Coping Mechanisms of Health

Carl Jung argued that sometimes what seems like mental illness is in actuality an effective coping mechanism. He advised against treating the coping mechanism as the problem without understanding what it is a response to. The problem itself could be made worse. Some people have found a careful balance that allows them to function in the world, no matter how dysfunctional it may seem to others, from addiction to dissociation. We need to have respect and compassion for how humans cope with difficulties.

There is something similar in physical health. Consider obesity. Is it always the cause of health problems? Or might it be the body’s way of protecting against other health problems? That is what was explored in a recent study mentioned by Gabor Erdosi. It is Friendly Fat Theory – Explaining the Paradox of Diabetes and Obesity by Rajiv Singla et al. The authors write:

“Obesity has been called the mother of all diseases and, historically, has been strongly linked to diabetes. However, there are still some paradoxes that exist in diabetes epidemiology and obesity and no unifying hypothesis has been proposed to explain these paradoxical phenomena. Despite the ever-increasing prevalence of both obesity and diabetes, differential relationships exist between diabetes and the extent of obesity in various different ethnic groups. In addition, people with a higher body mass index have been shown to have an improved survival advantage in terms of chronic diabetes complications, especially cardiovascular complications. This narrative review attempts to explain these paradoxical and complex relationships with a single unifying theory. We propose that adipocytes are actually friends of the human body to prevent the occurrence of diabetes and also help in mitigating the complications of diabetes. Adipose tissue actually acts as a reservoir of free fatty acids, responsible for insulin resistance, and prevents their overflow into insulin-sensitive tissues and, therefore, friendly fat theory.”

L. Amber O’Hearn responded, “Wait, are you saying the body is actually trying to be healthy and that many symptoms we see in connection with disease are functionally protective coping mechanisms? Yes, indeed.” Following that, someone else mentioned that this perspective was argued by Dr. Jason Fung in an interview with Peter Attia, podcast #59. I’m sure many others have said similar things. It’s not difficult to understand for anyone familiar with some of the science.

For example, inflammation causes many problems, but inflammation itself isn’t the fundamental cause since it is a protective response itself to something else. Or as yet another example, there is the theory that cholesterol plaque in arteries doesn’t cause the problem but is a response to it, as the cholesterol is essentially forming a scab in seeking to heal injury. Pointing at cholesterol would be like making accusations about firefighters being present at fires. One could look to numerous other things, as the basic principal is widely applicable. The body is always seeking the healthiest balance under any conditions, even if less than optimal. So, in seeking greater health, we must realize that the body-mind of an individual is a system that is part of larger systems. To get different results, the totality of the situation needs to be shifted into a new balance. That is why something like ketosis can dramatically improve so many health issues, as it completely alters the functioning of gut health, metabolism, immune response, neurocognition, and on and on. That diet could have that kind of impact should not be hard to understand. Think about the multiple links, direct and indirect, between the gut and the brain — multiply that by hundreds of other major connections within our biology.

The failing of conventional medicine is that it has usually been a symptoms-based approach. Diagnosis is determined by patterns of symptoms. Too often that then is used to choose a medication or surgical intervention to treat those symptoms. Underlying causes are rarely understood or even considered. Partly, that is because of a lack of knowledge and the related low quality of many medical studies. But more problematic is that the dominant paradigm constrains thought, shuts down the ability to imagine other ways of doing medicine. The above study, however, suggests that we should understand what purpose something is serving. Obesity isn’t merely too much fat. Instead of being the problem itself, obesity might be the body’s best possible solution under those conditions.

What if so many of our supposed problems operate in a similar manner? What if instead of constantly fighting against what we deem as bad we sought understanding first about what purpose is being served and then sought some other means of accomplishing that end? Think about the short-term thinking that has been observed under conditions of poverty and high inequality. Instead of judging people as inferior, we could realize that short-term thinking makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms, as extreme stress indicates that immediate problems must be dealt with first. Rather than blaming the symptom or scapegoating the victim, we should look at the entire context of what is going on. If we don’t like the results we are getting as individuals and as a society, we better change the factors that lead to those results. It’s a simple and typically overlooked insight.

We aren’t isolated individuals. We are an inseparable aspect of a larger world. Every system within our bodies and minds, every system in society and the environment is integral to our holistic functioning as human beings. Everything is connected in various ways. Change one thing and it will ripple outward.

* * *

It’s The Insulin Resistance, Stupid: Part 1 & Part 2
by Timothy Noakes

Most Mainstream Doctors Would Fail Nutrition

To return to the topic at hand, the notion of food as medicine, a premise of the paleo diet, also goes back to the ancient Greeks — in fact, originates with the founder of modern medicine, Hippocrates (he also is ascribed as saying that, “All disease begins in the gut,” a slight exaggeration of a common view about the importance of gut health, a key area of connection between the paleo diet and alternative medicine). What we now call functional medicine, treating people holistically, used to be standard practice of family doctors for centuries and probably millennia, going back to medicine men and women. But this caring attitude and practice went by the wayside because it took time to spend with patients and insurance companies wouldn’t pay for it. Traditional healthcare that we now think of as alternative is maybe not possible with a for-profit model, but I’d say that is more of a criticism of the for-profit model than a criticism of traditional healthcare.

Diets and Systems

Related to diet, Pezeshki does bring up the issue of inflammation. As I originally came around to my present diet from a paleo viewpoint, I became familiar with the approach of functional medicine that puts inflammation as a central factor (Essentialism On the Decline). Inflammation is a bridge between the physiological and the psychological, the individual and the social. Where and how inflammation erupts within the individual determines how a disease condition or rather a confluence of symptoms gets labeled and treated, even if the fundamental cause originated elsewhere, maybe in the ‘external’ world (socioeconomic stress, transgenerational trauma, environmental toxins, parasites because of lack of public sanitation, etc. Inflammation is linked to leaky gut, leaky brain, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, impulsivity, short-term thinking, addiction, aggression, etc — and such problems increase under high inequality.

There are specific examples to point to. Diabetes and mood disorders co-occur. There is the connection of depression and anhedonia, involving the reward circuit and pleasure, which in turn can be affected by inflammation. Also, inflammation can lead to changes in glutamate in depression, similar to the glutamate alterations in autism from diet and microbes, and that is significant considering that glutamate is not only a major neurotransmitter but also a common food additive. Dr. Roger McIntyre writes that, “MRI scans have shown that if you make someone immune activated, the hypervigilance center is activated, activity in the motoric region is reduced, and the person becomes withdrawn and hypervigilant. And that’s what depression is. What’s the classic presentation of depression? People are anxious, agitated, and experience a lack of spontaneous activity and increased emotional withdrawal” (Inflammation, Mood Disorders, and Disease Model Convergence). Inflammation is a serious condition and, in the modern world, quite pervasive. The implications of this are not to be dismissed.

Essentialism On the Decline

In reading about paleolithic diets and traditional foods, a recurring theme is inflammation, specifically as it relates to the health of the gut-brain network and immune system.

The paradigm change this signifies is that seemingly separate diseases with different diagnostic labels often have underlying commonalities. They share overlapping sets of causal and contributing factors, biological processes and symptoms. This is why simple dietary changes can have a profound effect on numerous health conditions. For some, the diseased state expresses as mood disorders and for others as autoimmune disorders and for still others something entirely else, but there are immense commonalities between them all. The differences have more to do with how dysbiosis and dysfunction happens to develop, where it takes hold in the body, and so what symptoms are experienced.

From a paleo diet perspective in treating both patients and her own multiple sclerosis, Terry Wahls gets at this point in a straightforward manner (p. 47): “In a very real sense, we all have the same disease because all disease begins with broken, incorrect biochemistry and disordered communication within and between our cells. […] Inside, the distinction between these autoimmune diseases is, frankly, fairly arbitrary”. In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote (Kindle Locations 3834-3850):

“Inflammation has been a game-changer for our understanding of mental illness. For many years, scientists and clinicians held a classical view of mental illnesses like chronic stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Each ailment was believed to have a biological fingerprint that distinguished it from all others. Researchers would ask essentialist questions that assume each disorder is distinct: “How does depression impact your body? How does emotion influence pain? Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” 9

“More recently, the dividing lines between these illnesses have been evaporating. People who are diagnosed with the same-named disorder may have greatly diverse symptoms— variation is the norm. At the same time, different disorders overlap: they share symptoms, they cause atrophy in the same brain regions, their sufferers exhibit low emotional granularity, and some of the same medications are prescribed as effective.

“As a result of these findings, researchers are moving away from a classical view of different illnesses with distinct essences. They instead focus on a set of common ingredients that leave people vulnerable to these various disorders, such as genetic factors, insomnia, and damage to the interoceptive network or key hubs in the brain (chapter 6). If these areas become damaged, the brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage. 10

“My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions. If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.”

What jumped out at me was the conventional view of disease as essentialist, and hence the related essentialism in biology and psychology.

Diets and Systems

Chuck Pezeshki is a published professor of engineering in the field of design theory and high performance work teams. I can claim no specialty here, as I lack even a college degree. Still, Pezeshki and I have much in common — like  me: He prefers a systems view, as he summarizes his blog on his About page, “As we relate, so we think.” He states that, “My work exists at, and reaches far above the micro-neuroscience level, into larger systemic social organization.”

An area of focus we share is diet and health and we’ve come to similar conclusions. Like me, he sees a relationship between sugar, obesity, addiction, trauma, individuality, empathy issues, authoritarianism, etc (and inequality comes up as well; by the way, my favorite perspective on inequality in this context is Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder). And like me, he is informed by a low-carb and ketogenic approach that was initially motivated by weight loss. Maybe these commonalities are unsurprising, as we do have some common intellectual interests.

Much of his blog is about what he calls “structural memetics” involving value memes (v-memes). Even though I haven’t focused as much on value memes recently, Ken Wilber’s version of spiral dynamics shaped my thought to some extent (that kind of thing being what brought me to Pezeshki’s blog in the first place). As important, we are both familiar with Bruce K. Alexander’s research on addiction, although my familiarity comes from Johann Hari’s writings (I learned of the rat park research in Chasing the Scream). A more basic link in our views comes from each of us having read the science journalism of Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz, along with some influence from Dr. Jason Fung. He has also read Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a leading figure in this area who I know of through the work of others.

Related to diet, Pezeshki does bring up the issue of inflammation. As I originally came around to my present diet from a paleo viewpoint, I became familiar with the approach of functional medicine that puts inflammation as a central factor (Essentialism On the Decline). Inflammation is a bridge between the physiological and the psychological, the individual and the social. Where and how inflammation erupts within the individual determines how a disease condition or rather a confluence of symptoms gets labeled and treated, even if the fundamental cause originated elsewhere, maybe in the ‘external’ world (socioeconomic stress, transgenerational trauma, environmental toxins, parasites because of lack of public sanitation, etc. Inflammation is linked to leaky gut, leaky brain, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, impulsivity, short-term thinking, addiction, aggression, etc — and such problems increase under high inequality.

There are specific examples to point to. Diabetes and mood disorders co-occur. There is the connection of depression and anhedonia, involving the reward circuit and pleasure, which in turn can be affected by inflammation. Also, inflammation can lead to changes in glutamate in depression, similar to the glutamate alterations in autism from diet and microbes, and that is significant considering that glutamate is not only a major neurotransmitter but also a common food additive. Dr. Roger McIntyre writes that, “MRI scans have shown that if you make someone immune activated, the hypervigilance center is activated, activity in the motoric region is reduced, and the person becomes withdrawn and hypervigilant. And that’s what depression is. What’s the classic presentation of depression? People are anxious, agitated, and experience a lack of spontaneous activity and increased emotional withdrawal” (Inflammation, Mood Disorders, and Disease Model Convergence). Inflammation is a serious condition and, in the modern world, quite pervasive. The implications of this are not to be dismissed.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for years now. But this is the first time I’ve come across someone else making these same connections, at least to this extent and with such a large context. The only thing I would add or further emphasize is that, from a functional medicine perspective (common among paleo, low-carb, and keto advocates), the body itself is a system as part of the larger systems of society and the environment — it is a web of connections not only in which we are enmeshed but of which forms everything we are, that is to say we aren’t separate from it. Personal health is public health is environmental health, and think of that in relation to the world of hyperobjects overlapping with hypersubjectivity (as opposed to the isolating psychosis of hyper-individualism):

“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” (The World Around Us).

In its earliest meaning, diet meant a way of life, not merely an eating regimen. And for most of history, diet was rooted in cultural identity and communal experience. It reinforced a worldview and social order. This allows diet to be a perfect lens through which to study societal patterns and changes over time.

* * *

Relevant posts by Chuck Pezeshki:

Weight Loss — it’s in the V-Memes
Weight Loss — It’s in the v-Memes (II)
Weight Loss by the V-Memes — (III) What’s the v-Meme stack look like?
Weight Loss by the V-Memes (IV) or Channeling your Inner Australopithecine
Weight Loss by the v-Memes (V) – Cutting out Sugar — The Big Psycho-Social-Environmental Picture
The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review
Quickie Post — the Trans-Cultural Diabolical Power of Sugar
How Health Care Deprivation and the Consequences of Poor Diet is Feeding Contemporary Authoritarianism – The Trump ACA Debacle
Quickie Post — Understanding the Dynamics of Cancer Requires a Social Structure that can Create Cellular Dynamics
Finding a Cure for Cancer — or Why Physicists May Have the Upper Hand
Quickie Post –A Sober Utopia
Rat Park — Implications for High-Productivity Environments — Part I
Rat Park — Implications for High-Productivity Environments — Part II
Leadership for Creativity Isn’t all Child’s Play
Relational Disruption in Organizations
The Neurobiology of Education and Critical Thinking — How Do We Get There?
What Caused the Enlightenment? And What Threatens to Unravel It?

* * *

Relevant posts from my own blog:

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
The World Around Us
The Literal Metaphor of Sickness
Health From Generation To Generation
The Agricultural Mind
Spartan Diet
Ketogenic Diet and Neurocognitive Health
Fasting, Calorie Restriction, and Ketosis
Like water fasts, meat fasts are good for health.
The Creed of Ancel Keys
Dietary Dictocrats of EAT-Lancet
Eliminating Dietary Dissent
Cold War Silencing of Science
Essentialism On the Decline

There is also some discussion of diet in this post and the comments section:

Western Individuality Before the Enlightenment Age

And related to that:

Low-Carb Diets On The Rise

“It has become an overtly ideological fight, but maybe it always was. The politicization of diet goes back to the early formalized food laws that became widespread in the Axial Age and regained centrality in the Middle Ages, which for Europeans meant a revival of ancient Greek thought, specifically that of Galen. And it is utterly fascinating that pre-scientific Galenic dietary philosophy has since taken on scientific garb and gets peddled to this day, as a main current in conventional dietary thought (see Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden […]; I made this connection in realizing that Stephen Le, a biological anthropologist, was without awareness parroting Galenic thought in his book 100 Million Years of Food).”

* * *

Mental health, Psychopathy, Addiction, Inflammation, Diet, Nutrition, etc:

Dark triad traits and health outcomes: An exploratory study
by Jasna Hudek-Knezevic et al

Brain chemical is reward for psychopathic traits
by Ewen Callaway

Psychopaths’ brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences
from Science Daily

Psychopathic traits modulate brain responses to drug cues in incarcerated offenders
by Lora M. Cope et al

Links Between Substance Abuse and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)
from Promises Behavioral Health

Antisocial Personality Disorder and depression in relation to alcoholism: A community-based sample
by Laura C. Holdcraft et al

More inflammation but less brain-derived neurotrophic factor in antisocial personality disorder
by Tzu-Yun Wang et al

High Neuroticism and Low Conscientiousness Are Associated with Interleukin-6
by Sutin, Angelina

Aggressive and impulsive personality traits and inflammatory markers in cerebrospinal fluid and serum: Are they interconnected?
by S. Bromander et al

Inflammation Predicts Decision-Making Characterized by Impulsivity, Present Focus, and an Inability to Delay Gratification
by Jeffrey Gassen et al

Could Your Immune System Be Making You Impulsive?
by Emma Young

Impulsivity-related traits are associated with higher white blood cell counts
by Angelina R. Sutin et al

Dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are related to impulse control and anterior cingulate function in adolescents
by Valerie L. Darcey

Diabetes Risk and Impulsivity
by David Perlmutter

Experimentally-Induced Inflammation Predicts Present Focus
by Jeffrey Gassen et al

Penn Vet researchers link inflammation and mania
by Katherine Unger Baillie

Anger Disorders May Be Linked to Inflammation
by Bahar Gholipour

Markers of Inflammation in the Blood Linked to Aggressive Behaviors
from University of Chicago Medical Center

Anhedonia as a clinical correlate of inflammation in adolescents across psychiatric conditions
by R. D. Freed et al

From Stress to Anhedonia: Molecular Processes through Functional Circuits
by Colin H. Stanton et al

Mapping inflammation onto mood: Inflammatory mediators of anhedonia
by Walter Swardfager et al

Understanding anhedonia: What happens in the brain?
by Tim Newman

Depression, Anhedonia, Glutamate, and Inflammation
by Peter Forster et al

Depression and anhedonia caused by inflammation affecting the brain
from Bel Marra Health

Inflammation linked to weakened reward circuits in depression
from Emory Health Sciences

Depression in people with type 2 diabetes: current perspectives
by L. Darwish et al

The Link Between Chronic Inflammation and Mental Health
by Kayt Sukel

Emory team links inflammation to a third of all cases of depression
by Oliver Worsley

Brain Inflammation Linked to Depression
by Emily Downwar

The Brain on Fire: Depression and Inflammation
by Marwa Azab

Inflammation, Mood Disorders, and Disease Model Convergence
by Lauren LeBano

High-inflammation depression linked to reduced functional connectivity
by Alice Weatherston

Does Inflammation Cause More Depression or Aggression?
by Charles Raison

A probe in the connection between inflammation, cognition and suicide
by Ricardo Cáceda et al

What If We’re Wrong About Depression?
by Anna North

People with ‘rage’ disorder twice as likely to have parasitic infection
by Kevin Jiang

Rage Disorder Linked with Parasite Found in Cat Feces
by Christopher Wanjek

Maternal Inflammation Can Affect Fetal Brain Development
by Janice Wood

The effects of increased inflammatory markers during pregnancy
from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Inflammation in Pregnancy Tied to Greater Risk for Mental Illness in Child
by Traci Pedersen

Inflammation may wield sex-specific effects on developing brain
by Nicholette Zeliadt

Childhood obesity is linked to poverty and parenting style
from Concordia University

The Obesity–Impulsivity Axis: Potential Metabolic Interventions in Chronic Psychiatric Patients
by Adonis Sfera et al

The pernicious satisfaction of eating carbohydrates
by Philip Marais

Your Brain On Paleo
from Paleo Leap

The Role of Nutrition and the Gut-Brain Axis in Psychiatry: A Review of the Literature
by S. Mörkl et al

Emerging evidence linking the gut microbiome to neurologic disorders
by Jessica A. Griffiths and Sarkis K. Mazmanian

New Study Shows How Gut Bacteria Affect How You See the World
by David Perlmutter

The Surprising Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health
from LoveBug Probiotics

Nutritional Psychiatry: Is Food The Next Big Frontier In Mental Health Treatment?
by Stephanie Eckelkamp

Ketogenic Diets for Psychiatric Disorders: A New 2017 Review
by Georgia Ede

Low-Carbohydrate Diet Superior to Antipsychotic Medications
by Georgia Ede

Gut microbiome, SCFAs, mood disorders, ketogenic diet and seizures
by Jonathan Miller

Can the Ketogenic Diet Treat Depression and Anxiety, Even Schizophrenia?
by Rebekah Edwards

How do we make the strange familiar?

I’ve been simultaneously looking at two books: This is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. And Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs. The two relate, with the latter offering a larger context for the former. The theme of both might well be summed up with the word ‘strange’. The world is strange and becoming ever stranger. We are becoming aware of how utterly bizarre the world is, both within us and all around us.

The first is not only about parasites, despite the catchy title. It goes so far beyond just that. After all, most of the genetic material we carry around with us, including within our brains, is non-human. It’s not merely that we are part of environments for we are environments. We are mobile ecosystems with boundaries that are fluid and permeable.

For a popular science book, it covers a surprising amount of territory and done so with more depth than one might expect. Much of the research discussed is preliminary and exploratory, as the various scientific fields have been slow to emerge. This might be because of how much they challenge the world as we know it and society as it is presently ordered. There are other psychological factors the author details such as the resistance humans have in dealing with topics of perceived disgust.

To summarize the book, McAuliffe explores the conclusions and implications of research involving parasitism and microbiomes in terms of neurocognitive functioning, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, political ideologies, population patterns, social structures, and culture. She offers some speculations of those involved in these fields, and what makes the speculations interesting is how they demonstrate the potential challenges of these new understandings. Whether or not we wish to take the knowledge and speculations seriously, the real world consequences will remain to be dealt with somehow.

The most obvious line of thought is the powerful influence of environments. The world around us doesn’t just effect us. It shapes who we are at a deep level and so shapes our entire society. There is no way to separate the social world from the natural world. This isn’t fatalism, since we also shape our environments. The author points to the possibility that Western societies have been liberalized at least partly because of the creation of healthier conditions that allow human flourishing. All of the West not that long ago was dominated by fairly extreme forms of social conservatism, violent ethnocentrism, authoritarian systems, etc. Yet in the generations following the creation of sewer systems, clean water, environmental regulations and improved healthcare, there was a revolution in Western social values along with vast improvements in human development.

In terms of intelligence, some call this the Moral Flynn Effect, a convergence of diverse improvements. And there is no reason to assume it will stop and won’t spread further. We know the problems we face. We basically understand what those problems are, what causes them and alleviates them, even if not entirely eliminates them. So, we know what we should do, assuming we actually wanted to create a better world. Most importantly, we have the monetary wealth, natural resources, and human capacity to implement what needs to be done. It’s not a mystery, not beyond our comprehension and ability. But the general public has so far lacked this knowledge, for it takes a while for new info and understandings to spread — e.g., Enlightenment ideas developed over centuries and it wasn’t until the movable type printing press became common that revolutions began. The ruling elite, as in the past, will join in solving these problems when fear of the masses forces them to finally act. Or else the present ruling elite will itself be eliminated, as happened with previous societies.

What is compelling about this book are the many causal links and correlations shown. It matches closely with what is seen from other fields, forming a picture that can’t be ignored. It’s probably no accident that ethnocentric populations, socially conservative societies, authoritarian governments, and strict religions all happen to be found where there are high rates of disease, parasites, toxins, malnutrition, stress, poverty, inequality, etc — all the conditions that stunt and/or alter physical, neurocognitive, and psychological development.

For anti-democratic ruling elites, there is probably an intuitive or even conscious understanding that the only way to maintain social control is through keeping the masses to some degree unhealthy and stunted. If you let people develop more of their potential, they will start demanding more. If you let intelligence increase and education improve, individuals will start thinking for themselves and the public imagining new possibilities.

Maybe its unsurprising that American conservatives have seen the greatest threat not just in public education but, more imporantly, in public health. The political right doesn’t fear the failures of the political left, the supposed wasted use of tax money. No, what they fear is that the key leftist policies have been proven to work. The healthier, smarter, and better educated people become the more they develop attitudes of social liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, which leads toward the possibility of radical imagination and radical action. Until people are free to more fully develop their potentials, freedom is a meaningless and empty abstraction. The last thing the political right wants, and sadly this includes many mainstream ‘liberals’, is a genuinely free population.

This creates a problem. The trajectory of Western civilization for centuries has been the improvement of all these conditions that seems to near inevitably create a progressive society. That isn’t to say the West is perfect. Far from it. But imagine what kind of world it would be if universal healthcare and education was provided to every person on the planet. This is within the realm of possibility at this very moment, if we so chose to invest our resources in this way. It’s nothing special about the West and even in the West there are still large parts of the population living in severe deprivation and oppression. In a single generation, we could transform civilization and solve (or at least shrink to manageable size) the worst social problems. There is absolutely nothing stopping us but ourselves. Instead, Western governments have been using their vast wealth and power to dominate other countries, making the world a worst place in the process, helping to create the very conditions that further undermine any hope for freedom and democracy. Blowing up hospitals, destroying infrastructure, and banning trade won’t lead to healthier and more peaceful populations; if anything, the complete opposite.

A thought occurred to me. If environmental conditions are so important to how individuals and societies form, then maybe political ideologies are less key than we think or else not as important in the way we normally think about them. Our beliefs about our society might be more result than cause (maybe the limited healthcare availability in the American South being a central factor in maintaining its historical conservatism and authoritarianism). We have a hard time thinking outside of the conditions that have shaped our very minds.

That isn’t to say there is no feedback loop where ideology can reinforce the conditions that made it possible. The point is that free individuals aren’t fully possible in an unfree society where individuals aren’t free on a practical level to develop toward optimal health and ability. As such, fights over ideology miss an important point. The actual fight needs to be over the conditions that precede any particular ideological framing and conflict. On a practical level, we would be better off investing money and resources where it is needed most and in ways that practically improve lives, rather than simply imprisoning populations into submission and bombing entire societies into oblivion, either of which worsens the problems for those people and for everyone else as well. The best way to fight crime and terrorism would be by improving the lives for all people. Imagine that!

The only reason we can have a public debate now is because we have finally come to the point in society where conditions have improved just enough where these issues are finally comprehensible, as we have begun to see their real world impact in improving society. It would have been fruitless trying to have a public debate about public goods such as public healthcare and public education in centuries past when even the notion of a ‘public’ still seemed radical. The conditions for a public with a voice to be heard had to first be created. Once that was in place, it is unsurprising that it required radicals like socialists to take it to the next level in suggesting the creation of public sanitation and public bakeries, based on the idea that health was a priority, if not an individual right then a social responsibility. Now, these kinds of socialist policies have become the norm in Western societies, the most basic level of a social safety net.

As I began reading McAuliffe’s book, I came across Higgs’ book. It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a connection between the two. Reading some reviews and interviews showed the importance Higgs placed on the role (hyper-)individualism has played this past century. And upon perusing the book, it became clear that he understood how this went beyond philosophy and politics, touching upon every aspect of our society, most certainly including science.

It was useful thinking about the issue of micro-organisms in a larger historical context. McAuliffe doesn’t shy away from the greater implications, but her writing was focused on a single area of study. To both of these books, we could also add such things as the research on epigentics which might further help transform our entire understanding of humanity. Taken together, it is clear that we are teetering on the edge of a paradigm shift, of the extent only seen a few times before. We live in a transitional era, but it isn’t a smooth transition. As Higgs argues, the 20th century has been a rupture, what having developed not being fully explicable according to what came before.

We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of our own ignorance, which is to say our potential new knowledge. We know just enough to realize how wrong mainstream views have been in the past. Our society was built upon and has been operating according to beliefs that have been proven partial, inaccurate, and false. The world is more complex and fascinating than we previously acknowledged.

Realizing we have been so wrong, how do we make it right going forward? What will it take for us to finally confront what we’ve ignored for so long? How do we make the strange familiar?

* * *

Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?
by David McConkey

Why Jeremy Corbyn makes sense in the age of the selfie
By John Higgs

Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
by John Higgs
pp. 308-310

In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, “It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.” Pentland and his team distributed smartphones loaded with tracking software to a number of communities in order to study the vast amount of data the daily interactions of large groups generated. They found that the overriding factor in a whole range of issues, from income to weight gain and voting intentions, was not individual free will but the influence of others. The most significant factor deciding whether you would eat a doughnut was not willpower or good intentions, but whether everyone else in the office took one. As Pentland discovered, “The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”

A similar story is told by the research into child development and neuroscience. An infant is not born with language, logic and an understanding of how to behave in society. They are instead primed to acquire these skills from others. Studies of children who have been isolated from the age of about six months, such as those abandoned in the Romanian orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, show that they can never recover from the lost social interaction at that crucial age. We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.

Many aspects of our behaviour only make sense when we understand their social role. Laughter, for example, creates social bonding and strengthens ties within a group. Evolution did not make us make those strange noises for our own benefit. In light of this, it is interesting that there is so much humour on the internet.

Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of “self,” the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalising the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, “Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.”

In biology an “individual” is an increasingly complicated word to define. A human body, for example, contains ten times more non-human bacteria than it does human cells. Understanding the interaction between the two, from the immune system to the digestive organs, is necessary to understand how we work. This means that the only way to study a human is to study something more than that human.

Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally. This can be difficult to accept if you were raised in the twentieth century, particularly if your politics use the idea of a free individual as your primary touchstone. The promotion of individualism can become a core part of a person’s identity, and something that must be defended. This is ironic, because where did that idea come from? Was it created by the person who defends their individualism? Does it belong to them? In truth, that idea was, like most ideas, just passing through.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Homelessness and Mental Illness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Morality-Punishment Link

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Moral Flynn Effect?

Racists Losing Ground: Moral Flynn Effect?

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Of Mice and Men and Environments

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

No One Knows