Mental illnesses functional?



In this blog, I have determined from my studies of mental illness that our own human nature is explained by the fact that six million years ago, humans split from apes by virtue of evolution by natural selection, pushed by the threat of extinction due to low birthrates, shifting from occurring predominantly at the level of individuals, to the level of associations between individuals—selected for the benefit of its resultant fecundity. Then, 200,000 years ago, our own Homo sapiens species quite suddenly evolved the passionate motivation within individuals for social “self-display” (vanity) for the resultant benefits of strengthened bonds in ever larger groups leading to complex language and an evolving culture. Thus the paradoxes of our most peculiar nature derive from the superimposition of an “advertising agency” for individuals (above right) on top of a maturely developed collective consciousness dwelling within our association with one another that had evolved steadfast collective motivations for-the-good-of-groups, sub-groups and groups-of-groups (Mother T).

Back PainKneeInjuryWhen I first became interested in the relevance of evolution to psychiatry, I rejected outright the idea that severe mental illnesses conferred any benefits to those who suffered from them—because of the magnitude of the disability they exacted. I finally concluded that mental illnesses are an unavoidable epiphenomenon, or “side-effect” of our species having been thrust into an emotional dynamic of two interacting minds that has enabled our extraordinary capacities. In a similar fashion, the vulnerability of back and lower limb injury was worth the benefits of upright posture which made possible the revolutionary productivity of a communication system of continuous mutual face-to-face signaling that functioned as the nervous system of our ancestors’ groups. As much as nature has attempted to reconstruct our back and lower limbs, our upright posture is pushing the envelope of what has been possible to fashion from the clay of knuckle-walking apes. Most of us do fine, but at the margins there is an irreducible price that some must pay for our distinguished carriage, the very emblem of our human tribe. Similarly, nature has pushed the envelope of evolving regulation-and-modulating mechanisms to maintain the dynamic balance in the interaction between the the two motivational systems of our dynamically interacting minds. Accordingly, psychiatric disorders are the price extracted from our species for the miraculous benefits that the collaboration between our two minds has bestowed upon us.

MutationThe attitude toward the underlying genetics of mental illness is subtly affected in such a view. The genes associated with these conditions are no longer viewed as patently pathological, but as revealing small weaknesses in a regulatory system that has been pushed to the very limits of its task. It is in this sense that mental illness can be considered “functional” conditions. So identifying these genes is only a prelude to identifying the fragments of their function.


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2 Comments on “Are Mental Illnesses “Functional””

  1. I think your example of human backs is great. They confer great advantages, but at a price (at least for some people). With proper preventive and treatment approaches, the “price” that some people pay for their backs can be avoided. Is this also true of the “price” that we pay for having minds and emotions?
    On another matter, I’ve been wondering that whether animals are subject to mental illnesses? If we evolved from apes and related mammals, shouldn’t they have similar mental illnesses?

    1. Thanks for the comment. The issue of animal models in nature for mental illnesses is a huge question. Early on in my career, when I first became interested in the relevance of evolution to psychiatry, I rejected outright the idea that severe mental illnesses conferred any benefits to those who suffered from them—because of the magnitude of the disability they exacted. Chimpanzees certainly become depressed, which I assume is adaptive, but do not approach the kinds of self-destructive behavior and duration (6mos-yr) that is common in untreated major depression in humans, and, similarly, primates get anxious, but, if an individual had true panic disorder, it simply would not survive. And it is certainly not that we humans just take care of these folks; these conditions are far too endemic in humans.
      I believe schizophrenia is the breakdown of the key adaptation that separated hominins from apes, so there would not be primate models for it, and the same for mania, which I believe is the breakdown of the adaptation that separated Homo sapiens from prior hominins. It is this final Homo sapiens adaptation of the addition of a Donald-like individual “self-display” mentality into integration with a collective, more Mother-Teresa-like mentality that had been evolving for 6 million years, enabling large-group bonding (yes, believe it or not, the Donald is binding together many people) that created our vulnerability for mental illness. So the price we pay for the Donald in us all (so don’t blame him) is the horror of mental illness.
      All this gives me a great idea for the next post, “What are the adaptive advantages for the Donald-in-all-of-us?”…so thank you, Mark!

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