[Paleopsych] NYTBR: In New Book, Professor Sees a 'Mania' in U.S. for Possessions and Status

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In New Book, Professor Sees a 'Mania' in U.S. for Possessions and Status
March 12, 2005

[Review of the movie appended.]


    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
    ourselves sick."

    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
    are off.

    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.' "
The New York Times > Movies > Method and Madness: Making Crazy Look Real
March 12, 2005


    LOS ANGELES - [1]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 [2]Leonardo DiCaprio for his portrayal of
    the obsessive-compulsive Howard Hughes in [3]"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 [4]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. [5]Susan Sarandon, [6]Sam
    Waterston and [7]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
    their craft."

    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 [8]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 [9]Brad Pitt for the actor's role as a mental patient in
    the 1995 sci-fi thriller [10]"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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