Dog-heads from Mars (Jul/Aug 08)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:03

BBC4 recently broadcast a series of four programmes called ‘Inside the Medieval Mind’. The series, presented by the historian Robert Bartlett, concerned ‘how medieval man understood the world’. What was implied by the series was that medieval men (and presumably women) saw the world very differently from us. But is this really true?

During the Middle Ages, from the 9th to the 15th century, the Bible and the teachings of the Church were the only sources of knowledge. The world was seen to be ordered according to God’s plan. Everything that was discovered about the world had to be fitted into that plan. According to the Church, all living creatures belonged to one of four categories: animals, fishes, humans, and spirit beings, which could be angels or demons. Little was known about the lands that lay beyond the British Isles and its nearest neighbours, but that didn’t prevent the Church from teaching that in distant lands there were many strange creatures, some of whom are depicted on the 13th century Mappa Mundi, the map of the world which hangs in Hereford Cathedral. This shows the Dogs Heads, creatures with a human body and a dog’s head, which were frequently depicted in medieval illustrations. Everybody believed in the existence of the Dog Heads. If the Church said this was so, it must be so.

In 1253 the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck travelled as far east as Korakorum in Mongolia but found no Dog Heads. On his return, the Pope sent more people to find the Dog Heads, but they were always just over the horizon. Non-sightings didn’t destroy the belief in Dog Heads. Two hundred years later, when Christopher Columbus sailed westwards, he expected not only to find China but the Dog Heads too. Lack of evidence didn’t destroy the myth.

We wouldn’t be so stupid, would we? We’re very scientific in our thinking, aren’t we? Or are we?

The Medieval Church claimed to be in possession of the truth about everything. The Church punished those who thought for themselves. Thinking for yourself is hard work, so most people were pleased to believe the Church’s teaching even when there was evidence to show that the Church was wrong. At the same time, being seen to be in possession of the truth made Church leaders rich and powerful.

In the 18th century running asylums for lunatics was a profitable business, but in 1845 the Lunacy Act was passed giving doctors the sole right to run asylums. To justify their position doctors invented a host of myths about the causes of lunacy, finally in the mid 20th century settling on the myth of a biochemical cause, despite the fact that no evidence for this has ever been found. Psychiatrists extended this myth by claiming that psychiatric drugs righted the biochemistry that had gone wrong. On this myth psychiatrists grew rich and powerful.

In her book The Myth of the Chemical Cure Joanna Moncrieff wrote, 

Psychiatric drug treatment is currently administered on the basis of a huge collective myth: the myth that psychiatric drugs act by correcting the biological basis of psychiatric symptoms or diseases. . . There is no evidence to substantiate this view. Instead, the evidence suggests that these drugs induce characteristic abnormal states that can account for their so-called therapeutic effects. . . [This myth] can be viewed as an ideology. . . Like other forms of ideology, it presents itself as an objective, impartial body of knowledge determined only by the facts of the world, whereas it actually conveys a partial view of human experience and activities that are motivated by particular interests. The institution of psychiatry, aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately backed by the state, has constructed a system of false knowledge about the nature of psychiatric drugs.

Most of the research which failed to find a biochemical cause and which showed that psychiatric drugs did no more than create an abnormal state was done by psychiatrists. Joanna wrote, ‘It is as if the psychiatric community cannot bear to acknowledge its own published findings.’

If the world cannot be explained in terms of God’s plan but only in terms of science, how can the Church be the only arbiter of what is true and what is false? If severe mental distress cannot be explained in terms of biochemistry but only in terms of how we interpret our experiences, how can psychiatry be the sole arbiter of what is sane and what is mad? No wonder the Church still sees science as the enemy, and psychiatrists ignore the results of their own research. But, if there isn’t a biochemical cause of our distress, does that mean we have to take responsibility for ourselves? That we have to think for ourselves? Perhaps the Dog Heads are actually on Mars.