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How non-industrial cultures view mental illness
Culture determines how mental illness or aberrant mental behavior is viewed and dealt with.
- Behaviors considered mental illnesses by western psychology are seen differently — even positively — in so-called "primitive" societies.
- Hearing voices and hallucinating, for example, can be the start of a spiritual awakening.
- Westerners like Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna expressed concerned about ours definitions of mental illness.
Culture is the arbiter of our conscious reality. To say that it influences how we think and act would be an understatement. For the non-inquisitive or complacent mind, it can set us into the inane doldrums of prefabricated patterns we take to be both our day-to-day reality and how we even view our own psyches and world around us.
It comes as no surprise that it also has a significant effect on what we consider to be a normal psychological disposition.
In many traditional societies, mental distress is seen as a transitional period from one state to the next in order to confront a change in that person's life.
It's very unlikely that strange or novel behavior is seen as indicative of an underlying mental disorder. There are many cultures that don't even have words for what we call experiences like depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Certain psychological phenomena such as possession or mania, which for the most part, Westerners feel the need to stamp out and put back in line with the rest of society and cure, are instead seen in a much different light in more tribal communities.
The linguistic hang-ups we have when defining these other states of consciousness needs to be explored. We can look towards preliterate shamanic cultures and other psychological schools of thought to help us out with this endeavor.
Is there another way to view mental illness?
Vincent Van Gogh.
It's a given that shamans, ecstatic creatives, fringe thinkers and those great artists who have journeyed to the heart-soul of universal divinity and lived to tell the tale of the great mystery aren't going to jive with some reductionist scientist's view of mental illness.
Even so, there is a small strain of scientists in the overall psychiatric field that acknowledges that the prospect of diagnosing and treating mental illnesses isn't that cut and dried.
The British Psychological Association released a report a few years back titled 'Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia'. It contained a statement that said:
Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.
In other words, just calling a different state of consciousness a mental illness can bring about unintended consequences towards either treating or interacting with the individual with the supposed disorder.
This report went on to say that:
- "There is no clear dividing line between 'psychosis' and other thoughts, feelings and beliefs: psychosis can be understood and treated in the same way as other psychological problems such as anxiety or shyness."
- "Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having an illness. Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into trouble but which they would not want to be without."
- "In some cultures, experiences such as hearing voices are highly valued."
Examining psychotic breaks and other mental disorders in a different perspective
Throughout a person's life, they're bound at least once to experience an overwhelming event. This might trigger a change in psychological temperament either for a short period of time or permanently.
The following actions we, as a collective culture, take determines the outcome of this individual's future.
Picture a transcendent or frightening experience either brought on through a psychoactive chemical substance or traumatizing event—whatever it is, it has brought a novel change in that person's mental constitution.
Many diagnosed individuals speak about visions and very unique ways of viewing the world. It's a mix of both the incredibly blissful and the horrific. Aldous Huxley talked about this in his seminal psychedelic work detailing his experiences with mescaline. In The Doors of Perception, he said:
"I have spoken so far only of the blissful visionary experience? But visionary experience is not always blissful. It's sometime terrible. There is hell as well as heaven."
When people are able to integrate these experiences into their psyche and create some grand work of art or creation, they're often lionized and considered heroes, geniuses and pioneers.
Even though, upon further western psychological inquiry, they could very well be considered mad or be placed on the psychological DSM-5 mental disorders spectrum.
If, on the other hand, they fall into destitution, listless meandering, and either bring harm to themselves or others around them, they're institutionalized and prescribed with whatever chemical suppressant is en vogue at the time.
It is quite clear that cultures determine what is right and what is wrong, and subsequently what is normal and abnormal behavior. Are mental illnesses invented or found?
A student of psychology just needs to consult what many psychiatrists decree sarcastically as the holy bible, the DSM-5, which lists all mental illnesses known to exist.
There is debate in the community as to the validity of this diagnostic methodology.
For example, here are a couple of mental illnesses that were once considered real and that we no longer call as such. Say… where'd they all go?
- Neurasthenia ("American nervousness")
- Gender Identity Disorder
- Lunacy (Full-moon induced psychosis)
- The Vapors (Misaligned humors)
Philosopher Alan Watts once compared psychological experts as having the same authority as the medieval priest-craft caste. Both are elevated in society and are the ones with the sole truth, which they dispense from their high towers in the form of what we now call science-based evidence.
Yet, as we're going to see, this is a particularly naive view that is not always used as a way to treat the individual, but for the purpose of ensuring industrial society stays, to a point, culturally homogeneous.
Role of the psychotherapist in treating mental disorders
Before we can move on to how primitive cultures entertain and integrate the individual back into society after a mental break, it's helpful to view how industrial societies work this process.
Again we look toward some of Alan Watts' wisdom in which he saw how psychologists focused not on integrating the individual, but instead making them fit into the society. This is exactly the opposite way in which more pastoral and native cultures go about it.
Alan Watts states:
"Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his 'unconscious drives' into social respectability. But such 'official psychotherapy' lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing.
On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object."
Watts goes on to say that:
"[Good] doctors try to get rid of their patients — clergymen try to get them hooked on the medicine so that they will become addicts to the church… You don't make medicine a diet."
This is where the break between how more holistic and spiritual cultures view mental illness as compared to scientists who instead diagnose and disperse medicine to patients when a disorder has been found.
"The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people," writes Alan Watts.
How primitive cultures deal with aberrant behavior
Panther Spirit and Shaman, by Omer Haciomeroglu.
Many of the terms we use to diagnose mental behaviors we don't understand have also changed throughout the years, as evidenced by the constant reshuffling of the DSM-5 and other psychiatric processes.
The late and great ethnobotanist and writer Terence McKenna had a rich and first-hand experience with many shamanic tribes. Throughout his years of psychedelic study and incursions into far-flung realities with Amazonian tribes, he found a rich tradition of integrating the so-called mentally disturbed into elevated positions that were fundamental to the well-being of primitive societies. He states:
"We have no tradition of shamanism. We have no tradition of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness."
Other societies are not so frightened by the prospect of madness or even certified psychosis.
"A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands and thousands of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon," writes McKenna.
"In a traditional society, if you exhibited "schizophrenic" tendencies, you are immediately drawn out of the pack and put under the care and tutelage of master shamans. You are told: "You are special. Your abilities are very central to the health of our society. You will cure. You will prophesy. You will guide our society in its most fundamental decisions."
McKenna compares this to how we deal with schizophrenia.
"Contrast this with what a person exhibiting schizophrenic activity in our society is told. They're told: "You don't fit in. You are becoming a problem. You don't pull your own weight. You are not of equal worth to the rest of us. You are sick. You have to go to the hospital. You have to be locked up." – You are on a par with prisoners and lost dogs in our society. So that treatment of schizophrenia makes it incurable."
These different systems for dealing with an undeniable part of the human condition can help us pave the way for a future that doesn't demonize or ignore a fundamental personality aspect for many people.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."