Culture and disorders: How does the connectome fit in?

I have recently started reading the book Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters, which investigates psychological disorders across cultures.  Interestingly, different cultures have documented disorders that are extremely dissimilar from those in the western Diagnoses and Statistical Manual.  As westernized beliefs, culture, and knowledge have spread with globalization, so have western psychological disorders such as anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Rates of these disorders in nonwestern countries have increased dramatically in recent years.

Watters’s first section focuses on anorexia in Hong Kong.  He tells the story of a girl who, after being left by her boyfriend, goes through severe depression and stops eating. Consequently, she looses weight until she eventually dies of starvation. While this appears to be a clear case of anorexia, the patient did not show the same symptoms as western anorexia nervosa.  For example, she did not have a skewed body image and she was not obsessed with food, quantity, or calories, which is common in anorexic patients in the US. In addition, she insisted that physical pain prevented her from eating. Prior to the western version of anorexia nervosa being a well-known disorder in Hong Kong, the few patients with anorexia presented with these atypical symptoms. However, once the western notion of anorexia spread to Hong Kong in the 1990’s, the number of anorexic women increased dramatically and their symptoms conformed to those we associate with the disorder, such as fear of weight gain and distorted body image.

Watters’s description of the girl who died of anorexia prior to the spread of westernized anorexia to China leads to several questions.  Why were her symptoms so different? Is this a different disorder altogether? Why did the nature of the disorder change once the western symptoms were known in Hong Kong? Returning to Seung’s theory of the connectome, how do culture, values, and expectations shape connectomes? The disorder cannot be entirely genetic, or the symptoms of anorexia in Hong Kong wound not have changed and the rates would not have increased. Why are certain connectomes more susceptible to certain psychological disorders?  If it breaks down to an awareness of the disorder, and using the disorder as a cry for help, then perhaps the neurological changes that occur are a consequence of people subconsciously committing themselves to a disorder. Perhaps in this case, knowledge weakens instead of empowers individuals.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy like us: The globalization of the american psyche. New York, NY: Free Press.

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3 thoughts on “Culture and disorders: How does the connectome fit in?

  1. I definitely agree that sometimes knowledge is not power. I remember reading a study earlier this year about how in some South African countries, cannabis actually is used as an anorexia-inducer instead of an excuse to down a whole bag of sweet potato fries like it is in the U.S. Though psychopathology is a whole different issue, I do think that cultural attitudes interact with physiology/psychology in order to affect behavior (is it how you are interpreting your symptoms?). Maybe it is because you are primed to think in this certain way so you pathologize everything about your behavior and it become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a sense.

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  2. I believe that this post shows how western influence is negatively impacting parts of the world in terms if anorexia. The western population due to media and other outlets have caused an alarming number of people to have issues with their bodies, causing the psychological symptoms of anorexia. In another study, a television with western programming was introduced to a village where the ideal woman was a thicker woman. Within months the notion amongst the young women drastically changed with more and more people trying to fit the ideal shown on the media. This is just another example of how western influences can cause psychological disorders that were not originally present. This is also an example of how easily people are susceptible to different disorders, and sometimes it may not be a cry for help, but an actual problem.

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  3. I believe that this post presents an interesting perspective as to how western culture is negatively influencing anorexia around the world, in particular Asia. Having grown up in Shanghai, I have been brought up with the mentality that pathological disorders are “not real.” There is a strong stigma attached to mental illnesses, and it is shameful to have to admit to going to a psychologist for help. Yet, with the large influx of foreigners and Western ideology into the metropolitan city, Chinese people are starting to accept and even embrace many Western ideals. The media definitely plays a large role in influencing young adults. But, we cannot resort to solely blaming the media itself. We must take a cross-cultural perspective and examine why and how Western ideals, both positive and negative, are being openly embraced by the Chinese population. Is the rate of anorexia increasing due to an acceptance of this pathology? Or is the rate of anorexia increasing due to the media? Or is the rate of anorexia increasing due to the strive to conform to western ideals? Through a combination of the three questions posed, I think we can further examine why anorexia, specifically the western symptoms, are becoming increasingly prevalent in Asia.

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