Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

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

 

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).

The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.

There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).

For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.

Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.

On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.

Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.

Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible—from Neuropolitics.org:

“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”

I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.

Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.

In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):

“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”

The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).

Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:

“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”

I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.

A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.

The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.

It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.

If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).

The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.

If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.

As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).

I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:

“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”

The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.

It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.

On Being Strange

The human mind is fascinating. Did you know that? I thought I should mention it, just in case.

The capacity of the human mind leads in various directions. Many have wondered what psychiatric conditions say not just about those who are ‘afflicted’ but for human nature in general.

Take schizophrenia, which is always a popular topic, as it is fairly common. Schizophrenia includes several types of experience that get me thinking.

There is the oceanic feeling that is typical, something they share with many mystics, meditation practitioners and anyone who has imbibed psychedelics. It is a loss of boundaries or rather a fluidity between self and other.

This is part of a generally fluid way of experiencing reality. Schizophrenics often think others can hear their thoughts and that they can hear the thoughts of others. It also goes along with hearing voices, especially command hallucinations. Instead of thinking ‘I will do such and such,’ they hear ‘You will do such and such’.

This is where we touch upon the theories of Julian Jaynes and Iain McGilchrist. If we take the ancients at their word, we have to conclude that command hallucinations were considered a normal experience. Even today normal people hear command hallucinations when under extreme duress and stress. What if we all possess immense potential in how we can experience reality and identity? What might this mean for societies, in the ancient world and maybe in the future?

A different aspect is how schizophrenics view the world. People, objects, and concepts aren’t perceived as being individual. Rather, they are experienced as inseparable members of ever larger subclasses. This emphasizes a sense of larger wholeness beyond individuality.

Related to this, Iain McGilchrist explains this in terms of hemisphere functioning (p. 51):

“At the same time it is the right hemisphere that has the capacity to distinguish specific examples within a category, rather than categories alone: it stores details to distinguish specific instances. 148 The right hemisphere presents individual, unique instances of things and individual, familiar, objects, where the left hemisphere re-presents categories of things, and generic, non-specific objects. 149 In keeping with this, the right hemisphere uses unique referents, where the left hemisphere uses non-unique referents. 150 It is with the right hemisphere that we distinguish individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces. 151 In fact it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. 152 Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.”

This isn’t just about schizophrenics. This difference between hemispheres exists in everyone, even if it doesn’t normally show so starkly as in psychiatric conditions.

In terms of bicameral societies, this makes me think that it isn’t an issue of there being no boundaries. It simply would be different and larger boundaries. Society itself, instead of the individual, would define self and reality. Individuality wouldn’t be the locus of experience and so individual perspective wouldn’t necessarily be understood as such, much less privileged as the basis of all else. This is shown in the odd examples throughout ancient literature where body parts are spoken of as if they had their own minds, their own thoughts and emotions.

This brings to mind a book I’ve been reading. It’s Evolution and Empathy by Milton E. Brener. He doesn’t reference either Jaynes or McGilchrist, but his thinking is in line with theirs. Brener discusses how the ancients apparently didn’t see spatial relationship between things as we moderns do. Closer and further objects lacked perspective, both being shown the same size. And multiple sides to a person or object would be shown simultaneously (e.g., all wheels of a wagon shown equally or different body parts shown from different angles).

Why did the ancients portray their world in such strange ways? And why do some people even today experience the world in strange ways that seem to match aspects of what the ancients portrayed? Maybe we are all a bit stranger than we realize.

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Here are a few previous posts of mine:

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!
Developmental Differences: Preliminary Thoughts

Also, if this kind of thing fascinates you as it fascinates me, you might want to check out another blog:

Gary Williams’s Minds and Brains