What does it mean to be in the world? This world, this society, what kind is it? And how does that affect us? Let me begin with the personal and put it in the context of family. Then I’ll broaden out from there.
I’ve often talked about my own set of related issues. In childhood, I was diagnosed with learning disability. I’ve also suspected I might be on the autistic spectrum which could relate to the learning disability, but that kind of thing wasn’t being diagnosed much when I was in school. Another label to throw out is specific language impairment, something I only recently read about — it maybe better fits my way of thinking than autistic spectrum disorder. After high school, specifically after a suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with depression and thought disorder, although my memory of the latter label is hazy and I’m not sure exactly what was the diagnosis. With all of this in mind, I’ve thought that some of it could have been caused by simple brain damage, since I played soccer since early childhood. Research has found that children regularly head-butting soccer balls causes repeated micro-concussions and micro-tears which leads to brain inflammation and permanent brain damage, such as lower IQ (and could be a factor in depression as well). On the other hand, there is a clear possibility of genetic and/or epigenetic factors, or else some other kind of shared environmental conditions. There are simply too many overlapping issues in my family. It’s far from being limited to me.
My mother had difficulty learning when younger. One of her brothers had even more difficulty, probably with a learning disability as I have. My grandfather dropped out of school, not that such an action was too uncommon at the time. My mother’s side of the family has a ton of mood disorders and some alcoholism. In my immediate family, my oldest brother also seems like he could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum and, like our grandfather, has been drawn toward alcoholism. My other brother began stuttering in childhood and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and interestingly I stuttered for a time as well but in my case it was blamed on my learning disability involving word recall. There is also a lot of depression in the family, both immediate and extended. Much of it has been undiagnosed and untreated, specifically in the older generations. But besides myself, both of my brothers have been on antidepressants along with my father and an uncle. Now, my young niece and nephew are on anti-depressants, that same niece is diagnosed with Asperger’s, the other even younger niece is probably also autistic and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is only what I know about.
Growing up and going into adulthood, my own issues always seemed worse, though, or maybe just more obvious. Everyone who has known me knows that I’ve struggled for decades with depression, and my learning disability adds to this. Neither of my brothers loved school, but neither of them struggled as I did, neither of them had delayed reading or went to a special education teacher. Certainly, neither of them nearly flunked out of a grade, something that would’ve happened to me in 7th grade if my family hadn’t moved. My brothers’ conditions were less severe or at least the outward signs of it were easier to hide — or maybe they are simply more talented at acting normal and conforming to social norms (unlike me, they both finished college, got married, had kids, bought houses, and got respectable professional jobs; basically the American Dream). My brother with the anxiety and stuttering learned how to manage it fairly early on, and it never seemed have a particularly negative affect on his social life, other than making him slightly less confident and much more conflict-avoidant, sometimes passive-aggressive. I’m the only one in the family who attempted suicide and was put in a psychiatric ward for my effort, the only one to spend years in severe depressive funks of dysfunction.
This caused me to think about my own problems as different, but in recent years I’ve increasingly looked at the commonalities. It occurs to me that there is an extremely odd coincidence that brings together all of these conditions, at least for my immediate family. My father developed depression in combination with anxiety during a stressful period of his life, after we moved because he got a new job. He began having moments of rapid heartbeat and it worried him. My dad isn’t an overly psychologically-oriented person, though not lacking in self-awareness, and so it is unsurprising that it took a physical symptom to get his attention. It was a mid-life crisis. Added to his stress were all the problems developing in his children. It felt like everything was going wrong.
Here is the strange part. Almost all of this started happening specifically when we moved into that new house, my second childhood home. It was a normal house, not that old. The only thing that stood out, as my father told me, was that the electricity usage was much higher than it was at the previous house, and no explanation for this was ever discovered. Both that house and the one we lived in before were in the Lower Midwest and so there were no obvious environmental differences. It only now struck me, in talking to my father again about it, that all of the family’s major neurocognitive and psychological issues began or worsened while living in that house.
About my oldest brother, he was having immense behavioral issues from childhood onward: refused to do what he was told, wouldn’t complete homework, and became passive-aggressive. He was irritable, angry, and sullen. Also, he was sick all the time, had a constant runny nose, and was tired. It turned out he had allergies that went undiagnosed for a long time, but once treated the worst symptoms went away. The thing about allergies is that it is an immune condition where the body is attacking itself. During childhood, allergies can have a profound impact on human biology, including neurocognitive and psychological development, often leaving the individual with a condition of emotional sensitivity for the rest of their lives, as if the body is stuck in permanent defensive mode. This was a traumatic time for my brother and he has never recovered from it — still seething with unresolved anger and still blaming my parents for what happened almost a half century ago.
One of his allergies was determined to be mold, which makes sense considering the house was on a shady lot. This reminds me of how some molds can produce mycotoxins. When mold is growing in a house, it can create a toxic environment with numerous symptoms for the inhabitants that can be challenging to understand and connect. Unsurprisingly, research does show that air quality is important for health and cognitive functioning. Doctors aren’t trained in diagnosing environmental risk factors and that was even more true of doctors decades ago. It’s possible that something about that house was behind all of what was going on in my family. It could have been mold or it could have been some odd electromagnetic issue or else it could have been a combination of factors. This is what is called sick building syndrome.
Beyond buildings themselves, it can also involve something brought into a building. In one fascinating example, a scientific laboratory was known to have a spooky feeling that put people at unease. After turning off a fan, this strange atmosphere went away. It was determined the fan was vibrating at a level that was affecting the human nervous system or brain. There has been research into how vibrations and electromagnetic energy can cause stressful and disturbing symptoms (the human body is so sensitive that the brain can detect the weak magnetic field of the earth, something that earlier was thought to be impossible). Wind turbines, for example, can cause the eyeball to resonate in a way to cause people to see glimpses of things that aren’t there (i.e., hallucinations). So, it isn’t always limited to something directly in a building itself but can include what is in the nearby environment. I discuss all of this in an earlier post: Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms.
This goes along with the moral panic about violent crime in the early part of my life during the last several decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t an unfounded moral panic, not mere mass hysteria. There really was a major spike in the rate of homicides (not to mention suicides, child abuse, bullying, gang activity, etc). All across society, people were acting more aggressive (heck, aggression became idealized, as symbolized by the ruthless Wall Street broker who wins success through social Darwinian battle of egoic will and no-holds-barred daring). Many of the perpetrators and victims of violence were in my generation. We were a bad generation, a new Lost Generation. It was the period when the Cold War was winding down and then finally ended. There was a sense of ennui in the air, as our collective purpose in fighting a shared enemy seemed less relevant and eventually disappeared altogether. But that was in the background and largely unacknowledged. Similar to the present mood, there was a vague sense of something being terribly wrong with society. Those caught up in the moral panic blamed it on all kinds of things: video games, mass media, moral decline, societal breakdown, loss of strict parenting, unsupervised latchkey kids, gangs, drugs, and on and on. With so many causes, many solutions were sought, not only in different cities and states across the United States but also around the world: increased incarceration or increased rehabilitation programs, drug wars or drug decriminalization, stop and frisk or gun control, broken window policies or improved community relations, etc. No matter what was done or not done, violent crime went down over the decades in almost every population around the planet.
It turned out the strongest correlation was also one of the simplest. Lead toxicity drastically went up in the run up to those violent decades and, depending on how quickly environmental regulations for lead control were implemented, lead toxicity dropped back down again. Decline of violent crime followed with a twenty year lag in every society (twenty years is the time for a new generation to reach adulthood). Even to this day, in any violent population from poor communities to prisons, you’ll regularly find higher lead toxicity rates. It was environmental all along and yet it’s so hard for us to grasp environmental conditions like this because they can’t be directly felt or seen. Most people still don’t know about lead toxicity, despite it being one of the most thoroughly researched areas of public health. So, there is not only sick building syndrome for entire societies can become sick. When my own family was going bonkers, it was right in the middle of this lead toxicity epidemic and we were living right outside of industrial Chicago and, prior to that, we were living in a factory town. I have wondered about lead exposure, since my generation saw the highest lead exposure rate in the 20th century and probably one of the highest since the Roman Empire started using lead water pipes, what some consider to have been the cause of its decline and fall.
There are other examples of this environmental impact. Parasite load in a population is correlated to culture of distrust and violence (parasites-stress theory of values, culture, and sociality; involving the behavioral immune system), among other problems — parasite load is connected to diverse things, both individually and collectively: low extraversion, higher conscientiousness, authoritarianism (conformity, obedience), in-group loyalty (in situations of lower life expectancy and among populations with faster life histories), collectivism, income inequality, female oppression, conservatism, low openness to experience, support for barriers between social groups, adherence to local norms, traditionalism, religiosity, strength of family ties, in-group assortative sociality, perceived ‘ugliness’ of bodily abnormality, homicide, child abuse, etc. Specific parasites like toxoplasmosis gondii have been proven to alter mood, personality, and behavior — this can be measured across entire populations, maybe altering the culture itself of entire regions where infection is common.
Or consider high inequality that can cause widespread bizarre and aggressive behavior, as it mimics the fear and anxiety of poverty even among those who aren’t poor. Other social conditions have various kinds of effects, in some cases with repercussions that last for centuries. But in any of these examples, the actual cause is rarely understood by many people. The corporate media and politicians are generally uninterested in reporting on what scientists have discovered, assuming scientists can get the funding to do the needed research. Large problems requiring probing thought and careful analysis don’t sell advertising nor do they sell political campaigns, and the corporations behind both would rather distract the public from public problems that would require public solutions, such as corporate regulations and higher taxation.
In our society, almost everything gets reduced to the individual. And so it is the individual who is blamed or treated or isolated, which is highly effective for social control. Put them in prison, give them a drug, scapegoat them in the media, or whatever. Anything so long as we don’t have to think about the larger conditions that shape individuals. The reality is that psychological conditions are never merely psychological. In fact, there is no psychology as separate and distinct from all else. The same is true for many physical diseases as well, such as autoimmune disorders. Most mental and physical health concerns are simply sets of loosely associated symptoms with thousands of possible causal and contributing factors. Our categorizing diseases by which drugs treat them is simply a convenience for the drug companies. But if you look deeply enough, you’ll typically find basic things that are implicated: gut dysbiosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, etc —- inflammation, for example, is found in numerous conditions, from depression and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and arthritis — the kinds of conditions that have been rapidly spreading over the past century (also, look at psychosis). Much of it is often dietary related, since in this society we are all part of the same food system and so we are all hit by the same nutrient-deficient foods, the same macronutrient ratios, the same harmful hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils/margarine, the same food additives, the same farm chemicals, the same plastic-originated hormone mimics, the same environmental toxins, etc. I’ve noticed the significant changes in my own mood, energy, and focus since turning to a low-carb, high-fat diet based mostly on whole foods and traditional foods that are pasture-fed, organic, non-GMO, local, and in season — lessening the physiological stress load. It is yet another factor that I see as related to my childhood difficulties, as diverse research has shown how powerful is diet in every aspect of health, especially neurocognitive health.
This makes it difficult for individuals in a hyper-individualistic society. We each feel isolated in trying to solve our supposedly separate problems, an impossible task, one might call it a Sisyphean task. And we rarely appreciate how much childhood development shapes us for the rest of our lives and how much environmental factors continue to influence us. We inherit so much from the world around us and the larger society we are thrown into, from our parents and the many generations before them. A society is built up slowly with the relationship between causes and consequences often not easily seen and, even when noticed, rarely appreciated. We are born and we grow up in conditions that we simply take for granted as our reality. But those conditions don’t have to be taken as fatalistic for, if we seek to understand them and embrace that understanding, we can change the very conditions that change us. This will require us first to get past our culture of blame and shame.
We shouldn’t personally identify with our health problems and struggles. We aren’t alone nor isolated. The world is continuously affecting us, as we affect others. The world is built on relationships, not just between humans and other species but involving everything around us — what some describe as embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended (we are hypersubjects among hyperobjects). The world that we inhabit, that world inhabits us, our bodies and minds. There is no world “out there” for there is no possible way for us to be outside the world. Everything going on around us shapes who we are, how we think and feel, and what we do — most importantly, shapes us as members of a society and as parts of a living biosphere, a system of systems all the way down. The personal is always the public, the individual always the collective, the human always the more than human.
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When writing pieces like this, I should try to be more balanced. I focused solely on the harm that is caused by external factors. That is a rather lopsided assessment. But there is the other side of the equation implied in everything I wrote.
As higher inequality causes massive dysfunction and misery, greater equality brings immense benefit to society as a whole and each member within it. All you have to do in order to understand this is to look to cultures of trust such as the well functioning social democracies, with the Nordic countries being the most famous examples (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Or consider how, no matter your intelligence, you are better off being in an on average high IQ society than to be the smartest person in an on average low IQ society. Other people’s intelligence has greater impact on your well being and socioeconomic situation than does your own intelligence (see Hive Mind by Garett Jones).
This other side was partly pointed to in what I already wrote in the first section, even if not emphasized. For example, I pointed out how something so simple as regulating lead pollution could cause violent crime rates around the world to drop like a rock. And that was only looking at a small part of the picture. Besides impulsive behavior and aggression that can lead to violent crime, lead by itself is known to cause a wide array of problems: lowered IQ, ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc; and also general health issues, from asthma to cardiovascular disease. Lead is only one among many such serious toxins, with others including cadmium and mercury. The latter is strange. Mercury can actually increase IQ, even as it causes severe dysfunction in other ways. Toxoplasmosis also can do the same for the IQ of women, even as the opposite pattern is seen in men.
The point is that solving or even lessening major public health concerns can potentially benefit the entire society, maybe even transform society. We act fatalistic about these collective conditions, as if there is nothing to be done about inequality, whether the inequality of wealth, resources, and opportunities or the inequality of healthy food, clean water, and clean air. We created these problems and we can reverse them. It often doesn’t require much effort and the costs in taking action are far less than the costs of allowing these societal wounds to fester. It’s not as if Americans lack the ability to tackle difficult challenges. Our history is filled with examples of public projects and programs with vast improvements being made. Consider the sewer socialists who were the first to offer clean water to all citizens in their cities, something that once demonstrated as successful was adopted by every other city in the United States (more or less adopted, if we ignore the continuing lead toxicity crisis).
There is no reason to give up in hopelessness, not quite yet. Let’s try to do some basic improvements first and see what happens. We can wait for environmental collapse, if and when it comes, before we resign ourselves to fatalism. It’s not a matter if we can absolutely save all of civilization from all suffering. Even if all we could accomplish is reducing some of the worst harm (e.g., aiming for less than half of the world’s population falling victim to environmental sickness and mortality), I’d call it a wild success. Those whose lives were made better would consider it worthwhile. And who knows, maybe you or your children and grandchildren will be among those who benefit.