My second major insight also was seeded in my prison work. At first I feared that observing men selected for their aggression, then all jammed in there together, would give a grossly distorted view of human nature. I was wrong. I found that viewing interactions in such a setting had the effect of placing one aspect of human emotional behavior— aggression— under a microscope, thereby revealing aspects of it that were ordinarily muted in normal social interaction. I had the opportunity to carefully examine relationships characterized by abject slavery which greatly exaggerated elements of entrapment, such as the exquisite sensitivity of the slave to his master’s intentions. I was later able to pick up subtle manifestations of these same aspects in everyday relationships.
As a clinical psychiatrist, I specialized in psychiatric illnesses that were unquestionably sicknesses, as opposed to “existential” problems in people who were fundamentally not mentally ill. I made the observation early on that all severe mental illnesses were hyperactive emotional states, and that the apparent lethargy in many conditions, such as depression, was in all cases compensatory to the pathology of underlying emotional hyperactivity. I became fascinated with the effect of Prozac when it became available in 1988. In Peter Kramer’s book, Listening to Prozac, he pointed out that it made people with mild social anxiety more confident. I started interrogating all my patients as to the precise effects of Prozac on them—as well as all the other drugs that were then just becoming available. I came to the firm conclusion that all psychiatric medication treatments are inhibitory to the underlying pathological emotional hyperactivity, which was the root cause of the pathology.
I saw that all mental illnesses were like the feedback squeal of a microphone and a speaker in a noisy room. All treatments amounted to turning the volume down to a level at which normal regulation was reestablished. This theory fit in with my idea that the human mind was evolved by the internalization of the dominance and submission mentalities into a single mind where they developed the liability to lose their regulation and “spin out” into hyperactivity. I named this general mechanism in mental illness “feedback reverberation.”
I then began to view the major categories of mental illness as exaggerations of certain aspects of normal emotional life, which had lost their modulation in normal behavior and had “spun up” into pathological hyperactivity. Just as the aspects of aggression became magnified in prison, so too did the elements of mental illnesses similarly reveal the details of other segments of our emotional anatomy.
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