Is the cinematograph making us stupid?

I’ve just found an eye-opening 2003 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the work on 19th century neurologists George Beard and Silas Weir Mitchell, who thought the pace of life and the effect of new technology was harming the mind and brain of citizens in 1800s America – echoing similar concerns we still hear today.

The two physicians were influential in pushing the idea that these effects resulted in ‘neurasthenia‘, a kind of fuzzy catch-all diagnosis for mental or emotional malaise.

What’s interesting is we’re experiencing something almost identical over 100 years later.

As we’ve noted several times, leading scientists or commentators can make international headlines by simply suggesting that new technology is harming the mind, brain and relationships of the modern citizen, despite a general lack of evidence or flat out evidence to the contrary.

The JAMA article notes how neurasthenia was associated with the cultural concerns of the time:

Families migrated from the countryside to the city, men left traditional jobs as tradesmen and farmers to join the growing ranks of businessmen and office workers, women went from being mothers and daughters to also being university students and physicians, and technological developments such as telegraphs, telephones, and railroads became increasingly common parts of everyday life. As a diagnosis, neurasthenia commanded an intuitive legitimacy because it incorporated the anxieties that arose from these changes into the way people thought of their health. It could attribute a bank manager’s headaches to his hectic schedule and the obsession for detail his job demanded.

Similarly, a young woman’s depression could be understood as neurasthenia brought on by the mental drain of attending a newly founded coeducational university, where she competed for grades. In many cases, diagnoses of neurasthenia attached themselves to traditional ideals, such as the restorative virtues of farming vis-√†-vis the fast-paced stress of modern business or the Victorian belief in women’s disposition for motherhood rather than scholarship. For Beard and Mitchell, neurasthenic patients were casualties of modern society whose bodies and minds simply could not keep up with the seemingly accelerated lifestyles of men and women in the latter part of the 19th century.

It’s a lovely illustration of the fact that since the dawn of popular medicine, our cultural concerns about changes in society are likely to be expressed in the language of illness and disease.

The article also notes that then, like now, the concerns are accompanied by an encouragement to return to the traditional ways of doing things (in this day and age – encouraging kids to ‘play proper games’ or have ‘genuine relationships’) rather than highlighting ways of healthy adaptation to the new technology.

This is not to say that all fears about new technologies are unfounded, but its clear that they are quickly medicalised and get far more prominence than the evidence supports, both in the 19th century and in the 21st.

Link to JAMA article ‘Neurasthenia and a Modernizing America’.

One Comment

  1. tybeet
    Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been interested in the idea for a few years now ever since a friend of mine mentioned it as one of his considerations for a thesis. Though, admittedly, his was concerned more with damage from subliminal sources (like high-frequency sound-radiations from the power lines or in-home appliances).
    I think the whole topic of neurasthenia has a lot in common with what psychologists call “conversion disorder” (or conversion reactions) where stresses become physically manifest.
    It also would seem a fair interpretation to consider an evolutionary perspective: perhaps the people who have severe neurasthenia are simply no longer “fit for survival”?


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