On Psychology

Titicut FolliesDespite its rather dubious origins in the late 19th century, popularized as it was by the the nasal sex obsessed Sigmund Freud, psychology became an important field of study throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Early efforts at understanding the function and dysfunction of the human mind were rarely subject to the rigours of the established sciences, whose reliance on the solidity of mathematics and the physical world made their resultant equations and theories practicable for future works and developments. Psychologists and psychiatrists newly embarking on their careers in the early to mid-twentieth century were given enormous leverage by their hospitals and governing agencies to experiment with what they hoped would become revolutionary solutions to the problem of madness, and other disorders of the human mind.

Madness has always played its role in human society. The ancients learned to accept their harmless, yet garrulous hyperactives as specially privileged members of an elite group who had been touched by the sun god. They were peaceably taken care of by their families and community; curiosities, little more. Others, then, as today, were promoted to the highest ranks of political or military office, awed as their proponents were by heritage or by an overwhelming enthusiasm and skill for manipulation and deception. Rome had its Neros and its Caligulas; Germany had its Hitler; Russia its Stalin; Cambodia its Pol Pot. Estimates are rough at best, but the consensus seems to be that while 1% of the general population is psychopathic (a tiny subset of what constitutes “madness”), upwards of 4% have attained the highest levels of business, politics and the military. More importantly, individuals among this tiny group have a much larger effect on their societies as a whole than individuals among the other 96%. Humans are fascinated by their lunatics, and in an entertainment-saturated world, where serious-yet-boring politics fights full time and on the same screen against the latest senator to proclaim the scourge of terror babies a casus belli, coverage will inevitably be directed toward the latter. “Louie Gohmert? I recognize the name, so he gets my vote!”

Prior to the emergence of imaging mechanisms like the CAT scans introduced in the 1970s, psychology was very much a “soft science”, and there seems to have been few controls over what psychologists could do with their patients. Among the most notorious were the Oak Ridge Experiments initiated by Dr. Elliott Barker at the Maximum Security Mental Health Centre at Penetanguishene, on the southern tip of Ontario’s Georgian Bay. From 1968 to 1979, patients suffering from a range of psychiatric disorders including psychopathy and schizophrenia, whose outside histories included serial murder and child rape, endured the optimistically naive treatments of Barker, and, later, Dr. Gary Maier. For up to two weeks at a time, groups of patients were locked, naked, in a small, windowless room with a toilet and wash basin, fed only government-approved LSD-25 and liquid nourishment, and told to talk about their feelings amongst each other. Initial “successes” with the patients, as they learned to deal with their emotions, led to their discharge from the hospital and, sadly, subsequent recidivism. People with similar afflictions who had not undergone therapy of this sort reoffended 60% of the time; those who had, reoffended 80% of the time.

Dr. Robert Hare was not involved with the work performed at the Oak Ridge facility, but was working directly with similar patients during this same era of awakenings in psychotherapy. Electroshock experiments on his patients at the British Columbia Penitentiary taught him something about psychopaths that Barker and Maier wouldn’t understand for years: it’s not just that they lack any sense of empathy for their fellow creatures, but that psychopaths operate without any real consideration of the consequences of their actions. Among other things, this makes them highly likely to reoffend despite therapy. It was not long after Hare began his work that the Canadian government outlawed electroshock treatments, and he decided to find a new, non-intrusive, scientific (meaning impersonal) way to identify psychopaths. This resulted in his famous Hare PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist, Revised), which is now used to identify and perpetually incarcerate offenders worldwide.

The propensity for governments to allow perpetual incarceration of people based on the results from the PCL-R is a tad disturbing. It smacks of the injustice of the Pre-Crime Unit of the utopian/dystopian world of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where gifted clairvoyants indicate a crime is about to be committed, and the expected perpetrator is caught before the crime unfolds. People who lack the proper training on the PCL-R, who learn the keywords but not the understanding, control the entire future of people who may or may not ever commit a crime again, whether imprisoned or not. Unlike the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which can be (or ought to be) little more than a parlour game, as its results are known to be highly variant depending on interpretation, the PCL-R is taken quite seriously, indeed. And that’s a major problem for psychology today.

The psychologist’s bible in 2012 remains the famed DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition), provided by the American Psychiatric Association, which documents a long series of disorders and their associated checklists. In this first decade of the 21st century, many people have noted the explosion in diagnoses for such disorders as autism and Asperger’s, attention deficit disorder and childhood bipolar disorder. A good reason for this explosion is that the definitions for these were either recently added, or their definitions were broadened in the DSM IV. The prior edition, the DSM III, found that 50% of Americans suffered from some form of identifiable mental disorder on its initial test run in 1980. That number increased significantly with the DSM-IV, and the DSM-V, currently still under development, is expected to shrink the number of “normal” people to an even tinier percentage. For example, in 2010, introversion was considered for inclusion as a mental disorder in the DSM-V, as it has been in the World Health Organization’s own manual of disorders for decades before. It took until June of 2012 before introversion was quietly dismissed from the DSM-V.

None of this would be a problem, but for the fact that people tend to stick to their labels as assigned, and accept whatever prescription pills are ordered for their “recovery”. Not only does this get extraordinarily expensive, but these same pills often have side effects that can be far worse than the initial diagnosis. We adopt them because they’re easier than the alternative; why exercise and eat healthier, when a pill is (supposed to) give the same results without moving from the couch enough even to remove the tortilla chip crumbles from your shirt? Pills for psychiatric disorders might very well be an easier alternative than addressing the actual root causes for these disorders. And what might these root causes be? I’d say it comes down to cultural and socioeconomic problems, more than anything else. The psychology industry, with its love of prescription pills, is a huge money-maker for a small group of pharmaceutical giants, and thus deemed “good” in true capitalist fashion. No other solution is acceptable to those with power enough to change the system.
Other Sources and Interesting Reading:

Freedman, David H. Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science. The Atlantic. November 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/308269/

Goldacre, Ben. Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients. September 2012.

Goldacre, Ben. Bad Science. April 2009.

Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. Riverhead Books. 2011.

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