Maybe Our Culture Is Literally Crazy
I've been working on my new book all day, and re-visiting my notes from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist's terrific 2021 book The Matter With Things, which I can't recommend highly enough (it's 3,000 pages long, and worth the investment.) I had forgotten about his speculation that Western culture has literally gone mad -- not in the sense of having a medical condition, but in the sense of manifesting culturally the kinds of things associated with people who are mentally ill in particular ways. Let me explain.
McGilchrist has written before (in his great 2009 book The Master And His Emissary) about how the functions of our brain hemispheres affects the development of culture. I keep recommending that book to people, and they are inevitably blown away by it.
Here is a link to a short, delightful animated explanation of McGilchrist's theory. Please don't dismiss all he says by claiming that "left-brain/right-brain theory was debunked years ago." You almost certainly don't understand what he's saying. McGilchrist points out that of course both hemispheres work together in normal human brains, and that there's no neat separation. But it's a matter of fact that certain brain functions are located in one hemisphere, and other functions in the other. Generally speaking, the left brain is where analysis and abstract reasoning occurs, and the right is where empathy and openness to experience is found. A healthy brain -- and a healthy culture -- have the two working in tandem with each other.
But in modern culture, McGilchrist argues in both books, we have radically defaulted to a left-brain way of approaching reality -- and it is leading us to disaster. We have done this because the left brain's habit of regarding the world as mere matter that we can re-arrange at will to make useful has been very successful at making us rich and technologically advanced. But this has come at a very high price. McGilchrist says that contrary to what you might think, the right brain is more connected to reality than the hyperlogical left brain:
I have explained earlier why the left hemisphere is also unreliable in daily life: it has a tendency to jump to conclusions, to become entrenched, to be unwilling to see other points of view and, frankly, to make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view. And it has a desperate need for certainty. ...The left hemisphere appears to detest uncertainty; it creates explanations and fills in gaps of information in order to build a cohesive story and extinguish doubt.
Here's where it gets really interesting:
In Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought by Louis Sass, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Rutgers. Published in 1992, and by now a classic, the book has a riveting thesis. Sass had noticed that every phenomenon described by people with schizophrenia bore a close resemblance to phenomena not just found in, but at the core of, modernism; and in the book he illustrates his thesis in detail, across numerous domains, drawing with subtlety on a deep familiarity with the literatures of psychology, philosophy and the arts. Moreover, as he demonstrates, a surprisingly large number of people who rose to prominence in the worlds of literature, art, music and philosophy during this period (but not nearly so commonly in other periods) were on the schizo-autistic spectrum. The closeness of the parallels he draws, across so many instances, makes the similarity difficult, if not impossible, to deny. The question is, why should this be? Clearly a whole culture cannot develop schizophrenia.
Might it be, then, that as a culture we were exemplifying not, of course, a sudden epidemic of schizophrenia, but too heavy a reliance on the world as delivered to us by the left hemisphere, meanwhile dismissing what it is that the right hemisphere knows and could help us understand?
So what happens to individuals whose brains are dominated in a disordered, unhealthy way by the left hemisphere? McGilchrist:
Right hemisphere-damaged subjects demonstrate impairments in the sense of the unity and integrity of the body; fragmentation of bodily awareness is associated with right hemisphere, especially right frontal, dysfunction. They have impairments in perceiving and recognising bodies and bodily movements – indeed biological motion of any kind; and can exhibit a startling inability to recognise their own face, parts of their own bodies or their body as a whole. All of these are well-described phenomena in schizophrenia (and in some cases in autism; see notes).
When you can no longer perceive the whole as an indivisible whole, it breaks up into a mass of mere meaningless things. Not seeing the whole means that you don’t see the context; and one way of looking at it is that such a deficit is ‘but one manifestation of a widespread impairment in cognitive co-ordination – the grouping of information based on contextual relationships’. ... Both right hemisphere-damaged subjects and schizophrenics, intriguingly, lack an intuitive sense of the reality or substantiality of experience, sometimes feeling that it is all ‘play-acting’.
McGilchrist says that when the function of the right hemisphere is impaired, the left defines reality for the person by imposing its own "map" -- a representation of what it thinks reality is, heedless of contrary information. Schizophrenia, he says, is "like trying to map what you are living, instead of living it – and at the same time trying to live in the map." The schizophrenic cannot comprehend the real world, and constantly makes poor judgments based on what his brain tells him reality is.
In Master And His Emissary, McGilchrist writes:
What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.
Descriptions of melancholia, or of manic-depressive (now called bipolar) disorder, are immediately recognisable in accounts from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, yet there are no descriptions of schizophrenia.
The idea is that modernity creates the conditions for schizophrenia to emerge. Why? Because modern culture dis-integrates the human person from nature and society. It prizes scientific knowledge over other forms of knowledge (e.g., religion, poetry, art), and suppresses non-empirical knowledge as second-class.
The essential elements of bureaucracy, as described by Peter Berger and his colleagues (see p. 390 above), show that they would thrive in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. The authors list them as: the necessity of procedures that are known, and in principle knowable; anonymity; organisability; predictability; a concept of justice that is reduced to mere equality; and explicit abstraction. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness. All of these features are identifiable as facilitated by the left hemisphere.
What could we expect from a society radically distorted by left-hemisphere ways of thinking? This:
The left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, and that tendency would in any case be instantiated in the fabric of a technologically driven and bureaucratically administered society. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place, the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted, as both inconvenient and incomprehensible to the left hemisphere acting on its own. There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in society’s relationship with its members. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world.
Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out, and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.
Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm.
Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced apparently in response to exceptional threats and exceptional circumstances, against which they would in reality be ineffective, their aim being to increase the power of the state and diminish the status of the individual. The concept of the individual depends on uniqueness; but according to the left hemisphere’s take on reality, individuals are simply interchangeable (‘equal’) parts of a mechanistic system, a system it needs to control in the interests of efficiency. Thus it would be expected that the state would not only take greater power directly, but play down individual responsibility, and the sense of individual responsibility would accordingly decline.
Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors, which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands the nature of such relationships, as it misunderstands altruism as a version of self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power. We might even expect there to be attempts to damage the trust on which such relationships rely, and, if possible, to discredit them. In any case, strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control, a move that would be made possible, presumably, only by furthering fear and mistrust.
... Anger and aggressive behaviour would become more evident in our social interactions, since of all emotional states these are the most highly characteristic of the left hemisphere, and would no longer be counterbalanced by the empathic skills of the right hemisphere. One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere’s tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.
... We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder: Weber’s ‘disenchanted’ world. Religion would seem to be mere fantasy. The right hemisphere is drawn forward by exemplars of the qualities it values, where the left hemisphere is driven forward by a desire for power and control: one would expect, therefore, that there would develop an intolerance of, and a constant undercutting, ironising, or deconstructing of such exemplars, in both life and in art. Pathos, the characteristic mode of the right hemisphere, would become impossible, perhaps shameful. It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of nausea and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.
... Above all, the word and the idea would come to dominate. Cultural history and tradition, and what can be learnt from the past, would be confidently dismissed in preparation for the systematic society of the future, put together by human will. The body would come to be viewed as a machine, and the natural world as a heap of resource to be exploited.
When McGilchrist wrote this fifteen years ago, he said that this left-brained dystopia was "within sight." Look around you now -- it's everywhere.
Take a look at this story about Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness in which the sufferer cannot control his emotions, and feels threatened almost all the time. It shares some characteristics with schizophrenia, though schizophrenia is far more serious. The piece says that high levels of cortisol, which is released during stress, wear away at the parts of the brain that allow a healthy person to control emotion and to accurately gauge threats. In other words, if we subject people to intense stress levels, especially when they are young and their brains are developing, and take away from them the social structures and institutions that give them a sense of security, we should not be surprised when BPD manifests. It seems to me that we have created a culture that keeps people in a high state of anxiety, and has removed the kinds of buffers that older societies had in place that would have helped the individual deal with the stress without suffering devastatingly high chronic cortisol levels. McGilchrist says that this condition, which is growing in prevalence, is associated with right-hemisphere dysfunction.
McGilchrist says medical literature scarcely features anorexia until the modern era. He speculates that body dysmorphic disorders, in which people struggle to deal with embodied existence, are what you would expect in a culture tyrannized by the left brain. Similarly, autism, which is characterized in part by right-hemisphere dysfunction, is also booming in late modernity.
And gender dysphoria? This chart tracks annual referrals to a gender dysphoria treatment clinic, by year.
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We have turned our society into a Machine for disintegrating people. For tearing them apart. For making them crazy.
How do we get out of it? Is that even possible?