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evolutionary psychology

Jerome Kagan: the best predictor of depression is being poor

I’m a great fan of Professor Jerome Kagan, the eminent Harvard psychologist, who has done important work on the role of the amygdala in emotional disorders like social anxiety. I admire his humane appreciation for both the sciences and the humanities, and his awareness of psychology and psychiatry’s dangerous tendency to ignore the role of culture, values, language and context in human emotional experience.

Kagan, considered one of the finest psychologists ever, is clearly deeply concerned about the direction of western intellectual life, and in particular about “the dramatic ascent of the natural sciences in the years following World War 2, which intimidated the other two scholarly communities” – ie the social sciences and the humanities. He feels we in the West have become out of balance, overly fixated on a biologically materialist view of the human condition, with serious consequences for our societies.

He expresses his concerns about our culture’s tendency to simplistic scientific materialism in his new book, Psychology’s Ghosts, which he discussed last month on Radio Boston. He said that psychology and psychiatry focus too much on the symptoms of emotional problems, while ignoring the causes – and, in particular, ignoring the cause of poverty:

If you think about all the physical diseases, they are diagnosed not by the symptoms you tell your doctor, but by the cause. Malaria means not that you have a fever but that you have the malarial parasite. Psychiatry is the only sub-discipline in medicine where the diagnoses are only based on the symptoms. You tell your doctor you can’t sleep and you have no energy and he says that you’re depressed. You’re treated for depression on the basis of your symptoms when your depression could come on for a half a dozen different reasons and the reasons are important in how you treat the patient.

There is inadequate research being done on the life history causes. In medicine, if you have a disease, immediately several hundred or a thousand investigators start at once — take AIDS — to find out what was the cause. There is very little research going on on the role of class, on the role of life history, on the role of who you identified with, your religious identification, your ethnic identification. In other words, there’s a whole complex set of causes; they are not being studied.

The problem is that biology made extraordinary advances, both in genetics and in ways to measure the brain. Because that technology is available, people rushed over to that side and hoped that that would solve the problem, abandoning the other half. To put it briefly, biology says you’re likely to be vulnerable to this envelope of illnesses. Your environment, your setting, your class, your culture, where you live disposes and selects from that envelope the symptoms you might develop.

As I read the literature, and I have many people on my side — the best predictor today in Europe or North America of who will be depressed is not a gene and it’s not a measure of your brain; it’s whether you’re poor. And that makes sense.

If, in a country like ours with an enormous range of income, you’re poor and you’ve been poor since you were a child, which means that your medical care is less adequate, your diet’s less adequate, you’re probably fighting some low level infections and you’re poor — that’s a pretty good reason to be depressed.

That then is taken out because we’re looking for the genes. Now, in fact, there probably is 10 percent of depressed who do have a specific genetic vulnerability and then we’re missing the 80 percent who don’t have a specific genetic vulnerability — they have a very good reason for being depressed […]

We’re hoping that we will discover the biological causes and treat the biological causes and we won’t have to worry about the societal causes and the individual lifestyle circumstances that people deal with. That’s the hope. My own view — and I’m not alone — is that is denying the problem.

This week’s highlights in philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

My book is finally being published next Thursday, which is very exciting. I’ve now gone through the ‘this is all so weird’ phase of feeling a bit self-conscious on the public stage, and am getting more used to it. You adjust to the weirdness. This week, for example, a commenter on an article of mine on the Guardian declared me to be mentally ill (for suggesting God might actually exist), and I found it funny rather than annoying.

What concerns me is less the prospect of bad reviews, and rather the prospect of no reviews. There are quite a few books out at the moment either on philosophy in general or on the philosophy of the good life in particular, so my book may well slip under reviewers’ radars. Well, if that’s the case, hopefully it will be a slow-burning firework that will eventually go off just when you least expect it (not sure where I’m going with this metaphor, sounds dangerous). Anyway, if you enjoy this blog, and you buy the book and enjoy it, do please tell your friends. In fact, my readers are really good at spreading the word, so thanks for that.

The good side of this situation is that there are some great books on the philosophy of well-being out now. Michael Sandel, probably the best-known philosopher at the moment, has a book out on the commodification of everything, which criticizes market ideology from an Aristotelian perspective, suggesting we need to reflect on the limits of what we are prepared to sell. Here’s a great article he wrote in the Atlantic on this topic.

Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward also have a book out on the politics of the good life, which also calls for a move beyond market fundamentalism and a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics, while ridiculing politicians’ present obsession with happiness measurements. The Archibishop of Canturbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a fantastic review of these two books in Prospect magazine, do give it a read, he’s my favourite contemporary Marxist.

By the way, two conferences coming up look at the rise of Neo-Aristotelianism, and the contemporary importance of notions of well-being/ eudaimonia in politics (particularly from the perspective of the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre). Details here.

The  trend of national well-being measurements continues apace: Japan has apparently reported the first results of its national happiness measurements. And it’s… 6.6! Ha, we’re happier than you Japan, in your face. Still, Japan is happier than last year, when it was only 6.5 (though I thought this is the first year it’s done the survey? Oh well.)

Elsewhere, charities are learning to get on the well-being bandwagon. Oxfam Scotland has launched a ‘humankind’ index to help the Scottish government ‘focus on what really matters’. It constructed its definition of ‘prosperity’ through discussions with 3,000 Scots in focus groups, community meetings, street stalls, a YouGov poll and other stuff, and has come up with a weighted indicator based on what people said mattered to them. No reference to God in the index, I see, or football. All seems a bit nebulous – wouldn’t it be more useful not to conflate the various life-factors into one number but to give us all the separate measurements?

This is more interesting: charities are getting better at using well-being measurements to measure the impact of smaller local interventions, says the Guardian. I think this is where well-being measurements could actually be useful – at the local rather than national level, to measure the impact of smaller interventions. I can imagine myself using well-being measurements for this, to try and dazzle funders if nothing else.

Harvard’s Jerome Kagan, a wonderful and humane neuro-psychologist, has written a book called Psychology’s Ghosts, which explores four simplifications and distortions contemporary psychology is prone to. The first is the neural correlate fallacy – that human experiences can be simplified to bits of the brain lighting up on fMRI scans. Carol Tavris’s review in the WSJ notes:

If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”–and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur–with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.

The importance of meaning, value and cultural context in human psychology is also very emphasised by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, as I discussed last week. Bruner is critical of cognitive scientists being so over-attached to a computational model of the brain that they end up ignoring people’s values, beliefs, culture and even their free will. In other words, they ignore the reasons people give for doing what they do, dismissing it as ‘folk psychology’. Here’s a great example of that sort of thinking – arch-computationalist Patricia Churchland, being interviewed by Julian Baggini.

Jonathan Haidt is one psychologist  who pays attention to the role of culture and values in human psychology. Yet, while his evolutionary account of the adaptiveness of religion may tell us that religion binds societies together, it fails to help us distinguish between ‘good’ forms of group-bonding and ‘bad’ forms like, say, fascism, argues John Gray in this excellent review in the New Republic. That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology as a moral guide – it’s descriptive rather than normative. It tells us what is, not necessarily what should be.

And when Haidt tries to decide what positive values he’d actually prescribe for a society, he is dishearteningly utilitarian, says Gray:

When Haidt considers what the normative element in morality should be, his conclusion is simple-minded to an extraordinary degree: “When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.” There is no sign that he is aware of the difficulties of utilitarianism as a moral theory. He cites Isaiah Berlin’s defense of pluralism in ethics without seeming to grasp that, if true, this pluralism was fatal to utilitarianism (as Berlin intended it to be).

Haidt assumes a connection between utilitarianism and the values of liberal democracy that dissolves with a moment’s critical reflection. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, believed that utilitarian ethics applied universally, and advocated enlightened despotism throughout much of the world. Haidt’s belief that utilitarianism offers an effective way of making public policy in ethnically and morally diverse societies is equally unfounded. One of the problems of morally diverse societies is that utilitarian understandings of harm may not be widely enough shared to form an agreed basis for public policies. This is nowhere more clearly true than in the United States. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are not bitterly disputed because legislators have failed to apply a utilitarian calculus. They are bitterly disputed because a substantial part of the population rejects utilitarian ethics.

I have to say, I’m surprised to hear Haidt comes out with such a utilitarian position. When I met him at the RSA a fortnight ago and asked him how we could find the right balance between liberal individualism and a more collective sense of the common good, he replied: “The first thing to do is make sure you keep rational utilitarians far away from public policy, because they have no understanding of human nature.” Well, quite…

Talking to yourself helps you achieve tasks, says a new experimental study that was widely reported. It found people who spoke to themselves while looking for an object were more likely to find it. Personally, I passed my driving test on the third time by talking to myself out loud while I was driving (though I think this may have so unsettled the examiner that he gave me a pass out of sheer terror).

I didn’t see Louis Theroux’s documentary about a ‘dementia village’ for the elderly in Arizona, but I was moved by this article he wrote about the two weeks he spent there.

Here’s an interesting article suggesting that botox may reduce people’s ability not just for facial expression of emotions, but also for actually feeling emotions. Yikes. Talk about affective flattening.

My colleagues at the Centre for the History of the Emotions wrote most of the articles in this issue of Wellcome History, including pieces on the politics of happiness, the history of crying in public, and other great stuff.

Meanwhile I started a column / blog on the Huffington Post UK site this week, with this first attempt, exploring how universities are not going nearly enough to care for their students’ mental health and well-being. I suggest universities need to embrace the liberal education mission of educating the whole person, not just their pre-frontal cortex.

Finally, here’s comedian Jon Stewart’s very funny take on this week’s revelations from the Murdochs at the Leveson Inquiry.

See you next week, wish me luck!