In the first part of the Memetics series, I talked a bit about the noetic immune system, the mind’s means of protecting itself. One of the problems I find in modern psychology (in general, of course) is that it doesn’t seem to approach mental health correctly- I think it misses a very critical distinction in its concept of mind. As you may have guessed, I think the two are related. On that note- today we’re going to be looking at the nature of the dopamine system, the different definitions of sanity, memetic contagion, and what this means for the health of our culture.
DISCLAIMER: It should be obvious if you have any sort of awareness of what this site is, but I am not a medical doctor (nor any other kind of doctor, for that matter) and none of this is meant to be taken as medical advice. I’m theorizing based on my observations and if you have a problem with that, stop reading. If you decide to continue reading despite having a problem with that, I’ll save you the time and tell you now that I most definitely do not care and will ignore you if you try and complain to me. I will also very likely make a mockery of you on Twitter. You’ve been warned.
We’re going to start with a distinction here- a neurochemical imbalance here needs to be seen as a physical illness, and a disorder that stems from bad ideas or a flawed perception of reality can be classified as a mental illness. That being said, I’m going to actually call this a noetic illness, because that implies more directly that this is a sickness of thought. As you should know if you’ve been here before, the mind and body are inseparable. This does not mean, however, that we can’t distinguish between the two, as there is a difference between the subjective experience of a thought and the objective phenomena of electric impulses in the brain.
Phew, that was a mouthful.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s simplify.
If, for example, you happen to get a corpus callosotomy (a surgical procedure in which the corpus callosum, the thing that connects both halves of the brain, is severed), then you now have two separate brains that are not communicating with each other- this would be an example of a hard physical factor impinging on the functioning of the brain.
On the other hand, if you believe something that’s demonstrably out of alignment with reality (say, for example, that you can fly, despite physics and sensory experience saying otherwise), then we can assume that there is a noetic illness- a problem with the content of your thoughts.
Now, I am not going to rule out the extremely likely fact that the two of these can be (and often are) related- however, the human body is supremely resilient, and in most people, even those living horribly unhealthy lifestyles, they are probably not doing extreme damage to their neurochemistry. For the sake of this, we’re going to be taking a look at the two separately, and perhaps we’ll discuss the interplay towards the end of this article.
On that note, I’ll give an example of something that is going to actively affect the brain’s neurochemistry. Let’s use dopamine-based stimulant drugs as an example.
If you’re not familiar, the brain is made up of neurons- brain cells. These cells have tendril-like protrusions called axons and dendrites. Where two neurons meet, these tendrils send and receive electrical impulses- these signals go from the axons (signal senders) of one neuron to the dendrites (signal receivers) of another. The place where they meet is called a synapse, and it’s at the synapse that neurotransmitters (chemicals like dopamine and serotonin) are transferred.
This is going to be a loose metaphor, but let’s imagine that the synapse is like a bathroom sink. The faucet is the axon, the drain is the dendrite, and the water is the neurotransmitters, which in this case is going to be dopamine, the brain’s reward system chemical. In a normal person, when you do something good like go for a run or get a promotion, your brain will turn on the dopamine faucet for a bit, and that reward tells you that you should continue to do whatever that activity is. If you go run, the runner’s high is your brain telling you that running is good, and that you should run more. If you get promoted, it’s an encouragement to go do more behavior that will lead to promotion. Additionally, let’s imagine that the faucet is on a closed system, so when the water is used it goes back around and comes out the top again (this is where the metaphor is weak, but it will make sense later).
As a synapse is used more and more, the brain begins to coat the axon and dendrite with a chemical called myelin, in what is called a myelin sheath. This does two things- it makes whatever the action that those neurons are responsible for faster, and it makes the activity a bit more rigid. This is why you get better at skills over time. When you started typing as a kid, it was hard because the neurons responsible weren’t myelinated, but now, you can (hopefully) type at a decent speed. However, if someone changed the layout of your keyboard, you’d have a hard time adapting because of the rigidity- myelin makes you better at the specific thing you practice.
Now, back to the sink. Normally, the sink is only turned on when you do something good, it doesn’t run for very long, and it drains at a normal rate. That changes when you take a dopamine-based stimulant, like Adderall (a common ADHD medication that combines four different amphetamine salts). Amphetamines are dopamine reuptake inhibitors- remember how the faucet reuses the water? Well, normally, when your synaptic faucet puts out dopamine water, once it’s done being used, the neurotransmitters go back up into the axon- this is called reuptake.
Amphetamines basically break the sink- the faucet is turned on full blast, so the stored up dopamine water is released, and the drain is plugged (reuptake is inhibited). What this does is induce a state of extreme, consistent reward- a person on amphetamines will be able to do nearly any task, even tasks that would normally be very boring or repetitive, for extended periods of time, because their brain is basically saying “whatever you’re doing is AWESOME, keep doing it.”
Now, this may seem well and good, and the medical community does seem to have found some uses for it. However, as with all things, the effects are lessened over time and with repeated usage- this is called tolerance. There’s another complex side effect that comes from extended use of dopamine-based drugs- dopamine dysregulation syndrome. Basically, because the sink has been abused, the standard means of getting a splash of dopamine (like from doing normal stuff that you’re supposed to do) stops working. Since the brain is so used to extreme amounts of dopamine, the regular-sized bumps that it gives you throughout the day just won’t cut it anymore.
This is a problem, because dopamine is so essential to our ability to think ahead and pursue goals, since the attainment of goals is now less rewarding than pursuing another dose of the drug. Because of this dysregulation, the life of the user starts to fall apart. When they can’t find more dopaminergic substances, they turn to other sources- gambling, wild spending of money, binge eating, and pursuing risky sexual behavior. In addition, when dopamine levels are elevated above normal, the extreme stimulation produced can lead to psychosis.
Now, that’s an example of the physiological side of things. If you abuse stimulant drugs (or other dopamine sources, like sugary food, video games (especially with microtransactions), social media, and so on), you’re going to mess with your brain’s reward system.
On the flip side, let’s look at the noetic side of things.
As I’ve discussed in the Integration and Dissonance article, cognitive dissonance is the primary means by which the mind comes into alignment with reality. Because we aren’t born fully educated, and our parents, the educational system, and culture are also imperfect, we’re going to grow up with certain false perceptions about the world. On top of that, over time, we become attached to these false perceptions of reality. If you’re used to things being a certain way and you find out that they’re really not, you can either accept the pain of change that dissonance brings, or you can resort to denial of the new, harsher reality.
While physiological illnesses can have a variety of causes, I tend to think that most noetic illnesses stem from the root of denial as their primary source. Let’s consider the definition of sanity for a moment.
Imagine you’re at work in an office, minding your own business, when suddenly one of your coworkers bursts into the room naked. Now, because it’s almost a universal that people tend to wear clothes, especially at work, your first response (and the response of your coworkers) is going to be that said coworker has lost their mind. While this is probably the case (assuming he knew better at one point), it’s a fair point to make that nudity is the natural state of Man, so in reality there’s nothing inherently wrong with his actions, beyond the violation of a social norm.
Thus, we can distinguish between objective sanity and social sanity.
Objective sanity is here going to be defined as: the degree to which an individual is in agreement with the reality of the world.
Social sanity will be defined as: the behaviors and beliefs that a culture or group holds to be true.
If, for example, you decide that you no longer have to eat, you are out of alignment with objective reality and thus, will die. If you’re in a breatharian cult and the group all agrees you don’t have to eat, you’re still out of alignment with objective reality and will still die, but you’ll have the comfort of feeling like part of the group when things escalate from a new-agey hippie crystal fest to a full on suicide cult.
The downside is that you won’t even get any kool-aid.
Because of the pressures that groups exert, the likelihood of citizens speaking up against social insanity seems to decrease over time. Every time you’ve known better and held your tongue in a social situation, you’ve experienced these pressures. Many times, the fear of alienation or worse, violence, is the impetus behind this self-censorship. It should be obvious, but it’s for this reason that the right to freedom of speech is so vitally important.
This is where things get heavy.
If objective insanity is the state of being out of alignment with reality, then as social sanity degrades into objective insanity, objective sanity becomes socially insane.
Jiddu Krishnamurti once said,
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave comes into play here- if we’ve become conditioned to a sick social reality, we will recoil against someone who tries to tell us the truth.
Let’s go deeper.
I propose that, just as the physical body has an immune system that can be infected by a virus, the mind can become sick and infected. What’s more, because of the nature of the noosphere, the metamind of humanity can become infected in the same way as an individual.
We’ll call this phenomenon memetic contagion.
Because humanity is rapidly becoming a unified system, a sick individual becomes capable of infecting those around them. By nature of the mechanisms that social sanity operates on, when I begin to possess an objectively insane idea (like breatharianism), I lower the social pressure for others to adopt said idea.
Now, in a society that has a strong metanoetic immune system (the culture’s ability to resist objectively insane ides; a society in which social sanity is very close to alignment with objective sanity), things like breatharianism will be dismissed and relegated to the fringes. However, just as we instinctively recoil from people who look obviously sick, it’s not hard to defend against obviously stupid ideas.
The danger lies in ideas that seem healthy.
Let’s go back to the mechanisms behind Adderall (which, if you remember, is an amphetamine, not unlike meth). Generally, Adderall is prescribed to kids who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder- a condition first identified in the early 1900s and first classified in the 1950s in the DSM-I (American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual, first edition) as “minimal brain dysfunction.” Here’s something to consider- as of 2015, this condition is said to affect 51.5 million people (predominantly children) globally.
Now, before 1852, there was no compulsory education system in America, although by 1918, all states had them. If you compare that timeline with the time which the proto-ADHD diagnosis emerged, we can see a pattern. Whereas before we adopted the Prussian model of education (designed to train factory workers to do repetitive, menial tasks), kids were simply kids, now children who aren’t able to focus are given a chemical that’s only a few molecular components away from methamphetamine.
Where society seems to think that forcing these unnatural conditions on young children and giving them powerful stimulant drugs when they (naturally) recoil against it is healthy, I’ll argue that this is not the case. The assumption that ADHD is a legitimate diagnosis implies that 51.5 million people have an actual problem, that there’s something actually wrong with their biology, because they can’t adapt to these artificially imposed conditions. Of course, consider that for most of human history no form of public education existed, and somehow the modern world emerged from that.
Of course, this is the danger, because we should, in a healthy society, be able to trust that highly-esteemed members of society like doctors and psychiatrists are doing the right thing. However, the problem is that the memetic contagion is so subtle and so pervasive that many wildly unhealthy things are so ingrained in our culture that the pressures of social sanity have made us all insane, to differing degrees.
Consider the rise of type two diabetes in the last century. This was a very uncommon disease for most of human history (whereas type one was more common but still rare) and now, suddenly, has become an epidemic. It should be obvious that our high sugar, high carb diets build the insulin resistance that causes type two, but society seems to marvel at the incidences as if it’s some kind of mystery. The fact that it’s become such a prevalent plague should be another indication of how sick we’re becoming- because the diet that causes it is considered normal in America. (My series on fasting, FasterSelf, is a useful addition to this topic.)
This is compounded with the sedentary lifestyle that our modern age instills in children with (yep, back to this) schooling. Where kids are meant to play, run, and fight, we stick them in chairs for hours a day and teach them that this is normal. It’s no wonder that you take generations of kids, feed them poison, and physically imprison them for hours a day and suddenly we have a country full of sick, mentally ill people.
However, while there are a lot of people in the fitness community who think that it’s simply an issue of diet and exercise that will fix things (and don’t get me wrong, they certainly will help a great deal), I think that’s only part of it. It seems to me that this problem goes deeper- that the very philosophical roots of our culture have moved away from reality.
I’ve touched on this in the Carnivore Challenge, Ch. IV, but consider the popularity of veganism and vegetarianism. It’s almost blatantly obvious from our physiology and history, but humans are apex predators that have hunted and eaten meat for much of our evolutionary history. We’re designed to eat fatty meat, as our brain capacity (made of fat) is indicative. However, because people believe that there’s something inherently wrong with a predator eating its prey, they refuse to put the best food for themselves in their bodies.
Much of humanity, in one form or another, adheres to some philosophy that is anti-Life.
If your ethics do not lead to your own health, your ethics are anti-Life. If your lifestyle is killing you, your lifestyle is anti-Life. If the diet the culture promotes is poisoning you, then it’s our very culture that is anti-Life.
As I’ve covered in other articles, the common root of all this is nihilism– the hatred for life and the desire to destroy everything that’s natural. This has been a bit of an odd article, structure wise, because I’ve gotten fairly angry in the second half, so I apologize if it’s not totally coherent. On that note, I’m going to expand on a lot of this in the future, I just had to get this out.
One of the primary motivations behind the MasterSelf project is to develop a complete system for health of the mind, body, and spirit. For most of this blog’s history, I’ve primarily covered mind and spirit, but this year I’m going to be talking more about physical fitness and bodily health. Remember, they’re all connected. We must become as the mythic wounded healers, those who were sick and discovered how to make themselves well- because the person who can heal themself is granted the authority to heal others.
We need to cure the sickness that is infesting the world- and that cure begins with you.