The Social Mind

I recently remembered Olga Khazan’s brilliant article for the Atlantic three years ago, about how social and cultural differences result in starkly different experiences of auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia. Khazan writes of a study, “But there was one stark difference, as Stanford News points out: ‘While many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful—and evidence of a sick condition.’”

I read the book Crazy Like Us a few years back. In it, Ethan Watters describes how certain mental health crises are driven by societal factors, including changing politics. Political nervousness can motivate mental illness, as during the rise of anorexia in Hong Kong, which coincided with a transition of governments from the United Kingdom to China. Watters believes this added to the stress that made for the rise of anorexia more likely to occur.

He also notes the political overtones to a Zanzibar man’s experience of mental illness, which occurred during another transition of power, from the United Kingdom to the people of Zanzibar. He speculates that the social upheaval of the time may have contributed to a rise in schizophrenia.

I appreciated how Watters’ book discussed the role of political upheaval in exacerbating symptoms. I have found that my own symptoms get ratcheted up whenever there is a large political crisis that makes me feel like I have to save the world. And Watters deftly explains the way culture may be more responsible than we often acknowledge in guiding the way symptoms take shape.

In what was perhaps the most interesting section to me, he also examines the case of schizophrenia in Zanzibar. The developing world is known to have better recovery and prognosis over time for mental disorders as severe as schizophrenia. One explanation is that people with schizophrenia are not looked down on as much in Zanzibar because many people there are religious and believe that spirits overtake the people who suffer schizophrenia; because anyone can be overtaken by a spirit and there are rituals for ordinary people, people with schizophrenia don’t seem so unordinary.

Watters also mentioned that the fast pace of life in the West may make people with mental illnesses feel more guilt if they are not fully functional, and more regret when they can’t reach their goals.

While inventor Elon Musk has taken criticism for his idea to allow minds and machines to merge, we are essentially social animals and our minds are social too. All the words we think throughout the day were invented by someone else. Original thoughts come rarely. What we are is in the air.

Will we begin to harness our social minds through more cooperation, more concern for others and their health and development? Will we begin to notice that we share so much?

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