We are living in a world of contradiction, a time of conflicting ideas and values, when every argument has a swift counter argument that makes equal sense. And these conflicting arguments can be made by the very same person and on the very same day, each arousing a passionate response from the very same group of people. And everyone is screaming. Why are they screaming? Why do they appear to be screaming about one thing one minute and only a minute later will scream about the very opposite thing?
America is a leader in just about everything. That’s what we are told and that’s what we think, whether it’s true or not. Let’s start with an example from mental health.
Our lack of consistency, the schizophrenia (descriptive, not diagnostic use of the term) of the American heart and soul, can also be found in our system of psychiatric diagnosis. Mental health practitioners have relied on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to label diagnoses since 1952, when the first edition was released. It began with a theoretical underpinning based on Freud, although by the Third Edition Freud was eliminated in favor of behaviorism, an idea that was thought to be atheoretical and, therefore, was better able to rely on behavioral observation and not from some construct that sprang from someone’s head the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. But, we were not done with our adjustment of diagnostic methods, our tinkering with the very basis of our understanding. With the DSM-III came the pursuit of studying psychology, psychopathology, and psychiatry using statistical methods that were partly driven by the advent of the computer, especially the personal computer, so that any doctoral student or fledgling scientist could compile data and run numbers with the goal of finding internal constructs that were closer to being immutable. The DSM-III, DSM-III R(evised), DSM-IV , and DSM-IV TR came in relatively quick succession as the use of our most sophisticated machinery took off in every college and university program across the wide expanse of the US and the American dream.
But, we were not done yet. Not to be outdone, neurobiology and neurochemistry with their own sophisticated machinery, the drug industry, neuropsychology, including psychology introduced further refinements to the system of study and analysis that resulted in the latest edition that is the DSM5. With the application of more sophisticated studies of the brain, more complex statistics to analyze the data, and a hungry market for new, more effective treatment techniques, we have a new set of nomenclature (names of mental disorders), new names to replace the old of the very same disorders that have plagued us throughout history. Nomenclature of DSM5 replaces DSM-IV and DSM-II before that. After all, it’s the American way in the same way that we buy a new car every year, if we are lucky enough to be able to afford it. Contrast this with the international system, ICD that maintained the diagnosis of Dementia Praecox despite the US, innovator in everything, replacing Dementia Praecox with a more dynamic name, Schizophrenia that continues today.
The problem is we are constantly refining our methods of analysis and replacing the old methods with new methods that look different, allowing for a new round of sales, but with the underlying problem remaining exactly the same and untouched. We used to encourage beating children to make them better people because that is what the Bible told us to do. But, the rod was soon replaced with spoiling them, treating them well and with unconditional positive regard as Carl Rogers would say, and finally we let them do whatever they wanted as a flowering seed à la Rousseau, the French philosopher who never raised his own kids. But, who does all this serve? Why the parents, of course! All these refinements in how we approach child rearing and, in the end, we continue to deal with the same problems that people have likely had since living in the caves, prior to the Bronze Age, when we were shaping arrowheads with flint.
In the political world, we can wonder at how a candidate like Edmund Muskie could be criticized by the right wing for waffling on issues, but that today it is considered a virtue to contradict oneself, like Donald Trump, who will say one thing one minute and the exact opposite the next and with pride. Now, that is chutzpah! And it sells.
What is the binding element to all this that is truly psychological, that can help us to understand this sudden shift? Why, the limbic system, of course, the reptilian brain that drives our anger, lust, passion, love and that binds large groups together under the umbrella of the herd mentality. Funny, is it, that now neurobiologists are arguing that the limbic system is not really a unit, but is really composed of a sum of parts that do different things? I would happily equate this with the number of scientists that it takes to screw in a light bulb. Why? Because it is the equivalent of studying music and proclaiming that an orchestra is really not made up of a number of different instruments playing in concert, but that the individual player or a group of players should be separated and analyzed. Yes, we can go hear the violins or woodwinds. That’s true. But we go to listen to the entire collection of players working as a group, bound by something deeper that allows them to play together, often beautifully. But, hold on! We can always analyze that. Let’s use a spectrogram and we can learn what finally moves us in music.
In conclusion, what allows a Donald Trump to drive people to support him no matter what he says? It’s the limbic system, of course, the source of our rage. He is living proof that we don’t need to rage against anything, certainly nothing rational. People thrive on the rage itself because it matches their own, whether they have justification or not, whether the reason for the rage changes in five minutes or not. Put it under an electron microscope and the rage remains the same and is immutable. The Donald knows that, while scientists toil in their laboratories to understand it. “If we can just find that little piece of brain in the sub-strait, we can end all wars.” Not likely, Gang!
We have been living this way since long before you learned to use your microscopes, long before the invention of the microscope, before all the theories, before Jesus, the Greek philosophers, Tutankhamun, before we even slapped our bellies to produce a percussive sound. You can reduce all of existence down to a single chemical or a group of chemicals, something that is the cornerstone of who we are as people and we will remain exactly the same. We will be people who struggle with problems of survival and well-being that confront us every day and that must be somehow understood if we are to be able to continue as individuals, in our groups, or as a race. The best tool we have for this is not a microscope or a computer, but our willingness to learn by studying the events that surround us, being curious enough to discover, and using our imaginations to try to move beyond what we thought we knew as fact yesterday, remembering all the while that it is not the machines that are doing this, but we ourselves, if we are wakeful enough to undertake it.