Thursday, June 21, 2012

Problems in Living

I watched the film “Night of the Iguana” recently (we’re having a Tennessee Williams fest), and I was struck by the incredible compassion of this line: “Nothing human disgusts me,” spoken by the itinerant painter during the fallen minister’s dark night of the soul.

Dissident psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has challenged the very concept of mental illness; he theorizes that every human struggles with what he calls “problems of living,” the effort to cope with the reality they find themselves in. Some people have more difficulty coping than the average person, and these are the ones our society labels “mentally ill.”

The journal American Psychologist published an essay by Szasz in 1960 entitled, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” in which he argues that the concept of “mental illness” will one day be seen to be as primitive as the belief that the devil causes us to misbehave. In addition, he makes clear that much of what is labeled mental illness is determined by adherence to cultural norms: “what people now call mental illnesses are for the most part communications expressing unacceptable ideas, often framed, moreover, in an unusual idiom.” In Szasz’s view the psychiatrist acts as a form of policeman enforcing society’s consensual reality: “The psychiatrist does not stand apart from what he observes, but is, in Harry Stack Sullivan’s apt words, a ‘participant observer.’ This means that he is committed to some picture of what he considers reality—and to what he thinks society considers reality—and he observes and judges the patient's behavior in the light of these considerations.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don't See a Judge Before Lunch

Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller “Thinking, Fast and Slow” analyzes the way we process information, and shows how much of our thinking is outside our conscious control. One example he gives is a study of judges in Israel that revealed that 65 percent of requests for parole were granted after meals, dropping steadily to zero until just before the judges’ “next feeding.”

We think we have free will, we think we choose our actions freely. So how do you explain the judges’ actions? Judges are trained to put aside their personal prejudices and biases, and yet they clearly can’t overcome the most basic cognitive biases of all, those rooted in our physiology.

Dr. Kahneman’s book is only one of a stream of new books that question the basis of our belief in free will. For a review of some of these books, see “The Amygdala Made Me Do It,” by James Atlas. Atlas summarizes:
These books possess a unifying theme: The choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system. Not only are we not masters of our fate; we are captives of biological determinism. Once we enter the portals of the strange neuronal world known as the brain, we discover that — to put the matter plainly — we have no idea what we’re doing.