A syndrome is a combination of symptoms that indicate a specific disease. The term syndrome is most often used in a medical context to describe physical disease as for example when looking at AIDS –advanced immune deficiency syndrome.
The list of syndromes, especially eponymous syndromes is long, esoteric and depressing in that it reveals the bottomless depths of our physical fragility. There is no light side to syndromes. However, there is a psychological dimension to certain syndromes that reveals just what a shifting and curious thing our mental outlook is. In several instances a syndrome is a mental quirk that for some reason has its own hue, its own little niche that separates it from the gamut of other mental afflictions. It is these psychological syndromes that I am going to focus on in this post. I believe they reveal just how fluid and vulnerable our mental universe can be.
The type of syndrome I am thinking of (let’s call it a psychological syndrome) is a distortion of reality by someone under the grips of a powerful idea. At its worse a syndrome is a type of brainwashing as is the case with Stockholm syndrome. At the other end of the scale a psychological syndrome could be milder distortion of what is commonly perceived as there; more blinkered than blind.
I’ve been interested in syndromes for over a year now, mulling over the topic. Robert Anton Wilson in Prometheus Rising suggests that Stockholm syndrome when the kidnapped victim starts to side with their captors is a classic example of how easily basic re-programming techniques that contain a good deal of symbolism can turn someone upside down in perspective.
The most famous case of Stockholm syndrome is Patty Hearst. She was nabbed in 1974 by a radical Maoist group and effectively turned. She later robbed banks with her former captors. That was a Hollywood moment. She was identified as having Stockholm syndrome as just a year before a group of bank employees in Stockholm were held captive in a vault for 6 days in a failed bank robbery attempt. By the end of the ordeal they were hugging their captors and even trying to defend them.
This is truly remarkable since she was the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst – the Paris Hilton of her day, who prior to her capture was an air-head socialite who spent her time spending money on herself. After her re-birth she was a staunch and radical socialist.
According to the FBI about 27% of kidnap victims end up forming traumatic bonds with their abusers. It is the same psychology that is behind battered wife syndrome. Explanations of this mental phenomenon include the Freudian notion of the ego needing to survive by identifying itself with the aggressor. Another notion is that the syndrome is a left over from pre-history where it was common, especially for women, to be captured by enemy tribes and subsumed into a new culture – for survival it was necessary to radically re-align one’s allegiances.
The mirror image of Stockholm syndrome is Lima syndrome. It refers to an event in Lima, Peru in 1966. A radical terrorist group broke into the Japanese embassy and held several hostages at gun point. After a few days the Marxists felt such sympathy for their captives that they released them all without demand. The possibility remains that they just got fed up with the good manners of their captives and decided to release them rather than have to suffer any more bowing and tea drinking.
In both cases – Stockholm and Lima syndrome – there is a 180 degree turnabout in attitude. We like to think that this complete mental re-boot must only be possible under extreme conditions. In the case of Patty Hearst she was locked up in the pitch dark, broken and then re-born into the light of Marxist justice. The completeness of her turning was only achieved by total control of her environment. Surely us free citizens who are allowed to walk where we wither and watch what we want are not susceptible to such warping?
I am not so sure.
A syndrome can be bought on simply by dashed expectations as is the case with Paris Syndrome. This is a term coined to refer to the disappointment many camera-touting Japanese experience shortly after arriving in Paris. Rather than a romantic city of ladies walking their poodles by the Seine and artists arguing about existentialism in bohemian cafes in Montmartre, they discover a dirty city full of rude Parisians more interested in fleecing their oriental guests than displaying any type of high cultural savvy.
The average Japanese office worker will work nearly non-stop during their life. The 5 days that he takes off for a honeymoon thus gathers massive significance. It is literally a chance of a life time. The merciless way Paris can crush the joy and excitement out of the post marriage experience can result in Japanese needing counseling on return to the Far East (if they can beg time off work).
Diametrically opposed to Paris Syndrome is the Jerusalem Syndrome. In this case the reality is again a disappointment but the imagination rather than rejecting the locale embraces it in an all too loopy fashion. The victim of Jerusalem Syndrome invariably is caught raving on the streets of the Biblical city convinced they are Jesus. There is something irresistible about the ideologically-laden image of a long haired hippy in robes preaching love and peace and being, somewhat miraculously, also the son of God. Just as in Jesus’ day such professions of divinity were booed and ridiculed so today we can’t help finding Americans overdosing on Holy City history and convincing themselves that they are on a messianic mission slightly amusing. The city authorities have long got used to apprehending Americans firmly in the grip of Jerusalem syndrome and starting procedures to get them the fuck out of the city.
I haven’t heard of it, but there must be a similar syndrome induced by India – a land full of gurus, prophets and charlatans many of whom have the drugs and the patience to seriously play on the minds of idealistic and impressionable youth. These young Westerners shun the shallow materialistic values of their homeland and seek to live out their life wearing robes, eating curry and shagging their master. Perhaps this phenomenon is so generic that it can’t be singled out as any one particular set of causes and effects.
The list of psychological syndromes could go on. It all goes to show how easily the human mind can be re-programmed. Western culture fosters the cult of individuality, behind which is the notion of a strong core of personality. Eastern religion teaches us that no such core exists; and the syndromes I have touched upon only re-confirm this. We are the sum total of the impressions we have had. A few people have discovered how to manage the signals to control the mind. The mind is weak because the personality is temporary and malleable.
Indeed I am tempted to view all religious conversions as manifestations of a mental syndrome – the mind hungers for certainty and through symbols and gurus it finds it in a bunch of hocus pocus that is liable to take over a world view. It results in zeal to ‘save the world’ through love, bombs and door-to-door visits. How these people can believe in untenable metaphysical verities and yet deride those who suggest the universe might contain alien life forms only goes to confirm their delusion.
It is in this context that I come in a roundabout way to my point. In the early Twenty First Century growing numbers of people are coming under the insidious sway of Approbation syndrome.
This is my addition to the list of psychological syndromes. It is entirely the fault of Facebook and thus started for most people around 2007.
Facebook copied MySpace in many ways. It allowed people with no knowledge of HTML or coding to have their own space on the internet. Rather than be a passive consumer of information people could add to the library. While MySpace was music oriented and slightly user-unfriendly, Facebook was a piece of piss to join and get started. From the start Facebook was attractive because it allowed people to ‘post’ and get feedback from a community of ‘friends’. For millions of people a Facebook page is the only thing they have published on the net other than perhaps a comment or two on a blog.
In short, Facebook appeals to people’s vanity. It is vanity publishing gone nuts. In the old days people paid to get their inferior novels and poems published; and, thankfully nobody read them. With Facebook you only need to publish a few words, a photo or a video and you have an audience ready to give response. Indeed, you don’t need to ‘create’ (that would be burdensome): instead you can appropriate other’s efforts and ‘share’.
It is the feedback mechanisms that create the syndrome. You put up a photo of you and your baby; you put up a link to a music video on YouTube; you tell the universe of your friends how hung-over you are and very quickly you get back a trickle of response. It is this response that causes people to check back constantly with the secret desire in their hearts for a thumbs up and for a witty comment.
It becomes an unhealthy thing, like an addiction. The victim needs to publish more and get more response. It fills them with the warmth of approval, the glow of approbation. The point where such things matter is the point where it steps over the line into the territory of delusion. Owning up to the fact that it matters to you is the first step to being cured.
Twitter has shown the logic of Facebook: minus the bells and whistles the site allows users to indulge in one long blather of unrelated comments and links punctuated with the occasional nugget of information worth knowing. The approbation comes with the response and the re-tweet. Another buzz is a growing followers count.
With Facebook the hit of human warmth is supplied by the thumbs up! A real bonus is when your comment gets responses from close friends and not so close friends, and indeed strangers. To go viral through a witticism, link or picture is a huge thrill.
Facebook and Twitter give people a massive pat on the back. It gives them a warm feeling inside. It is approval; and more, it is the succor of human approbation.
It is the exact opposite to when a footballer misses a penalty and loses the match for his or her team. The whole team goes up to their fellow and pats them on the back. That pat is a disguised whip of opprobrium, the teeth and snarl of disapproval.
It is all harmless fun to post once in a while, chuck out a few likes and indeed be social, but I am sure you all know some ‘friend’ who is always posting, telling us about antics and japes, always keen for that weekend brew or smoke; someone who has a lot of wisdom to impart; someone with a mega happening life; or perhaps a life that they pretend is mega happening. DJs go on Facebook while spinning for thousands, but also bedroom DJs are out for their online shouts. One is less deluded than the other.
Where Facebook approbation distorts reality is that simply it becomes the reality. People start living more through this puerile social media than they do connecting with the real world of humans. They typically have smart phones and feel most at home in the radius of a hotspot.
It is delusion because most of the people on friend lists aren’t really friends. More often than not they are the result of a brief meeting. In the case of Twitter most followers are complete strangers.
Making friends is good manners and often a cynical exchange to boost mutual popularity. These so-called ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ will never meet; they won’t send each other emails or Christmas cards; they don’t invite their virtual buddies to their wedding or their kid’s christening. They won’t listen to problems; they won’t offer advice; they won’t lend money; and they won’t go to Facebook mates’ birthday parties.
They only become friends for a fleeting moment of consciousness: just long enough to read a comment view a photo or video and click on the like button. Once that is done the friendship evaporates from their consciousness.
A Facebook friend is worthless; a Facebook like is even more useless. Thus those who spend serious amounts of time on the site posting and looking to garner peer approval are delusional and deserve to be diagnosed as suffering from Approbation syndrome. Either that or they are selling something.
Armies instinctively know that small units of fighting men are the most effective. The soldiers must know each other and be prepared to die for each other. There is a limit to how many people you can realistically know in any profound sense. Psychologists believe the maximum number of people you can keep in mind and pursue relationships with is about 150. Beyond that and you begin to lose track.
Aristotle wrote: “Friends must have eaten salt together.”
For those of you who have made it to the end of this article I must mention that I will post a link to this piece of satire on Facebook. I don’t mind if you ‘like’ it, just don’t expect me to care less if the link goes unheeded by my 100 or so Facebook chums.