Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar and the Noble Savage

I saw the movie Avatar last weekend and wanted to comment on its “noble savage” theme. The movie is set on Pandora, a moon over 4 light years from Earth. The movie is about the conflict between human colonists on Pandora and the native inhabitants, known as “Na’vi.” The protagonist is a paraplegic human named Jake Sully, whose mission is to gain intelligence on the Na’vi. Jake infiltrates the Na’vi by utilizing an “avatar,” a Na’vi body with a human consciousness. The Na’vi are “tree people,” whose home rests on a large deposit of a valuable mineral. The humans want the Na’vi to relocate; the Na’vi resist. Jake, as a combination human and Na’vi, is caught in the middle of the conflict.

The movie portrays the Na’vi in a sympathetic light compared to the humans. The Na’vi, similar in many ways to Native Americans and other primitive tribes, are seen as “noble savages,” whose idyllic way of life is threatened by greedy, mechanized humans. They are one with nature, able to communicate with animal and plant life on Pandora. Writer/director James Cameron (whose previous credits include the Terminator series and Titanic) isn’t trying for a balanced viewpoint here—everything about the Na’vi is good, while everything about the humans (with the possible exception of scientific research) is bad. This black-and-white viewpoint is similar to Star Wars, except that the conflict in Star Wars was more abstract.

Are actual savages as noble as the ones portrayed in the film? Is there something worthwhile about their way of life that was lost in the era of European/American expansion and colonization? While modern life has many advantages and material comforts, it seems to be missing something spiritually. This spiritual malaise is connected with severe psychological problems in artistic and other sensitive people. As I say in my Triumph of Dullness post, certain central aspects of modern life have caused major problems in sensitive people. These things include artificial magnetic fields in the bedroom, the transportation revolution, and artificial time. Primitive man didn’t have to worry about those things.

I want to focus on one aspect of primitive people that is also emphasized in Avatar, their sense of place. Tribal people have a sense of connectedness to their immediate environment, their home, in a way that modern people can’t understand. The Na’vi have a spiritual connection with their home tree, and abandoning their home is not an option.

Our modern world, replete with casual relationships between humans and their environment, has encouraged a stream of migration and relocation that has gone on for centuries. We took away the Native Americans’ land and pushed them onto reservations. People have emigrated from their homelands to American and other places, and have further relocated within their adopted countries. Many jobs require relocation. We do what we have to do in order to improve our material well being. But does all this migration have a price?

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says “there’s no place like home,” and longs to get back to Kansas, her home. This indicates that even among modern people there’s some connection to, and longing for, home. No matter how often we have to move, we still long for a place to call home, for a stable location where one can always return to. My human magnetoreception hypothesis provides another argument for remaining at home. People who are sensitive to the geomagnetic field feel best when at (magnetic) home. North of home they feel negative symptoms, and south of home they feel positive symptoms. If they move too far from home, they’ll have severe symptoms, and have difficulty functioning without the aid of drugs.

While we can sympathize with those who are forced out of their homes, it’s also important to look at the other side. Whatever the motivation, whether it be the desire for more living space, or building roads, train tracks, structures, or any other kind of development, growth sometimes requires that some people move out to make way for "progress." If centuries ago we had accepted the currently fashionable idea that Native Americans had a right to their homeland, there would have been no United States. We would never have been able to expand our country, to farm the land, to build railroads and cities, i.e. to build a nation. While there are some people who would rather that the U.S. never have existed, I’m not one of them. While James Cameron can extol the virtues of primitive people, much of the technology he uses in his movie rests on inventions made in the U.S. These inventions would never have come into existence if Americans in the seventeenth through nineteenth century had believed, along with Cameron, that savages were noble, and that the Indians had a right to their land.

In conclusion, let’s give the savages their due, but let’s also give civilized man credit for building a post-industrial world that, while imperfect, has led to advanced technology that many of us would be loath to part from.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thoughts on the DSM-V

I’ve been reading about the debate over the upcoming DSM-V, the new version of psychiatry’s reference manual, and wanted to express my own opinions. I think that a utilitarian criterion should be used to evaluate not only the DSM, but psychiatry as a whole, including the prescribing (and overprescribing) of medications. By this I mean: does this diagnostic manual or treatment properly diagnose and treat people with psychiatric disorders? Does it falsely diagnose and improperly treat people by diagnosing them with disorders that they don’t have?

I’ll make an assertion that people with full-blown (out-of-control) schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and OCD are better off medicated. To be medicated, they must first be diagnosed, so an instrument that aids in correct diagnosis is useful. The first two editions of the DSM came out when psychiatry was still heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory. As a consequence, they had vague, unreliable categories (e.g. neurotic vs. psychotic), and contained spurious speculation on etiology. Since psychoanalytic treatment never helped patients with serious disorders, these early editions of the DSM were pretty much useless.

Robert Spitzer led the development effort of the major revision of the DSM, known as the DSM-III, which came out in 1980. (Interestingly, Spitzer is a critic of the upcoming DSM-V.) The DSM-III largely abandoned the psychoanalytic orientation of its predecessors. It abandoned any attempt to classify by etiology. It created the symptom-based, multiaxial categorical system which, with some changes and extensions, was incorporated into the DSM-IV in 1994. The DSM-III helped psychiatrists make more reliable and valid diagnoses than past editions. It must be remembered, however, that without any knowledge of etiology, and without any valid diagnostic tests, there would always be less reliability and validity than with physical disorders.

The symptom-based model of the DSM-III and DSM-IV sets up fairly steep criteria by which to diagnose someone. For example, click here for the DSM-IV criteria for a major depressive episode. Of course, if you go to a PCP and tell him that you’re depressed, in less than a minute he’ll write you a prescription for an antidepressant, but the DSM states what criteria this PCP should be using. It also states the criteria by which patients need to be evaluated to be diagnosed in research studies. This is important because in order for drugs to be approved, they must first go through clinical trials on patients diagnosed with the disorder that these drugs are supposed to be treating. The fact that once they’re approved, they can be prescribed off-label for other disorders is a separate issue that I won’t take up here.

Enough about the history. Let’s ask the question: with the current DSM-IV, are people who should be diagnosed and medicated actually diagnosed and medicated? I think the answer is yes. If Jim has bipolar disorder, and has some means (insurance or self-pay) to see a doctor and to purchase drugs, he’ll be diagnosed, and get the drugs he needs. It’s possible that Jim doesn’t want to see a doctor or take drugs, but that’s a separate issue. No diagnostic manual can “treat” that problem (assuming that it is a problem).

The scary thing about some of the proposed revisions to the DSM-V is that they will expand the number of diagnosable disorders. This will in turn expand the use of drugs to people who don’t need them. I don’t think that this is a good thing. There are already too many people taking drugs who don’t fit the diagnostic criteria of the disorder for which the drugs were originally approved. An example of this is the unconscionable use of drugs approved for adults in children, sometimes very young children.

What psychiatry desperately needs is a more scientific basis. It needs better diagnostic tests, and a better understanding of etiology. These will in turn lead to better treatments. In the 15 years since the DSM-IV came out, while there has been some great research going on, there hasn’t been a major breakthrough. So the DSM-V is not going to help things, and will probably hurt things. Hopefully by the time the DSM-VI is published, there will be some breakthroughs. We can only hope.

Ben Bernanke—A Creative Leader

In my Triumph of Dullness blog post I say that there aren’t any contemporary creative geniuses in the arts and sciences. Creativity can be exercised in other fields, however, most notably in business or political leadership, and technology. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are two names that come to mind as geniuses in technology management. Those of us who are old enough to remember life without the PC or Mac realize how much our lives have been transformed by these devices. When I was in high school in the early 1980’s, the early versions of PC’s and Mac’s were available. There was no Internet, however, and we still did our term papers on typewriters. I couldn’t imagine using a typewriter now.

It’s much rarer to find intelligently creative political leadership. FDR was a good example of a creative leader, who guided his country through two of the biggest crises of the last century: the Great Depression and World War II. There was no guidebook to follow, no historical precedent, so FDR had to improvise. While you can disagree with specific policies or programs, by the time he died in 1945 the U.S. had defeated Hitler in just 3 ½ years, and was on its way to defeating Japan. World War II also ended the Great Depression.

After reading Time Magazine’s Person of the Year article, I have to conclude that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is a creative leader. In the fall of 2008, the world financial system ground to a halt. The housing bubble had burst, and a Depression 2.0 was a real possibility. Instead of responding in predictable ways, such as only lowering interest rates, this scholar of the Great Depression did some creative things. These had never been done before on the scale that Bernanke did them:
  1. Coordinating rate cuts and other interventions with central bankers around the world
  2. Buying up commercial paper, mortgage-based securities, and other debts.
  3. Bailing out troubled banks and other financial firms.
One can disagree with specific actions, such as some of the bailouts, but that’s the case for any leader or policy maker. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we were threatened with an economic depression. If Bernanke hadn’t acted, we could have 25% unemployment now, instead of 10%. It’s easy to blame people for disasters that actually happened; it’s harder to praise them for disasters that didn’t happen. A good example of this is that we haven’t had any terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Our national security agencies deserve credit for this, but they’re rarely praised. For the same reason, Bernanke deserves recognition for the disaster that didn’t happen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Updated "Are You Sensitive?" Page

I updated my Are You Sensitive? page on my website to clarify some of the points, and provide better explanations.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Feedback I'd Really Like to Have

I’m starting to get feedback now, and I appreciate it. While I’m happy to get any feedback at all, let me explain what I’d really like to get. I want people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD/tics to tell me if they relate to anything I’m saying on my website. I ask some questions on my Are You Sensitive? page. Read through these questions, and think about your answers. If you'd like to share your answers, go ahead and comment on this blog posting.

Additional information that would be helpful to know:

--Whether or not you’re currently on medications.

--What disorder you’ve been diagnosed with, where you grew up, where you live now, and your approximate age.

Since I understand that people are reluctant to reveal personal information, especially about their mental health, I’m changing a setting on my blog to allow anonymous comments. Please don’t provide any identifying information in your comments (e.g. name, phone #, address, email, etc).

Since people are busy, I don’t expect you to answer all these questions, or spend a lot of time writing out your comments. Make your comment whatever length you’d like.

Feel free to also comment on your experiences with the information on my Steps You Can Take and Further Research pages.

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gone with the Wind

I just watched the 70th anniversary DVD edition of Gone with the Wind. Earlier this year, I had read the novel for the first time. I loved both the novel and the film. Since the story is probably familiar to most of my readers, I won’t try to summarize or review it. I want to use it as an example of a standard by which I evaluate contemporary culture. In my Triumph of Dullness blog post, I said that we don’t have any contemporary geniuses. We have people writing novels, and people making movies, but these novels and movies aren’t in the same universe as Gone with the Wind. A great historical novel requires a combination of engaging story, interesting characters, plot, vivid historical details, and clear style. There may be some contemporary novels that have some of these elements, but none have all the elements that Gone with the Wind had. Many contemporary novels try to substitute sex, violence, foul language, and other gimmicks to make up for their lack of literary quality. A great epic movie requires a great story, great acting, cinematography, music, direction, and all the other elements that made Gone with the Wind so fantastic. Contemporary movies have access to better technology, which makes for gee-whiz special effects, but these effects cannot hide the movies’ lack of quality storytelling, direction, and cinematography.

Ironically, Gone with the Wind was about how a once-great civilization (antebellum South) was destroyed in just four years of war. The creative fecundity that characterized what was otherwise an awful time (the 1930’s) helped engender the novel and movie Gone with the Wind. Creative achievement of this high order is, like the antebellum South, gone with the wind.

In my Triumph of Dullness blog post, I mention how there’s a lack of ambition among potential creative geniuses. There’s also a lack of mentoring, role models, inspiration, and any other social aspect of creative accomplishment. I want to focus on these social aspects, because it’s directly relevant to the publication of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell, the book’s author, was a Southern journalist who wrote a rough draft of the novel between 1925 and 1930. She had no desire to seek publication, however, and stashed away the manuscript in her apartment.

In 1935, Mitchell met MacMillan editor Harold Latham, who was in Atlanta to scout for promising writers. Her duty was to show him around the area. She gave him her manuscript, which he read on the train back. He recognized the book’s potential, and arranged for her to get an advance, in order to finish the novel. The rest is history.

Contemporary fiction writers can recognize just how much has changed since then. Major publishers don’t send editors around the country looking for new talent. They don’t give out advances to first-time authors with unfinished manuscripts. They, in fact, do everything possible to discourage wannabe authors. They make them finish the novel before even trying to get a publisher. They then force writers to get an agent, a difficult and arduous process that most people don’t want to go through. Even after getting an agent, there’s no guarantee that the agent can sell the book to a publisher.

Publishers will say that economic conditions have changed, that they can’t afford to publish books by unknown authors, most of which fail commercially. It’s true that traditional publishers are losing money and that they can’t conduct business the way they used to. My point is not to blame publishers but to comment on how things have changed in the last 70 years. It’s doubtful that Margaret Mitchell had the ambition to do the things that writers need to do today to get published. There are probably many talented contemporary writers who have started a novel, perhaps a very good novel, who would have been published in an earlier era, but are never going to be published today.

There are other social aspects of creative achievement that are relevant. Gone with the Wind (the book and movie) inspired thousands of writers, directors, actors, and other creative people to write books and create movies. The lack of any contemporary Gone with the Winds has resulted in the lack of inspiration for potential writers, directors, and actors to achieve anything.

There’s a painting that visually represents this transmission from genius to lesser creative people:

I like this painting, entitled “Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce,” by Anglo-American painter Benjamin West (1738-1820). The painting shows the winged male genius inspiring his female devotees. These devotees are engaged in various creative pursuits, the most prominent being the painter. In reality, a genius doesn’t have to directly interact with people he influences. For example, Mozart strongly influenced Beethoven, although they were together only for a short time, if at all.

What we need are one or two Margaret Mitchells who can inspire thousands of others to begin a rebirth of a glorious literary tradition that is, today, gone with the wind.

Friday, December 4, 2009

200 Hits Per Day--But Virtually No Feedback

My site went live on October 25, 2009. From November 8 until yesterday (Dec 3), I’ve averaged 209 hits / day, over a 26 day period. This is measured by Awstats, a program that processes server logs, and that strips out hits from robots. I’ve been doing Google Advertising, and many of the hits are coming from this advertising (both from searches and content sites), but 44% of the hits (in November) came from direct address/bookmark/link in email. The hits are coming from all over the world, although the vast majority are from the U.S. The top 10 countries in hit count in November are as follows:

United States      1900
India                    436
Great Britain        352
Canada                344
Australia              284
Romania              216
Philippines           160
China                    98
South Africa          77
Russian Federation 75

I’ve only gotten one piece of feedback, a message in a bipolar discussion forum. As to why I haven’t gotten more feedback, I have no idea. Any guess would be speculative, so I won’t even try.

I didn’t know what the response would be when I went live with the website. I expected that if I got a lot of hits, that I would get some feedback. Another real possibility was that I would get few hits, and no feedback. The combination of 200 hits per day and virtually no feedback was probably the least likely possibility in my mind.

In my Triumph of Dullness blog post, I say how it’s difficult to start from scratch. There is very little encouragement in our society for truly creative ideas. There are no movements, no role models, no mentors, and no heroes. It is extremely difficult to generate interest in a crazy idea like human magnetoreception, especially when I’m unknown and have no credentials. It would have been hard in more creative past eras, but I would have had a better chance of finding a mentor or advocate. The fact that my website has been generating hits is encouraging, since it implies that some people are interested in finding out more about my ideas.

I think that if my website continues to generate 200 or more hits per day, then it’s likely that at some point, people will start talking about it. The more hits, the more people who are introduced to my ideas, the better chance that a few people will mention it in blogs, forums, Facebook, or other online media. Some feedback may be negative, and some positive, but both types of feedback will be a means to generate badly needed online “buzz.”