The way we do the things we do

What are the sources of human action?  Are we just matter in motion, acted on by blind forces, like the earth and the moon?  It seems unlikely.  Something inside each human being stirs before at least some actions:  an intention to act.  Is that feeling a delusion?  If it isn’t, do we then resemble atomic particles rather than planets — that is, random in individual behavior, but caught in a calculus of probability in the aggregate?

Thanks to Newton and Marx, individual freedom gets short shrift among the deep thinkers of today.  Newton gave us our only legitimate form of causation, the billiard-ball kind.  More on that in a later post.  Marx proposed that the forces acting on us were entirely economic, inescapable, and predictable.

Few serious thinkers today share Marx’s Victorian (and Newtonian) certainty, but most would assert, with a postmodern smirk, that culture and the power structure for which it functions orchestrate human lives — that we are indeed trapped in a calculus of probability, with the limits of behavior set by the oligarchy (or patriarchy, or the military-industrial complex, or the Jews, or whatever).

Is the individual mind mere stuffing, like that of the Scarecrow, or does it possess causal power?  Do I really act when I intend to, or am I in bondage to my culture?  Nothing more than the freedom and dignity of the individual, and thus the fate of democracy, hang on the answer.

I won’t pretend to resolve the matter here, but this Commentary article by psychiatrist Paul McHugh provides interesting hints to how such an answer may be found.

McHugh’s subject is “hysteria,” an emotional ailment I thought had been discarded by science along with Freudian dream analysis.  Clearly not:  McHugh defines hysteria as “an extraordinarily perverse human behavior in which individuals act in ways that imitate actual physical or psychological disorder.”  Hysterics aren’t duplicitous, but powerfully self-deluded.  They are also remarkable in their ability to mimic pathological conditions, often persuading authorities in the field.

Hysterics possess fragile makeups to begin with; the condition can be triggered by any number of life situations.

What precipitates hysterical behavior? Occasionally, a dramatic, emotionally laden event — a family crisis, or a report of the death of an honored public figure like Princess Diana or Pope John Paul II — can provoke the sudden onset of hysterical paralysis, muteness, or fugue (loss of identity). More often, hysterical conditions emerge out of some mixture of discouragement or demoralization tied to temperament and life circumstances. A patient may sense and resent a lack of concern by others, or feel overwhelmed by responsibility. He may feel unable to continue with military service, or to follow through on his promises or on others’ expectations of him. Some may come to believe that they are sick because of difficulties faced at work — difficulties that could be avoided by, for instance, extending a hospital stay. Or they may be bewildered by a family conflict from which assuming the “sick role” would free them.

Four examples of hysteria “epidemics,” spanning four centuries, are examined by McHugh.  With these cases, hysterical behavior transcends the merely bizarre to connect with our question:  how deeply is the individual mind in thrall to the surrounding culture?

The examples include the girls who accused others of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem, the eighteenth-century Parisian patients of the quackish Dr. Mesmer, the mock epileptics studied by the brilliant Dr. Charcot in a Paris hospital a century later, and the outbreak of “multiple personality disorder” and “recovered memories” late in the twentieth century.  In all cases, the people involved were utterly sincere.  They believed were bewitched, mesmerized, seizure-prone, “multiples.”

How can a single pathology account for such different behaviors?  Here things get interesting.  According to McHugh, “the patients’ beliefs derived from conceptions of reality held by others and particularly by influential others — the doctors and divines of Salem, Mesmer and his distinguished supporters in Paris, Charcot at the Salpêtrière.”

The four groups of hysterics garnered an inordinate amount of sympathetic attention from their behavior.  They moved from the shadows to center stage in the drama of life.  But to do so, they had to persuade influential persons that their conditions mattered.  And the stories that mattered in seventeenth-century Salem differed from those in twentieth-century America.  Accusations of witchcraft ended in public trials and executions.  Claims of multiple personalities led to best-selling books and movies.

If we convert hysterics into our lab rats, standing for the individual mind, and consider the expert examiners to be keepers of their culture, it would appear at first glance that the latter indeed control the behavior of the former.  A hysteric acts in accordance with a world that exists in the heads of his cultural authorities.  Such worlds differ greatly, from culture to culture, in what they accept as a reasonable explanation:  the work of witches, for example, or the existence of many persons in one body.  Yet the hysteric appears willing to surrender his individuality to whatever explanation his culture demands.

This account is accurate but incomplete.  Each culture is a narrative, a story told over centuries about success and failure, power and weakness, family and community, good and evil.  The individual mind encounters the narrative from first consciousness, and must adapt to it somehow.  This is no different than language.  Most Americans are born to English, which they each localize and personalize.  It’s a powerful tool serving both the individual and the culture, not a form of servitude.

Adaptation to a narrative follows a path cut by individual need:  it can lead to mastery, conformism, reinterpretation, or rejection.  In the case of McHugh’s hysterics, it’s important to understand both the intent and the outcome of their behavior, before we can judge whether they were obedient pawns in a cultural chess game.

The individuals described in the article craved attention and wished to escape from narrowly circumscribed lives.  They encountered narratives that allowed them to achieve both goals.  During the episodes of hysteria, they became leading actors in a public drama, waited on by experts and people in power.

True, they were persuaded by these experts to behave in specific ways.  They adopted a ruling cultural narrative.  But in turn they persuaded the experts that their behavior deserved attention and support.  They outdid the experts in cultural expertise, and wrung from the ruling narrative what their hearts secretly desired.

Who, then, is the dupe?  Who is the authority?  More to the point, who owns and manipulates the narrative?

The simple answer is:  everyone does.  But because we view the narrative from different personal and social perspectives, and own and manipulate it to different degrees and ends, the simple answer doesn’t tell us much.  The hysterics in the Commentary article are interesting because, from a position of weakness and social insignificance — not to mention emotional instability — they succeeded in deploying the narrative against its authors.

Every human action is a collision between individual psychology and a broader narrative.  To discount the individual for the sake of cargo-cult theories of causation is to embrace a story that leads nowhere.


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