Category Archives: culture

Do Cultures Have Personality?

When people talk about culture and personality, the normal top-of-the-mind concern is whether cultures affect personality and if so to what extent?

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of t...

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: World Secular-Rational and Self Expression Values as a map of world cultures based on World Values Survey data. Svenska: En Världskulturkarta av Inglehart-Welzel typ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personality, or enduring individual differences in thinking, feeling, motivations and behavior among have been shown to be partly heritable and under genetic effect; they are partly shaped by the culture and early life experiences also.

However, this post is not about the culture’s effect on personality; rather just like individuals differ from each other on certain universal traits (say the Big Five) and this individual difference is what typically comes to mind when one talks of personality of an individual (i.e. so-and-so is extarverted as compared to population mean etc) , so too cultures show differences from each other and one may conceive of these differences as enduring and differentiating aspect of that culture vis-a-vis other cultures, in essence its personality.

A name that is quite well-known in this context is that of Geert Hofstede. He, initially, in the 1970s, analyzed values data from IBM employees, from over 50 countries to arrive at four dimensions on which the cultures differed. He later extended this work and analyzed data from World Values Survey and work by him and others later led to addition of two more dimensions. The six dimensions, on which cultures differ, in his own words [pdf] are:

1. Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality;
2. Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future;
3. Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into primary groups;
4. Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between women and men;
5. Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life.

Lets analyze this a bit further.

Power Distance has been defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

To me it seems all about relationships among people- whether the hierarchical relationships are accepted or resisted. If one could extend an analogy to individual differences in personality, this may be analogous to the trait of Agreeableness in individuals- whether you are kind and nice or aggressive towards others.

Uncertainty Avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.

To my mind it is absolutely clear that is a cognitive dimension and analogous to Openness to Experience in individual variation. Both share the underlying theme of being open and exploratory and tolerant of ambiguity.

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find cultures in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the
collectivist side we find cultures in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, and oppose other ingroups.

To me this looks like an analog of Extraversion-introversion in individuals. One end is quite while the other is quite engaged with outside activities. In cultural terms, one end is characterized by close knit families while the other with more individualistic pursuits.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found.

I cannot find a ready analogue of this in individual differences in personality in terms of the Big Five. In cultural terms this is related to whether gender roles are heavily differentiated (masculine cultures) or less so (feminine cultures).

Values found at this pole (long term orientation) were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability.

This can be equated easily with the Conscientiousness individual difference, one pole of which is associated with self-control etc.

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.

This focus on happiness/ well-being versus constraint and repression of desires may be the analogous of neuroticism and emotional stability, where one end may have repressed desires at individual level while other exhibits more stability.

I know this is a far conjecture, and by no means am I suggesting that if a culture is high in Uncertainty avoidance, the individuals within it will have low openness to experience; the relationship between cultures and personality is more complex than that; but it is a good way to think about cultures that they too have a unique personality and its structure may be on the same lines as individual differences personality.

If Psychology Had an Indian Heritage

This post originally appeared on my Psychology Today blog “The Fundamental Four” on 13th Dec. 2011.  This is cross-posted from  there.


Some days back, Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks blog linked to a blog post from Sabrina, of the Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog, and they both lamented the fact that modern psychology has a pre-dominantly western slant and speculated what might have been the case had psychology been developed under Korean influence (where for example Mind is ‘Maum’ or composed of feelings, motivations etc as opposed to being cognitive in nature).

To boot:

In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body.

Today I wish to extend the debate and focus specifically on how psychology might have been if it had been developed under Indian influence.

Firstly, instead of focusing on the somewhat dubious mind-body duality, we would be focussed on the more fruitful matter-consciousness duality.

As per the Samkhyaa (or Number- based) system of Indian philosophy (the oldest philosophical tradition), the world is composed of two distinct fundamental realities. The first is Purush (sentient pure consciousness) and the second is Prakriti (insentient Nature) and these two are not reducible to each other. This is very strong form of dualism.

The Purush is supposed to deform the Prakriti and this interaction leads to Prakriti splitting into 24 tattvas (or 24 basic elements) and that is the reason we see such diversity in nature.

Before you lose patience and leave as to what this has to do with personhood and mind, just bear with me for one more minute.

The prakriti gives rise to Mahat Tatva or Buddhi (intellect) as the first of the 24 elements. This is the subtlest aspect of a life form. Buddha or enlightened one derives from being at this stage.

From Mahat rises Ahamkar or Self and I. This is of three forms – sativk (stable; I, the observer) , rajasik ( in motion; I, the doer) and tamasik (stationary; I, the unchanging) .

From Ahamkar arises Mann (feelings) and Chitta (unconscious memories and precepts).

The ‘antahkaran‘ or the equivalent of subjective aspect of personhood i.e. what is referred to as Mind in English is made up of these 4 element – Chitta (unconscious memories, precepts etc) , Mann (feelings) , Ahamkar (sense of I or selfhood) and Buddhi (Intellect or reason).

Thus the second difference, if Psychology had evolved in India, would have been that Mind would not be predominantly cognitive and conscious in nature , but will have had unconscious aspects, as well as conscious aspects of feeling, willing and deciding.

To continue on the Samkhya evolution (from subtle towards grosser aspects of personhood), Mann gives rise to 5 Sense organs (gnyana indriyas) and 5 Action organs (karma indriyas); while chitta gives rise to 5 Mahabhut (matter forms) and 5 tanmatras (matter qualities).

Here I believe is where modern Psychology has heavily gone astray. Most scientists conceive of brain as an information processing tool and lean towards sensation, perception and believe that brain evolves basically for these purposes and action or movement is secondary; thus the focus on the 5 sense organs – those of vision, audition, somatosensation (touch), olfaction (smell) and gustatory (taste).

Psychology harps about these 5 sense organs but is silent on the agentic conception of the person/ life form whereby it is movement for which brains have evolved. A stray scientist like Daniel Wolpert or C H vanderwolf makes the case for primacy of movement and action , but that voice is easily lost in the cacophony surrounding research on vision and other senses.

Indian psychology/ philosophy/ religion puts action organs at equal footing with sense organs and implicitly imply that brains or mind is for both sensation/perception as well as for action/motion.

The five karmendreyas (action organs ) are mouth (from whose movement speech flows), hand (to handle tools) , feet (for locomotion), excretory organs (for pushing out the residues) and reproductive organs ( to inject / take inside reproductive material from a partner.

Thus, I guess the greatest contribution that Indian culture would have made to psychology would have been by making it more even handed towards both research paradigms focused on sensations and perceptions as well as research paradigms focused on action and motion.

What unique perspective does your culture/ religion offer on the sense of person-hood, the cultural nature of mind or the framing of the mind-body problem. Let us get as many insights from other cultures as possible and loosen the grip of WEIRDism on Psychology.

c: copyright: 2011 Sandeep Gautam

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Logos Vs Mythos: Autism Vs Schizophrenia

I recently came across this TED talk by Devdatt Patnaik, A chief Belief Officer in an Indian industry group and was fascinated by his description of the distinction between logos based ‘the’ world which is objective, logical, universal, factual and science based and mythos based ‘my’ world which is subjective,emotional, personal, belief-based and mythological in nature. while ‘the’ world tries to answer ‘how’, ‘my’ world tires to answer ‘why’.

To me the same is true of Autism and Psychosis dichotomy. While autistic frame of reference is rooted in ‘the’ world – trying to apply a science based approach even to the mind and mental; the psychotic frame of reference becomes detached from ‘the’ world and is totally enamored by the subjective depths of ‘my’ world -attributing mental properties to physical things too.

Devdatt, later on goes to contrast East Vs West Myths and here at the second order , though we are talking of mythos and not of logos and are in the psychotic/mythic world , we see a difference in focus, between the eastern traditions and the western traditions. While the east is portrayed as more spiritual and renunciation-believing in multiple lives and thus multiple chances; the west is depicted as more materialistic and ambitious and believing in one and only life and thus believing in only one chance of redemption -and though this dichotomy may be simplistic it does bring into focus the fact that the cultures do differ profoundly.

The difference between cultures and mythologies, and the people shaped from them thereof, is important in light of a new study , for eg., that demonstrates that most of the behavioral research is carried on with WEIRD people! WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic subjects and the paper claims that these WEIRD subjects are outliers and not representative of the general population. If much of the scientific and psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects (which is a fact) and if WEIRD are not representative of the population (which seems reasonable given the differences in culture and the ability of culture to shape people) , than that raises a more serious questions on the results of behavioral studies than the voodoo correlations paper raised questions about the fMRI studies.

Devdutt, though seems to be slightly biased towards Indian culture, but the TED talk is worth a watch. And you may also find one of my earlier post relating Indian culture,religion, and Autism, Schizophrenia quite pertinent here.

Do you think Devdutt is right when he stresses differences in cultures and myths? If so, do you think Culture shapes people? and if so do you believe with Norenzayan et al that if we just do studies based on WEIRD subjects, our results are not representative but skewed. Lot of questions to think about!

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, & Ara Norenzayan (2009). The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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Cultural differences are Vodoo correlations: I beg to differ

Normally, I am delighted to read a new Ed Yong NERS blog post, and this article not only was published in New Scientist, but was also whole heartedly endorsed by Vaughan , again a person I admire the most.  Yet, I cannot hide my dismay over the fallacies that Ed commits and the muddled and biased thinking he displays- I can admire the moralistic stand from which he tries to interpret the recent findings with the conclusion that “But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.” and I whole heartedly agree with that conclusion, but one need not nullify cultural differences to achieve the same objective of more cultural/ethnic tolerance and proactive re-wiring of what may be ‘human / individual/ cultural nature’.

So, instead of dwelling on the moralistic aspect of the whole debate, let me get to the science part directly. Some of it may seem nit-picking, but others have profound implications.

AS A SPECIES, we possess remarkably little genetic variation, yet we tend to overlook this homogeneity and focus instead on differences between groups and individuals.

The first fallacy Ed commits is to implicitly link any individual / group differences with genetic variation. Genetic variation need not be,and is not,the be-all and end-all of individual / group differences. Let us focus on an individual trait like intelligence or say the personality dimension of neuroticism for an individual for the rest of this article and we can easily extend the arguments to other individual/ group differences. It is standard practice nowadays,to admit the crucial role of epigenetics, development, social environment or Nurture along with Nature to explain any complex phenomenon like Intelligence or Neuroticism. Thus while my IQ or temperament may be partly inherited (inherited again does’nt mean genetics alone, it includes shared environment factors), it is also partly under the influence of non-shared environmental factors and partly expressed uniquely for each individual depending on idiosyncratic individual factors or random variation. Thus, some of the individual differences in two persons for intelligence/ neuroticism will be due to genetics, but most of it would be due to environmental influences(including social/ cultural factors) and some of it would be ‘undetermined’ by either genetics or environment, but be random/due to luck/chance/history factors.

Perhaps Ed chose a wrong opening line, but that doesn’t negate his thesis, or does it? We’ll get to that , but remember that Personality psychology based on studying both individual differences , as well as finding human universals, has a long tradition and is a worthy field of study- if only because personality is not a myth- individual differences exists , are consistent and can be reliably assessed and have profound implications for our day-to-day interaction, or in more clinical settings.

Before I proceed let me first list my points of agreements- I agree with Ed that media always sensationalizes findings and stereotypes the cultures involved, sometimes overextending or over interpreting the actual study findings, there is no such thing as an ‘Eastern’ and a ‘Western’ culture- I’ll be more happy talking about nation-state based cultures like the Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the Japanese culture and the American culture; I agree that studies have only looked at China , Japan, Us and some western countries and generalized and caricatured it as Eastern and Western Culture; that there is an either-or dichotomy between Analytical and holistic thinking styles – but they are more on a continuum. Now to points of disagreements.

Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view, rooted in philosophical and religious traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism, while westerners tend to think more analytically, as befits their philosophical heritage of reductionism, utilitarianism and so on. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.

A study that shows that we are capable of both analytical and holistic mods of though does not negate the fact that their could still be important and significant individual/group diffrences for the same. Consider Neuroticsm- if someone, in particular, and we in general, are capable of exhibiting behavior/ emotional states that are the opposite of characteristic neurotic traits, it doesn’t negate the fact that one can still have persons who exhibit abnormally high levels of Neuroticism. Nowhere is it claimed that someone with high trait neuroticism cannot display flexibility under proper environmental conditions- or that the behavior is totally independent of the situation- we gain go back to Miscels debate of how much situation and how much traits are responsible for behavior- but the fact of cognitive flexibility does not negate the existence of stable traits or tendencies. Consider a low IQ person- he may display intelligence under some situations and not display intelligence under other situations – that cognitive flexibility would not negate the fact that he has low intelligence in general. We may also understand the factors that lead to more intelligent behaviors and be able to manipulate his behavior to display state intelligence- still that wont negate his low trait intelligence. So the assertion that cognitive flexibility means no individual/ cultural differences is pure wishful thinking. Similarly the fact that state differences can be easily created and manipulated does not lead to automatic negation of trait differences. I can easily create the state anxiety in Ed Yong as he sees his article criticized severally, but the fact that I can easily manipulate and understand a neurotic state, doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existence of a neurotic trait or tendency.

Time and again, studies like these seem to support the same basic, contrasting pattern of thought. Westerners appear to perceive the world in an analytic way, narrowing their focus onto prominent objects, lumping them into categories and examining them through logic. Easterners take a more holistic view: they are more likely to consider an object’s context and analyse it through its changing relationships with its environment.

I wont generalize to Westerners or Easterners, but definitely this does say something about the existence of an anayltical and holistic thinking style trait, which exists on a continuum, is highly correlated to ‘cultures’ and is thus a group trait, and a dimension on which some cultures may display extreme values. If studies have consistently supported and found that US culture leads to extremes of analytical tendencies while Chinese/Japanese culture ingrained people lean towards holistic style of thinking, why deny the fact. Is it because of a misplaced notion that if groups/ cultures differ it means one is ‘better’ than other- what about Neuroticism- is low (trait) neuroticism always beneficial and high (trait) neurtocism always bad. Not anymore- Read ‘Personality’ by Nettle for a quick overview but the growing consensus is that the extremes of traits are good under particular environmental conditions and a little variation against a continuum foolproofs one against future unpredictable environmental catastrophes. Extremes of traits can also be a result of adaptation to different environmental niches. So case settled- group/cultural differences on at least one important dimension fo analyitcal/ holistic thinking do exist.

For a start, the simplistic notion of individualistic westerners and collectivist easterners is undermined by studies designed to assess how people see themselves, which suggest that there is a continuum of these traits across the globe. In terms of individualism, for example, western Europeans seem to lie about midway between people in the US and those in east Asia.

Ed, what are you getting to here. Individualistic ‘US’ers and collectivist Chinese are perfectly compatible with existence of Europeans who do lie midway. To go back to Neuroticim, the fact that some are Neurotic, while others are calm is nowhere in contradiction to the existence of some people who lie midway on this dimension and do not show any extremes.If the point was that analytical/ holistic is not categorical but dimensional point well taken!

So it’s not all that surprising, perhaps, that other studies find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks. For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent. He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders, being more likely to group objects based on their relationships rather than their categories: they preferred to link gloves with hands rather than with scarves, for instance (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 8552). A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”

Why has it always to be an either-or. Ed agrees that local and social factors are important, so at least he agrees that cultural/environmental factors are important and lead to group trait differences. His argument is that within-group variation is more than between-group variation (if one considers a culture as a group and the ‘local groups, as individuals belonging to that bigger group) so it doesn’t make sense of talking about differences in cultural mean values. I don’t buy that. This argument has often been applied to ethnic/ racial IQ differences issues etc., and I believe that one should not deny facts based on their political or moral ramifications. Just like there are differences in average heights of chinese and americans, though the mean difference between chinese and american heights may be less than the variation exhibited in chinese or american society with respect to height, still it makes sense to say that on an average chinese are of lesser height than americans. This doesn’t sound racist, it is a fact. Same holds true for other differences like IQ or in this case the average holistic/analytical thinking displayed by a culture.The fact that there is variation within the culture does not negate differences in mean values between cultures.

Is it time we moved beyond simplistic notions of eastern and western psychology? Daphna Oyserman from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor certainly thinks so. She is not happy invoking history to explain modern human behaviour. “We can’t test if history mattered,” she says. “But we can test how contexts can evoke one or other mindset.”

Why not history- just based on the personal comfort factor? now that it is established that cultures differ in holistic/analytical dimension, one needs to find out why. Again, the effect may be inherited (and thus partly genetic) or it may be learned and due to non-shared environmental factors- different local and geographic conditions to which the cultures are currently exposed. To endorse one extreme of non-shared environmental influences(based n personal comfort levels) as paramount and to rubbish any suggestion of influence of shared environmental factors (which in this case is culture itself as it provides the cultural and social context in which the group develops)or even genetics is to me an extremely stupid and outdated stand. History (or the then non-shared environment like the intensive agriculture of chinese) has influenced the cognitive style and the cognitive style gets ingrained in cultural traditions. These cultural traditions in turn provide the shared environment in which the culture develops. Also , people who display more holistic/ analytical style in a particular culture, may be culturally selected for, and it would not be surprising, if the favored trait gets fixed in the genetic code by cultural selection of that trait as individuals having that trait will be more successful and this would get fixed in the population as a whole. Thus, the group differences on cognitive style trait could be inherited (due to genes and shared cultural traditions) and also may be learned a new (response to novel non-shared local conditions) .

This experiment suggests that while the psychology of westerners may be superficially distinct from easterners, when social isolation is an issue there is little difference between the two. In fact, Oyserman’s analysis of 67 similar studies reveals just how easily social context can change the way people think. For example, psychologists have “primed” east Asian volunteers to adopt an individualistic mode of thought simply by getting them to imagine playing singles tennis, circling single-person pronouns or unscrambling sentences containing words such as “unique”, “independence” and “solitude”. In many of the experiments volunteers from a single cultural background – be it eastern or western – show differences in behaviour as large as those you normally get when comparing people from traditionally collectivist and individualist cultures

One has to pause and ask where does ‘social isolation’ arise from if not a cultural tradition. If Chinese culture makes one feel more socially isolated and thus constantly in need of reaffirming relationships, than is that not a cultural difference – maybe we have narrowed it down to one important cultural tradition that leads to inheritability of thinking style, but still the cultures are different in important ways. Also, Experiments showing that priming can cause a lean towards a tendency nowhere prove that there are no group differences. Priming experiments have shown that when primed with old age related terms people walk slowly- does this negate the fact that young people are young, old people are old and there is whale of a difference in the average energy or walking speed of an old person and a young person. Should we conclude that age is a myth and that age is irrelevant to the average energy or time taken to walk a particular stretch!

The ease with which priming can alter our modes of thought makes it very unlikely that a penchant for either analytic or holistic thinking stems from deep-seated differences in the brains of westerners and easterners. Instead, it seems that the cultural context in which we grow up simply gives us more practice in thinking about the world in a particular way. “Everyone can think both ways, but on average, people tend to do more of one than the other,” says Oyserman.

Sorry again. We can all be primed to display more intelligent behavior and our modes of thinking (creative or detail oriented) can be altered and manipulated, still people are looking (and have found some lateralization differences) for brain differences in these modes of thinking and like every phenomenon there is bound to be brain differences involved.(No I’m not endorsing the right-brained/ left-brained myth, but saying that creative and detail oriented thinking have no neurological basis to me seems wrong. Also, I’m glad that at last it is acknowledged that cultural practices in which we grow up gives us more practice/ exposure to a particular thinking style and lead to differences. Why should learning not lead to brain differences(remember plasticty 101) but genetics do I fail to understand. Also, remember critical developmental periods. It may be that there is a critical period in which this holistic/analytical thinking style gets fixed and that causes a long-lasting effect. Consider language- what language, and any language at all, that the child learns is dependent on correct exposure during critical developmental time; one can learn foreign languages later also , but with considerable effort and not as naturally as a child does. The story with holistic/analytical thinking style may be the same. One may develop this trait duirng a critcial developmental window and although manipulable it may not be totally non-hardwired.

Brain imaging supports this. In an experiment that involved subjects looking at a series of squares with lines in them, Trey Hedden from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that in east Asians the areas of the brain involved in focusing attention worked harder if they had to identify lines of the same length regardless of the surrounding squares – an “absolute” task that requires you to focus on an object regardless of its context. But with Americans the same brain areas were working harder to identify lines whose sizes varied proportionally with their squares – a “relative” judgement where context is key (Psychological Sciences, vol 19, p 12). In other words, people had to think harder to perform tasks outside their cultural comfort zone. The brain uses the same mental machinery to solve complex tasks, but cultural differences can affect how well trained these areas are.

No it doesn’t, Haven’t read the original studies, but from your discussion the areas involved are those relating to focusing attention- I believe it is common sense that you would focus more attention on a task that is not ingrained and is novel.What about other brain areas specific to the task. Were there differences in brain activation related to holistic/ analytical thinking. Was there some lateralization effect?

What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility. “There are a lot of advantages to both holistic and analytic perception,” says Nisbett. In our multicultural world it would benefit us all if we could learn to adopt the most appropriate mode of thought for the situation in which we find ourselves.

No It is not at all clear that the brains are not wired differently. I believe there should be small differences, but based on the flexibility shown by people in switching from one style to another one can use plasticity and practice to re-wire the brain. Whether that re-wiring is required, or cultural social engineering is required would depend on whether one considers extremes maladaptive or just adaptive responses occupying particular niches. To deny differences outright is to deny the truth and perhaps lead to the fallacy of thinking everyone thinks like oneself. To understand differences is a first step towards greater tolerance and understanding. Hope I make sense.

Support for the Broken Window

Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science has an important post  on research by Keizer and colleagues, which found support for the broken windows theory of crime spread. He dos a very good job of describing the broken window theory, the experiments of Keizer et al and how they show that disorder spreads like a virus, so I won’t repeat all that here but urge you to go to his blog to get the complete lowdown.  

What I would like to highlight instead is that fact that this Broken window theory was brought to public focus by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and subsequently the same theory was thrashed in Frekonomics by Dunbar and surprisingly Malcolm Gladwell had promoted and written an encouraging blurb for Freakonomics. You can read more on the controversy here . I obviously had disliked almost all the explanations in Freakonomics and believe that the book was more on trying to be controversial rather than offering new insights. I , on the other hand, have been sympathetic to Gladwell’s writings and it is heartening to note that new research supports the old position that lawlessness spreads via small acts and it may be more important to take care of small, everyday acts of lawlessness than to focus on a few big problems like the cocaine addicts. I would just end with a brief note on Gladwell’s new book Outliers, which is on my immediate reading list and I am pleased that he shares some of my thoughts about how SES affects outcomes in life (like IQ) and how we are creatures of circumstances.

Genocide and Mortality Saliance

There is an interesting article at We’re Only Human, that argues that being exposed to people who have a different philosophy or world-view form our own can lead to feelings of Mortality Salience or awareness of our own Mortality. We all know that humans are aware of their own mortality and yet, can go about their daily business, nonchalantly , as they find solace in their cultural world-view , of being part of a religion or group with shared philosophy/ world-view. This is the basis for the Terror Management theory.

Now the article further argues, that if we witness the annihilation of people whose philisophy / world-view is different from ours , and who by their mere presence have induced a Mortality salience in us; then we can , by witnessing their annihilation, overcome the terror of death and manage its impact. thus, our propensity for genocide. all this is not based on mere speculation, but there is experimental evidence, that thinking about people with a different philosophy does lead to thoughts of personal death and fear of ones mortality; that witnessing or being told about the death of members holding that alternate philosophical view does lead to proper management of that terror and thus theoretically the rationale of hidden reasons behind genocide.

All that is fine; but the research was conducted using a religious paradigm. what if the other group exposed to was that of atheists; or a capitalist group was pitted against communist ideologies; would the results still hold. Historically, there has been much bloodshed between religious factions, and memories of that may color the results as people realistically feel threatened due to the checkered history of mankind. If we can be user that the terror is due to mortality salience induced by exposure to different philosophy ; and not just due to memories flooding back; than the results could have a greater implication.

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The Rat Park: Addiction and Environmental factors

I recently came across an article in the Walrus Magazine on the Rat Park. Basically a rat park is providing an enriched environment to the rats (both physical and social) as compared to the skinner box and then letting them self-administer the drugs of abuse like morphine. It was found that rats were not prone to addiction to these habit forming drugs , if they lived in an enriched environment.

The problem with the Skinner box experiments, Alexander and his co-researchers suspected, was the box itself. To test that hypothesis, Alexander built an Eden for rats. Rat Park was a plywood enclosure the size of 200 standard cages. There were cedar shavings, boxes, tin cans for hiding and nesting, poles for climbing, and plenty of food. Most important, because rats live in colonies, Rat Park housed sixteen to twenty animals of both sexes.

Rats in Rat Park and control animals in standard laboratory cages had access to two water bottles, one filled with plain water and the other with morphine-laced water. The denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent). Even when Alexander tried to seduce his rats by sweetening the morphine, the ones in Rat Park drank far less than the ones in cages. Only when he added naloxone, which eliminates morphine’s narcotic effects, did the rats in Rat Park start drinking from the water-sugar-morphine bottle. They wanted the sweet water, but not if it made them high.

In a variation he calls “Kicking the Habit,” Alexander gave rats in both environments nothing but morphine-laced water for fifty-seven days, until they were physically dependent on the drug. But as soon as they had a choice between plain water and morphine, the animals in Rat Park switched to plain water more often than the caged rats did, voluntarily putting themselves through the discomfort of withdrawal to do so.

Rat Park showed that a rat’s environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can’t do those things. It’s no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief.

The article then goes on to address some of the politics behind funding and how Alexander could not secure funding and how he later tried to study the same phenomenon in humans.

Unable to secure funding, Alexander conducted most of his research in the library, where he gathered a mountain of evidence. A survey of Ontario households in 1987, for example, suggested that 95 percent of those who had ever tried cocaine were using it less than once a month. A 1990 survey conducted in the US found that crack cocaine, “the most addictive drug on earth,” was addicting only one user in a hundred. “Naturally, because scholars are scrupulous, I’ve had to try it [morphine] myself,” Alexander says. “It’s no big deal. You’re visibly lightened of pain and anxiety, and that’s mildly pleasant.” But he didn’t experience any urge to try it again. “I just wasn’t interested, and that’s the typical response.”

Then there are the thousands of American soldiers who became heroin addicts during the Vietnam War. In an unrivalled demonstration of the effect of setting, a 1975 survey found that 88 percent of them simply stopped using the drug when they left the war zone. Their experience has been recreated by millions of hospital patients who have received (and become physically dependent on) morphine for severe pain. If opioids are all they’re reputed to be, this practice should have produced legions of addicts. Instead, as researchers have discovered, once patients are no longer in physical distress, they can’t wait to quit the drug, go through the withdrawal period, and get on with their lives. It’s Rat Park’s “Kicking the Habit” experiment carried out on humans, with the same result.

In my view this is an important funding, that has been kept suppressed for a long time, but whose time has come now. We all know the beneficial effects of enriched environments and the harmful effects of stress (even social stress like placed in a lower social dominance hierarchy ) . In a similar experiment with primates it was found that those who were at the top of the social dominance hierarchy did not become addicted while those at the lowest level of hierarchy became addicting to stuff like cocaine and heroin.

Dominant animals had more D2 [dopamine receptor] activity than subordinates, but that was a consequence of their dominance, and not its cause [emphasis added]. Regardless of their D2 activity when kept individually, monkeys that became subordinate showed little change in their PET responses after they had been put into company. In the animals that became dominant, by contrast, D2 activity increased significantly… Like D2 activity, cocaine use was related to social status. Dominant animals found a preferred level, then stuck to it. Subordinates, though, seemed to need bigger and bigger fixes as time went on. That is a classic symptom of addiction… Propensity to addiction, in other words, is not a predisposition of the individual, but the result of social context.

All these data merit a rethink of addiction as a purely biological phenomenon and implores us to take a more environmental approach.

Hat tip: Neuroanthropology blog

Catch 22: Psychosis, Culture and the Mind Wars

While the original catch 22 was about a person not getting interned for military service on a premise that one is insane and thus incapable; and on the flip side the fact that only a sane person , who wants to avoid military service , would use such an insanity defense; this post is more about the fact that if psychosis/delusion is defined in cultural terms, then a society of affected individuals who form a community/culture in which their beliefs/ behavior is not considered bizarre would have cured themselves of their malady by just forming a community.

Thus the paradox of defining psychotic symptoms in relative terms

  • socially inappropriate behavior- As an example – if a person gets nude, it is a socially inappropriate behavior; but if he joins and starts living on a private nude beach- that becomes an acceptable behavior.
  • delusions as beliefs not shared by the community/culture – as Vaughan from Mind Hacks points out in his original research – here people with mind control delusions form an online community and thus logically within their community/ sub-culture- their beliefs are no more illogical or delusional.
  • Hallucinations as visions/ voices not heard/seen by others– This has an inherent problem as the qualia one experiences cannot be shared by others. Suppose one sees a magical performance in which something impossibles happens in front of one’s eyes – like a man cutting himself in two-is that a real phenomenon as all the audiences have witnessed it. Conversely if someone sees or hears things that seem more real than real to him/her but are not perceived by others should he doubt his subjective experience? If many psychotic patients come together and by synchronising in some sense of the word , get an auditory/ visual hallucination simultaneously – would that make their case strong that they are not listening to imaginary voices? As the diagnosis is made based on the presence of hallucinations and the psychiatrists are usually least bothered about the content, should it matter that the voice they hear says the same thing?

I concur with Vaughan that diagnosis not be made on relative terms – it should be in absolute terms. A behavior of being nude in public is no more appropriate- it once was when we were evolving- but now that we have clothes we better cover ourselves and if we have to reveal , reveal in a socially acceptable context (for eg Jain Munis or other saints at times go about naked, because the culture/ community of these holy men is very different from ours).

Similarly, delusions may just be an attempt to weave a coherent narrative around their unusual experiences- if the prevailing culture’s main values are things like warfare/ exploitation/ mind control experiments , then when faced with immense stressful situations that may lead to physcila and chemical changes in the brain and behavior and sensorimotor gating, one may cope by rationalizing one’s state as due to mind-control . Alternately one may consider oneself a victim of alien abduction and as being controlled by Aliens if the culture of that person values more of science and futuristic scenarios. Alternately the person from religious and spiritual cultures may believe themselves to be controlled by God or Satan and being juts the vehicle for their wishes. I have my own preferences and prejudices as to which interpretation is more desirable, but I’ll leave that for now and caution that it is best to consider a delusional belief as efforts to make sense of their unusual experincecs an tackled as such. One knows that the psychosis gets triggered by stress and emotional turmoil and one should address that to prevent the emergence of symtoms and then address the delusional beliefs.

I would now like to draw attention to an article I read in Washington post today. The author meets up with some Targeted Individual (TIs) of mind-control community and comes up with some very interesting observations.

The callers frequently refer to themselves as TIs, which is short for Targeted Individuals, and talk about V2K — the official military abbreviation stands for “voice to skull” and denotes weapons that beam voices or sounds into the head. In their esoteric lexicon, “gang stalking” refers to the belief that they are being followed and harassed: by neighbors, strangers or colleagues who are agents for the government.

I am currently reading a book Mind Wars by Moreno and one reason I am a bit reluctant to do a quick review is because it brings to light many such mind-control and man-machine intelligence experiments that may fuel mind-control delusions in those at risk and those trying to make sense of their stressful and emotional experiences . The book has similarly been written on a very cautious note, and I would love to review it also in a cautious mode. For now on to the Washington post article.

For all the scorn, the ranks of victims — or people who believe they are victims — are speaking up. In the course of the evening, there are as many as 40 clicks from people joining the call, and much larger numbers participate in the online forum, which has 143 members. A note there mentioning interest from a journalist prompted more than 200 e-mail responses.

It is interesting to note that the number of forum members is close to 150 – the number most frequently associated with any active community- as is also the number of nodes that cluster together in a real small-world network. Vaughan also points that the social network they discovered , by analyzing online mind-control sites, was a small-world network.

Girard sought advice from this then-girlfriend, a practicing psychologist, whom he declines to identify. He says she told him, “Nobody can become psychotic in their late 40s.” She said he didn’t seem to manifest other symptoms of psychotic behavior — he dressed well, paid his bills — and, besides his claims of surveillance, which sounded paranoid, he behaved normally. “People who are psychotic are socially isolated,” he recalls her saying.

This exposes some of the frequent myths associated with Psychosis. As one relates psychosis most with Schizophrenia, one believes that it cannot occur later- if one thinks of schizophrenia as a extreme manic episode of a bipolar disorder, one would not have a bias. Interestingly, of the blind psychiatrist that analyzed the online sites in the Vaughan study , most made an outright diagnosis of schizophrenia and not a delusional or psychotic assessment. Again, those having bipolar disorder may not be socially isolated. Even bipolar patients can suffer from mind-control or other delusions.

He got the same response from friends, he says. “They regarded me as crazy, which is a humiliating experience.”

When asked why he didn’t consult a doctor about the voices and the pain, he says, “I don’t dare start talking to people because of the potential stigma of it all. I don’t want to be treated differently. Here I was in Philadelphia. Something was going on, I don’t know any doctors . . . I know somebody’s doing something to me.”

Again notice the downward spiral – to avoid stigma and humiliation (at both being diagnosed as mad and putting one’s family to risk and shame(genetic defect) and as being not able to cope with external stresses( a perceived character defect) one takes the other more acceptable alternative of explaining one’s predicament as a result of prevalent cultural values. This leads to loss of touch with reality and pardoxically leads to social unaccepatnce. Here it is imperative to note that in some other psychological conditions like Mass hysteria too- the content of the abnormal behavior comprises of and is affected by prevalent cultural values. One may thus have a control-by-god ‘delusion’ or a control-by-govt/machines delusion or a control-by-aliens delusions. nbe may even see visions accordingly- some of a deity, others of Significan Others and still others of Govt agents (remember A Beautiful Mind).

Girard, for his part, believes these weapons were not only developed but were also tested on him more than 20 years ago.

What would the government gain by torturing him? Again, Girard found what he believed to be an explanation, or at least a precedent: During the Cold War, the government conducted radiation experiments on scores of unwitting victims, essentially using them as human guinea pigs. Girard came to believe that he, too, was a walking experiment.

As long as things like these have happened historically, one should not be surprised if one becomes suspicious after meeting top govt personnels at a stressful and vulnerable time. Also remember the LCD experiments!

GIRARD’S STORY, HOWEVER STRANGE, reflects what TIs around the world report: a chance encounter with a government agency or official, followed by surveillance and gang stalking, and then, in many cases, voices, and pain similar to electric shocks. Some in the community have taken it upon themselves to document as many cases as possible. One TI from California conducted about 50 interviews, narrowing the symptoms down to several major areas: “ringing in the ears,” “manipulation of body parts,” “hearing voices,” “piercing sensation on skin,” “sinus problems” and “sexual attacks.” In fact, the TI continued, “many report the sensation of having their genitalia manipulated.”

Again psychiatrists typically ignore the content of delusions/ hallucinations, but it is apparent that their is a pattern. I hope I was qualified enough to comment on what may be behind this pattern, but hopefully others more qualified would take a lead here and start examining why the etiology should be like this. One explanation, that is apparent is , treating one’s body reactions as being caused by others.

What made her think it was an electronic attack and not just in her head? “There was no sexual attraction to a man when it would happen. That’s what was wrong. It did not feel like a muscle spasm or whatever,” she says. “It’s so . . . electronic.”

Again, it is plausible that the attraction is unconscious and one is trying to make sense of a consciously undesired sensation.

Like Girard, Naylor describes what she calls “street theater” — incidents that might be dismissed by others as coincidental, but which Naylor believes were set up. She noticed suspicious cars driving by her isolated vacation home. On an airplane, fellow passengers mimicked her every movement — like mimes on a street.

Again if we have cultural artifacts like Bertolt Brescht type street theatres, MTV bakras or the concept of psychodramas, then it is quite possible that these delusions of conspiracy may get woven in the narrative.

For almost four years, Naylor says, the voices prevented her from writing. In 2000, she says, around the time she discovered the mind-control forums, the voices stopped and the surveillance tapered off. It was then that she began writing 1996 as a “catharsis.”

Colleagues urged Naylor not to publish the book, saying she would destroy her reputation. But she did publish, albeit with a small publishing house. The book was generally ignored by critics but embraced by TIs.

Naylor is not the first writer to describe such a personal descent. Evelyn Waugh, one of the great novelists of the 20th century, details similar experiences in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh’s book, published in 1957, has eerie similarities to Naylor’s.

Again notice the stigma and the similarities.

Embarking on a recuperative cruise, Pinfold begins to hear voices on the ship that he believes are part of a wireless system capable of broadcasting into his head; he believes the instigator recruited fellow passengers to act as operatives; and he describes “performances” put on by passengers directed at him yet meant to look innocuous to others.

“One tries to convince friends and family that you are being electronically harassed with voices that only you can hear,” he writes in an e-mail. “You learn to stop doing that. They don’t believe you, and they become sad and concerned, and it amplifies your own depression when you have voices screaming at you and your friends and family looking at you as a helpless, sick, mentally unbalanced wreck.”

Moore, like other TIs, is cautious about sharing details of his life. He worries about looking foolish to friends and colleagues — but he says that risk is ultimately worthwhile if he can bring attention to the issue.

More stigma. And More courage, but perhaps in the wrong direction.

Alexander acknowledged that “there were some abuses that took place,” but added that, on the whole, “I would argue we threw the baby out with the bath water.”

But September 11, 2001, changed the mood in Washington, and some in the national security community are again expressing interest in mind control, particularly a younger generation of officials who weren’t around for MK-ULTRA. “It’s interesting, that it’s coming back,” Alexander observed.

“Maybe I can fix you, or electronically neuter you, so it’s safe to release you into society, so you won’t come back and kill me,” Alexander says. It’s only a matter of time before technology allows that scenario to come true, he continues. “We’re now getting to where we can do that.” He pauses for a moment to take a bite of his sandwich. “Where does that fall in the ethics spectrum? That’s a really tough question.”

When Alexander encounters a query he doesn’t want to answer, such as one about the ethics of mind control, he smiles and raises his hands level to his chest, as if balancing two imaginary weights. In one hand is mind control and the sanctity of free thought — and in the other hand, a tad higher — is the war on terrorism.

Does 9/11 justify a preparedness for Mind Wars? Or is the root of all evil in the culture that puts inappropriate stress on vulnerable individuls. It is interesting to note that some people got rid of their symptoms after joining online support groups.

Clancy argues that the main reason people believe they’ve been abducted by aliens is that it provides them with a compelling narrative to explain their perception that strange things have happened to them, such as marks on their bodies (marks others would simply dismiss as bruises), stimulation to their sexual organs (as the TIs describe) or feelings of paranoia. “It’s not just an explanation for your problems; it’s a source of meaning for your life,” Clancy says.

In the case of TIs, mind-control weapons are an explanation for the voices they hear in their head. Socrates heard a voice and thought it was a demon; Joan of Arc heard voices from God. As one TI noted in an e-mail: “Each person undergoing this harassment is looking for the solution to the problem. Each person analyzes it through his or her own particular spectrum of beliefs. If you are a scientific-minded person, then you will probably analyze the situation from that perspective and conclude it must be done with some kind of electronic devices. If you are a religious person, you will see it as a struggle between the elements of whatever religion you believe in. If you are maybe, perhaps more eccentric, you may think that it is alien in nature.”

A step towrads the right solutions.

Being a victim of government surveillance is also, arguably, better than being insane. In Waugh’s novella based on his own painful experience, when Pinfold concludes that hidden technology is being used to infiltrate his brain, he “felt nothing but gratitude in his discovery.” Why? “He might be unpopular; he might be ridiculous; but he was not mad.”

So is it better to be deluded or better to be Mad (psychotic).

In general, the outlook for TIs is not good; many lose their jobs, houses and family. Depression is common. But for many at the rally, experiencing the community of mind-control victims seems to help. One TI, a man who had been a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard before voices in his head sent him on a downward spiral, expressed the solace he found among fellow TIs in a long e-mail to another TI: “I think that the only people that can help are people going through the same thing. Everyone else will not believe you, or they are possibly involved.”

In the end, though, nothing could help him enough. In August 2006, he would commit suicide.

Grave lessons. Psychitric help is needed and required. An online community may prevent you from insanity; it doesnt prevent death and suicide.

Is there any reason for optimism?

Girard hesitates, then asks a rhetorical question.

“Why, despite all this, why am I the same person? Why am I Harlan Girard?”

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.

“That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”

The last words of hope. At least we are not lobotomizing people now and making them a different person.

Schizophrenia, Religion, Autism and the Indian culture (alternate title: Life, The Universe and Everything)

In continuation of my focus on the Schizophrenia-Autism dichotomy, I’ll like to highlight two articles that seem to support my view.

The first is a blog post by, John Horgan, speculating whether religiosity is the inverse of autism.

The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that religious experiences—and particularly those involving visions or intuitions of a personal God–may stem from our innate tendency toward anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.” Guthrie called his book on this theory Faces in the Clouds, but he could have called it Jesus in the Tortilla.

Recent findings in developmental psychology dovetail with Guthrie’s theory. By the age of three or four all healthy children manifest an apparently innate ability to infer the state of mind of other people.

Psychologists postulate that autism stems from a malfunction of the theory-of-mind module. Autistics have difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, and even see no fundamental distinction between people and inanimate objects, such as chairs or tables. That is why autism is sometimes called “mind-blindness.”

But many of us have the opposite problem—an overactive theory-of-mind capacity, which leads to what the psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection.” When we see squares and triangles moving around a screen, we cannot help but see the squares “chasing” the triangles, or vice versa, even when we are told that the movements are random.

This is compatible with this blog’s Schizophrenia-is-the-inverse-of-Autism theory for the following reasons:

1. Too much belief in agency in Schizophrenics (the hyperactive Agent detector conceptualized above) vs too less belief in agency in Autistics – characterized by me earlier as a Fantasy/Imagination Vs Reality orientation – has a direct relevance to whether one attributes anthropomorphic agency to non-living things and events (and thus Nature or God) or even fails to attribute intention to humans and animals and assumes them to be mere automata. I believe while a schizophrenic mindset can be characterized by a suspension-of-disbelief and too much causality and intention attribution (thus leading to the mindset compatible with religious/ spiritual leanings), the autistic mindset would lead to too much skepticism, too much even-causal-happenings-are-only-coincidental mindset and a reductionist, atheistic mindset that attributes no intention to humans, least of all animals, and believes that they are just advanced machines. I guess both are extremes of delusion, in one case one characterizes that as the GOD delusion; but the other extremist who sees no role of agency or intentionality (even in humans) is hauled as a great scientist!!

2. Another prominent dimension on which the Schizophrenics and autistic differ is the Literal-Metaphor dimension. I would like to frame that in terms of a Reference-Meaning use of a linguistic word and the consequent distinction in linguistics between a symbol as a referent of something and a symbol as signifying a meaning. For an excellent commentary on this difference, please do read this classical paper.

Meaning, let us remember, is not to be identified with naming. Frege’s example of ‘Evening Star’ and ‘Morning Star’ and Russell’s of ‘Scott’ and ‘the author of Waverly’, illustrate that terms can name the same thing but differ in meaning. The distinction between meaning and naming is no less important at the level of abstract terms. The terms ‘9’ and ‘the number of the planets’ name one and the same abstract entity but presumably must be regarded as unlike in meaning; for astronomical observation was needed, and not mere reflection on meanings, to determine the sameness of the entity in question.

It is my contention that while the Schizophrenics are meaning obsessed; the Autistics are more reference obsessed, and thus have problems with metaphorical and figurative speech. From linguistics one can stretch the Meaning-Reference distinction and conceive of too much meaning orientation in schizophrenics ( and a meaningful life requires a GOD that gives a meaning to our lives) versus a nihilistic orientation in autistics that views the life/ evolution as purposeless. As many evolutionists famously claim – there is no meaning inherent in evolution, life or humans – rather that the question of meaning is invalid. Life just is.

3. Many schizophrenic delusions can be explained by an extreme manifestation of religiosity/ spirituality. As Szasz famously said, ” If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you you have schizophrenia”. Both a belief in GOD and his ability to listen to our prayers (the religious belief) and the converse belief that God can talk to us , many times in symbolic ways, but sometimes in the form of actual auditory hallucinations are a manifestation of the same cognitive mechanism that attributes too much agency, causality and meaning. Many schizophrenics, indeed do suffer from delusion of Grandeur, whereby they think of themselves as GOD-like; or the delusion of persecution and paranoia whereby they are persecuted by Satan like evil figures. thus both hallucinations as well as the common delusions are explainable by the religiosity orientation. this time the GOD delusion is different – one believes that one is a god-head. In non-religious cultures, these being-GOD delusions may take the non-religious forms of being a famous historical person (who had great agency and effect on Human history and is presumably now active via the agency of the deluded schizophrenic), and the persecution delusions may not refer to Satan- but to their non-secular counterparts- the CIA and the government!! Of course the pathological forms of an Autistic mindset, that may have nihilistic orientations, and out of boredom and feelings of meaninglessness, may resort to meaningless acts of violence like the Columbine Massacres is one direction which needs further study.

I would now like to now draw focus on the Cultural differences post where I had speculated on the different incidences rates of Schizophrenia and Autism in the East Asian and American cultures based on the differential emphasis on holistic and contextual versus analytical and local processing and cognition and also presented some supporting evidence. The well documented religious/spiritual inclination of Oriental cultures versus the Scientific/materialistic orientation of the American and western cultures may be another factor that would affect and explain the relative incidences of Schizophrenia and Autism in these cultures.

In a culture like India, in which the people believe in 18 crore (180 billion) Gods and Deities, believe in reincarnation and believe that every human being is potentially divine, if a human errs towards an extreme and starts developing funny ideas of being a God herself, then that may not ring the alarm bells immediately. Rather some form of that delusion may even be encouraged (that is why in India names are kept after the Gods and Deities; while its rare to find the name Jesus in West, you can find millions of Rams in India). If the same GOD-delusion develops in an American, then his idea of being Jesus (or an angel) would definitely be detected early, lead to an earlier ‘label’ and an earlier hospitalization.

That said, I would now like to draw attention to an article today in the Times Of India, that pointed me to some more literature that unequivocally shows that not only are the incidence rates of schizophrenia less in India (and other third world (Asian) countries), the prognosis is manifold better in Indian patients as compared to American patients.

The success story of schizophrenics in India was propagated by mental health professionals based on the WHO research DOSMeD in 1979. This was carried out in 10 countries including developing ones such as India, Nigeria and Columbia. The findings showed striking differences in the prognosis of schizophrenia between developed and developing countries. The underlying causes for the diversity were associated more with family and social variables than clinical determinants. Majority of patients in developing countries showed remission over two years; only 50 per cent of them had a single relapse though around 15 per cent never recovered. Patient outcome in developing countries was superior to that in developed economies.

This difference has been hypothesized to be due to the strong family structure (and I do believe that it is an important factor) and the social cushion, support and acceptance that a family provides to the patient and shields him/her from stressful situations that may trigger a relapse.

This theory of a family-protective-advantage has come under attack recently, but I think the attack is flawed because it clubs countries not according to Cultures, but according to developmental status. Indeed, the other factor that may be affecting a better outcome in schizophrenic patients may be the cultural differences like the different cognitive/perceptual styles and a more tolerance for religious/spiritual/ mystical ideas. By shielding a person from stigmatization and isolation, based on eccentricities exhibited along these dimensions, one may be preventing or delaying relapse, and ensuring better outcome by not pushing the person over the edge. In the pats, it was not infrequent, for those who had psychotic experiences to be labeled as shamans and to be treated with respect, rather than stigma and isolation; thus ensuring that they were not exposed to social stresses in the future.

I have taken a somewhat deprecating attitude towards the extreme autistic orientation characterized by no intentionality, causality, spiritual beliefs, but I am a strong believer in the fact that though the extreme manifestation of Autism/Schizophrenia makes one dysfunctional, a pronounced autistic/ schizophrenic orientation does endow one with creative faculties – either to understand and manipulate the world (the Sciences) or to understand and manipulate the subjective experiences (the Arts) . In particular, as the readers of this blog would most likely be scientists, and because I belong the the scientific community and have failed to see how a scientific orientation is incompatible with an artistic/symbolic/spiritual orientation , I have taken a harder line for the extreme Atheist and nihilism zealots.

I believe one can, and must, utilize the different types of cognitive abilities these extreme manifestations and disorders caricature. Do let me know what your think!

The Two Cultures continued

While my original post regarding the two cultures of Schizophrenia and Autism was a reference to the Arts and Science cultures of CP Snow, this post is about the cultures in the traditional sense- the American culture pitted against the East Asian culture.

To recap the differences in Autism and Schizophrenia, the difference could be summarized as a linear, literal, realistic, detail-oriented and routine -bound thinking style in Autism and a non-linear(parallel), metaphorical, imaginative, meaning-oriented and novelty preferring thinking style associated with schizophrenia. One of the prime reasons for these differences was hypothesized to be a central coherence tendency in autism (too much focus on foreground and piece-meal perception/ conception) on the one hand and a contextual, broad and loose association tendency in schizophrenia (too much focus on background and a gestalt and holistic sort of perception/ conception) on the other hand.

One can even go a step ahead and characterize the autistic cognitive style as Analytical and the schizophrenic style as Holistic in nature.

That brings us to an interesting hypothesis. It is well known that cultures differ in their cognitive thinking style and it has been demonstrated in a number of studies that the American culture is characterized by an analytical thinking style, while the East Asian cultures are characterized by a holistic cognitive style.

This cross-cultural differences in cognitive style, as popularized by Richard Nisbett’?s book The Geography of Thought, has been found to be displayed in perception ( differences exist in change-blindness based on foreground/background salience and this also correlates with the differential patterns of eye fixations on background/foreground in the two cultures) , in categorization and representations(with either a style based on ecological or habitat-based thinking dominant or a one based on narrow self focus and goal-directed thinking dominant), in thinking (analytic vs holistic thinking), in reasoning about causes ( limited, direct causes vs. a large number of indirect causes) and recently in reasoning about consequences ( with western culture favoring a more direct consequence on an immediately succeeding event and the eastern cultures favoring more indirect consequences on more futuristic events and event effects on the the ultimate outcome).

Various theories have been proposed for these differences including a fear of isolation theory that posits that difference in dialectical vs analytical thinking or the reliance on context for memory recognition is due to the fear of social ostracizing, which causes one to focus more on context; a complex and ambiguous physical environment theory which in a roundabout (and in my view in a flawed) way argues that differences in complexity and ambiguity of towns and city scenes of the two cultures cause the different thinking styles rather than it being the other way round; to this being due to linguistic effects (just like this study which shows that linguistic differences cause changes in spatial cognition, I’m sure there are studies that attribute the different cognitive styles to linguistic effect) or due to genetic differences.

While I will not address the reasons for the differences, I will take as granted the fact that there are reasonable differences in the cognitive style on the figure-ground, details-gestalt and analytical-holistic dimensions and these dimensions are more or less the same sort of cognitive style differences that one sees in schizophrenia and autism.

Consistent with this cultural trend, one can predict that in cultures which favor divergent, contextual and holistic thinking , a schizotypal subject would be less susceptible to be labeled as a mentally ill person. These cultures would be more tolerant of this form of thinking and more accommodating of the extreme manifestation. consequently one can hypothesize that in East Asian cultures the incidence and prevalence of Schizophrenia would be way below that in American cultures. This is actually the case with lifetime prevalence in Asian countries being 0.25 as opposed to 0.88 for non-Asian countries.

A reverse trend would be expected in Autism, with American children being diagnosed with autism lesser than the Asian cultures. The results for this prediction are not that optimistic as data on autism prevalence in china is not readily available; but Japanese show an upward trend, while American incidence levels seem to have actually decreased over the years.

Thus, it may actually be the case that autism and schizophrenia signify the Two Cultures.

Before I part, just a parting note on the recently discovered Television and Autism linkage. John Hawks, had commented on the eye movement cultural differences study and in its context had hypothesized that the reason for differences in cognitive style with Americans focusing on the foreground object may be due to the high prevalence in America of cartoon TV viewing which causes one to focus on a one moving object, against a static background.

But let’s consider what some of those cultural reasons might be. For example, have American graduate students watched cheaply-animated cartoons for a greater proportion of their lives. You know, the kind of cartoon where the only moving object is the main character, and the background is entirely static for minutes? For that matter, does television viewing in general affect attention.

To me this hypothesis of TV-cartoon viewing and the consequent figure-focus or central coherence seems very promising and might be the reason as to why Autism is rising with increased TV viewings.