor people isn’t going to remove the root causes of despair.

    Oh and meanwhile they are cutting the budget on things that would mitigate some of the effects of inequality.

    Here is Sanders on Trump’s budget.

    • Push comes to shove, Sanders may not be perfect, but you who is on your side and who is on the plutocracy side.

      Apparently he just gave a speech today for Brooklyn College graduates:

      • “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
        –Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice (1856-1941)

    • I was thinking more about my comment that, “there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move.” In response, you wrote that, “Putting CCTV cameras everywhere to monitor people isn’t going to remove the root causes of despair.”

      Well, it’s more about social control. I doubt those in power care about the despair of the dirty masses, the powerless underclass.

      At present, most Americans are being given just enough welfare and public services that they aren’t so desperate as to revolt. But that might not last too much longer, if they keep cutting the funding for the very things keeping the general public from falling into total despair and what could become uncontrollable mass outrage.

      There is something more interesting to me, at least in terms of what I was thinking about in this post. It’s true that, as the authors of the paper show, bad conditions lead to bad results. But sometimes a solution can be found within the problem. In those cities, a new generation of citizens, activists, and maybe revolutionaries is coming into adulthood.

      About the cameras in cities, it does make you wonder where we are heading.

      I immediately put this into the context of Ara Norenzayan’s book, Big Gods. He argues that large cities and empires changed humanity early on. Big gods served a role that was needed to maintain such complex societies where the personal forces of kin and community no longer formed the social fabric and no longer could guarantee social order.

      Now the big gods are losing the power they once had. Global society has become too vast and complex even for an all-seeing deity. The idea of being divinely watched presently lacks a compelling influence. The security state is increasingly playing the role once served by the big gods.

      It’s fitting that I ended with that quote from A Scanner Darkly, a favorite quote of mine. The scanner of the title was precisely about that idea of the security state taking over the authority of monotheism. The idea was that someone is watching and that maybe they understand what is going on, even if we don’t.

      What will human nature become?

  2. I think that the situation could get a lot worse before it gets better.

    It is looking like Trump is going to be a conventional Republican and wage class warfare. The Democratic Establishment is no better. At best, they would give another Obama, at worse someone who belongs in the Establishment Republican Party.

      • Trump is a conventional republican without the the politeness filters

        Honestly the way he bothers liberals to such an extent when he’s not that different from other republicans amuses me

        • The Democratic liberal class would be a lot less bothered by Pence than Trump. The reason Trump gets their panties in a wad is that he shows the game for what it is. Presidents aren’t supposed to allow the public to see how power actually operates. But Trump doesn’t give a fuck who sees.

          • nope, it’s personal. Trump’s sociopathy sets your teeth on edge and makes you sick to your stomach, that’s the difference. Politically not so different? Sure. It’s at the personal, human level where there’s a fundamental difference. Dude’s damage is too deep, there is no sign from this personality that he knows we’re all the same species. It ain’t political revulsion, it’s social, biological, pheremonal.

          • all politicos do, or many do. I have been in the room with some minor, Provincial leaders, and they made my skin crawl too, don’t get me wrong, I know, a lot of them are sociopaths. It’s just that Trump’s can be seen from space, it’s an order of magnitude worse than most, obvious because he can hardly pretend, even for minutes at a time. And should anyone be thinking it – orders of magnitude in terms of sociopathy, that shit MATTERS.

          • I wasn’t thinking of people like you. My generalization was targeting a specific demographic, Democrats in the liberal class. This demographic is neither all Democrats nor all liberals.

            There are some people who think that Trump needs to be impeached, no matter what, on principle. It doesn’t matter that it would just give us Pence, probably more competent and so more dangerous. It’s not that Trump isn’t a bad dude, but at least he is an incompetent bad dude.

            Plus, Trump as president forces Republicans to take responsibility. If Pence gained power, the GOP could distance itself from Trump’s failure before upcoming elections. And the Democratic establishment right now is setting their own party up for failure. Trump staying in power for the time being is their only hope.

            Then again, there are no good outcomes available. It’s shitty if Trump doesn’t get impeached. But it likely could be far shittier if Pence took his place, as Pence is the most right-wing politician who has ever been this close to the presidency.

            That is what my mind was focused on. My thoughts partly came from watching this video:

          • ran out of replies just below. Robert Reich says he was at lunch with a Republican congressman friend who told him that they would use Trump as the front man, that the fool would TAKE CREDIT for their entire agenda, so I am not one calling for impeachment either. I’m hoping the Russia thing takes them all down at once. One theory is, the FBI is playing long game, that that may be the plan. It seems to be a war, the new/Eastern IC VS the old/Western IC, and if so, one, I’m surprised to find myself on the side of the old guard, but two, that would mean it’s an all or nothing sort of thing. If our IC doesn’t get them all, they’re gonna lose.

          • Well, I don’t feel drawn into taking sides. I’m not even sure who are the sides or which sides are real.

            All that I know is there are various powerful people seeking to use power and manipulate public perception. There are the conflicts we see, but those might merely be the conflicts they want us to see. I don’t trust this present political system, since one of its main purposes is to ensure the average person remains ignorant and confused, frustrated and apathetic by way of constant disinformation and disenfranchisement. American ‘democracy’ is an ongoing psyop program, the most effective ever devised.

            You can be guaranteed that almost everything you hear from almost every major politician, government official, and media figure is some combination of deceitful, misleading, false, inaccurate, partial, biased, spun, framed, and irrelevant. There are a few good people speaking out like Sanders, but even someone like him might not be privy to the power games being played behind the scenes. If anything, I’m sure he is carefully shut out.

            There is no where to turn to figure out what is really going on, especially with the intelligence community that lacks transparency and accountability more than any other part of the government. The US intelligence community wields the greatest power the world has ever seen. It’s mind-blowing and soul-despairing when you look back at the known history of covert operations and realize that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

            And the corporate media is in bed with the intelligence community, some of it known from records. The owner of the Washington Post has a 600 million dollar deal with the CIA, several times the value of the Washington Post. Does the Washington Post acknowledge this conflict of interests when reporting on relevant news stories (considering how pervasive is the CIA’s influence, there would be a broad swath of relevant news stories)? Nope. No more than when media hacks work closely with the political parties will admit to it.

            We are so constantly manipulated by so many forces with so many agendas that we can’t see clearly or think straight. We have no basis to know the sides. Or rather the only two sides that matter is those with wealth and power and the rest of us without.

          • I can go one more layer, I guess, before I’m certain I’m off the track, at least: we were supposed to have won the cold war, so “Russia” threatening us now is just like Blackwater threatening us now, they all work for us, now and maybe forever, in some double reverse triple mystery wrapped in an enigma bullshit, like you say . . .

          • It is all sort of off topic, I suppose. Then again, maybe the weirdness of our present politics has everything to do with this being a WEIRD society. I can say this much. The SNAFU we are in is highly unusual. It’s hard to figure out an appropriate historical comparison, as no country/empire has ever before been as wealthy and powerful as the US. It’s unprecedented.

            The Cold War is always interesting to talk about. As a child of the Cold War, I have a sense of it in my bones. I grew up watching entertainment media that expressed the deranged mentality of that time. And I don’t think the Cold War actually ever ended. Even into the 1990s and now in a new century, it is like we were still fighting the proxy wars of the Cold War.

            Our enemies are always to an extent created enemies. That became even more clear to me when I read Andrew Alexander’s “America and the Imperialism of Ignorance”.

            Stalin didn’t want to be in conflict with the West. He had no plan nor capacity to attack, much less take over Western Europe. He actually was hoping to forge relations with the West, as they were allies in the world war that just ended. But the US ruling elite decided they needed an enemy to fight and so forced Stalin into conflict.

            To the plutocrats, all of politics is a geopolitical game. The rest of us are mere pawns.


  3. nice, B., WEIRD to weird, that worked so beautifully. It’s the complexity of modern cities, in terms of the global nature of the people, the social groups upon social groups, a hundred ethnicities, each with religion or not and more than one if they have it, and then all the generational differences, 46 gender identitiies . . . and now our social groups of choice don’t even need to be co-located, our peers can be anywhere, one per nation. It’s complex at an order of magnitude over what we evolved in and for.

    Wait – I don’t mean that’s why we’re hearing voices again, I just mean the social differences are more than just concentrating us in smaller spaces. Numbers sound like pressure, a natural analogy to make – but our aboriginal situation was close, and privacy is a modern luxury, right, so it’s more than the size of these modern cities . . .

    I guess the pressure analogy goes to what the brain folks call cognitive load, I mean, if hearing voices is a bad sign, a symptom of trouble. That’s what I meant by the modern complexity of social groups, it’s a load on us, I think.

    • Yep. All of that overlaps with my own view. It is in some ways an ever more complex world. Yet maybe more importantly it is complex in entirely new ways, a complexity we aren’t prepared to deal with. It’s not just the quantity of people but a qualitative difference in how people relate.

      Cognitive load surely is involved in why urbanized complexity is more overwhelming or simply stressful. Toxic stress becomes traumatic, even at low grade levels in the background. It’s also the kind of cognitive load we experience. Reading certain books like that of Lynne Kelly makes me realize how complex certain indigenous societies can be in their worldview and practices. So that leaves us with the question of why urban complexity is unique in its impact on human experience and well being.

      It could be that what makes WEIRD so weird is simply the level of urbanization. Even most Westerners weren’t all that WEIRD not that far into the past. For example, the majority of Americans were still rural just about a century ago, and a majority was also without much if any education (even literacy wasn’t all that common in the 19th century). It’s only been the past few generations that a significant WEIRD population has emerged, specifically with the post-WWII broad middle class.

      Generally speaking, Western countries have higher rates of mental illnesses than many other countries. And certainly Western societies have immensely higher rates than indigenous societies. In some indigenous societies, mental illness appears to be unknown, such as depression and suicide among the Piraha. But this Western difference could just be that this is where modern industrialized urbanization happened the earliest and took hold the quickest. In Europe that is even more true, as their populations were becoming majority urban even earlier than in the US.

      What is it about urbanization in general, going back to the first city-states and empires? And is there something specifically peculiar about modern Western urbanization, most especially as it expresses among the WEIRD?

      Going back many years at this point, there was a post I wrote about memory, stories, and the world(s) we create. I concluded with this thought:

      “In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?”

      And following that, I ended with this quote:

      “As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
      ~ J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

      That captures my mood. We trap ourselves within our urbanized reality tunnel. It’s hard for us to think outside of this. The infrastructure of a city serves similar purposes to the songlines of the Australian Aborigines, as Lynne Kelly explains in terms of mnemonic systems, what I’d describe as a symbolic conflation between the cultural worldview and the structural world. There are many lower class urbanites who spend their entire lives within the city of their birth, never knowing anything else. What is normal for urbanites would be bizarre to indigenous people. The city is created and maintained as a self-enclosed world or so that is how it feels living within the city, an all-encompassing worldview.

      A major inspiration to my thinking about Western Civilization would be the early books written by Derrick Jensen. But I was just today thinking that an even earlier influence was Paul Shepard, such as his book Nature and Madness. There are many authors who have written about the related fields of deep ecology, ecopsychology, biophilia, nature deficit disorder, etc — some specific examples come to mind: Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Andy Fisher’s Radical Ecopsychology, and Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods.

      I mentioned that last one in a comment to a post from a few months ago. Below is the comment in full, which quotes from another post as well.

      There was a book I came across some years ago, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was about nature and childhood, specifcally what the author referred to as nature deficit disorder.

      Fewer children are experiencing nature on a regular basis. This isn’t just because of media technology, although that is part of it. The population is becoming more urbanized. It’s a minority of the population who grows up in rural areas in this new generation of kids. For kids in suburbia and the inner cities, nature can be an unusual thing to see. Even parks aren’t all that common in many places, especially in lower class areas that don’t have funding for such things.

      There has been a fair amount of research about this. It has a lot of impact on childhood development. We don’t fully understand what this impact is. But what is clear is that civilization has increasingly created conditions that are vastly different to the conditions under which the human species and the earliest societies developed.

      What is easy to forget is how recent these changes are. Urbanization began with the first city-states. And mass urbanization began with the Axial Age empires. But it has only been in recent centuries that countries have taken it to a whole new level. Many other Western countries brought the majority of their populations to urban centers in the 1700s and 1800s. The US was a bit slower with this process because of the once established system of small family farmers. It was only around a century ago when the majority of US whites were urbanized. And it wasn’t until the 1970s when the majority of US blacks were urbanized, which is interesting as blacks are now most associated with inner cities and disproportionately effected by environmental inequalities.

      We’ve created a new urban society. It hasn’t been around for long. Certainly not long enough to either be a stable social order or for us to know what it all means. It will take generations or even centuries to see the full impact. We do know, from studies, that the process of populations moving from rural areas to urban areas leads to many social problems. That is at least true in the short term. This relates to the problems of immigration, as many immigrants are coming from still largely rural societies.

      Every major societal change requires at least centuries to stabilize into a new social order. Feudalism continued to exist in whole or part long after capitalism and the market economy was established. Subsistence farming and the barter economy still continued to operate in the rural South into the mid-20th century. With mass urbanization coming to an ending point, we are completing the transition began so long ago and yet we still aren’t clear about what is replacing what has been lost.

      The World that Inhabits Our Mind

      “We live in the ruins of what came before. It is hard for many of us to comprehend what that old order was. The mindset of pre-modern people is alien to us. Despite the signs of the old order all around us, the entire world has been transformed. The former context of meaning is gone.

      “This isn’t just something in our minds, but literally in the world. We’ve created social system that has become disconnected from so much of what once was familiar to humans. Let me give an example.

      “Most people today live in ecosystem deserts. We have created a dead world. It was a slow process and so imperceptible at any given moment. The destruction of biological diversity has been going on for centuries, millennia even. Some of the actual deserts of the world were once thriving ecosystems before agriculture decimated them. Maybe this transition had something to do with the slow demise of animism and the rise of monotheism (and other Axial Age religions). It is hard for us to perceive the world as animate with life because we have surrounded ourselves by that which is non-living. Our loss of faith in animism might not be because we are more rational than ancient people, but because we have simply lost the capacity to think that way. Our minds and experience is accordingly impoverished.

      “Our world has been shrunk down to a human size. The encounter with the wild has become rare. Even being confronted by the larger cosmos has become uncommon, beyond an occasional NASA photo. Most people today live in highly lit and smoggy urban areas, and so most stars are no longer visible. There was an earthquake on the East Coast back in the 1990s. One of the major cities, maybe Los Angeles, had all of its lights go out. The police had a mass influx of calls asking about the strange lights that occurred after the earthquake and what were they. After conferring with some scientists, they realized that these urban residents had seen the full starry sky for the first time in their lifetimes.

      “For all of human existence until the past few generations, the stars dominated human experience. It was the basis of so much religion and the bedrock of human inquiry. The stars in their predictable patterns helped promote the earliest mathematical and scientific thinking. It also simply created the sense of being small beings in a vast cosmos. We’ve almost entirely lost that. No wonder that we simultaneously lost the way of being in the world that went along with it.

      “We moderns are obsessed with our own humanity. Everything about our confined worldview is dominated by human society. Few people, especially in the developed countries, remain in rural areas and fewer still continue in the ancient tradition of farming. We moderns don’t tend to even have much sense of deep roots in a particular place, even cities, as we move around so much. The idea of being connected to the world around us has become foreign.”

  4. fook. Fair enough. Again, my entire universe is just one concrete example of your multiverse. I got nothing to add and no criticism. Oh, just this, along the lines of a typo –

    “There was an earthquake on the East Coast back in the 1990s. One of the major cities, maybe Los Angeles . . . ”

    West Coast, different city, in case you wanna edit old posts . . .

    • “Again, my entire universe is just one concrete example of your multiverse.”

      My brain is a multiverse. It’s a mental illness, probably from being born and raised in cities. I’m like the Borg. I will assimilate you. LOL

      “West Coast, different city, in case you wanna edit old posts . . .”

      Good catch! I’m always for editing old posts, as long as it isn’t too much work. Changing that is easy enough.

      BTW which city was it?

  5. OK, maybe something in here –

    “In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?”

    just that no entire society consensus reality exists, it looks more like a number somewhere between two, as in one of many dichotomies, number of political parties etc., and the combinatory huge number of potential social groups I referred to earlier, that many consensus realities.

    This I see as an important aspect of our troubles (I mean, aren’t they all):we don’t see the limits we have in our worldviews and the inquiries we make of the world and we imagine that what is unthinkable to us is also unthinkable to “the other,” which adds up to pretending everyone has the same values and mental processes that we do and that they simply make the wrong or “evil” choices given all the same knowledge and experience we have. This is bigotry, which is sort of natural to people who only know their own culture. We just don’t get what “different culture” means, we don’t appreciate the difference between empathy and accepting and respecting the others’ feelings when we CAN’T understand them, when we WOULD’T feel that way, or so we think. Besides the direct trouble, this is the sort of flawed thinking the good, sweet peaceniks have when they opt for the “we are all the same” narrative. The point needs to be, respect for the lives of those who AREN’T all the same as us.

    • I had multiple lines of thought what I wrote there. I was thinking of civilization more broadly. But more specifically I was thinking of Western civilization. And even more directly I was thinking of the United States.

      I’m a US citizen who works as a parking ramp cashier. I sit in my booth looking in at a ramp, a massive concrete structure. For some reason, it makes me wonder about the society I live in. It puts me in a contemplative mood.

      Parking ramps seem like strange things to me. Some societies build infrastructure for public transport. But the US loves building infrastructure designed for private transport. Hence, American cities have endless parking ramps to store all the private vehicles.

      It’s not that the US is the only society that builds parking ramps. It’s just that there aren’t many, if any other, society as obsessed with car culture. We Americans love cars and driving. Many Americans love driving so much that they don’t mind long commutes in heavy traffic on highways, often spending more time alone in their car than with family.

      Somehow that doesn’t seem normal or healthy.

    • I get the point you are making, though. This fits into the post.

      Urbanization, especially among the WEIRD, creates an experience of reality that excludes alternatives. That insight is the origin of the WEIRD acronym. Most research had been done with WEIRD subjects and it was then assumed by WEIRD people that this research could be generalized to all of humanity. It turns out that all it could tell us about was WEIRD people themselves.

      It’s a monoculture. And most of the far different cultures, specifically the indigenous, have been eliminated. There is little left to challenge the cultural dominance of Western civilization and American society. WEIRD determines the very frame of understanding. From an earlier post, I quoted from the book Monoculture by F. S. Michaels (pp. 1-2):

      “THE HISTORY OF HOW we think and act, said twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives. If you look at any civilization, Berlin said, you will find a particular pattern of life that shows up again and again, that rules the age. Because of that pattern, certain ideas become popular and others fall out of favor. If you can isolate the governing pattern that a culture obeys, he believed, you can explain and understand the world that shapes how people think, feel and act at a distinct time in history.1

      “The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story — one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.

      “Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside. It teaches us to fear and distrust other stories; other stories challenge the monoculture simply by existing, by representing alternate possibilities.”

      • same idea as the parasitic social meme, seems to me. Everybody believing some false origin narrative and unable to question the behaviour supported by it. Short response – don’t type for twenty minutes thereby making a troll of me. I’ll try to do better tomorrow.

        Se ya, B.

        • There are lots of ideas like that. Much of it is simply how one wishes to frame the issue. Different ideas, even when similar, can offer different viewpoints and insights.

          Don’t worry about any of it. You don’t need to do better, as far as my blog goes. My blog is just where I think out ideas. I throw out thoughts and see what sticks. I like comments from others because it helps me to clarify what is on my mind, sometimes initially hard to articulate.

          I wasn’t sure that my argument in this post was valid. I offered it tentatively. Even with the increase of schizophrenia among young urbanites, it is only a small part of the population directly impacted. It’s not as if all urbanites are walking around amidst verbal hallucinations.

          I see research like this and it gets me wondering. It’s interesting. That is all.

          • I’ve gotten to where I figure the inability to ignore input is either high intelligence, a classic symptom of mental illness (no input filter), or of course, both. How’s that for a backhanded, narcissistic pseudo-compliment? But I sometimes wish I could just ignore stuff – one’s diet has a way of getting more and more restrictive, for starters.

          • I know I’ve thought it before, but I’m listening to Dawkins and David Bus and it’s struck me again as a revelation: the biologists see the idea of “society” or “culture” as an active, nearly conscious developmental force in our lives as rubbish, and I’m with them – but the parasitic social meme presents that way, doesn’t it, as something unavailable for disassembly and study, like a living “other,” with like a will, even an agenda? Are you already there? Can you maybe take all that “culture creating people” and move it into the realm of these powerful, invisible forces, parasitic social memes that while daunting, are less so than the entire human experience as a whole?

            Of course, the meme that seems most likely to be the one your “culture first” science is trying to find is probably mine, but that’s a separate and smaller issue . . .


          • On Twitter, I thought you were quoting something. I didn’t realize that the context was my own post. I was confused by the screenshot. I’ll repeat the last part of my Twitter response: I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher, in giving voice to neoliberalism, stated: “there is no such thing as society.” Words like that, ‘society’, often seem to add more confusion than insight. I think that is because the word can mean so many things to so many people. Whatever social issues or biases you have can be conveniently projected onto it.

            Memes are mind viruses. And ‘society’ (or whatever name one prefers) is the ecosystem. Particular mind viruses can only exist in particular societies. Or else a mind virus, to survive and thrive, must alter the social ecosystem. From an environmental perspective, it’s not helpful thinking of species separate from ecosystems. Of course, it should be noted some species are highly adaptable to multiple ecosystems, but even then the species never exists outside of an ecosystem.

            There is an example of this that has been on my mind in recent years. I was just thinking about it yesterday. Daniel Everett began his career as a missionary. That is why he got a linguistics education and ended up studying Amazonian tribes. He failed to convert the Piraha and instead he was converted to atheism. It turns out that the Piraha had a surprisingly powerful mind virus that wasn’t prone to eradication.What stood out to me was something Everett said. When being trained for missionary work, he recalls hearing a leading figure explain that indigenous people can’t be saved until they are made to feel lost. That is to say their mind virus must be eliminated by destroying the social ecosystem that supports it. That is why missionaries throughout history have systematically used cultural genocide, such as by outlawing traditional practices and forcing children into missionary schools.

            Once the indigenous society is replaced with Western society, Western memes can take hold and the indigenous can be assimilated. Or failing assimilation, they are a destroyed people who no longer pose a threat. The mind virus sometimes turns out to be a plague that decimates a population. Those that survive will never be the same again. The indigenous society then is gone and can never be re-created. It takes only a single generation to permanently destroy a society. But some mind viruses, like diseases, can spread even as they wreak havoc. Those are the most dangerous mind viruses, those not dependent on a specific society or rather those capable of creating the social conditions they require for propagating.

            I think that is why Westerners can speak of there being no ‘society’. The mind virus that infects our minds is so powerful that it can destroy entire societies. It’s a Borg-like meme that either destroys or assimilates everything in its path. For the Borg, there is no society. There is just the Borg, a self-replicating machine. This is why those like William S. Burroughs would describe certain memes as mind parasites, like an alien force invading the human world. Some sci-fi stories play with this idea. Think of the alien invasions where the alien seeks to changer the earth’s biosphere so that it will be habitable for the alien species, with the threat to the human species sometimes being a mere side effect.

            Interestingly, this portrays mind viruses as potentially greater in power than any social ecosystem. They are even more daunting in their seeming inhumanity. We are just their hosts. How does a host challenge, much less attempt to remove, the very parasite that controls the hosts mind and permanently alters the host’s environment? What if the host can no longer survive in the altered environment without the parasite? It could become a permanent symbiosis, maybe with the host largely becoming an appendage to the parasite, assuming the parasite even will continue to need the host once the environment is fully transformed. This is the dystopian fear behind a future world taken over by robots or genetically-engineered organisms, as if humans were just a temporary stage for these other things to emerge. In that case, it turns out humans and their society is the chrysalis and not the butterfly.

            We are in territory we don’t understand. All we can do is speculate about possible interpretations and imagine what they might mean. These are difficult areas to explore scientifically. Such things as societies and memes, to the extent these refer to meaningful realities, are inseparable from our humanity. It’s like trying to use consciousness to explore consciousness, similar to a flashlight looking for darkness and seeing light everywhere it points. There is no vantage point for us to stand outside any of this. This makes it challenging for discussion, as we end up projecting so much onto the topic. We are attempting to externalize something that is inextricably internal.

            This post touches upon these issues. We are in a WEIRD society. We live and breathe WEIRDness on a daily basis. It is maybe the mind virus to end all mind viruses, as it is seeking to make all of the world into its image. If it succeeds, there will only be WEIRD society and nothing left. The WEIRD mind virus and the WEIRD society are a singular force, so it seems to me.

          • thanks, B. I’ve spent the day listening to Dawkins and Dennett about memes, and with your comment there, I finally see that the idea I’m after, your parasitic social meme, and my particular one of them, needs a new term. Maybe that’s OK for your thought, or ‘mind virus,’ but I need another one, one to describe an idea or meme that masks an underlying function with a whole story, complete with its own logic, at least sometimes. False meme? Cover meme? Something . . .

          • I sometimes describe these issues in terms of memes or mind viruses/parasites, the notion of something within us. From another perspective, it could be described as a reality tunnel or something similar. One could throw in related concepts as lifeworld, mazeway, hyperobjects, etc. These latter how the humans are enmeshed in the world around them. There are lots of ways people have sought to frame and explain that which is capable of dominating our minds and experience, some with a more internal focus and others outward. Much of it is a matter of preference and personal bias, what one chooses to emphasize.

            About finding a new term, you say that you “need another one, one to describe an idea or meme that masks an underlying function with a whole story, complete with its own logic, at least sometimes. False meme? Cover meme? Something . . .” I’ve felt a similar need. That is why I came up with the theory of symbolic conflation. I must give a lot of credit to Lewis Hyde, though. Maybe more than anyone else, he helped me to better understand the angle of imagination and story (along the lines of how Julian Jaynes gave me insight into the power and significance of metaphors). Hyde explains this in terms of metonymy. I’ve mentioned this to you before, but it bears repeating. The first post I link below offers a passage from Hyde’s book, which I quote from here. The link below that is where I give my response.

            I don’t know if any of that is helpful to you. My own thinking is in a constant state of revision. Terminology can be important in clarifying one’s understanding. I sometimes fall back on the idea of memes and such because that is an easier way for people to understand. Once I begin talking about symbolic conflation and metonymy, I fear I’ve lost most of my audience. I have a hard enough time grasping it myself. Communicating it well is even harder. So, I wish you well in getting at more useful ways of talking about all of this. Your focus is a bit different than mine and so the language required to describe it will be different.


            Trickster Makes This World
            by Lewis Hyde

            “[…] an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

            “Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

            “In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.”


            I loved his explaining of this metonymy as a bait and switch. It is a brilliant analysis of how symbolic conflation operates. Hyde unpacks the confusion and in its place offers clarity.

            The visceral language he uses is powerful. Symbolic conflation sounds too abstract. The actual experience really is to be snared in a trap. The body, as being spoken of here, isn’t a mere metaphor. What makes it so compelling is that the imagined gets identified with the body, with specific parts and specific functions of specific bodies. One feels this in one’s own body and so at the most basic level of one’s sense of identity and reality.

            So much falls into place once this is understood. I’m forced to think more deeply about my own previous speculations and understandings. I sense how this touches upon the beating heart of symbolic conflation. A symbol is always rooted in the imagination with the taproot running deep into visceral experience, the body being the dark soil in which it grows. It is in our telling of stories that this visceral experience is brought to life and made personally real. A story is about meaning, but it is a meaning more of emotions than of ideas.

          • B., do you have thoughts on the idea, the parasitic social meme? Was it someone’s you’ve read, is it yours? I’m going to be leaning heavily on the concept, I think, and I need to know what I’m stealing.

          • I think symbolic conflation is too big a tent for what I’m after, I’m gonna settle on “mimic meme” for this, with occasional references to you and the parasitic social meme. Really though, the PSM (hey, you’re a mnemonic!) doesn’t have to be false, right? (or unconscious)

          • I’m not sure there is a single origin for the theory of mind viruses/parasites. It’s related to language/word viruses/parasites. There are multiple writers that have explored these ideas in both nonfiction and fiction. I might do a blog post about it, if I feel inspired.

            I wouldn’t think there is any reason they are inevitably false, unconscious, or harmful. They are simply contagious and self-replicating. It might be more accurate to think of some as symbionts.

            Even physical viruses live in the human body all the time without causing disease. Viruses, physical and mental, are normal to human existence. They are simply there in and all around you. Most of them are irrelevant to your existence, just doing their own thing.

    • “Trump remains an unusually unpopular president. In fact, poll aggregators like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight still have his approval numbers near all-time lows. But those averages also show that Trump’s post-Comey decline has bottomed out, with a solid 40 percent of the public still smiling on the president. What’s more, Trump continues to perform several points better than that in opinion polls that survey “likely voters,” rather than the American public as a whole.”

      I wouldn’t read too much into these numbers. Polling data often goes up and down. It could have to with peculiarities of the polls themselves, such as how questions are asked or framed. Or it could be random moods of society, like when an individual wakes up feeling a certain way for no particular reason. Besides, the data looks different according to which polls one looks at. Even the author admits to skepticism about the numbers.

      “[T]he idea that 39 or 40 percent of the country will never abandon Trump is probably mistaken — or at least, it represents a speculative interpretation of the evidence. The share of voters who say they strongly support Trump is only 20 to 25 percent — and those numbers have been falling. Moreover, Trump has lost about one point off his overall approval rating per month. That might not sound like a lot, but if the pattern continued, he’d be in the low-to-mid 30s by the new year and into Nixonian territory by the midterms.”

      It’s easy to forget about how few people have ever actively supported Trump. He only got 26% of eligible voters. And among those voters, most probably weren’t voting for him as a person. There was a lot of protest votes. The numbers about Trump’s supposed popularity probably say more about the unpopularity of government in general along with both parties.

      Think about those numbers. He writes that 20-25% of voters who strongly support Trump. That is with political participation being fairly low (28.5% eligible voters cast a ballot in the primaries). Much of the eligible voting population, 97 million, didn’t vote at all; with 200 million that were registered to vote, out of a population of 324 million. Over 50 million eligible voters didn’t register in 2012 and I’m sure the numbers were approximately the same this past election. Many registered voters still don’t vote with about 134 million ballots cast. And among those who bothered to register and vote, Trump still got fewer votes than Clinton with her unpopularity. All of this means that the presidency was determined by slightly over a third of the citizenry with the election going to the candidate that lost the popular vote among even that minority of citizens. But I’m not sure how accurate is that assessment.

      With not that much over half of eligible voters actually voting, that leaves it at about one in ten (11-14%) of eligible voters strongly supporting Trump. And that doesn’t even include those who lack voting rights (because of age, criminal record, residency in a territory, etc), the very people least likely to support Trump. So, strongly supporting Trump voters are a tiny part of the overall population.

      Oddly, I had a hard time finding any data on how many Americans aren’t eligible to vote, as most of the media seems uninterested in reporting on people entirely disenfranchised from political participation. I must give the NYT credit for actually having this info and breaking it down to make it meaningful, although this is data from 2012 (presumably similar to 2016). About a third of the population is ineligible from voting, with about half of eligible voters not voting, which leaves a third of Americans involved in any kind of way — many choosing third parties, write-in candidates, leaving it blank, or when available “none of the above”.

      -“103 million of them are children, noncitizens or ineligible felons, and they do not have the right to vote.”
      -“88 million eligible adults do not vote at all, even in general elections.”
      -“An additional 73 million did not vote in the primaries this year, but will most likely vote in the general election.”
      -“The remaining 60 million people voted in the primaries: about 30 million each for Republicans and Democrats.”
      -“But half of the primary voters chose other candidates. Just 14 percent of eligible adults — 9 percent of the whole nation — voted for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.”
      -“Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton will be working to win the votes of these three groups. Polls suggest they will be separated by just a handful of squares.”

      That would leave Trump initially having gained support from what would be maybe 4% of the total population. Following the primaries, it was a small number in swing states that determined the election. Even with the minority of Americans who are eligible to vote and choose to vote, most voters in most states simply don’t matter. A miniscule part of the population shapes the political process every step of the way and all of that is being orchestrated by political and media elites.

      Damn! That is worse than I thought. Not exactly a wide base of support for Trump or for the entire political system. Most Americans have an unfavorable opinion about both parties (and their candidates), about Congress, about the president, and probably about the FBI as well at this point. The mainstream media and big biz also get majority negative views in public opinion. That there are slight blips in the weakness of Trump support doesn’t seem all that relevant in the big picture. Blips aside, it would be highly surprising if the trend doesn’t continue downward.

      In the article you linked, these comments put the polling data into context:

      Pelham 16 hours ago
      “Might Trump’s resilience in part be due to the lack of any coherent message or compelling personality on the other end of the political spectrum?
      “The Democrats can’t even agree on the most pressing and glaringly obvious counterpoint solutions to the nation’s ills — single-payer healthcare and canceling college debts. Indeed, their top priority appears to be suppressing any such notions as well as the promising candidates who advocate them while offering precisely nothing else other than an affirmation of Obamacare, which was enormously unpopular (for good reason) before the GOP conjured up an even more horrid alternative.
      “So that’s it? That’s all the Dems have to say or offer? If so, Trump will continue to have a clear field in which it will be quite easy to rebound from disasters in a vacuum.”

      Doofburger 1 day ago
      “OK, so his numbers went up a little when he was gone. Now he’s back. His numbers should resume their downward course.”

    • That is one of those many things that I consider simply evil. In a morally sane society, that wouldn’t be acceptable. But if we stopped killing innocent people, military-industrial profits would be hurt.

    • I guess this falls into the category of weird, at least the responses. It’s amusing that people even care what he is wearing. As an experiment, he should travel the country wearing that outfit and see how different populations respond.

      To make it more scientific, he should travel with a black man and white man with similar body types, all wearing the same outfit. They would split up and have the responses recorded.

      I’m thinking that Americans might be more accepting of an Asian guy wearing this, as they might assume that he is a foreigner visiting and be more forgiving. But otherwise Americans can be very defensive about gender expectations about masculinity.

    • The political situation we are in is definitely full on WEIRD. Trump may be the penultimate expression of WEIRD society. But it’s those like Obama that make Trump possible. That is because Obama from a young age aspired to one thing and one thing only, to serve plutocrats like Trump.

      The difference for Trump is that he was simply born into privilege and so knew nothing else. Trump gained his obliviousness without any effort. But Obama didn’t start his life in the highest echelons of wealth and power. It required immense narcissistic ambition for Obama to get there.

      • Finally! Another TRUE progressive who understands Obama for the SHAMEFUL narcissist that he and his “celebrity wanna-be” wife are:


        What makes him and his wife’s behavior all the more disgusting is the way they used the misery of average Americans to gain and maintain power just like the Clintons. Americans have had 16…let me spell that out just to make people realize how destructive these people have been to our country: SIXTEEN YEARS…of lying/cheating fake progressives in positions of power.

        Thanks for sharing links. Your comments here are appreciated. Wish more Americans were like you, but I hate to say it, Canada now has fake progressive in power and not many people there seem to notice as far as I can tell.

        • I’m not sure why anyone ever expected Obama to be different.

          I didn’t know him that well when he campaigned in 2008. But I immediately sensed that he was a typical professional politician. It seemed obvious to me, just the way he talked and acted. My bullshit detector is usually accurate. And indeed Obama proved to be what I assumed he was all along.

          Once he was elected, with no help from me, I was willing to temporarily give him the benefit of the doubt. I would have loved to have been proved wrong. I was sort of glad he got re-elected. I didn’t want there to be any excuses for why he couldn’t accomplish a real progressive agenda.

  6. Now that I think about it, WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) only applies to the rich.

    Western: Ok, yeah I guess
    Educated: Not unless you are in tons of student debt and even then the elite colleges are reserved for the rich
    Industrialized: Not really – manufacturing is increasingly going to the developed world, although nations like Germany, Switzerland, and the Nordic Nations have manufacturing still. The East Asian nations do too.
    Rich: More like very unequal
    Democratic: Hmm …. only for the rich. More like a plutocracy pretending to be a democracy. Remember that study where they found public opinion had no effect on policy?

    That basically sums it up.

    • I had a similar thought. But WEIRD isn’t just about a specific demographic of people, a minority even in Western countries. Most importantly, they are a powerful and influential minority.

      Because of WEIRD hegemonic monoculture, there has been a long history of manifest destiny, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, terrorism, genocide, slavery, apartheid, racial laws, systemic oppression, institutionalized prejudice, religious zealotry, world wars, globalization, military bases, bombings, invasions, occupations, deposed leaders, puppet dictators, alliances with authoritarian regimes, training and funding of paramilitary groups, war on drugs, war on terrorism, trade sanctions, etc.

      Few people on planet earth have miraculously escaped being untouched by WEIRD societies, in one way or another. WEIRD simply describes how the ruling elite see themselves, along with much of the middle class and aspiring upwardly mobile: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. And it is how they see the society they live in and attempt to force upon everyone else.

      Among some people on the political right (e.g., HBDers), they self-consciously take pride in being WEIRD, as a badge of honor in the uniqueness of Western Civilization. They take it as a compliment to be called such. Even the violent oppression is taken as a sign of superiority and supremacy.

    • The class spectrum is being strung out to such an extreme. The working poor are far below the upper working class. And the lower middle class is far below the upper middle class.

      Then there is even a vast divide growing between the moderately rich and the filthy rich. Those at the top are global plutocrats who essentially rule the world with no allegiance to any country, not even allegiance to the moderately wealthy in specific countries.

    • The issue I see right now is that the aspiring class, who are not well off are increasingly aware of how badly the rich have rigged this game against them and are starting to wake up.

    • What irritates me is that there is no divide among the general public. Most Americans agree these problems need to be solved and they agree about how to solve them. The divide, instead, is between the upper classes and everyone else.


      “Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement.

      “Surveys show Americans are generally willing to pay higher taxes to for education, especially if the money is used to pay teachers more and improve facilities and technology.

      “Yet, political leaders continue to slash taxes instead and redirect more funds to unfounded experiments like charter schools and voucher programs.

      “It’s time to stop treating the symptoms of this disease and go directly to the cause. Vote these idiots out of office.”

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