Things Worth Reading

This week’s Things Worth Reading includes popular media coverage of science, female ejaculation, and modern ideas of mental illness:



3 Comments to “Things Worth Reading”

  1. Re: The Epidemic of Mental Illness

    Many of us are looking forward to Dr. Marcia Angell’s following chapter in that New York Review of Books article and perhaps a new edition of “The Truth About the Drug Companies.” Angell is preeminently qualified to discuss this subject, among her many qualifications having served as editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and presently Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

    There are numerous issues addressed in her depiction of the apparent decline of our mental or “affective” well-being, not the least of which is the apparent inability of some or even most of our highly trained physicians to provide any therapeutic help except for the dubious and highly expensive medications which more and more millions of adults and children have thrust upon them.

    The issue of our mental, or emotional, health is the perfect example with which to apply some questions, or at least one in particular: Is it true, or is it not true, that humans are “fundamentally affective” beings?

    Perhaps most will find this question unanswerable, or too opaque or obtuse, so I’ll offer a means of simplifying it. Let us propose here, as we were in this forum recently in “Affect Week” and exploring some of the basics of Silvan Tomkins’s affect psychology, some basic definitions to work with.

    Let us accept. for the purposes of this discussion, that there exists within humans a system of “affects” which are neuroendocrinological and function as the “A” in Stimulus-Affect-Response, which is another way of describing the human experience, and as a constant, a simple but significant expansion upon the historical S-R model.

    Let us presume that, while alive, all humans are in the midst of an affective state, in that they are either involved in the literal or figurative “approach” or “withdrawal” from something, either internally of externally.

    In other words, to be alive, there must be some biological activity, and, perhaps except for the greatest masters of meditation who are able to let go of mental attachment to everything and anything for significant periods of time, humans are either approaching something literally and physically or in their minds, or they are withdrawing literally and physically or in their minds.

    Two extreme examples might suffice:

    One human is running with a spear and about to impale an animal for dinner, while another – and in a more modern lifestyle – is sitting quietly in his room and doing everything he can not to think about, to find some internal way to escape from – and failing miserably – the horrendous humiliation he experienced at work today.

    Within the bounds of these two extremes, lie all human potential experiences and affective states, “affect” being the biological precursor of “feeling” which is the emergence of affect into a low level of consciousness, awareness and bodily state, and “emotion” is the result of a higher awareness of feeling, connecting with previous experiences and memories which reinforce and maintain the conscious experience of the emotion.

    So, to return to our fundamental question, are “humans fundamentally affective beings?” Is it possible that this is true, perhaps even a great truth? Let’s not try to force any issues or demands for proof, because that would be premature, especially since there is still an extremely wide disparity of belief and opinion about what an “emotion” is, which we can hopefully begin to resolve, if only in a small way here, by entertaining our “affective nature.” And taking just a small step with this extremely large question of human capacity and potential, does it make sense that we are biological systems that are almost always either approaching something physically or in our minds, or instead, withdrawing physically or into our emotional shell? And if this seems to be the case, could that description be sufficient reason for describing humans as fundamentally “affective” beings?

    Let’s suppose that the answer is “yes, we are fundamentally affective beings.” With that given we now return and take a look at the state of human well-being as described by Marcia Angell in her review “The Epidemic of Mental Illness.”

    Is it possible that the human and social conditions we see described (and many of us personally experience) by Marcia Angell exist as such because of a fundamental inability of most of our physicians and our cultures to relate to us as the humans we are, as fundamentally “affective” beings?

    Is it also possible that this issue, this human need to embrace and relate to our fundamental affective nature is the stuff that social revolutions are made of, that this is a revolution of consciousness that we need and are literally dying from (by implications) without?

    • Hi, Barry! I am so sorry that I completely missed replying to your comment. It’s very thought-provoking. As a reductionist, I think it’s difficult to say humans are fundamentally anything at such a high level of abstraction. We are, fundamentally, physical beings.

      Perhaps part of the problem in defining something like “affect” or “emotion” is that categorization is itself a product of human cognition. In reality, properties vary continuously, but the convention of assigning categories has helped us become the creative and efficient thinkers we are. But because categorization is necessarily imprecise, there will always be room for debate in our definitions, especially in describing psychological and social phenomena.

  2. Erika, defining anything absolute about humans can be difficult, and perhaps one of the areas most fraught with difficulty is the category of “human nature”: is it reasonable to proceed on the basis that there are capacities and qualities that justify the category of human nature? My thinking informs me that we risk presuming too much, creating endless potential traps, by supporting a category of “human nature.” So if that is not reasonable, according to my thinking, are there any generalities we can safely make about humans?

    First, I’m not sure whether you are ascribing “reductionist” to myself or yourself. I do not consider myself a reductionist. My own fundamental lens of inquiry is more in favor of systems concepts. But without making a detour into systems arguments, I want to follow your remark that “we are, fundamentally, physical beings.”

    Rather than presenting an argument at “a high level of abstraction,” my intention was to point to our “fundamental physical being.” There exists, often more implicit than explicit, a belief in the logic that biological entities are sensitive to stimuli, the logic represented by the symbols of S > R, i.e., Stimulus leads to Response.

    Tomkins’s Affect Psychology presents the theory, i.e., a hypothesis supported by hundreds of pages supporting his argument, that the model of S > R is missing a fundamental component: A, for Affect, i.e., that human behavior – and perhaps the behavior of all mammals – is more accurately represented by the model of Stimulus > Affect > Response. Rather than a high level of abstraction, I suggest that this model is offering a fundamental physical theory of human (mammalian) biological behavior, that every human response is fundamentally managed by our system of affects.

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