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Involuntary mimicry, psychiatry and theatre

My colleague at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith, has written an interesting blog post on the history of involuntary  mimicry. She writes:

For Victorian men of science, mimicry was frequently regarded as deviant and pathological: among the “feeble- minded”, women and “the lower races, a tendency to imitation is a very constant peculiarity,” wrote George J Romanes in 1883.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, involuntary copying was increasingly understood to be a key psychological mechanism, responsible for learning, socialisation, empathy and even morality. Since the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in 1994, the idea that our bodies helplessly echo each other now extends to the operations of the brain itself, sparking vigorous debates in neuroscience and beyond about a new era of human interconnectedness. An enduring problem associated with the idea that we are, to quote the psychologist James Sully, mere “copying machines” is the unsettling connection between mimicry and theatricality.

Charcot's theatre

My current research charts the collision of theatre and medicine in the cultural history of involuntary mimicry. Theatre appears as a leading metaphor in scientific writing on motor mimicry from the 1850s onwards. Moreover, in filmic and literary treatments of the phenomenon, alarming involuntary copying is also often entangled with theatre and its vicissitudes. In H G Wells’s short tale ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’ (1894), for example, the hero cannot help replicating the histrionic attitudes he witnesses nightly in the theatre. In an “infection of sympathetic imitation”, he is forced to perform “agonising yelps, lip- gnawings, glaring horrors” and so on, leaving him with the alarming feeling of being “obliterated”. While for Wells imitation festers in the auditorium, the protagonist of Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, a man compelled to transform his appearance to replicate whichever person or object is closest to him, becomes a theatrical attraction (before becoming demonised amid a national panic about infiltration).

Her research reminds me of the work of Oliver Sacks, and the case he describes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat of Shane, who has Tourettes Syndrome, and who suffers from echolalia (compulsive echoing of others’ words) and corporalalia (compulsive copying of other’s physical actions). Here’s a clip of it – fascinating how they go to look at a painting of Charcot’s ‘consulting theatre’ (shown above), where the mad would be observed by the sane, and Shane reflects on himself as an object of others’  curiosity and study…

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.

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