Distributed March 2002
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
Lewis P. Lipsitt
Minds don't snap
When tragic, unbelievable behaviors seem to emerge suddenly from nowhere, they are invariably preceded by a process that was under way for years. If we could learn how human experiences work to erode an individual's stability, we could become sensitive to imminent disasters and intervene to prevent them. But if we go on believing that "crazy behaviors" are happenstances, we will never get to their roots.
When the adolescent pilot flew a stolen plane deliberately into a Tampa office building, friends and neighbors said "His mind must have snapped," and that he must have had a "nervous breakdown." It did not take long for pseudo-explanatory headlines to emerge: "Accutane - prescribed to the Florida teen who crashed a plane - has been in use [for acne] since 1982, and researchers still don't know if it causes suicides."
During the investigation of Andrea Yates, who systematically drowned her five children, strange comments emerged. Acquaintances, teachers and neighbors insisted she was an "essentially normal" person who must have gone out of her mind; else how could a mother be so cruel? The intensity of the violence was incomprehensible, as were our images of terror-stricken confrontations that the children must have had with their mother during the killings.
When someone behaves in a way that violates our expectations, our thinking goes dichotic. Yesterday she was OK; today she's not. We've got normal people, and we've got abnormal, sick people and well people.
But minds don't snap, and nerves don't just break down like that. Figures of speech, often invoked when the behavior of an individual appears to be "out of character," do not explain anything.
When tragic, unbelievable behaviors seem to emerge suddenly from nowhere, they are invariably preceded by a process that was under way for years. Many natural phenomena are like this as when, after several decades, a progressive erosion in a Dutch dike culminates in a flood. Even spontaneous combustion has causes, and can be understood as a natural process, not a catastrophic incident without antecedents.
Humans, too, have histories. If we could but learn how those experiences work to erode an individual's stability, we could become sensitive to imminent disasters and intervene to prevent them. But if we go on believing that "crazy behaviors" are happenstances, we will never get to their roots, and never be able to engage in humane, preventative reconstruction.
In behavioral catastrophes, we tend to medicalize - to look for an organic origin rather than causes based in experience. Too, we are inclined to presume, erroneously I believe, that human behavior is essentially unpredictable.
Freud dealt with these problems a century ago. He said, first, that people often appear to have a disease condition when in fact the disorder is based in experience. He insisted, also, that there are no "accidental" psychological conditions, because all behavior is caused!
The notion that behavior is lawful, and that learning lies at the root of much of it, is thought by many to have been the behaviorist B.F. Skinner's idea, because Skinner was, like Freud, a determinist who insisted on the critical role that experience plays in human development and behavior. Skinner demonstrated strikingly that the developmental destinies of animals and humans are determined greatly by their experiences. Central to both Freud and the behaviorists is that pleasure and annoyance, and the contexts in which they occur, are the roots of the often startling power of cumulative experiences.
Neither Freud nor Skinner denied the critical involvement of the nervous system. Freud was a neurologist and understood that all experiences, and remembrances of things past, and the consequences of those memories, are carried by the nervous system.
Scientists today are confident that behavioral events, like all natural phenomena, can be understood in cause-effect and developmental terms. Behavior is lawful. Nonetheless, sometimes the behavior of an acquaintance is so contrary to expectation that we fail to predict it and experts can hardly explain it. In such instances, bewildered observers often resort to magic vocabularies of dichotomies, not unknown even in global politics where the nebulous concept of "evil forces" is invoked to place the enemy and all of the associated cultural, historical processes into a bin by itself: They are bad, and we are not.
Just as natural laws form the basis of the sciences of physics and chemistry, laws describing and explaining the regularities of human behavior also exist. If it were not so, we would find the behavior of our friends weird at best, because they would not be at all predictable one moment to the next. The laws of learning and behavior are always in effect, like Newton's laws of gravity and Ohm's law of electrical circuitry. Our knowledge of them and their implications may be uncertain or incomplete, and await further discoveries, but that is so in all sciences.
Only in the last hundred years of millennial history has humankind found its way with gravity, and put thousand-ton vehicles in the air. Thus we should not blame our inability to anticipate tragic behavioral events on the inevitability of "accidents," but rather on the incompleteness of our information.
Most of us would welcome scientific advances in the better detection of incipient offenders and potentially dangerous events in our midst. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed to stop the lad who flew the plane into the Tampa building in obvious imitation of the World Trade Center terrorists. But we must accept that in principle we should be able to predict and control the heinous behavior of dangerous individuals. This requires a leap of faith for some, but for many neuroscientists and behavioral psychologists it is no longer such a wild dream. The nervous system does not come ready-made with angry, hurtful, despicable impulses. Humans do come equipped with strong defensive reflexes, biologically useful in saving one's life when threatened. If treated badly, even babies fight back.
Evidence regarding human development points to the overarching importance of two major response systems: first, the capacity to become attached to significant, trusted individuals in our early lives as the essence of enduringly positive, loving relationships with others, and secondly, the readiness to defend ourselves against hurt. From these basics we learn very complex, even artful response patterns that help later to defend us against psychological pain, like humiliation, sadness and personal grievances.
Children born into the hands of someone who loves them unconditionally from the start become comfortably attached to significant others and manage to defend their personhood without doing grave damage to others. They don't surprise us later by angrily killing their own children or ramming a plane into a populated building.