[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: In New Book, Professor Sees a 'Mania' in U.S. for Possessions and Status
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Books > In New Book, Professor Sees a 'Mania' in U.S. for Possessions and Status
March 12, 2005
[Movie review appended.]
By IRENE LACHER
LOS ANGELES - Aldous Huxley long ago warned of a future in which love
was beside the point and happiness a simple matter of consuming
mass-produced goods and plenty of soma, a drug engineered for
pleasure. More than 70 years later, Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, the director
of the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the
University of California, Los Angeles, has seen the future, and the
society he describes isn't all that distant from Huxley's brave new
world, although the soma, it seems, is in ourselves.
In his new book, "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough" (W. W.
Norton & Company), Dr. Whybrow argues that in the age of
globalization, Americans are addictively driven by the brain's
pleasure centers to live turbocharged lives in pursuit of status and
possessions at the expense of the only things that can truly make us
happy: relationships with other people.
"In our compulsive drive for more," writes Dr. Whybrow, 64, a
professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science, "we are making
His book is part of a new critical genre that likens society to a
mental patient. The prognosis is grim. In "American Mania," he argues
that the country is on the downswing of a manic episode set off by the
Internet bubble of the 1990's.
"It's a metaphor that helps guide us," he said, perched on a chair in
the study of his rambling high-rise apartment near U.C.L.A. "I think
we've shot through happiness as one does in hypomania and come out the
other end, and we're not quite sure where we are.
"In fact, I think happiness lies somewhere behind us. This frenzy
we've adopted in search of what we hope is happiness and perfection is
in fact a distraction, like mania is a distraction."
"American Mania" is his fourth book for the general public about meaty
psychiatric matters. An expert in manic depression and the
endocrinology of the central nervous system, he has dissected
depression and its relatives ("A Mood Apart" and "Mood Disorders") as
well as the winter blahs ("The Hibernation Response").
Educating the public has been an abiding concern in a long career that
began with training in psychiatry and endocrinology in his native
London and in North Carolina. In 1970, Dr. Whybrow became chairman of
the psychiatry department at Dartmouth Medical School and at the
University of Pennsylvania. He moved to U.C.L.A. in 1997.
While the Gordon Gekkos of the world have long had their critics, Dr.
Whybrow sees the Enrons and the Worldcoms - the mess left by
unfettered capitalism - not as a moral problem, but as a behavioral
"The outbreak of greed we've seen, especially in business, is partly a
function of the changing contingencies we've given businessmen," he
said. "If I say to you, 'You can make yourself extremely rich by
holding up the share price until such time that you cash out your
shares, which are coming due in another six months,' it takes an
incredibly unusual person who'll say: 'The share price is going down?
I'm afraid I lost that one.' There is an offer of affluence there
which the person cannot refuse. They don't need that extra money, but
they want that extra money."
People are biologically wired to want it, he contends. We seek more
than we need because consumption activates the neurotransmitter
dopamine, which rewards us with pleasure, traveling along the same
brain pathways as do drugs like caffeine and cocaine. Historically, he
says, built-in social brakes reined in our acquisitive instincts. In
the capitalist utopia envisioned by Adam Smith in the 18th century,
self-interest was tempered by the competing demands of the marketplace
and community. But with globalization, the idea of doing business with
neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets
Other countries are prey to the same forces, Dr. Whybrow says, but the
problem is worse here because we are a nation of immigrants,
genetically self-selected to favor individualism and novelty.
Americans are competitive, restless and driven to succeed. And we have
But the paradox of prosperity is that we are too busy to enjoy it. And
the competitiveness that gooses the economy, coupled with the decline
of social constraints, has conspired to make the rich much richer, he
asserts, leaving most of the country behind while government safety
nets get skimpier.
Dr. Whybrow cites United States government statistics that are
sobering. Thirty percent of the population is anxious, double the
percentage of a decade ago. Depression is rising too, especially among
people born after 1966, with 10 percent more reporting depression than
did people born before that year.
With the rise of the information age in the 1990's, when the global
marketplace began staying open 24 hours a day, American mania reached
full flower, Dr. Whybrow said. And now that the nation has retreated
from that manic peak, we should stop and survey the damage.
"Neurobiology teaches us that we're reward-driven creatures on the one
side, which is great," he said. "It's a fun part of life. But we also
love each other and we want to be tied together in a social context.
So if you know that, why aren't we thinking about a civil society that
looks at both sides of the balance rather than just fostering
individualism? Because fostering individualism will be great for us
and it will last a little bit longer, but I believe it's a powerful
negative influence upon this country and it's not what was originally
intended. Should we be thinking about whether this is the society we
had in mind when we started this experiment 200 years ago or are we
perhaps moving too fast for our own good?"
Dr. Whybrow's analysis of the mania afflicting contemporary society
has been praised as acute, but he has been faulted for failing to
prescribe any political or economic action as an antidote.
"Whybrow does offer an interesting version of the social and cultural
contradictions of capitalism," Michael Roth, president of the
California College of the Arts, wrote in a review last month in The
San Francisco Chronicle, "but it is one that leaves us without much
sense of how we might reconstruct the social and political system to
create more meaningful work and a more equitable distribution of
wealth and of hope."
But for Dr. Whybrow, with globalization here to stay, the solution
lies with the individual: It's up to each of us to ruminate on our
lives and slow down enough so that we can limit our appetites and find
a better balance between work and family.
He suggested following the example of a man his friend saw running
along the beach: "A high tide washed all the little fish onto the
beach where they were all gasping for breath. So here's this fellow
scooping up each fish and throwing them back into the sea, and my
friend goes up to the fellow and says: 'This is a fruitless task. It's
not going to make any difference.' And the fellow picks up a fish,
throws it into the sea and says, 'To this one it does.' "
Movies > Method and Madness: Making Crazy Look Real
March 12, 2005
By IRENE LACHER
LOS ANGELES - Jamie Foxx might have left the Kodak Theater with
the best actor award on Oscar night, but in another part of Los
Angeles, the kudos went to Leonardo DiCaprio for his portrayal of
the obsessive-compulsive Howard Hughes in "The Aviator."
Psychiatrists associated with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and
Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, were
pulling for DiCaprio because they knew just how authentic his
performance was, not least because the institute helped him shape it.
"You didn't feel that he was acting the pathology," said Dr. Peter C.
Whybrow, director of the institute. "You felt the pathology was part
of him. You could look at him and think he was really suffering."
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert on obsessive-compulsive disorder at
the institute, said the actor's success in exposing Hughes's inner
demons was an achievement worthy of a great writer. "You think of
Shakespeare and Faulkner," said Dr. Schwartz, who was hired as a
consultant on the film. "The audience is transported into the inner
life of the person who is suffering, and at its best, that can happen
in the cinema."
To bring the script to life line by line, Dr. Schwartz worked closely
with Mr. DiCaprio in a dozen meetings at the actor's home, as well as
several more with the director Martin Scorsese at the Hotel
Bel-Air. After shooting began, one of Dr. Schwartz's patients advised
Mr. DiCaprio on the Montreal set for 10 days.
Delving into a mentally ill character's inner life with the help of a
psychiatrist can be a method actor's dream. Susan Sarandon, Sam
Waterston and Jill Clayburgh are some of the actors who have passed
through the institute's Imagination Workshop, where they not only hone
their skills but also work with patients to create and stage original
productions in a form of theater therapy.
"Their acting is enhanced by understanding how the mind fragments,"
Dr. Whybrow said. "What they see in engaging someone whose mind has
fragmented - they work with them in trying to put them back together
again - is a lot about how the mind works, and they express that in
Margaret Ladd, a stage and television actress who founded the
Imagination Workshop in 1969 with her screenwriter husband, Lyle
Kessler, said her work there helped her turn a five-episode role as
the disturbed daughter of Jane Wyman's character on the television
soap "Falcon Crest" into a part that lasted from 1981 to 1989.
"I blew everyone away because I knew what it looked like, and I knew
the intrinsic dignity of it," Ms. Ladd said. "Instead of playing
crazy, I realized what the inner depths of feelings were that were
causing it to happen. I wasn't playing a symptom. I knew they were
struggling to reintegrate themselves."
It is a sore point for many psychiatrists that mental disorders are so
often portrayed inaccurately in film.
"They make them look like lunatics, but many patients who are mentally
ill are not crazy at all, particularly if they have depression or mood
disorders," said Dr. Laszlo Gyulai, director of the bipolar disorders
program of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who
worked with Brad Pitt for the actor's role as a mental patient in
the 1995 sci-fi thriller "Twelve Monkeys." "Frequently, with
people who aren't experts, that's difficult to grasp, and they may not
grasp the human dimension of it either."
Nonetheless, it is still fairly rare for psychiatrists to be brought
in as consultants. Dr. Schwartz says he believes it is vital that
actors' portrayals be accurate, because they help shape popular
conceptions of what mental illness is about, especially for people who
don't see it in their everyday lives.
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