When Will We Solve Mental Illness?

Nothing humbles history’s great thinkers more quickly than reading their declarations on the causes of madness. Over the centuries, mental illness has been attributed to everything from a “badness of spirit” (Aristotle) and a “humoral imbalance” (Galen) to autoerotic fixation (Freud) and the weakness of the hierarchical state of the ego (Jung).

The arrival of biological psychiatry, in the past few decades, was expected to clarify matters, by detailing how abnormalities in the brain gave rise to all variety of mental distress. But that goal hasn’t been achieved — nor is it likely to be, in this lifetime.

Still, the futility of the effort promises to inspire a change in the culture of behavioral science in the coming decades. The way forward will require a closer collaboration between scientists and the individuals they’re trying to understand, a mutual endeavor based on a shared appreciation of where the science stands, and why it hasn’t progressed further.  more

Depression’s Upside

The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”  more