This Is Your Brain on Crazy

Posted on 2014 March 20



I have a notion that nearly everyone is crazy. But we’re all crazy in similar ways, so it looks normal to us and we think we’re fine. Sleeplessness, depression, addictions, custody battles, hating the boss, resenting the neighbors, angry political standoffs — all this is routine, isn’t it? We’re just behaving normally. Right?

What drives us crazy, I think, is the ongoing mismatch between our genetic predispositions and our high-tech culture. We evolved in small villages, where everyone shared ancestry, language, culture, beliefs, music, food. Outsiders were exotically weird, fascinating but dangerous to village safety. Not only could strangers return as marauders and take over the village and its culture, but they might bring new, nasty parasites and diseases.

Today we live crammed together in huge cities where the residents are highly varied: skin color, language, accent, religions, attitudes, musical tastes, everything. And we hardly know any of them by name, but encounter them as complete strangers we’ll never see again. Our deepest instincts are on constant alert. Yet instead of attacking and slaying them as enemies, we must smile and get along. We stand in line with them, perhaps inhaling a hidden, horrific disease they’ve brought from another country. Stress, much?

It gets worse. Today’s technological advances keep changing the rules of society. New inventions lead to new products, which find new and surprising uses that cause unexpected shifts to social mores. TV has changed how we’re entertained. The Pill changed the rules of sex. The jet plane changed where we travel. The smartphone changed the politics of the Middle East and elsewhere. The Internet changed how we communicate, work, learn, everything.

AND SO: Even though it all seems completely normal, and even though we’re thoroughly used to it, urban life and modern technology hurl us into continuous emotional and moral turmoil. 

How does this make us crazy? Let me count the ways:

• Tobacco was good for you. Now it’s bad for you.

• Marijuana was bad for you. Now it’s good for you.

• Nicotine patches, good. Vaping, good. No, wait, vaping bad.

• Wealth was a virtue. Now it’s a sign of the greedy one percent.

• Rock-n-roll was the Devil’s music. Now it’s not even boring.

• Sex was between married adults. Now teens can hook up at will.

• Back in the day, if you got caught being gay, you did prison time. Now you can get married.

• Abortions were illegal. Now they’re part of an active lifestyle.

• Spanking was good; now it’s bad.

• Parents rewarded their kids for good grades. Today they bribe them just to do homework.

• My new computer is already obsolete.

• Health insurance was a luxury. Now it’s required by law.

• Minorities were forbidden to own property in certain areas. Now businesses must prove they’re hiring them.

• Past: Illegal immigrants were deported. Present: they’re given free health care and driver licenses.

• Standing up for your beliefs, good. Being open-minded about other beliefs, good. Okay, which one is it?

• Communication was by tedious telephonic devices hogging space on your desk. Now it’s by fingering a computer in your pocket.

• Wall-to-wall carpet? How passé.

• A huge sedan, once a sign of success, now denotes piggishness.

• A big house in the suburbs, once a sign of success, now denotes piggishness.

• Remember lifetime jobs?

• First it was Westerns on TV. Then comedies. Then detectives. Now it’s sci-fi.

• Skirts were long. Then they were short. Then long, then short, then long, short, long, short… (Hey, is my necktie the right width anymore?)

• Guys had to shave for work. Now they better not.

• Books and records were major forms of entertainment. Now it’s electronic downloads and interactive games.

• Don’t you just love those videotaped movies? –er, those DVD movies? –er, those DV-R movies? –er, those Blu-ray movies? –er, those streaming movies?

• Plastic bags were more virtuous than paper bags. Now they’re illegal and you must instead buy a fabric grocery bag and reuse it until it becomes a health hazard.

• Sugary snacks were a delicious treat. Now they’re bad.

• High-protein diet, good for growing kids. Oops, check that: high-protein diets are bad for your kidneys. Oops, check that: high protein is good for the elderly. Oops, now it’s bad for middle-aged people.

• Margarine trans-fats, good— Hold it! Margarine trans-fats, bad.

• Guns were good. Then they were bad. Now they’re good. Or are they bad again? I forget.

• Gambling was bad and unlawful. Now it’s peachy.

• Remember when your mailbox had letters from friends? Now it’s all bills and ads.

• Old: the government needed a court order to look at a piece of mail. New: the Feds can monitor all your communications with impunity.

This is your brain on crazy. Any questions?


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(Thanks to Kaydee McKinney for her input.)