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

 

Online Weirdness

The internet, especially social media, makes people weird. This includes: suspiciousness, rudeness, aggressiveness, unresponsiveness, misplaced common courtesy, absent social norms, lack of typical friendliness, bluntness, etc. I notice the differences in others, as well as in myself.

For instance, there is a fellow blogger I know. We mutually follow each other’s blogs. He recently shared his personal experience in his blog. He doesn’t usually write about personal experiences and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to get to know him better. I responded with some personal experience that was similar to his. I had interacted with this guy before and was trying to make a personal connection, to treat him like a normal person I might meet in normal life, but he gave me no response whatsoever. Just silence.

As another example, I was interacting with a guy I know on Facebook who lives in my community. He mentioned working at a library. As there are several libraries in town, I asked him about which library he works at (with an added “if you don’t mind my asking”). I got no response, not even saying that he’d rather not tell me, despite my having interacted with him online at least hundreds of times over many years, live in the same area as him, know some of the same people, and likely have met him in person at some point.

Ignoring people like that seems rude, or at least it would be in normal life. How can people apparently be so oblivious and unaware about their behavior? why don’t they think the same rules of conduct apply in all aspects of life? Why the division in relating, the dissociation of experience, or whatever it is?

It isn’t just strangers and casual acquaintances. I’ve had similar experiences with people I known personally for years and decades. Sometimes close friends won’t even acknowledge comments I make to their Facebook posts or posts I make to their page. Such silence wouldn’t be considered acceptable in a face-to-face encounter. Why is it acceptable online?

I always respond to people, even strangers, as long as I deem them worthy of a response. On my blog, if I deem someone unworthy of a response, I also deem them unworthy to have their comment to be approved for showing up in my blog. I treat my small corner of the internet as a semi-personal space and so I treat people I meet on the internet personally, which includes both positive and negative responses.

People I meet online are real to me in my experience, even if I’ve never met them in person. I’ve had internet friends who I’ve known and regularly conversed with for years. I know about their lives and their dreams, although I’ve never even heard the sound of their voices. I also treat people I know from my everyday life the same way online as I do offline. I don’t treat the two worlds as separate. It is all the same world, same common courtesy, same way of relating.

I do act differently online, in some ways. I’ll admit to that. I’m an introvert and, like many introverts, I find it more comfortable to be friendly online. I like meeting people online, but less so offline. I’m not a social person in the traditional sense, but I’m not exactly a private person either. I’ve always been a person to which applies, what you see is what you get. The internet hasn’t changed that, although the internet has given a vehicle for that philosophy to play out differently.

I also can be more aggressive online, at times. So, maybe I’m not in a position to judge others for acting out of character. That said, I tend to only act aggressively online to strangers, the type of people I’d never normally interact with at all. So, the internet merely opens me up to interactions that wouldn’t otherwise happen, but it doesn’t change the way I interact with people I already know; at least, I don’t think it does.

I’m not sure what is my point. Maybe people are always weird, but are better at hiding it in everyday life.