I learned psychiatry in a mental hospital, which had its spectacular moments of irrational chaos, but the loony bin I analyse in my book, “Welcome”, is this world that contains us all. As a psychiatrist I had no difficulty recognising the insanity of mental illness. Nor would you, whatever your experience. But have you reflected on the critical difference that separates it from sanity? The insane commit their aberrations with chaotic individualism. They obey idiosyncratic memes that emerge from the cauldron of their very different childhood experiences. They act alone, usually harmlessly. The sane act in the mass obeying the group mind, their common beliefs brewed in the cauldron of a far longer past. They assault and batter their fellows and their environment with the power of the organised group. The insane play no part in mass lunacies such as Nazi Germany or the global financial crisis.
The readiness of the sane to act together in response to current fashion prompts the mass descents into lunacy. Communities create in a constant stream epidemics of imagined illnesses, dreamed up by academics, who should know better, and adopted with enthusiasm by media, authority and those aching for the comfort of invalidism. Even sadder, but fortunately on a smaller scale, our efforts to achieve justice convict many an innocent. Jurists struggle to improve a system that has a frightening rate of false convictions because of the human propensity to convict in obedience to whatever prejudice dominates the belief system of the moment. The advocates for decriminalising illegal drugs would abandon prohibition while striving to restrict drugs already available. What makes marijuana seem less harmless to those concerned about the damage inflicted by tobacco and alcohol?
How we produce ideas explains success and failure in our loony bin. Rationality plays only a minor part. We follow a track forged by our ancestors. The tool they created, language, makes the group mind the repository of ideas that drive us, refined over millennia by consensual agreement. Memes play out a battle for survival in a process of evolution governed by rules of selection similar to those that shape genes. Memes bind the group together with the cohesion that preserves its identity and delivers civilisation. No matter how irrational or onerous the group’s choice of memes become, its members largely obey their direction, a force I term meme tyranny. In “Welcome to the Loony Bin” I use my experience of psychiatry and the law to expose the tyranny that the group mind exerts over our reasoning.