Now that I’m reading so much revolutionary theory about how brains work, what light does it shed on one of my preoccupying issues: insanity? The Diagnostic Manual for psychologists and psychiatrists is being renegotiated, as it has to be every year as though it were the National Budget, which it is — in a way — since it determines what insurance companies and the social agencies of governments will pay for. Not that anyone takes it seriously enough to distinguish among the crazy people in jails and the crazy people who are in protective care and the crazy people on the streets. Let alone the sociopaths in office. It’s as much economic and political as it is personal or theoretical.
Is addiction a disease? Is autism the same as insanity? Can craziness be inherited?
What about cross-gender identification, which was only a few centuries ago criminalized and only a few decades ago decriminalized ? If we go to war, what obligation do we have towards the soldiers driven mad by combat? Is the insanity induced by brain damage from boxing or football justified by the profit and “pleasure” of the games? Is sociopathy, the lack of moral awareness, a form of insanity?
(I would say yes. This is an organic problem — even locatable in the forebrain – quite apart from those who can tell right from wrong, but want to do wrong.)
The single most potent message I get from the research of Damasio and Gazzinaga is that mental/emotional process (mind) cannot be separated from the body and the body of the individual cannot be separated from the society in which it lives. The three are inextricably enmeshed and interacting.
So corollaries: cultures drive their populations mad by exposing them to polluting substances that alter their brains; potentially crazy infants can be kept sane by careful treatment; cultures vary broadly in their tolerance for craziness or the abuses that cause it; a person who seems insane in one setting might be simply adapted for survival in another.
My old animal control boss used to tell vivid stories from his days as a young cop in Martinez, CA. Once he was riding with his training sergeant to patrol for trouble.
They stopped a guy on the street who was defiant and argumentative. (This was in the days before hoodies and Skittles.)
“Arrest him! We’re gonna take him in for observation for insanity.” ordered the sergeant.
Mike, fresh from class, objected, “But he isn’t crazy and he didn’t break any laws!”
“Son,” said the sarge. “Anyone who argues with me is crazy. Cuff him. Or are YOU gonna argue?”
In places and around persons who have low tolerance for opposition, usually because of bad results from things getting out of control, the line defining crazy gets moved.
For a lot of people who grew up in orderly and comfortable surroundings, this can come as a big surprise. Suddenly motives, intentions and apologies mean nothing at all. Violence explodes before it can be predicted. But people trained to detect and suppress physical abuse are often blind to mental crime like swindles and profiteering. There are ways to slip around invisibly. Ask the money people.
The conviction that a body and a mind are separate is hard to overcome. We punish bodies without realizing that under the impact of pain the brain changes, re-organizing its categories and re-wiring its neurons, especially in children. Those who learn how to tolerate, resist, and even welcome the pain are better equipped to survive. You know what that means. Street gangs know. Soldiers for hire know.
Would we have mercenaries if the socially sanctioned armies didn’t create people fit for nothing else? It’s not a decision but a re-shaping. This is what humans do best: re-shaping themselves to fit their environment and, if necessary, re-shaping the environment, even if it means perpetuating war, bombing whole landscapes into obliteration to create the ecology they know.
Bodies/minds operate by taking in sensory information and then producing behavior based on it. There are two ways the sensory information travels through the body: molecularly in the fluids of blood and lymph and through neurons, which operate like wiring. The two modes convert back and forth: if one feels pleasure or affection from the sensation of stroking or from emotional eye contact, that changes the person’s internal chemistry and registers in the neuronal storage of the brain as memory and expectation.
Parents, teachers, and the media are constantly creating memory banks in the hard drives of the mind that make people what they are as individuals. It’s not always easy. It’s not always intentional.
There are two short cuts. One is the direct administration of molecules into the blood stream — through IV’s or oral ingestion or maybe absorption through the mucosa. We can make people crazy and we can make people come back from “crazy” so long as we maintain the “meds.”
The other is trying to convert the newfangled genomic data into some kind of prediction map in hopes of being able as a society to just snuff all the troublesome people before they get started. Imagine a mom being told “your fetus will be aborted because we see he has the gene for murder.” (I hasten to remind you there is NO gene for murder! Murder is situational.)
Isn’t it a natural distinction in a world where we abort for signs of Down Syndrome? Will every pregnant woman have to submit a blood sample for genomic analysis and be forced to have an abortion if it has the wrong heritage? Or will we simply sterilize everyone with the wrong genes, as we have in the past?
Don’t people who know they are carrying something deadly and inheritable — say, Lou Gehrig’s or cerebral palsy – make sure they don’t have babies anyway?
Is it different to abort a baby because the personal or social conditions are not there to support a healthy and productive growth pattern? Don’t we justify abortion now by social conditions like poverty or poor nutrition or ethnic conditions — or in China and India possibly gender? Inside out from that, don’t we refuse to adopt any child not perfect or at least appealing?
Or is it more rational to let the pregnancy complete, the child to be neglected, until crime, drug abuse, and disease kill him or her in the streets. What are the ultimate consequences of “farming” kids for slaves, sexual or not? Is adopting unwanted Chinese girls to affluent American families a form of slavery? When is commodifying not trafficking?
These are the kinds of dilemmas that sci-fi addresses by making the familiar strange enough to be seen in a more objective way. Consider the Borg, those dreaded hive-mind half-robots who are always afflicting Captain Piccard, even taking his identity.
We’re already there — we just don’t recognize it — or we couldn’t conceive of them. So far, most sci-fi deals with bodies more than minds, though there is a sub-category that goes back to the medieval setting in order the look at the assumptions of our culture, the earlier state of our lives.
Highly idealized, of course, and often seeming more like the Sixties and Seventies of the Twentieth Century than, say, 1360 or 1370, before the discovery of a continental “New World” changed everything.
Aren’t we in a virtual “new world” right now?
We can make a brain move a robotic arm at great cost, but can we create a culture that would protect children everywhere while making sure there are few enough of them to have room to grow?
We need an even newer world.