Monday, July 4, 2011

Crazy Makers

Morris Berman has a blog called Dark Ages America, where he occasionally poses some interesting thoughts. I don't know much about him, except that he is some sort of dissident academic and poet who moved out of the US to Mexico. He has a thought-provoking post on his blog:

Fork in The Road

He begins the post by discussing the theory that one of the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire was lead poisoning caused by the lead in pipes they used for water (lead was called plumbum by the Romans, hence our word plumbing and the chemical symbol for lead, Pb). As he points out, there is little credence among scholars of Rome for this theory. To skip ahead a bit, one commenter pointed out something I had never heard before, but as a Roman history enthusiast I found fascinating - it was not the plumbing that was the major source of lead in the Roman diet:

On the one hand, the Romans really did poison themselves with lead. Lead acetate. Sugar cane was unknown in the Roman Empire, as were sugar beets and most other moden sources of sweetening. Other than honey, which was fairly rare and expensive for them, they favored a sweetener called defrutum ( made by boiling down grape juice in lead pots. It was very important NOT to use copper or other metals. These made the syrup taste metallic and unpleasant. (Stainless steel was beyond the Romans, and apparently ceramic pots were impractical.) Only a lead pot produced the desired sweet tasting syrup. Lead acetate itself actually has a sweet taste. The alchemists called it "sugar of lead". The poisonous effects of lead being unknown, the Romans thought they had a 'scientific breakthrough' as we would say today. This lead-laced sweetened was used to sweeten all sorts of foods, and even helped them preserve their wines longer, saving time and money. (Which as just as important to the Roman ruling class as to the American ruling class...) Read the note in the wiki article about incredible lead levels in a historically reproduced batch of defrutum. That must have contributed in some way to the over-all decline of the Roman Empire.

As a total digression, there has been speculation that the removal or lead from paints and gasoline has been behind the recent drop in crime rates. Apparently, hight level of lead in the brain impair the ability to think long term and lead to increased levels of violence. As yet another digression from the digression, it's ironic that our own consumption of sugar (including HFCS) is destroying our health too, except through obesity and diabetes rather than lead poisoning. A book I read long ago called The Crazy Makers argued that the lack of decent nutrition in our diets prevents our brains from forming properly. It seems the unrestrained appetitites of successful empires help bring about their downfall.

Anyway, the post gets really interesting when he discusses how staring at screens all day may literally be altering our brain chemistry:

I was thinking about this in the context of mounting evidence that in a mechanical-material way, Americans may also be destroying their brains. It now turns out that constant cell phone use may be a cause of tumors in the brain, although the evidence is not definitive at this point. More definitive is the neurological fallout from the use of screens—TV, Internet, e-books, text messaging—along with the phenomenon of multitasking that typically accompanies this. Here the pile-up of data is quite large, collected in articles that have appeared over the last decade in journals such as Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the New Atlantis, and discussed at length in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. (In particular see studies by Walter Kirn, Christine Rosen, and Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.) Persistent staring into screens, it turns out, changes the brain, and not in positive directions. Constant screen use seems to have an effect similar to constant marijuana use. It should thus not be too much of a surprise that concomitant with the so-called information revolution has been a dumbing down of the American population, although obviously there are other factors involved (the commodification of education, e.g.). But unlike the Roman fork, which is highly debatable, this material factor is quite certain.

Scary stuff. He then goes on to discuss the widespread use of anti-psychotic drugs and antidepressants, and wonders if we may be destroying our brains like the hypothetical ancient Romans:
It was found that psychoactive drugs affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain, and from this it was concluded that “the cause of mental illness is an abnormality in the brain’s concentration of these chemicals that is specifically countered by the use of the appropriate drug.” As Daniel Carlat notes, by the same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain is a deficiency of opiates, or that headaches are caused by having too little aspirin in one’s system. The logic, in short, is upside down; and as far as the empirical evidence goes—there is none.

It turns out that a lot of the decisions regarding what to include as a mental illness have been arbitrary, even whimsical. George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote in 1984 that the book represented “a bold series of choices based on guess, taste, prejudice, and hope.” In fact, there are no citations of scientific studies in the DSM to support its decisions--! The actual “science” of the book is thus dubious. Coming back to the economic factor, it turns out that drug companies lavish huge attention and largesse on psychiatrists—gifts, free samples, meals, plane tickets to conferences, and jobs as consultants and speakers. Of the 170contributors to the current version of the book, the DSM-IV-TR, 95 of them have financial ties to drug companies, including all of the contributors to the sections on mood disorders and schizophrenia.

The reason for all this? What else, corporate profits. He concludes:
Apparently, then, we have our own leaden forks, to the extent that lead may have attacked the Roman nervous system. It’s the result of a number of factors, including the American worship of technology, the search for simple (and individualistic) answers, and a lust for profits that is so huge that Lilly and all the rest couldn’t care less as to whether they are harming the American public. Nor is it very likely that any of the literature on cell phone cancer, neurological damage from screen usage, iatrogenic mental illness (i.e. illness that is doctor-generated, or Big Pharma-generated), will make any difference at all.

Not long ago I read an interesting perpective on the medical industry by fitness model Christine Lydon, who was in medical school prior to becoming a model and actress:

I quickly learned that most people who suffered from serious medical conditions would never be "as good as new," that treatable almost never meant curable, and that drug side effects could be just as devastating as the illnesses they were intended to alleviate. Moreover, I was appalled by the alarming degree to which the pharmaceutical industry shaped my medical education. By pouring billions of dollars every year into drug research, pharmaceutical companies subsidize the education of every physician who graduates from an American medical school. The upshot of this arrangement is a medical system that places inordinate emphasis on disease treatment without the slightest attention to disease prevention. And as a result, most doctors are shockingly ignorant about the most fundamental aspects of healthy living.

The hypocrisy of healthcare hit me hardest when I was a surgical resident. During my albeit brief tenure as an orthopaedic intern, I spent over one hundred hours per week within the dreary confines of County Hospital. In my profound state of sleep deprivation, things like regular exercise and healthy eating quickly fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, the only reliably palatable items dispensed by the hospital cafeteria were baked goods. Dessert became the main source of pleasure in my life.

As someone who has always reveled in the joys of the outdoors and physical activity, as someone who needs regular exercise, healthy foods, and adequate sleep to feel sane, I have never been more miserable. As the months passed, I found it increasingly impossible to reconcile the fact that my chosen profession, that of a "healer," required me to adhere to a schedule that was destroying my own health and well being. And for what? I found myself wondering. After all, many of my patients would return to a life that had been permanently altered by their illness or injury; things would never be the same for them. My entire existence began to feel like an ironic exercise in futility.

After devoting a decade of my existence and six figures in student loans to becoming a physician, all I had to show for it was endless frustration, overwhelming exhaustion, a rapidly expanding rear end, a bleeding ulcer, and utter disenchantment toward my chosen profession. I took a step back and tried to remember what had drawn me to medicine in the first place. I realized that more than the promise of a fat paycheck, more than the prestige, more than my parents' approval, more than anything else, I had once dreamed of being a doctor because I felt a sincere desire to make a difference in people's lives. So, I did the only thing that seemed to make any sense at the time and I quit my residency. It was the toughest, and BEST decision I ever made. Since that fateful day in October of 1994 when I bade farewell to County General, I've made it my life's work to educate people about healthy eating, efficient exercising, disease prevention, and non-pharmaceutical alternatives for increasing longevity. Many of my fundamental beliefs about good health fly in the face of the western medical establishment, contradicting the conventional wisdom embraced by physicians who have been lulled into complacence by the monumental influence of the pharmaceutical industry. An unfortunate number of American doctors are openly hostile to any therapeutic practice which does not involve a prescription pad or an operating room. The very notion of disease prevention has been systematically wiped from their collective consciousness. Even the most progressive health care providers are shockingly ignorant when it comes to the basics of healthy living. It's not their fault-- they've been brainwashed into thinking that they are health experts, when in actuality they are disease experts.

Listen to a BBC expose on "America's Drug Culture":

Hugh, aged 10, appears basically normal - a dark-haired kid who goes to a mainstream school and speaks and interacts well, albeit sometimes in a slightly aloof and off-hand way. Yet he has been diagnosed with a range of mental disorders and put on a battery of medications.

He takes Adderall for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tenex for impulsiveness. And for his bipolar disorder he is on a heavy dose of a powerful anti-psychotic called Seroquel - in an "off-label" prescription, meaning it hasn't been tested on children.

"It's very troubling," Hugh's mother Barbro told me when I asked about his reliance on the medication. "The problem with it is, if you continue not to medicate with something for bipolar disorder in a child, the highs and the lows, the cycles get worse and worse."

But here's the best part:

Barbro and her husband Bob had been kind enough to put me up for part of my stay, as a way of getting to know a family with a medicated child and experiencing some of his behaviour.

The family, judged by British standards, seemed surprisingly open to the concept of psychoactive medication. Hugh's mother was on an anti-depressant, Prozac. Bob took something called Neurontin for a bipolar condition he says he "may or may not have".

Even the dog was being fed Clomipramine, an anti-anxiety pill.

BBC News: Louis Theroux Looks At America's Presription Culture

In an interview, a noted scientist wondered if children's brains may be being rewired. Note that professor Greenfield is not some crank, but on of Britain's most repected neuroscientists:

Professor Greenfield has spent a lifetime researching the physiology of the brain, and now thinks that there could be a link between the attention span of children and the growing use of computers.

In an interview for Radio 4's iPM she said: "The last 10 years have seen a three-fold increase in the prescription of the drug Ritalin, a drug used for Attention Deficit Disorder. One asks why?

"Why suddenly is there greater demand for a drug for attentional problems?" she asked. "This might, and I stress might, be something to do with the increased exposure of young children to unsupervised and lengthy hours in front of a screen." The technology is creating an environment that is answer rich, but we're question poor

Baroness Greenfield wondered if the cause was growing computer use.

"Could it be, and this is just a suggestion which I think we should look into, could it be if a small child is sitting in front of a screen pressing buttons and getting reactions quickly for many hours, they get used to and their brains get used to rapid responses?" she said.

If children do not have stories read to them and have little practice of concentrating for long periods this could effect how they handle the sedate pace of school life, said Baroness Greenfield.

She asked: "Could it be that they then have to sit still for half an hour and of course they're not used to that because they're used to the rapid interaction with the screen, and could it - again a question - be that they are fidgety and hyperactive and then diagnosed as having a disorder?"

The brain, says the distinguished neuroscientist, changes all the time - but it is very sensitive to the environment its in, and so it might be affected by the continual use of computers.

"What we need to question is this: are we putting people into the optimum environment? How can we create an environment which will pre-dispose the brain to react in ways we consider ideal?" she said.

"The technology is creating an environment that is answer rich, but we're question poor."

BBCNews: Is Computer Use Changing Children?

I think they are on to something with that screen explanation - the rates of depression rising do seem to correlate with increasing time spent in front of a computer screen. A sophisticated case for this was made in the excellent Four Agruments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, one of the most influential books I've ever read. Of course correlation does not equal causation, but where there's smoke there's often fire. Clearly there must be some factor at work here-rising levels of depression are telling us something. I've read that depression is really a natural symptom that tells you that something is wrong and something needs to change. In essence, it is a defense machanism, not an illness at all. Thus the epidemic levels of depression among the general populaton are telling us that something is seriously wrong in society and that it needs to change. Instead, the pharmeceutal industry is masking the symptoms and making this sick society go on rather than allow us to do what needs to be done-make the change to a healthier society from a mental standpoint. Regarding what's wrong with society, I think this comment answers that wonderfully:

Are you familiar with a book called "The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health" by John F. Schumaker. In it the author writes that since the 1950's the rates of deppression have increased by a factor of 10. Also, the rates of suicide and anxiety have also skyrocketed. What this suggests is that these people are not crazy, but the society in which they live in is crazy. Some of the characteristics that the author lists as causing this are "commodification, consumerism, social marginality, technological encroachment, amplified organizational power, homogenized drives and tastes, deregulation of volition and emotion, ambiguity, fragmentation, impaired social memory, banality, the replacement of reality by images and fantasy, incapacity for emotional commitment and empathy, detachment from the past and present, affectional allegiance to technology, material ambitions that take precedence over social and environmental concerns, a commercial view of justice, hypercompetition, compulsive buying, boredom, narcissism, conformity, corporate domination of culture, dumbing down of media and culture, dehumanization, anomie, ecological sociopathy, radical individualism, meaninglessness, etc. Reading this book confirmed for me much of what I sort of intuitively felt but was unable to articulate in my mind in precise terms. I highly recommend it.

Let's not forget the role of advertising plays - people happy with themselves and their lives do not buy products. The goal of advertising is to make you feel bad about yourself and your life so that you will buy products to "improve" yourself or your emotional situation. to that end, you are constantly shown images of the perfect life - beautiful, smiling happy people in unattainable situations. It's no wonder people are so disappointed with reality and expecting more. Add to that the fabulous lifestyles of the rich and famous that are constantly fed to us in TV and magazines.

What it all adds up to is this - based on what we know about human psychology, if you were to intentionally design an environment to make human primates feel depressed and go insane, you could not do a better job that the modern post-industrial consumer economy that we live in America. No wonder we need to pop pills just to make it through the day.

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