A New Spectrum of Mental Illness

David Schneider

They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
– Philip Larkin

SpectrumIt's Christmastime, Solstice-time, that annual ritual of family and SADness. But whenever I get depressed, I remember that poets frequently intuit the nature of the world long before psychologists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians or theorists are able to parcel out their pieces into numbers, formulae, and systems. I remember, for example, how the German and British Romantic poets grasped an understanding of complexity, relativity, and organic growth that was largely alien to Enlightenment science and the Industrial Revolution – understandings we now take for granted in the scientific conceptions of Relativity Theory and Chaos Theory, which were devised, respectively, nearly 100 and 200 years later.

And so, as we return home to the faces yet more familiar than the years before, we return to Larkin. He was right. Your mom and dad fuck you up – and we might now understand why.

In a new theory that could revolutionize the practice of psychiatry, neuroscience and genetics, Bernard Crespi, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, propose – in essence – that men are stupid and women are crazy.

I joke. A bit. It's only that when an idea this elegant, this simple, and this beautiful is proposed, the mainstream press (and blog commenters) will try to publicize it using truisms – that blaspheme its beauty, and jeopardize the great conceptual leap that's been taken – which harm the reputation of Science.

But I digress.

Crespi and Badcock propose that

an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders.

I think of Keats:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

This theory of mental disorders, I predict, will come to be known as true – because it is beautiful. It places a final piece, that of evolutionary genetics, in harmony with many, many correspondences that the human arts and sciences understand to be true. From the ancient Greeks, we receive the dichotomy of Apollonian and Dionysian powers: the former an ordering, the latter a disordering impulse. From them, we have the Renaissance resurgence of the classical terms melancholia and hysteria. From Coleridge and the German Romantics we are told of the Male versus the Female principles of mind – the male moves in a straight line, directionally; the Female sensibility dilates and contracts, a circle, the pupil of an eye. In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is the “columnar I”; Woolf (who was schizophrenic) brackets her alternate perspectives within circular-shaped parentheses. We know, from untold psychological studies and our own experience, that men have a tendency to be more emotionally withdrawn, insensitive and uncommunicative; women, more social, sensitive and voluble.

We see the male and female principles at work in American politics: the hypermasculine aggression and insistent righteousness of the Bush administration, autistic to alternative voices; the often-successful labeling of the Democratic party as “feminine,” with its polyphonal constituencies.

We see it in society and the “Culture Wars”: the “Great Man” theory of history, the patriarchal lineage of Western culture, versus the new social histories and multiculturalism. It's the difference between “Family values” and “the liberal agenda.”

And finally, as Discover Magazine explains in its more comprehensive review of Badcock and Crespi's thesis, formulated in evolutionary genetic theory:

Haig argued that the process of natural selection would favor mutations in the genes of fathers that boost the amount of nutrition babies get from their mothers. The genes might govern the speed at which a fetus grows, or they might make the placenta more aggressive as it penetrates the mother’s tissues.

As fathers passed down these growth-stimulating genes, Haig continued, mothers would benefit from counterstrategies. They might evolve genes that slow the rapid growth of their children, in order to preserve their own long-term health. Moms could also evolve to imprint (deactivate) their copies of the genes that increase growth.

Crespi and Badcock extend Haig’s ideas beyond birth by arguing that imprinting brain genes can influence the behavior of children, and this behavior can be beneficial to mothers or fathers. Mothers have to spread limited resources among all their children, and so favor offspring with moderate demands. If a mother spends all her time nursing and caring for one child, any other children she has will suffer.

Fathers, meanwhile, can boost their reproductive success if they pass to their children genes that cause them to get more resources from their mothers. The children may nurse more, for example, or demand more attention. Imprinting and silencing those genes can benefit mothers, because they can blunt the demand. Fathers could also silence brain genes for their own evolutionary benefit.

In short, the great conflict between the sexes that has been so difficult to talk about for the last thirty years or so, as women have sought to minimize their differences from men in order to achieve equal rights and compete in the workplace. But just as in theoretical physics, which tries to understand why the universe is the way it is, the study of genetics is advancing the answers to why we are the way we are. And in all areas of human suffering, from mental illness to 9/11, from a perceived slight by a friend to the melting of the icecaps, understanding the why is, itself, a therapeutic contribution, lessening the emotional trauma and giving shape to the inexplicable. (As the great, late John Leonard said about Paradise Lost, the power to name is supreme.)

And it makes sense. The antonym of schizophrenia is autism. The antonym of mania is depression. The antonym of a star is a black hole. And the spectrum of the mind's light extends from the infrared to the ultraviolet.

This theory, if handled well in the genetic and pharmaceutical realm, would provide us an answer to the why of brain-chemical imbalances – to the relief of many a mental sufferer – as well as pose avenues of scientific thinking along the how axis. In psychiatric theory, Freud could finally be seen – not as a scientist, for which he has been thoroughly discredited – but as a type of poet, his theories a partial (in both senses of the word) revealing of a larger truth obscured by the one matrix he was unable to transcend by translating: gender into genes. In psychiatric practice, Freud would appear as an element of a larger psychiatric therapy that takes account of repressed psychosexual traumae within a genetic framework that is gender-unbiased, and relieved of sexism. In other words, the extreme of successful male genetic strategies is equally catastrophic as the extreme of successful female strategies. In addition, by thinking about mental illnesses on the radically-closed versus radically-open spectrum that the autism/schizophrenia dichotomy suggests, talk therapy could engage the patient via any one of the above analogies: Greek mythology, poetry, geometry, or more – considering, for example, spectra of musical tonalities or artistic palettes – depending upon the patient's individual mental and social background.

Of course the shadow of eugenic simplification threatens, whenever we philosophers write about the ramifications of a science whose complexities are hidden from us. The specter of extreme “solutions,” from the Right and Left (capitalism/communism, patriarchy/feminism, religious fundamentalism/scientific amorality, individualism/collectivism), threaten like Scylla and Charybdis throughout our split personalities. It's the story of the 20th century: it is the true Long War we are fighting: the great conflict born when God created Darwin.

But I have hope, in this new century we have inaugurated with the election of Barack Obama. In the last fifty years, the cultural upheaval wrought by the '60s and the Vietnam War – a war (and its opposition) that defined the stark conflict between male and female principles in the most naïve terms – spun American culture through five decades of alternating political ideologies. We can read the terms clearly through the conventional American consensus: the “feminine” Carter, to “cowboy Reagan,” vanquisher of the Soviet Union. From a weak neuter named George Herbert Walker Bush, caricatured as “must be prudent,” to Clinton in the multicultural, globalizing '90s – and from Clinton to Bush, with W.'s swaggering poses and his fingers in his ears, we swung our American way, with a psychic violence in our national genes, into a sustained autism over the past decade.

It is no wonder, ultimately, that the “Country First” Republican ticket of McCain/Palin would try to rouse their evangelical-Christian base with ludicrous assertions that Obama is a “socialist.” McCain isn't a techno-geek, but the coalition he represents has inculcated the values of the technocracy to such an extent that its world-view is binary. There is 1, or there is 0. Oh yes, read it through gender theory: the phallus and the empty space (the phallus which must penetrate the empty space, Rocketman); the I or the gaping hole. Masculine capitalism or feminizing socialism.

But today, in this 21st century, we finally understand, in the technological and financial realm, in the political and geopolitical realm, and – now, it seems – in the psychological and genetic realm – that binary extremes trend toward madness. Let us now remodel our hand, from its rapid fist-to-open-palm flexions, and bend it, half-closed, half-open, as a handshake: that symbol that once meant, “I have no weapon, let us have amity and intercourse.” May we know the Scylla and Charybdis of our natures.