Conditioned to Believe Verses Thinking for Self

Stepping into the warm water allows us to feel where we are, but observing how we think and act in relationships is harder by far.

Reading the New York Times this morning I found a very thoughtful piece on how our BELIEFS shape our interactions with others, The Americanization of Mental Illness.

I was fascinated by research showing the destructive ability of the mental health world to spin a story around diagnosing people. The research shows that diagnosing ends up doing more harm than good. You can read the abstracts below or read the whole piece and form your own take away.

This push to see, believe and act the right way is not just in the world of mental heath. The forces for fusion and/or togetherness work in such subtle ways that we hardly notice them. One manifestation of this is the blame game. Here we can see how the forces for agreement can destroy individual differences by putting others down. This article describes how categorizing others, destroying or belittling differences becomes a part of our destructive urge to “help.”

It is not easy to think for self when we are constantly bombarded with the many ways we should think like others. We can see everywhere, at home, in school, with our friends, at our jobs, -the pressure to believe and act the “right way”.

One of the main problems is perceptual blindness. People cannot see the pressure that is being applied to be the “right way” for others. Some people call this fusion when two people agree and become a one in how they see the world. The DSM is one way to help people think and see the same way.

It requires a disciplined effort to become a better observer. What is it worth to see how often we are agreeing with others rather than thinking for self? It does require an emotional backbone to stick to a different way of seeing the world.

Perhaps eventually mental illness categorizations will begin by first looking at how much any way of diagnosing or even thinking allows us to focus and act negatively towards others. The problem is when we are blaming others we are leaving ourselves blameless.

The difficulty is that the way people function is seamlessly influenced by the ways others function. This is impossible to see without real effort. Few people can see the reciprocal forces of over and under functioning that are clearly present in symptoms like alcoholism.

Nothing will stop the efforts to try to change “them” to act, think and believe “the right way” in order to be in harmony with whoever is in authority or with the social group. The challenge is to constantly consider how we can change ourselves in relationship to others who are suffering.

Just as in kindergarten, we are all participating in diagnosing and being critical of others, putting others down, engaging in the blame game, in the put downs, in being close to some and far removed from others. In its simplest form we are expressing the natural forces deep in human nature to see others as not doing it “right” which gives us a better position in the social groups of which we’re a part.

My take away is this: Be careful what stories you buy into, be careful how you categorize others as “different.” Be careful to think twice (and deeply) when your feelings say the problem is in “the other.” This observing of self will not end the blame game but it might make for a deeper understanding of how we are wired and how we react to being part of a group


New York Times January 10, 2010
The Americanization of Mental Illness
We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places.

In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.
That is until recently.

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures.

“Culture shapes the way general psychopathology is going to be translated partially or completely into specific psychopathology,” Lee says. “When there is a cultural atmosphere in which professionals, the media, schools, doctors, psychologists all recognize and endorse and talk about and publicize eating disorders, then people can be triggered to consciously or unconsciously pick eating-disorder pathology as a way to express that conflict.”

Mental-health professionals in the West, and in the United States in particular, create official categories of mental diseases and promote them in a diagnostic manual that has become the worldwide standard. American researchers and institutions run most of the premier scholarly journals and host top conferences in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Western drug companies dole out large sums for research and spend billions marketing medications for mental illnesses. In addition, Western-trained traumatologists often rush in where war or natural disasters strike to deliver “psychological first aid,” bringing with them their assumptions about how the mind becomes broken by horrible events and how it is best healed.

“As Western categories for diseases have gained dominance, micro-cultures that shape the illness experiences of individual patients are being discarded,” Lee says. “The current has become too strong.”

THE IDEA THAT our Western conception of mental health and illness might be shaping the expression of illnesses in other cultures is rarely discussed in the professional literature.

Many modern mental-health practitioners and researchers believe that the scientific standing of our drugs, our illness categories and our theories of the mind have put the field beyond the influence of endlessly shifting cultural trends and beliefs. After all, we now have machines that can literally watch the mind at work. We can change the chemistry of the brain in a variety of interesting ways and we can examine DNA sequences for abnormalities. The assumption is that these remarkable scientific advances have allowed modern-day practitioners to avoid the blind spots and cultural biases of their predecessors.
Western mental-health practitioners often prefer to believe that the 844 pages of the DSM-IV prior to the inclusion of culture-bound syndromes describe real disorders of the mind, illnesses with symptomatology and outcomes relatively unaffected by shifting cultural beliefs. And, it logically follows, if these disorders are unaffected by culture, then they are surely universal to humans everywhere. In this view, the DSM is a field guide to the world’s psyche, and applying it around the world represents simply the brave march of scientific knowledge.

Of course, we can become psychologically unhinged for many reasons that are common to all, like personal traumas, social upheavals or biochemical imbalances in our brains. Modern science has begun to reveal these causes. Whatever the trigger, however, the ill individual and those around him invariably rely on cultural beliefs and stories to understand what is happening. Those stories, whether they tell of spirit possession, semen loss or serotonin depletion, predict and shape the course of the illness in dramatic and often counterintuitive ways. In the end, what cross-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists have to tell us is that all mental illnesses, including depression, P.T.S.D. and even schizophrenia, can be every bit as influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations today as hysterical-leg paralysis or the vapors or zar or any other mental illness ever experienced in the history of human madness. This does not mean that these illnesses and the pain associated with them are not real, or that sufferers deliberately shape their symptoms to fit a certain cultural niche. It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.

Mental illnesses, it was suggested, should be treated like “brain diseases” over which the patient has little choice or responsibility. This was promoted both as a scientific fact and as a social narrative that would reap great benefits. The logic seemed unassailable: Once people believed that the onset of mental illnesses did not spring from supernatural forces, character flaws, semen loss or some other prescientific notion, the sufferer would be protected from blame and stigma.

This idea has been promoted by mental-health providers, drug companies and patient-advocacy groups like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in the United States and SANE in Britain. In a sometimes fractious field, everyone seemed to agree that this modern way of thinking about mental illness would reduce the social isolation and stigma often experienced by those with mental illness. Trampling on indigenous prescientific superstitions about the cause of mental illness seemed a small price to pay to relieve some of the social suffering of the mentally ill.

But does the “brain disease” belief actually reduce stigma?

In 1997, Prof. Sheila Mehta from Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama decided to find out if the “brain disease” narrative had the intended effect. She suspected that the biomedical explanation for mental illness might be influencing our attitudes toward the mentally ill in ways we weren’t conscious of, so she thought up a clever experiment.

Analyzing the data, Mehta found a difference between the group of subjects given the psychosocial explanation for their partner’s mental-illness history and those given the brain-disease explanation. Those who believed that their partner suffered a biochemical “disease like any other” increased the severity of the shocks at a faster rate than those who believed they were paired with someone who had a mental disorder caused by an event in the past.

“The results of the current study suggest that we may actually treat people more harshly when their problem is described in disease terms,” Mehta wrote. “We say we are being kind, but our actions suggest otherwise.” The problem, it appears, is that the biomedical narrative about an illness like schizophrenia carries with it the subtle assumption that a brain made ill through biomedical or genetic abnormalities is more thoroughly broken and permanently abnormal than one made ill though life events. “Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”

When asked to name the sources of mental illness, people from a variety of cultures are increasingly likely to mention “chemical imbalance” or “brain disease” or “genetic/inherited” factors.
Unfortunately, at the same time that Western mental-health professionals have been convincing the world to think and talk about mental illnesses in biomedical terms, we have been simultaneously losing the war against stigma at home and abroad.

Trying to unravel this mystery, the anthropologist Juli McGruder from the University of Puget Sound spent years in Zanzibar studying families of schizophrenics. Though the population is predominantly Muslim, Swahili spirit-possession beliefs are still prevalent in the archipelago and commonly evoked to explain the actions of anyone violating social norms — from a sister lashing out at her brother to someone beset by psychotic delusions.

McGruder found that far from being stigmatizing, these beliefs served certain useful functions. The beliefs prescribed a variety of socially accepted interventions and ministrations that kept the ill person bound to the family and kinship group. “Muslim and Swahili spirits are not exorcised in the Christian sense of casting out demons,” McGruder determined. “Rather they are coaxed with food and goods, feted with song and dance. They are placated, settled, reduced in malfeasance.” McGruder saw this approach in many small acts of kindness. She watched family members use saffron paste to write phrases from the Koran on the rims of drinking bowls so the ill person could literally imbibe the holy words. The spirit-possession beliefs had other unexpected benefits.

Critically, the story allowed the person with schizophrenia a cleaner bill of health when the illness went into remission. An ill individual enjoying a time of relative mental health could, at least temporarily, retake his or her responsibilities in the kinship group. Since the illness was seen as the work of outside forces, it was understood as an affliction for the sufferer but not as an identity.

For McGruder, the point was not that these practices or beliefs were effective in curing schizophrenia. Rather, she said she believed that they indirectly helped control the course of the illness. Besides keeping the sick individual in the social group, the religious beliefs in Zanzibar also allowed for a type of calmness and acquiescence in the face of the illness that she had rarely witnessed in the West.

The course of a metastasizing cancer is unlikely to be changed by how we talk about it. With schizophrenia, however, symptoms are inevitably entangled in a person’s complex interactions with those around him or her.

In fact, researchers have long documented how certain emotional reactions from family members correlate with higher relapse rates for people who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Collectively referred to as “high expressed emotion,” these reactions include criticism, hostility and emotional overinvolvement (like overprotectiveness or constant intrusiveness in the patient’s life). In one study, 67 percent of white American families with a schizophrenic family member were rated as “high EE.” (Among British families, 48 percent were high EE; among Mexican families the figure was 41 percent and for Indian families 23 percent.)

Does this high level of “expressed emotion” in the United States mean that we lack sympathy or the desire to care for our mentally ill? Quite the opposite. Relatives who were “high EE” were simply expressing a particularly American view of the self. They tended to believe that individuals are the captains of their own destiny and should be able to overcome their problems by force of personal will.

Prof. Jill M. Hooley of Harvard University concluded. “Far from high criticism reflecting something negative about the family members of patients with schizophrenia, high criticism (and hence high EE) was associated with a characteristic that is widely regarded as positive.”

What McGruder found in Zanzibar was that families often drew strength from this more connected and less isolating idea of human nature. Their ability to maintain a low level of expressed emotion relied on these beliefs. And that level of expressed emotion in turn may be key to improving the fortunes of the schizophrenia sufferer.

Of course, to the extent that our modern psychopharmacological drugs can relieve suffering, they should not be denied to the rest of the world. The problem is that our biomedical advances are hard to separate from our particular cultural beliefs. It is difficult to distinguish, for example, the biomedical conception of schizophrenia — the idea that the disease exists within the biochemistry of the brain — from the more inchoate Western assumption that the self resides there as well. “Mental illness is feared and has such a stigma because it represents a reversal of what Western humans . . . have come to value as the essence of human nature,” McGruder concludes. “Because our culture so highly values . . . an illusion of self-control and control of circumstance, we become abject when contemplating mentation that seems more changeable, less restrained and less controllable, more open to outside influence, than we imagine our own to be.”

Behind the promotion of Western ideas of mental health and healing lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature. Westerners share, for instance, evolving beliefs about what type of life event is likely to make one psychologically traumatized, and we agree that venting emotions by talking is more healthy than stoic silence. We’ve come to agree that the human mind is rather fragile and that it is best to consider many emotional experiences and mental states as illnesses that require professional intervention. (The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a quarter of Americans have diagnosable mental illnesses each year.) The ideas we export often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection — a penchant for “psychologizing” daily existence. These ideas remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as the many self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged Americans to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group.

All cultures struggle with intractable mental illnesses with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.

Offering the latest Western mental-health theories, treatments and categories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress sparked by modernization and globalization is not a solution; it may be part of the problem. When we undermine local conceptions of the self and modes of healing, we may be speeding along the disorienting changes that are at the very heart of much of the world’s mental distress.

Ethan Watters lives in San Francisco. This essay is adapted from his book “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” which will be published later this month by Free Press.
An earlier version of this article misstated the publisher of Ethan Watters’s book.


  1. Hi Andrea,
    Just read your post and wanted to comment on one point which is so often not just overlooked, but completely ignored not by negligence but simply because most people would not think of it. “What is it worth to see how often we are agreeing with others rather than thinking for self?. It does require an emotional backbone to stick to a different way of seeing the world”.

    As you mention, the togetherness force acts in such a subtle way, it is so easy to just go with the flow (much easier than forcing our brain to decide whether one agrees with all that is being said).

    And I am wondering: how does the surge of social media activities impacts the ability to think for self. To what extent does the communication between “friends” (with the need to check very regularly what others are doing/saying and responding) promote more reactivity and lessens the ability to step back and make thoughtful judgments.

    Here is an interesting article which talks about the effect of social networks on the brain:


  2. Randy:
    Thanks for your thought provoking feedback on what was most valuable about the piece. You identified the major point.

    “What is it worth to see how often we are agreeing with others rather than thinking for self?”

    Togetherness pressure is a big deal. Sometimes I think we are so human, so folded into what others think, and so easily becoming something like scrambled eggs. Once scrambled in (like when we get meshed into a group) it’s virtually impossible to get back to being a good old fashioned, sunny side up egg.

    To stick to a different way of being and seeing the world is plain old hard. It is an endless struggle to find your voice and to speak your truth.

    And now you add this article pointing out that people are being changed by social networking to be less compassionate and less capable of admiration!

    People don’t like differences. But what will the world be like if we are not prepared to offer compassionate understanding to one another and allow others to be different than we are?

    I am OK with skipping admiration from other people. Demasio thought it an important ability and now as I watch the Olympics perhaps he is right. Perhaps it encourages and motivates us to learn from those we respect.
    You might make the case that as our social relationships become faster we spend less time getting to know one another so that we are no longer able to incorporate the differences between us.

    We may not know the answers to where all these changes are leading us, but we do know that how the nuclear family is structured is undergoing rapid change, for better or worse.

    The United Nations estimated the world’s population to be almost seven billion in 2009. The world’s population is expected to reach nine billion in 2040. That is a lot of change and it puts pressure on all of the earth’s systems.

    Let us look at changes in a few variables to see where trends are taking relationships. There has been a major change in the number of wives with greater incomes than their husbands. It was recently reported by the Pew Research Center, that there were only 4 percent of woman with greater incomes in 1970 but now that figure has risen to 22 percent in 2007. In addition in almost a third of marriages the wife had more education than her husband. This is up from 20 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 2007.

    All of this has implications for changing the marital landscape in funny ways according to an article by Suzanne Fields.
    She many not see the big picture and gets caught up in polarizing and blaming the woman liberation movement but she does show us that there is not an “easy solution” train to get on.

    I would say that we are not able to see the big picture. Therefore we are relatively stuck as we humans are being forced to adapt to changing conditions faster than seems understandable or useful.

    Jack Calhoun, who ran the Population Center at NIH in the 1970’s and 1980’s, wrote that in order to manage the population transition about three quarters of woman would not reproduce because the world would need to stabilize at zero population growth for some time. Calhoun thought the nuclear family would become looser with coalitions of 12 adults each contributing some bit to the 18 children’s forward momentum. (Population Density and Social Pathology, Sci. Amer., 206: 139-148)
    Right now we are shocked by such thoughts and instead we can see only little bits of the change moving us along from here to there.

    Some of us would like to go backwards but there is not a place there, only a longing for a simpler time. There is not a grand plan for us to embrace instead we must rely on people at the local level to figure out how to manage responsibly.

    At any time, being more of self will be difficult but the payoff will be tremendous in terms of emotional maturity, leading us back to compassion, morality and even creativity.

    “A new report from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California drives that point home. In “Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion,”, Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argue that the human brain evolved to very quickly recognize and empathize with physical pain and fear in others, but is much slower to recognize and empathize with emotional pain, or to acknowledge and celebrate virtue or skill. What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration. This is especially problematic with regards to compassion, as we may find ourselves building insufficient bonds of empathy, critical to communities undergoing stress (and we’re seeing a lot of stressed-out communities right now!).”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s