The Evolution of Insanity

What does pop culture have to do with mental illness? Turns out, quite a bit.

Researchers looked at common delusions of schizophrenia patients over the last 100 years, and as culture changed, so did their delusions. In Slovenia, where the researchers performed their study, religious delusions were the least common during the Soviet era of religious repression. After the fall of the USSR, religion increased, as did religious delusions.

The advent of TV and radio also meant the start of delusions with "technical" aspect to them- the idea that your thoughts were being broadcast over the radio, for example.

Looking at eating disorders, in the Middle Ages, starvation was seen as a way to commune with God, to be holy. Then, as culture changed, so did people's understanding of starvation. It was a way to be "thin." Or "in control." Now, it seems that a lot of EDs "speak" in the language of health.

None of this means, of course, that the actual illnesses have changed. But despite the large biological underpinnings of eating disorders, they still have a cultural context. Sufferers and their loved ones and even bystanders all have different ways of narrating what is happening, of putting the illness into context.

Has your narration changed since you became ill, or began recovery? If so, how?

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MelissaS said...

i love your websites, the information you share, and the interesting questions you raise, but i don't really understand this question, and i want to. are you asking how our narratives have changed through the influence of pop culture or just how our narrative have changed since we've been dealing with an ED? maybe i'm just not clear what you mean by "narrative". i'm tired today, so maybe i'm just not getting it.

Kim said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I agree with you that ED-speak has shifted to "health." I have definitely seen this shift in my own disease. I base my restriction on cutting out what the media says is "bad." Of course, this changes all the freaking time. Carbs, fat, etc seem to take turns being evil. Anyway, my illness has always been the same, with the same overwhelming fears and anxiety, but the context has changed. I've fit my neuroses into little boxes that align with the times. I never thought about that much before, but it's really interesting.

Carrie Arnold said...


The idea of narrating your story comes a bit from anthropology- or at least from a book by anthropologist Paul Farmer. He works with TB patients in Haiti (among many other things), and when he listens to them talk, or tells his own stories, he calls it "narrating Haiti."

So I kind of adopted that and when I speak of my own experiences with anorexia--understanding them (or not), or just examining the personal in light of the political--, I call it "narrating anorexia." Every person has a unique narration. The disease is essentially the same, just as it is for TB patients the world over. But how we narrate our experience, how we give meaning to the events of our lives, those are worth listening to and understanding.

The narrative I first wrote for myself when diagnosed is quite different than it is now. So I guess I'm asking: has it also changed for you? What are the different ways in which you've tried to make sense of your illness? And how much of that has been shaped by culture?

Laura Collins said...

This is an excellent topic (as usual, Carrie).

You've nailed it in a way it really needs to be explored.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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