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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

[This post is part of a larger blogging carnival addressing the questions What is Psychopathology. See The Thoughtful Animal for a full list]

What is psychopathology?

Really, give that question some thought.

It’s a big topic, where do you even begin? How do you start to understand such a thing?

Perhaps its worth starting, well, somewhere near the beginning.

Evolution is well established as a legitimate vehicle for biological change. But where does behaviour come from? Could it possibly be the same place? If not, where else? While biological function and form are readily accepted as evolutionary outcomes behaviour is less attributed to demands of fitness, survival, and the flourishing of the species (or of the individual therein).

Why not Psychopathology [Mental Illness] too? It is hereditary, and thus, genetic. It exists in the population in the context of environmental and social influences. It may render a sufferer unfit for procreation, or perhaps, as exceptionally so.

Here are a few points that might change the way you think about Psychopathology. I would love to give this a deeper treatment, but I expect the debate generated itself will bring to light what’s what and how.  As fair warning, some of these have greater or lesser degrees of empirical support, but where possible I have looked for reputable sources.

Let’s start at the population level. Mental disorders likely exist at the far ends of the bell curve. Complicated systems like behaviour, and behavioural disorders, are multiply determined. Lots and lots of genes are either on or off, and acting in concert. Perhaps some are good, more are better, but most are bad. Perhaps all are normal, less are ok, but very few is extremely bad.

What is considered a disorder today might not have been the day before yesterday. Most obviously we ought to consider phobias. A reaction to spiders and snakes today seems a little over-the-top, but 10,000+ years ago in a pre-agrarian society such behaviours may have been valid and acceptable. Scared of heights? Great, don’t climb the sheer rock wall to catch a mountain goat – go catch a fish instead. Yes, that particular example is a just-so story, but it serves to illuminate a point. Take for instance Bipolar disorder – is it so hard to imagine a context where periods of extreme actions and alertness might contribute to your survival, and where subsequent periods of inactivity and apathy might not significantly harm it?

Okay, but so what? A few just-so stories and some somewhat obvious platitudes. Is it possible that mental disorders are side-effects of more adaptive traits? Consider the Bipolar disorder example previously – that particular story was a direct benefit, yet Jamieson (1995) suggested that the creativity associated with the highly productive manic periods might lead to greater selective prowess*. Given that bipolar is multiply-determined, and that detrimental effects might exist at the far end of the spectrum those inheriting less extreme or less ‘complete’ bipolar genes might be beneficially creative and productive without suffering detrimental side-effects. You can measure such things – often by looking at the brothers and sisters of sufferers. These people likely have some of the genes associated with the full disorder, and may retain the benefits.

Not all these traits need be positive (morally speaking). Consider the case of Psychopaths. These people are a danger to society at large and everyone around them. Yet they exist. Why? Well, consider some simple economics – the Hawk and Dove strategy. In a population of Doves (highly passive, non-confrontational) a single Hawk (highly aggressive, highly confrontational) may flourish. Indeed, a limited number of Hawks in a population of Doves will flourish (up to a certain point). If the Hawks begin to dominate, attacking and destroying one another, it is he who runs away who stands the best chance of survival. Yet if Hawks flourish further there is no likelihood that a Dove could even begin to compete. It’s all about balance. Psychopaths may exist in our highly mobile modern world successfully. Stay one place, run your game, rape the resources, impregnate a mate then move on. Modern society seems like the perfect environment for callous short-term predators. Assuming they don’t get caught they just can just move on to the next ripe hunting ground. Hardly a ‘positive’ trait, but a potentially very successful one (at rates of up to 1% of the population psychopaths actually have higher-than-average fitness (Keller & Miller, 2006))

This evolutionary psychology framework is sometimes considered a little controversial, perhaps a little unscientific. After all, the evolution of behaviour doesn’t fossilize like so many teeth and bones. The chief criticism is that these are all ‘just so’ stories. Stories that superficially make sense, but are very difficult to verify. But there are good scientists working on this framework, and (as always) there are those who are not-so-good. Additionally, the discipline of ‘Evolutionary Psych’ is barely 15 years old. It’s still fighting for its own legitimacy.

And so, while the concepts presented here have not been critically dissected or discussed I aimed merely to introduce. They do not detract from the clinical discussions, from the neuro-basis, from the pharmacology or the treatments. Hopefully they add another direction from which to approach the problem.  We are not the Tabula Rasa as some have proposed, but very much more. We are successful (as a species) because we have such a multitude of behavioural responses (thanks to evolution) - Psychopathology might just be another strategy employed within the population to ensure successful procreation of the individual.


*Can't find original source, only citation. Apologies.

Keller MC, & Miller G (2006). Resolving the paradox of common, harmful, heritable mental disorders: which evolutionary genetic models work best? The Behavioral and brain sciences, 29 (4) PMID: 17094843

Keller, M. (2008). The Evolutionary Persistence of Genes That Increase Mental Disorders Risk Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (6), 395-399 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00613.x

Ferguson CJ (2010). Genetic contributions to antisocial personality and behavior: a meta-analytic review from an evolutionary perspective. The Journal of social psychology, 150 (2), 160-80 PMID: 20397592 BARBER, N. (2008). Evolutionary social science: A new approach to violent crime Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13 (3), 237-250 DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2008.04.002

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Blog Comments
bo moore

Guest Comment

I can easily come up with adaptive bipolar symptoms: during spring, summer and fall, when intense energy is nneeded to procure and store food, manic "upness" would be a plus - long hours, less sleep. In winter, when energy must be conserved, being "depressed" would be a plus. Sleep a lot, eat little, use less energy - semi-hibernation, if you will. Whole groups of people may have been on the same up-down cycle controlled by sunlight and other environmental factors. There are Roman accounts of the Germanic people they encountered exhibiting just such behavior.   

Marisa Hendrickson

Guest Comment

Psychopathology is a very complex topic. I really enjoyed some of your points, like that mental disorders could have been an adaptation that was appropraite at some point in time for humans to survive. I had never considered mental disorders in this context. However I think this view point could work with the view of disorders being caused by traumatic life events. If someone goes through an unexpected or negative experience they employ mechanisms to adapt to the situation. This is just like what you were saying, in the past certain disorders may have served a purpose to benefit the person. Now adays the disorders are rarer because we do not face the same immediate life dangers as our predecessors. 

I do not believe you addressed the biological verses environmental causes for mental disorders. I am trying to decifer in my head whether you believe it is biological because it potentilly existed for survival purposed in our ancesotrs, or if that can still be categorized as envirnmental stressors causing the disorders. I also was really confused by your dove and and hawk reference. I understand that with too many hawks the society would be ruined, but you did not address how the doves do anything to maintain the balance. I think you were getting at the hawks would take each other out? But also why must the hawk exist at all? Society does not need the psychopath to survive. And yet they exist. 


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