Pathogenic Culture

At some point, I read a comment or article or something that referred to our culture as "obesogenic"; that the incidence of obesity has dramatically increased as a consequence of societal and economic factors, e.g. increased availability of hyperpalatable, low-nutrition, high-calorie processed foods, a decrease in the value and effectiveness of walking and running in our unwalkable suburban sprawl, a decrease in the amount of manual labor involved in our daily jobs and customs, etc.

I think that this is the case with some other conditions as well.

I flinch a bit when someone is distracted and then says "I'm so ADHD," or tidies something and says "I'm so OCD." I have done both myself, to be clear. And sometimes I literally get distracted during a meeting by the antics of a squirrel outside my office.

I don't think either of those behaviors – appropriating a mental condition to seem a bit more cutely quirky, or excuse a perfectly conventional response to stimuli – is great. But I'm not sure I can really despise it either.

I have ADHD, as does my son, as does my wife. It's impacted our lives in various ways. I'm a fairly stable middle-aged man at this point, with a good career, but I can't help thinking that I would've been a completely different person had I been able to receive therapy and learn coping strategies for my condition as a child or teenager. The incidence of attempted suicide for people with ADHD appears (depending on study) to be about 5 to 7 times higher than that of the rest of the population, and they succeed more often. And, to be frank, I understand that completely.

ADHD has some benefits and some terrible costs. I take it fairly seriously.

That said, just as I believe our culture is obesogenic, I believe our culture also promotes and stimulates a kind of pathology similar to ADHD; constantly scrolling, constantly looking for sources of gratification, constantly bombarded with advertisements and notifications, constantly clicking the cow, etc.

ADHD seems to be a condition of dopamine transport in the brain. Our society is composed largely of structures whose existence is predicated on their ability to manipulate the flow of dopamine within your brain. How could neurotypical people not have their brains shift into a more ADHD mode?

I think there's a similar thing operating with OCD, which seems to at least involve dopamine transport as well. I think the hyperrealistic nature of modern society contributes. The presentation of the most desirable aspects of the self in social media has been linked to depression; I think there's a similar effect from comparing one's home, clothes, body, etc to the sanitized versions on social media and commercials.

I mentioned depression; is that similar? I felt depressed for many years... but was I? Or was it just that I couldn't bear to exist as myself, for reasons that might actually be kinda understandable and valid and even rational? If we could perform a neurochemical test for depression, would it flag a teenager who has no basis for comparison but the distillation of her peer group in social media and broader culture? Or does she rightly feel bad about herself in comparison... it's just that the basis for comparison itself is incredibly unhealthy?

Or is this a "quacks like a duck" situation? Leaving aside for the moment the degree of actual suffering that you experience, does it really matter if you would be equally ADHD living in a cabin in 1800's Wyoming or living in an apartment in the Upper West Side?

I'm also comparing the suffering I experienced as a mid-nineties kid with ADHD to the suffering experienced by neurotypical kids at my school... but of course, I believe the nature of this dopaminergic toxicity has dramatically worsened in the intervening 30 years. I can't perceive a 13-year-old (like my son) in the same way now that I could when I myself was 13. How many of these kids would be neurotypical in another setting? Would my kid?