No one would suggest that we withhold our medical advances from other countries, but it’s perhaps past time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning. When these scientific advances are translated into popular belief and cultural stories, they are often stripped of the complexity of the science and become comically insubstantial narratives. Take for instance this Web site text advertising the antidepressant Paxil: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly analyzed by generations of theorists and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.
All cultures struggle with intractable mental illnesses with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.
That is why the Great Plague of 1665 has been largely understood as a London phenomenon. The sites of old plague pits are now pointed out with understandable pride. Richard Barnett reveals that the escalator at Camden Town Underground station passes through a vast grave for plague victims, and that a “massive plague pit” is responsible for the low ceiling of the basement of Harvey Nichols. It would be fair to say that he takes a certain, rather morbid, pleasure in compiling this Baedeker of disease and suffering. But why not? This is London’s real heritage. Together with this volume are a glossary and six maps, so that the reader can make his or her way down the various roads to oblivion. If you wish to follow the course of tropical disease as it ate its way to the heart of the metropolis, you can do so; you can follow the route of the plague, or the life of an 18th-century medical student. All human life, and human death, is here.
Does the nature of psychotic delusions change over the centuries? Or are “crazy” people crazy in the same ways regardless of where and when they lived and died?
Slovenian researchers analyzed more than 120 years’ worth of patient reports from the Ljubljana mental hospital, and their findings suggest that psychotic delusions are profoundly shaped by contemporary society, with the technology of the day—be it the telegraph or the television—playing a prominent role. The researchers also found that the “persecution delusion” (a paranoid narrative in which the subject feels hounded by evildoers) is a relatively modern phenomenon: a reaction to the possibility of nuclear war and to Cold War conspiracy flicks like The Manchurian Candidate. In this sense, schizophrenic delusions are a twisted mirror to the world we live in.