Out of Africa and to the New World: Fantastical Musings on the Adaptability of Mental “Disorders” of the Bipolar and Schizophrenic Spectrums

When I read about the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene in an article by Schaller and Murray (2011) my curiosity was raised once again about an idea I have been playing with for a while concerning the possibility of “bipolar” mania and some forms of mental functioning which fall on the “schizophrenia” spectrum as being, in some contexts, “adaptive.” There are two contexts I will discuss in this post: 1) the role of certain mental states in contributing to novel problem solving, and 2) the role of these same states in contributing to human migration.  I will also discuss how therapeutic dissociation, which I suggest is prevalent in these populations, has been an important adaptive strategy, and has been culturally instituted. Finally, I will discuss how people with these forms of mental functioning “signal” their distress (or culturally atypical thoughts/behaviors) in culturally salient ways.

In some very interesting research, Dein and Littlewood (2011) examined the relationship between schizophrenia, religion, and everyday cognition. There are similarities between schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar disorder (BD), in fact some forms of BD are treated with the same antipsychotic medications as schizophrenia. They suggest “Both religion and schizophrenia perhaps derive from an over attribution of agency and an overextension of Theory of Mind (2011:329). Both religion and schizophrenia may have evolved together. In families with a member with schizophrenia, there is an increased likelihood of creativity, leadership qualities, musical skills, and religiosity (Horrobin 1998). Horrobin also suggests that schizophrenia was present in the earliest stages of Homo sapiens, around 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, accompanying the explosion of art and religion. Schizophrenia and genius perhaps manifested as a result of evolutionary pressures that triggered genetic changes in our brains, allowing humans to make novel connections and solutions to events, leading to enhanced mental capacities. Thus, schizophrenia and its related bipolar disorder may have been a result of, and contributed to, these new cognitive abilities.

Referring back to the article by Schaller and Murray (2011), it has been shown in some studies that a particular variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene is predictive of a novelty seeking. By looking at the distribution at this gene across various aboriginal populations in North and South America it has been shown that the frequency is much higher among populations in the southernmost regions of South America. The frequency of the gene is also found to be relatively low among populations that live close to Beringia, were Clovis people made their entry into the new world. I see a connection between novelty seeking and the atypical mental states found in people diagnosed with bipolar mania and some forms of schizophrenia. Could it be, like Meriwether Lewis leading the Corps of Discovery across America, that novelty seeking individuals led migrations out of Africa and journeys leading to the populating of North and South America? Do individuals with these atypical mental states carry the gene?

Although Bargatzky (1984) states that the “adaptionist programme” is only applicable on the genetic and phenotypic levels, I will side with Petersen’s response to Bargatzky in that culture is the means of adaptation for human kind. According to Lasker’s model (in Schell 1995) there are three modes of human adaptation: natural selection of genotypes, plasticity, and individual acclimatization. Adaption can be seen as the changes an organism makes to surmount challenges in the environment. I agree with Frisancho (2010), who suggests that adaptation applies to organisms and social groups. Cultures also create adaptive strategies which may augment physiological changes (McElroy 1990). In our case, the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene may have served a purpose to get folks moving, and a material culture based on high mobility followed for humans coming out of Africa, Solutreans moving across Atlantic ice and populating the east coast of America, the Clovis people who traveled across Beringia and spread throughout the west and Great Plains, and whoever got to South America and settled at Monte Verde. This adaptation may be beneficial in the short term, but become less so in the long run. This applies to our atypical individuals leading migrations. Mania and novelty seeking may move groups of people to a new environment, but once they settle down it becomes necessary to integrate these atypical mental states into a settled culture.

I repeat, as populations settle down, these novel mental states became integrated into culture. It is a popular notion that shamans and other religious figures may have been influenced by these atypical mental states. In my research with a bipolar support group, I found many people who discussed having hyper-religious experiences during episodes of mania. I also found among the same population examples of therapeutic dissociation, either in the context of prayer/meditation and marijuana use. Lynn (2005), Snodgrass (2011), and Seligman (2005), have all published papers on the therapeutic quality of certain dissociative states. Perhaps individuals who experience more dissociative states become “dissociative experts” and operate as specialists, whether shaman, priest, or other spiritual specialist. Being a shaman or other type of religious figure allows the individual to operate within a culturally acceptable context.

Aside from becoming a spiritual specialist, individuals with atypical mental functioning are also compelled to express their differences or “dis-ease” in culturally salient ways. According to signaling theory, people are attracted to healthy appearing individuals and avoid individuals who they see as unfit or as carriers of disease, and people signal their commitment to the group in acceptable ways (Shaller and Murray 2011; Waynforth 1998). Labels such as “bipolar” or “nervios” allow for ways to express atypical mental states in manners acceptable to members of their culture.

I will now close this post by concluding that atypical mental states may have arisen in human history as a response to environmental pressures which forced novel solutions. This short-term adaptability becomes compromised when the population settles into a new context. These atypical mental states are then renegotiated into forms which are socially acceptable to varying degrees. Atypical mental states become “illness” or “disorders” when the expression does not fit the sociocultural context. To me this suggests the importance of examining atypical mental states and patterns in their particular cultural context. Ultimately, one size does not fit all when it comes to describing and treating atypical mental functioning.


Bargatzky T. 1984. Culture, environment, and the ills of adaptationism (with CA commentary). Current Anthropology, 25:399-415.

Dein, S. & R. Littlewood. 2011. Religion and Psychosis: A Common Evolutionary Trajectory? Transcultural Psychiatry, 48(3):318-335.

Frisancho, A.R. 2010. The Study of Human Adaptation. In MP Muehlenbein (ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology. Pp. 17-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horrobin, D.F. 1998. Schizophrenia: The Illness that Made us Human. Medical Hypothesis, 50:269-288.

Lambek, M. 1989.  From disease to discourse: Remarks on the conceptualization of trance and spirit possession. In: Altered states of consciousness and mental health: A cross-cultural perspective. CA Ward (ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 36-61.

Lynn, C.D. 2005. Adaptive and maladaptive dissociation: An epidemiological and anthropological comparison and proposition for an expanded dissociation model. Anthropology of Consciousness 16(2):16-50.

McElroy, A. 1990. Biocultural Models in Studies of Human Health and Adaptation. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 4:243-265.

Seligman, R. 2005.  Distress, dissociation, and embodied experience: Reconsidering the pathways to mediumship and mental health. Ethos 33(1): 71-99.

Schaller, M. & D.R. Murray.  2011. Infectious disease and the creation of culture. In MJ Gelfan, C Chiu, Y Hong (eds) Advances in culture & psychology, Vol 1, pp. 99-152. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schell, L.M. 1995.  Human biological adaptability with special emphasis on plasticity: History, development and problems for future research. In: Human variability and plasticity. CGN Mascie-Taylor & B Bogin. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 213-237.

Snodgrass, J.G., M.G. Lacy, H.J. Dengah, J. Fagan, D.E. Most. 2011.  Magical flight and monstrous stress: Technologies of absorption and mental wellness in Azeroth. Culture, Medicine, & Psychiatry 35(1):26-62.

Waynforth, D. 1998.  Fluctuating asymmetry and human male life-history traits in rural Belize. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 265:1497-1501.

Welling, L.L.M, C.A. Conway, L.M. Debruine, B.C. Jones. 2007. Perceived vulnerability to disease is positively related to the strength of preferences for apparent health in faces. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 5(1-4):131-139.








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