At one time, this word meant “wild,” in a good way. I wish it still did. Here’s an anecdote for you: an accomplished academic psychologist is talking to another accomplished academic psychologist about an accomplished German philosopher. They are excited by new biographical information about the philosopher which suggests he was crazy. This, they felt, explained the craziness of his non-evidence-based speculations. (Never mind that there are many alternatives to speculation on the one hand and empiricism on the other–like reasoning, debate, estimation on the basis of prior experience, and so forth–you know, the ways we use our minds every day.) What a hoot, in short–everyone thinking this philosopher was such a genius, when in fact he was “just” mad as a hatter. No wonder that over 50% of Americans will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, and yet feel the profound shame of the shunned, the isolate, the broken thing. Here’s another thing I love about psychoanalysis: its interest in taking seriously all communications–“psychosomatic,” gestural, prosodic, delusional, oneiric–and all the states of (embodied) mind that produce them. Take mania, for instance. I’m not recommending it–it imperils those who suffer from it. But as an example of what the brain is capable of, it’s quite astonishing. I have an old friend who was diagnosed with glioblastoma–a type of brain tumor that is invariably terminal–who just told me that he wanted to write an essay on how terminal diagnoses can improve one’s mental health. He doesn’t like the “blessing of cancer” approach, but he feels, tastes, hears so much more than he used to. The question is, how do we help ourselves find that kind of vitality without divinizing pain? By using our brains for as many different vital pursuits as possible. We know now that the imagination is essential to cognition, was essential to the development of toolmaking, and remains essential to the crafting of the future, insofar as that is possible. There is in fact no simple, self-evident opposition between fact and fantasy, because fantasies about the future determine the kinds of facts we seek out, or make. So I hope I’m not simply romanticizing the suffering caused by mental illness–at least I’m consciously aware of how tempting that can be–but rather suggesting that we have real things to learn from all states of mind. Consider the progress we’ve made understanding the confabulations of the brain-injured or “demented.” Once thought to be senseless, these frequently outlandish communications turn out to be exactly that–attempts to communicate that make use of the memories and resources not destroyed by illness or injury. Psychoanalysis asks us to listen to everything. It asks us to broaden, not narrow, understanding. And, by Jove, it’s evidence-based too.
I attended the conference “Many Voices, One Mind” at USC yesterday, the topic of which was mental health services in colleges and universities. I heard some moving, inspiring and thought-provoking stories about how students diagnosed with disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar and major depressive disorder had managed to go to college, law school, medical school; what kind of help they had needed; what stigmas they feared and faced, even in coming forward at this conference, even walking into a counseling center; how much stress “intersectionality” (belonging to more than one ethnic group, etc.) could add to students’ already overcommitted lives; the importance of social and financial support (including decent insurance) all the way down the line; the newest statistics about how many people in this country will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetimes (over 50% now). I loved the idea that educational institutions should be committed to helping the mind thrive in as many different ways as possible; I’ve always thought that we should go the distance and think about how we could make the experience of political, social and economic community actively therapeutic rather than (as it seems to me now) careless of the experience of individual minds and the networks of influence they engage with. But I wish the conference had talked more about the bottom line of resources. At this sad moment in American history when education is being cheapened and de-funded all over the place, isn’t a big part of the stress students are under economic? Rapid rises in tuition, debt piling up, having to work more hours, facing a terrible job market? Isn’t requiring students to take so many courses at once stretching them too then and preventing them from paying deep attention to their subjects? One last question for now: is mental illness a disability that should be accommodated like any other (extra time on exams, etc.)? I really don’t know how I feel about this last point. I’m uncomfortable with framing mental illness as disability, but not sure why–got to think about it more. Any thoughts out there?
http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2014/03/04/two-sides-of-the-same-coin-the-employment-crisis-and-the-education-crisis/ This article is slightly tangential to our topic, but only slightly, because it argues that employers are looking for people who can read, write, think, and respect others as well as themselves. Who knew? Especially after all the recent assaults on the usefulness of the humanities. It’s further interesting that the article doesn’t appear to be aware that the minimizing of humanities education is contributing to the dearth of human beings skilled in living life well and caring about others. Recent research on empathy, at least, suggests that reading challenging fiction helps us develop it. We don’t need to start new programs–we need to re-fund the ones we already have, which are now stretched to their limits and beyond.
Today what’s on my mind is the notion in so many therapies that getting “past” language is what we need to do, as if we could do an end run thereon. I think we’ve been “in” language for so long that thinking we can ever free ourselves from it (as though it were a prison) may in fact be magical thinking. Hearing develops at about 6 months inside the womb. From that point on, we can hear what’s going on around us in the outside world as well as inside the uterine world. Whether or not we understand the content of what’s being said, we are accustomed to hearing sounds, and we know that they often have significance. They might portend the mother’s anxiety or excitement (heartbeat, respiration). They might indicate that the mother is feeling peaceful (when she puts the ever-popular-with-babies Mozart CD on). There are different voices, too, as well as noises that don’t belong to voices. We are capable of making these kinds of very basic discriminations very early on. It is true that our brains have to mature for a few years before we can really use language to link emotions to specific times and places (episodic memory). Possibly this is what sets people longing for a time “before” language. But we are immersed in it from the beginning, and we comprehend it much sooner than we once thought. This means (to me anyway) that we have the potential to link emotions to “paraverbal” language–“prosody,” or tone, rhythm, pitch, timbre, gesture, etc.–and also to scraps of sound, which is what babbling consists of, more or less (practicing syllable-formation). I’ll have to return to the implications of all this later; but I think language carries prosody, and/or prosody carries language, and it’s in the links between the two that psychoanalysis finds its method.