Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Emotional Climates: Ritual, Seasonality and Affective Disorders

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Emotional Climates: Ritual, Seasonality and Affective Disorders

Article excerpt

Medical anthropology has a long record of uncovering the cultural limitations of the categories of Western biomedicine. It habitually seeks to question the apparent facticity of these categories, noting their assumed status as objective disease entities, and often showing them to be powerfully shaped by cultural, social, and political factors. Post-traumatic stress disorder (Young 1995), menopause (Lock 1993), multiple personality disorder (Hacking 1995), premenstrual syndrome (Gottlieb 1988), anorexia nervosa (S. Lee 1996), and postnatal depression (Stern & Kruckman 1983) are some of the constructs which have come under this kind of scrutiny.

In this article, I outline some directions in which a similar exploration might be made of the social and cultural factors involved in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In doing so, I also hope to show that the psychobiology of this condition may shed light on some aspects of ritual symbolism--in particular, on the relation between public symbols and the psychological processes of individuals (cf. Leach 1958).

I argue that SAD, as a diagnostic category and as a subjective experience, is the product of a dichotomy between social time and the time of nature and the body. Only certain kinds of social and historical settings give rise to such distinctions and make them part of people's lived experience. The origins of SAD, then, are to be found in the social conditions that have made these distinctions possible.

There are, by contrast, societies in which a basic concern of ritual and cosmology is the concordance of social and natural cycles. I discuss some cultural settings of this kind, societies in which people also link their affective states closely to the seasons and prescribe certain states of feeling in accordance with seasonal change. I argue that if seasonality can affect the biochemistry of mood, these neurophysiological effects will tend not to manifest as 'disorders' in societies of this sort. Some of these societies seem, on the contrary, to harness such mood effects to ritual ends, drawing on them to create religious metaphors that integrate human social time and natural time in especially compelling ways.

Seasonal affective disorder

Since the mid-1980s, a large research literature has developed in psychology concerned with the seasonal patterning of affective disorders and mood. The most familiar seasonal affective disorder involves recurring depressive episodes in autumn and winter, with remission in spring and summer. SAD seems to be the extreme form of a widespread pattern of seasonal changes in mood and behaviour (Murray & Hay 1997)--widespread at least among people in Europe and North America. As with depressive disorders in general, SAD appears strongly gendered, with women of reproductive age being most often diagnosed. T.M. Lee and C.C. Chan (1998) suggest that this may be due to sex differences in biochemical responses to seasonal changes.

The prevailing explanations of autumn-winter SAD are that it is a biological response to seasonal change in the photoperiod (hours of daylight). Edery (2000) suggests that the disorder may be, rather like jet-lag, a disturbance of the circadian pacemaker (the body's endogenous 24-hour clock) caused by the seasonal shifting of the length of the day. Some research suggests that it may involve the neural circuits that control hibernation and similar seasonal behaviour changes in other mammals (Wehr 2001). Some of its symptoms--such as excessive sleep, increased appetite, carbohydrate craving, weight gain, and fatigue--also seem to suggest that it may be related to hibernation and involve similar mechanisms (Austen & Wilson 2001). There is evidence that seasonal variations in levels of different neurotransmitters are involved in SAD. The production of serotonin, for instance, seems to be connected to the duration of bright sunlight, having its lowest rate during winter (Hilger et al. …

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