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

 

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“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Keep Your Experience to Yourself

Voice-hearing is one of those odd experiences that most of us ignore. Unless you’ve personally experienced it, it isn’t real. But for those who have, it can be one of the most real things they know, voices that can be as ever-present as the air one breathes.

In a book I was reading, the author mentioned visiting a conference for voice-hearers. Some people had been attending such conferences for years and they were old hands at talking about the voices they hear. Others were attending their first conference and it was a new experience to meet other people who also heard voices.

At the conference, there was a young man who came with an assistant. He was a voice-hearer who had autism. The author explained that he would get irritated. He heard voices and couldn’t believe that everyone else didn’t also hear voices. He thought others were putting him on by pretending they didn’t hear like he heard. I can imagine how autism would complicate the experience of voice-hearing.

What interested me is the basic situation of that young man. We all have experiences and we tend to assume that others experiences are more or less like our own. It is the opposite problem of lacking some experience and assuming everyone else also lacks it. Even language can’t overcome such gaps of experience. Sometimes language hides the gaps, to such an extent we don’t even suspect anything is unusual.

It amuses me to think of a scenario in an ancient bicameral society. Voice-hearing, according to theory, would have been the norm. Someone who didn’t hear voices would have been the crazy one. That person might assume everyone else was speaking metaphorically when they mentioned voices they heard. And so that person might even act like he was hearing voices because that is how everyone else was acting. It might not even occur to him to argue with anyone about whether the voices are real. If he did argue with others about it, it wouldn’t likely lead to happy results and easy relationships.

It’s not wise to argue with people about their experience of reality, especially when they are part of the majority.

Why not?

Hearing voices. We all hear voices, both in and outside our heads. But obviously not all voice-hearing is the same.

Some people hear voices that others don’t hear. Children talk to imaginary friends who talk back to them. Schizophrenics hear all kinds of voices, from disembodied beings to the thoughts in other people’s heads. Even ordinary people, during periods of grief and stress, hear voices that can’t be explained (the Third Man Factor popularized by John Geiger). Studies show this is a lot more common than people realize, because few people talk about the voices they hear for fear of being called crazy.

These voices are as real to those hearing them as the voice of a physical person speaking before their eyes. According Julian Jaynes, entire ancient societies were based on this kind of experience, and he proposed that visual hallucinations often accompanied them. As such, it would have been the only reality the bicameral mind knew. Our sense of reality is nothing more than what we and those around us experience.

Some people dismiss Jaynes’ speculations. He hasn’t always been respectable, quite the opposite, although his intellectual currency has been rising. Over time, more and more people have taken him seriously, even when uncertain what to make of his theory. It’s such an intriguing possibility based on evidence that typically gets ignored and dismissed. But bicameralism or not, the evidence remains to be explained.

Indeed, it is challenging to make sense of it. As Tanya Lurhman, a Stanford anthropologist trained in psychology, simply stated it: “Julian Jaynes blew my mind.” It didn’t just blow her mind for it also set the course of her professional career. Research that she has done follows from the possibility that Jaynes first presented. In her work, she has looked at different cultures in how they relate to voice-hearing. She has compared cultural experiences and also religious experience, both among schizophrenics and the mentally healthy.

Her book on Evangelicals hearing God’s voice is what got my attention. I liked her approach. She treats her subjects with respect and tries to understand them on their own terms. It reminded me of Jaynes’ own approach to ancient people, to take them at their word and consider the possibility that they actually meant what they said.

What if we took all people seriously, not just those who confirm our biases? What if we tried to understand their stated experience, instead of rationalizing it away according to present social norms? Why not?

* * *

When God Talks Back
by T.M. Luhrmann

Our Most Troubling Madness
edited by T.M. Luhrmann & Jocelyn Marrow

Is That God Talking?
T. M. Luhrmann

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
by T.M. Luhrmann

Living With Voices
by T. M. Luhrmann

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind
by T. M. Luhrmann

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’
by Ann Taves

Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says
by Clifton B. Parker

The voices heard by people with schizophrenia are friendlier in India and Africa, than in the US
by Christian Jarrett

Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai
by Greg Downey

Hallucinated voices’ attitudes vary with culture
by Bruce Bower

Psychotic Voices In Your Head Depend On Culture You’re From: Friendly In Ghana, Evil In America
by Chris Weller

More Evidence for Vestigial Bicamerality
by Gary Williams

Spiritualism and Bicameralism

In Spirit of Equality, Steve A. Wiggins discusses the recent Ghostbusters movie. His focus is on spiritualism and gender. He writes that,

“A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.”

I’m familiar with the spiritualist tradition. It’s part of the milieu that formed the kind of religion I was raised in, Science of Mind and New Thought Christianity.

The main church I grew up in, Unity Church, was heavily influenced by women from when it began in the late 1800s. Its founding was inspired by Myrtle Fillmore’s spiritual healing, women were leaders early on in the church, and ministers officiated same sex marriage ceremonies at least as far back as when I was a kid. It’s not patriarchal religion and emphasizes the idea of having a direct and personal connection to the divine, such that you can manifest it in your life.

The gender differences mentioned by Wiggins are the type of thing that always interest me. There are clear differences, whatever are the causes. Psychological research has found variations in cognition and behavior, on average between the genders. This is seen in personality research. And brain research shows at least some of these differences are based in biology, i.e., women having on average a larger corpus callosum.

I’m not sure how these kinds of differences relate to something like spiritualism and the fictional portrayal of human interaction with ghosts/spirits. The two Ghostbusters movies do offer a fun way to think about it.

Reading Wiggin’s piece, I thought about an essay I just read this past week. It offers a different perspective on a related topic, that of hearing voice commands and the traditions that go along with it. The essay is “Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman (from Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten).

She notes, “that all over the world, throughout history, most of the poets who hear voices have been male, and their poems are usually about the laws of the fathers.” She considers this likely relevant, although she doesn’t offer any certain conclusions about what it might mean.

In the context of what Wiggins brings up, it makes one wonder what separates the tradition of voice-hearing poets and spiritualists. I can think of one thing, from that same essay.

Weissman mentioned that command voices often tell people what to do. A famous example was Daniel Paul Schreber who, when hearing a voice telling him to defend his manhood, punched in the face an attendant working at the psychiatric institute. Interestingly, Schreber was a well educated, rationalistic, and non-religious man before he began hearing voices.

Command voices tell people, often men, what to do. It leads to action, sometimes rather masculine action. Few people hear such voices these days and, when they do, they are considered schizophrenic—crazier than even a spiritualist.

From the New Republic article, The Spiritualist Origins of Ghostbusters, Colin Dickey offers an explanation about spiritualism in a gender-biased society.

“Spiritualism also celebrated precisely those aspects of femininity that the rest of culture was busy pathologizing. Nervousness, erratic behavior, uncontrolled outbursts, flagrant sexuality—doctors and psychiatrists saw these all as symptoms of hysteria, that ever-elusive disease that mostly boiled down to women acting out. But these same unruly behaviors were qualities prized in an excellent medium, and women who exhibited these traits were routinely praised for their psychic sensitivity. Women who might have otherwise been institutionalized found celebrity through Spiritualism instead.”

That makes me wonder. Which is cause and which effect? How does spiritualism and other forms of spirituality get expressed in other kinds of societies?

I’m reminded of two other things. First, there was an interesting passage on hysteria from a book on Galen, The Prince of Medicine by Susan P. Mattern. In bicameral fashion, the woman’s uterus (Greek hystera) literally had a mind of its own and was presumed to move around causing problems. The second thing is another part from the the Weissman essay:

“The last priests died shortly after the Ik were forcibly moved, and only one person was left who could still hear commanding voices, Nagoli, the daughter of a priest. Because she was not allowed to become a priest herself, she was called mad.”

Spirituality, when it was part of the social order, was respectable. But when that male-oriented society broke down, the spiritual ability of that woman was then seen as madness. The men (and the other women) couldn’t hear the voices she heard. The voices that once were guidance had become a threat. If that voice-hearing daughter of a priest had lived in 19th century United States, she might have been diagnosed with hysteria or else have become a popular spiritualist. Or if her culture hadn’t fallen into disarray, she would have been no one special at all, perfectly normal.