Mental Illnesses as Emotional Fossils, I – Overview

After observing severe mental illness for 20 years, I concluded that they all represented different types of emotional hyperactivity that had escaped from regulation.  Illnesses that included symptoms of lethargy or lack of initiative, such as some forms of depression and Schizophrenia, were manifestations of a “shutdown response” to underlying emotional hyperactivity.  Crucial to this conclusion was the observation that all physical treatments in psychiatry modulate emotional hyperactivity and are inhibitory, including those that are apparently stimulating like amphetamines and electro-convulsive treatment (ECT.)

I realized that mental illnesses, far from distorting normal emotions, actually magnify and exaggerate certain discreet segments of normal emotional function as if putting them under a microscope.  I decided that the specific clusters of emotion that were “spun out” in mental illness had relevance to the deep evolution of our emotions.

For example, a general observation is that the most common mental illnesses, the anxiety disorders (life prevalence ~ 30%) and the depression disorders (life prevalence ~ 20%) are painful emotions which, when they are functioning normally, motivate us aversively by avoiding them.  Furthermore, I determined that the two principal fears that drive all the anxiety disorders as well as the two poles of major depression respectively – Atypical Depression and Melancholia – are the fear of separation and the fear of being trapped. 

It is clear that separation anxiety, originating in the mother-infant bond, has been the staple emotional glue in the construction of group living in primates for the past 50 million years.  It is entirely reasonable and parsimonious to consider that separation anxiety has always been a relational, group selected entity.  It has been relationships with separation anxiety that have been selected, not individuals.

The reasons why I determined that the fear of being trapped was also relational and commandeered by group selection would go beyond the scope of a single blog.  By means of group selection, the fear of being trapped outside the group as if up against the wall of banishment created social groups in the shapes of funnels in which freedom is perceived as moving up and in towards the center of groups.  So, as one moves from the center of a group out and down towards the periphery, both the fear of separation and the fear of being trapped increase, motivating a centripetal direction.

If you doubt that the fear of being trapped is a fundamental motivating human emotion, consider that our nation is founded on the idea of freedom from the trap of tyranny in all its many guises.  Then consider your emotions when you watched those souls on 9/11 fling themselves out into the thin air with ties streaming upwards like thin little banners of liberty.   


About J.V. Wylie

Retired psychiatrist, who is writing a book called "How We Became Human"on the origin of the human mind. My blog, "Apes, Ants, and Ancestors" - is a "laboratory" for the ideas in the book.
This entry was posted in Evolution of Emotion, Evolutionary psychology, Group Selection, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mental Illnesses as Emotional Fossils, I – Overview

  1. Or watch the amazing United Flight 93 movie about the passengers who fought back. They were trapped, and some decided to die fighting. By doing so they surely prevented another devastating plane bomb attack on DC.

  2. An excellent example, Richard.

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