Ethan Watters is the author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. A frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Discover, Men’s Journal, Details, Wired, and PRI’s This American Life, Ethan has appeared on such national media as Good Morning America, Talk of the Nation, and CNN. He is a co-founder of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a cooperative writing workspace in San Francisco. In his talk, Ethan looks at these points:
1. It turns out that how a people in a culture think about mental illnesses—how they categorize and prioritize the symptoms, attempt to heal them, and set expectations for their course and outcome—influences the diseases themselves. In teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we have been, for better and worse, homogenizing the way the world goes mad.
2. Researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. As AI becomes a diagnostic tool for psychiatry, these cultural differences need to be taken into account.
3. The cultural shaping of the human mind goes beyond mental health symptoms. Researchers have begun reveal wide cultural differences almost everywhere they look: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self, others and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of the self, among other aspects of our psychological makeup. Understanding the cultural impact on human cognition will become increasingly important as we train computer systems to mimic human reasoning, thought processes and intuition.