Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome

By Nancy C. Andreasen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
UNDERSTANDING WHAT
MENTAL ILLNESSES ARE

The Past Is
Prologue to Progress

The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n —John Milton Paradise Lost

W e human beings moved out of caves and began to cultivate the soil thousands and thousands of years ago.We began to record our history in written language four to five thousand years ago.We do not know when we first began to suffer from mental illnesses, or why this occurred.We do know that mental illnesses have been with us for thousands of years, however, and that they began to be described as early as human beings began to create written accounts of their illnesses.Mental illnesses are described in most surviving early medical texts, such as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus or the writings of Hippocrates or Galen, going back as early as 1900 B.C. For most of their history, mental illnesses have been recognized as brain diseases that are expressed as changes in thinking and emotion.In early medical texts they are discussed in the same manner as other illnesses, such as dropsy (heart failure) or diabetes.They are described in the Bible, as when King Saul falls into a severe depression.They are portrayed in literature, as when Aeschylus shows us Orestes tormented by the Furies, or Euripides presents the paranoid madness of Medea. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a whole host of “madness” plays: The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd, The Duchess of Malfi by Webster, or Hamlet and King Lear by Shakespeare.

Running counter to the ancient recognition that mental illnesses are diseases of the mind that arise from the brain, however, has been a countertradition of stigmatization and even cruelty. Looking back, it appears that this countertradition arose sometime in the middle of the last millennium, created by a mixture of social forces.


How Did Misunderstanding and Stigmatization
of Mental Illnesses Arise?

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the scientific and philosoph-

-163-

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