I recently got a note from someone about Old Mind, New Mind who has suffered from mental illness. As soon as he found out that the book was about the relationship between mental illness and human evolution, he assumed that I thought that mental illnesses are adaptive in some way and expressed his reservations about that idea. In response, I sent him the following excerpt from the book:
“The concept of mental illness presented here brings home one more theoretical perspective that I had instinctively known by virtue of my familiarity with the terrible suffering and crippling disability caused by these conditions. This issue concerns the distinction between the mental illnesses discussed in this book and the existential problems that lie in wait for us all. In the absence of mental illness, painful emotional experiences in the course of living can be alleviated by comprehending their meaning in the larger context of the human drama in which the individual’s past and present life is embedded. But once the process of mental illness sets in, all these moorings in the patient’s life are ruptured and are consumed by the screeching magnitude of suffering in the present moment. That is why exhortations to the mentally ill to “snap out of it” are so inappropriate: there’s nothing left to do the snapping.
When one thinks of mental illness from an evolutionary point of view, it is natural to consider the possible reasons why they have not been swept away by natural selection long ago. Accordingly, one might consider that these illnesses might confer some hidden benefits to these patients. I am specifically considering the following severe mental illnesses: atypical depression, melancholic depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. There is simply no way that these intense illnesses could confer benefits on the patients who suffer from them.”
In the book, I go on to explain that mental illness is an epiphenomenon, or “side-effect” of our two minds and the cognitive benefits they confer, such as self-awareness and the complexity of language. I state at the end of the chapter: “We should embrace the mentally ill among us, as deserving of our respectful care for paying the price for the soaring genius of our human family.”
I explained to the reader that the book presents a new paradigm on human evolution and mental illness, and that, if enough people read it, it would go a long way toward demystifying and destigmatizing mental illness: people with mental illness have really been endowed with “too much” of those very parts of us that are the emotionally humanizing aspects in all of us. That is my essential message.
This new understanding is important because current ignorance fosters attitudes that the mentally ill “just want attention” or should just “suck it up like the rest of us.”