A New Theory of Mental Illness
It is fairly rare to come across a groundbreaking theory that makes scientists take stock of their existing assumptions. This may be precisely what is about to happen with a new theory proposed by Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. The basis of the theory is that genetically based mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism result from an evolutionary tug of war that favors either the mother or the father's genes. The greater the bias towards the father, the higher the risk of autism. Similarly, the more the genetic bias is towards the mother, the greater the risk of schizophrenia, as well as mood disorders such as depression or bipolar.
According to the theory, not only are autism and schizophrenia on either side of a spectrum, but so are all psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. Effectively the theory removes the many seperate categories for disorders that have developed over the years. According to Crespi, the social behaviors associated with autism and schizophrenia are direct opposites. He observes that people with schizophrenia frequently show an over-sensitive sense of self that is evidenced by hallucinations, a sense of being watched or plotted against, or feeling grandiose. By contrast, people with autism lack a repertoire of social behaviors.
Crespi acknowledges that the new theory may not readily be accepted by established figures in the scientific community but he hopes that younger people coming through will be more willing to embrace these new ideas.
In terms of therapy, Crespi says it makes sense to promote behaviors on the opposite side of the spectrum. "If you have someone who's schizophrenic . . .by these ideas, what they've got is kind of an overdevelopment of their social brain, if you will. And what you basically want to encourage them to be less mentalistic, less over-interpreting with regard to sociality. You essentially want them to become relatively more autistic in the way they think about the world."
As to the views of the scientific community? Well, these are starting to trickle in. Benedict Carey, who reported on the new theory in the New York Times, cites Dr. Matthew Belmonte, a neuroscientist at Cornell University. According to Belmonte, the idea, "is plausible [and] gives researchers a great opportunity for hypothesis generation, which I think can shake the field up in good ways." According to Carey's report, experts who are familiar with the theory regard it as a much needed boost.