Are We Nuts?

            As one surveys the record of human behaviors and beliefs, both contemporary and historical, one notes an appalling fact:  Most human beings act as if they are clinically insane, particularly if we note the one major feature of insanity, an inability to tell the difference between exterior reality and interior (or mental) fantasy.  Various words to label this dysfunction include delusion, illusion, hallucination, etc.

            We are familiar with the obvious examples of insanity, as displayed for example in the schizophrenic, whose voices and fantasies of conspiracies and dangers are too obvious to be ignored or rationalized away.  Though we should remember that, to the person suffering from this disease, the voices and plots are utterly “real.”  The schizophrenic himself is unaware of his impairment.  While anyone who has attempted a conversation with a person with full-blown schizophrenia recognizes that something is seriously wrong, the controversies swirling around the condition (including arguments that it is not a disease at all) suggest that the mental world of the schizophrenic resembles that of the supposedly normal person.  We, too, often fail to differentiate between our thoughts and reality, and we too often talk rather more abstractly than we should.

We need not limit ourselves, however, to the obvious and extreme forms of insanity (including not only schizophrenia but the various psychoses).  There are many conditions codified in the DSM-IV, for example, that include features having to do with a disconnection from reality.  It is enlightening to read through these descriptions of various mental disorders and note how many people we know would fit the criteria—one can emerge with the notion that a lot of people need to be in therapy.

Those of us who follow the news can add that crowds and nations behave in ways that are as delusional as any psychiatric patient.  From celebrities to statesmen, from cities to nations, the news is rife with examples of incomprehensible behaviors and beliefs.  Specific examples are hardly necessary here, as anyone could make a list, which might include the following:  the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bloody response of the various insurgents (who, one might imagine, could have more readily and swiftly achieved their goal, if that goal itself is at all rational, simply by pretending to welcome and cooperate with the Americans, who, satisfied that their mission had been accomplished, would have packed up and left as quickly as they had come); the depredations of various dictators (Pol Pot comes to mind, but we all know the names of many others); the sheer nuttiness of Nazism, which remains to this day, despite acres of books on the subject, beyond rational explanation; the continued belief by many people, despite adequate educations, in angels, demons, and alien abductions; and our blithe consumption of natural resources despite all the evidence of the damage we are doing to the environment upon which we depend for life itself.  American consumerism may be the prime contemporary example of delusional behavior.

I have listed above oddities favored more by the liberal wing of American culture and politics, but the conservative wing has its own list as well:  the prevalence of drug abuse; mind-boggling promiscuity among younger and younger individuals; a popular culture corrupted by pervasive pornography; totalitarian mentalities masquerading as people’s revolutions; and perhaps the greatest of all, in the conservative mind, the failure to discriminate between good and evil.  The media provide all of us, regardless of political persuasion or values, myriad examples of insanity to shake our heads over.

The response to all this often is to elaborate solutions (democracy, capitalism, a return to traditional values; or more education, more aid, more money, or more love) or to create commissions, committees, and organizations devoted to political, legislative, and social action.  And occasionally, as with the civil rights movement in the United States, some amelioration of a specific situation has been attained.  Yet racism remains endemic, not only in America but around the world, and periodically raises its ugly head, just to let us know it has not disappeared but merely been repressed.  So too with just about any other symptom one could cite.

But all of the above is obvious, and so far I have not told you anything you do not already know.  The thesis I am going to advance has nothing to do with proposals or solutions.  Rather, I am going to investigate an explanation:  Is all this looniness simply part of the human mind?  Are we as a species congenitally nuts?


But why?

Our answer lies in how our minds work.  There is first the way we perceive the world around us.  Most of us assume that what we perceive, what we see, hear, feel, smell, is real.  If we see a flower, we see a flower, accurately and undoubtedly.  Actually, however, we do not see anything in the direct way that we conventionally assume.  When we direct our eyes at a flower and “see” it, we are involved in a far more complicated process than we are aware.  The eye’s rods and cones respond to the stimuli of light waves or “beams” entering through the lens.  The rods and cones send nerve impulses along the optic nerve to the brain, where the impulses are assembled into mental images—these are what we actually “see.”  As proof, note that certain kinds of brain injuries can render a person blind even if his eyes are perfectly normal and healthy.  Thus, although undoubtedly there is something physically in front of us, which we call a flower, what we “see” of it is a mental representation, not the thing itself.  And if we see it as a certain color, that is because our cones respond to different wavelengths of light, therefore sending different information to our brains, which construct the image of a “red” flower.  But the color is not in the flower itself—what the flower does is reflect different wavelengths of light, while absorbing others.  As proof, note that not everyone has the same color-vision ability; some people are more sensitive to colors than others, and some people are partially or completely color blind.  For example, I once had a friend who was color blind for green, so for him, the bright reds and oranges of fall foliage, which enchanted me, were nothing special to him—he never saw the summer green of those leaves.  His world lacked the color green altogether, not because it didn’t exist in the world (it doesn’t) but because his eyes lacked the ability to be stimulated by the appropriate wavelengths of light, which in turn meant that his brain could not form an image containing the color “green.”  Thus, when we look at the world and seem to see colors in it, we actually are “seeing” our mental images or representations.

This is important for my thesis because it illustrates that even what we assume to be fundamentally objective about our experience, our direct registration of the world through our senses, is in fact indirect or at several removes from immediacy.  Our brains (1) construct images or models of the visual field (2) from the impulses generated by (3) stimulation of rods and cones in our eyes (4) by waves of light.  Our other senses can be described in similar terms.  The significance of all this is that, because it is our brain building models or representations based on the stimuli it receives from our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and fingers, etc., we can, and surprisingly often do, construct “false” models.  We are not seeing what our brains are telling us we see (or hear, etc.).  In fact, sometimes our brains fill in details because we missed them in the actually “seeing.”  For example, people who witness a crime often miss details in the excitement—our ability to pay close attention is hampered by the excitement and speed of the event.  So, they fill in the gaps with their expectations, for example that the criminal wore a red cap when he in fact was hatless.  For this reason, eyewitness testimony is very unreliable, as has been recently demonstrated by the release of prisoners who were sentenced to prison, or even execution, on the basis of eyewitness testimony and then exonerated on the basis of DNA tests or other independent means.

That our senses are so unreliable, and put us at a distance from direct experience rather than connecting us directly to the solid world, is both surprising and surprisingly counterintuitive.  It suggests that normal sensory experience is not nearly as different or distinct from hallucination as we thought, and it also explains why hallucinations per se are so deceptive; auditory hallucinations, for example, occur in the same part of the brain as normal auditory-image formation occurs.  When you think about it, however, it is impossible to imagine any other way for a creature to have sensory experiences.

Now, imagine this:  An animal with a typical sensory system as described above adds something new to the mix:  consciousness.  That is, it becomes human.  It not only registers and responds to sensory stimuli (it sees a lion and flees, for example), but it thinks, for the very first time, about what it sees; it tries to make sense of the world as it perceives it.  But it must do so entirely on its own—there is nothing and no one to help it understand its own perceptions.  This is a situation extremely hard for us today to imagine, but this is the situation our earliest human ancestors confronted; willy-nilly, evolution had brought them to a state of consciousness (or maybe we should call it proto-consciousness or ur-consciousness) and then, in effect, told them they were on their own from then on.  “Figure it out yourselves,” the Evolutionary Designer might be imagined to have said, as He washed his hands and withdrew from the scene.  And we had to figure it out ourselves with a brain not particularly well suited to the task, a brain already “defective” in the sense of being susceptible to what I will call representational mistakes.  At best, it was a brain well suited to brute survival of the species, but not particularly well suited to answering the questions it began asking itself when it acquired consciousness.  As he so often did, Darwin stated it best:  “With me the horrid doubt always arises, whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.  Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind?”

As a thought experiment, let’s put ourselves back into the situation of those very first people.  They have the altogether new ability to think and to wonder (though perhaps not yet to question—it depends on at what point they developed language).  They are looking at the world in which they find themselves.  They are deeply puzzled.  I’m not sure any of us today can comprehend just how puzzled they must have been.  What is all this?  What does it all mean?  How does it work?  Who are we, and how do we fit into the whole?  Remember that when we ask such fundamental questions today, we have many options for answering them; we have the many ancient and well-developed religious and philosophical traditions to choose among; we have literature and arts; we have well-developed societies and cultures, governments and corporations, families and friends, gurus and sages and heroes.  But our remotest ancestors had none of these things; rather, they had to begin, from scratch almost (likely they had kinship and alpha males), to build the foundations for all the myriad options we have today.  They had to figure out everything, unassisted.

It is a wonder that they managed to do so, even though we can not imagine how they went about it.  That they did it is undoubtedly the most enormous intellectual achievement of humanity, exceeding in its creativity, originality, and intelligence any and all achievements since, for while we stand on the shoulders of our forebears, whether giants or not, they stood on the ground.  Nevertheless, they stood there with brains that were not well put together for the task ahead.  And as the history of their descendents shows, they made a lot of mistakes (which we, having the same brains, continue making today).

First, they made the mistake of assuming that what they saw (or heard, etc.) was actually there, regardless of whether they saw some thing while awake or while dreaming or in a trance.  They knew nothing of the function and design of their eyes, ears, or brains, so could not have known how easily misled their senses could be.  If they saw someone coming toward them and communicating with them, they naturally assumed that that person was actually substantially there, regardless of whether that person spoke to them in broad daylight and in the presence of others or at night in a dream.  Imagine, then, a particular first human, whom we can call Adam, who, having fallen asleep, has a dream of his deceased father, who gestures or speaks to him about some topic; in the morning, Adam awakens and remembers that he had spoken with his father.  He remembers the messages his father gave to him (Adam, of course, has no idea memory can be inaccurate).  He turns to his “wife” or mate, Eve, and tells her of his experience, and she says he must do what his father instructed, for his father was a great alpha male and exacted obedience from all of his lesser relatives.

Now, imagine for a moment Adam’s situation.  He is one of the first humans; he does not know that he has a brain or what it’s for.  He doesn’t know that his brain can create images independent of waking, direct experience.  He cannot tell the difference between dream experience and waking experience.  As far as he is concerned, there is no difference to speak of.  He “dreams” of his father, and emotionally feels the experience as deeply and immediately as he did when his father was still alive.  So how does Adam and his wife Eve explain what has happened?  Well, of course, we cannot know, but I will surmise that they simply assumed that it was Adam’s father who spoke to him and that therefore, in some as yet unclear way, Adam’s father was not quite exactly “dead” but was somehow, in some form or essence or something, alive.  (Perhaps the first time a conscious human being had a dream experience of this type, he or she ran to where the body of the dreamt-of person had been left or buried and perhaps confirmed that the body or the bones at least were still there!)  Perhaps they even came up with a word for that essence, something analogous to our English word “soul.”  At any rate, they had to conclude (what else could they?) that when people “died,” their “spirits” lived on in some less solid form and could continue to communicate with the bodily living and even pass on wisdom or control events in the material world.  Therefore, it behooved the living to not only obey the spirits but to placate them, perhaps by showing ritual respect for the bones of the dead in some way (burying them with a marker, gathering them up in a “medicine bag” and carrying them around, placing them in a tree with bird feathers, perhaps to encourage them to fly away and leave the living alone, etc.—as we know, the rituals honoring and placating the dead have been, and are, highly multitudinous and various).

Such “spiritual” experiences would not have been limited to the human dead.  Our earliest ancestors would also have dreamed of animals and trees and other natural phenomena.  They would not yet have sensed any great difference between themselves and other creatures (that sense of difference would come much later, after civilizations and cultures had developed and become very sophisticated); their observations of animal behavior would have led them to the belief that animals acted on the basis of motives very like their own (and indeed, in those days, that would have been pretty close to 100% true), and since they could not have yet thought out the possibility of a difference between the actions of what we today call living things and the actions of what we today call non-living or inanimate things, they attributed motives to storms and stars and volcanoes.  They developed, in others words, animism (or, earliest, a proto-animism perhaps, in which the attribution of human motives and thoughts to all other things was not yet a completely conscious process.  How might this have worked?  Imagine a lion stalking a group of humans or pre-humans; they spot the lion and pick up stones and throw them at her to drive her away—does the lion know why or how it is that stones suddenly fly through the air in her direction and hit her on the skull?  Does she know why the rainy season suddenly arrives and drenches her to the skin?  If she could have a thought, what would she think?  And weren’t the very first humans in much the same situation as the lion, except that they could have a thought or two?).

Remember that in all this, our early ancestors were not thinking in any way that we can call “rational.”  Rational thought is an invention, not the “natural” way the human mind works.  It is something that has developed over much time (from about the time of the Greek philosophers, in fact), but not as part of biological human evolution but of cultural evolution, and it is something that we learn in school (not least through math), and it is dependent upon a highly developed and sophisticated use of language—none of which our earliest ancestors had or could even conceptualize.  What they had was the basic human body, brain included, very like the bodies of the animals among whom they lived, plus that new development, consciousness.  And they found themselves in an environment which they did not understand but which they could “interrogate” in a basic, primitive way.  And they came up with the kinds of explanations that creatures with such brains in such an environment would naturally come up with.

Let’s not forget also that they lived in a violent environment and probably lived violent lives.  They were under threat from many strong predators that, at the time, were just about as wily as they were.  Vigilance and strength were necessary to brute survival, and as yet humans’ superior intelligence, not yet having led to the developed societies and technologies that would eventually give us a gigantic advantage over all other creatures, did not constitute a significant difference.  It was probably not a mere exercise in analogy or metaphor for them to think of a man as courageous as a lion or a woman as shrewd as a fox.  Humans walked the same ground as these creatures and desired basically the same prey—and were, of course, often prey themselves.

This picture of the earliest humans may seem strange because our traditional view of the original men and women is based on a much later stage of human thought, a religious rather than animist stage.  In the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, we think of mankind as starting in a state of natural innocence and falling into corruption later.  This Garden of Eden story may no longer be taken as literally by most people as it once was, but its influence is nonetheless still strong.  Consider, for example, Rousseau’s noble savage or Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or the later nineteenth-century communes and Walden Pond.  In the late twentieth-century, and continuing into the twenty-first, we have many back-to-the-land movements, and there is, particularly on the American left, a decidedly Edenic element to our theories of politics and society.  We seem to believe, for example, that children are by nature “innocent” and that it is only through the interruptions of adults that they “lose” that innocence; education has frequently been accused of being the serpent in the secret garden of childhood (but could it be that that negative attitude towards education is part of the current problem in American education?).  Theories abound that all people would be loving and good if society (or corporations or governments) did not frustrate their natural leanings.  Today a major component of the popular “spirituality” movement is a vulgarization of the beliefs of Native Americans (as our very own “noble savages”).  So while a literal belief in Eden may be rare today, Eden still dominates our thinking about human nature.

The picture I am drawing here of the first humans, however, is not based on Eden but on Darwin.  I take evolution seriously and literally.  And I believe that human beings are different from the other animals only some of the time and in some ways.  The major difference is that human beings have superimposed on the basic mammalian, vertebrate model a layer of consciousness (perhaps best called reflective consciousness), which developed for who knows what reason (evolution does not need reasons, exactly) and which is probably less serviceable for the survival of the species than we might think.  Consciousness seems to make us ask certain questions about our existence in this world, but it does not seem to be what makes us better at surviving in it (our intelligence seems to be the factor that ensures our survival).  Indeed, and here is where the idea of Eden may hint at the truth, our consciousness seems to be what most often makes us miserable.  It certainly seems to be what makes us susceptible to delusion—to being insane.

Let us go back to my earlier points:  One, that our sensory systems, in collusion with our brains, generate models of the world; two, that because these are models, they are subject to errors, which we are not particularly good at detecting; three, that we build elaborate explanations of the world on the basis of these errors and that we act on those explanations (whether they be religious, philosophical, ideological, egotistical, etc.).  Therefore, most of what we believe, most of what motivates our actions, is delusional.  We go through our lives largely in a state of mild hallucination.  And the tools we have laboriously developed to correct our misapprehensions, our laws of logic, our sciences, our rules of evidence and corroboration, have little day-to-day effect.  Was it not, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau who abandoned a series of infants to the foundling home, where likely they either died or grew up greatly damaged?  That is because these tools are inventions, not aspects of human nature.  And these tools can be used in support of our delusions as easily (perhaps more easily) as they can to divest us of them.


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