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Scott Jagow: Our need to constantly have more may be a disease. A mental illness, perhaps a physical one. Professor Peter Whybrow studies neuroscience and human behavior at UCLA. He’s written a book called American Mania.
Dr. Whybrow, we’ve just heard about people shopping literally every single day — how do you explain that behavior?
Peter Whybrow: What it basically points out is that we have a frenzy around certain material things that we just can’t do without anymore in our lives. So we’ve moved from need to desire to craving, basically. We grew up in scarcity — we evolved in scarcity, that is — so in fact, most of us don’t know what to do with abundance.
Jagow: How did we go from evolving from scarcity to this point?
Whybrow: Well, I think it’s been very complex, but in the last 20 years, we sped everything up. Suddenly, there was a fast new world in which everybody could work all day and all night. You spend all night here working for the morning program…
Jagow: Yes I do.
Whybrow: And you do that because the world is still going on while the rest of us are asleep. We’ve essentially taken the brakes off the business cycle in this country, and what that has done is it’s brought extraordinary material abundance. And we don’t quite know what to do with stuff.
Jagow: So as a public health issue, what is happening to us?
Whybrow: Well, I think we are pushing ourselves to our physiological limit. You can’t do the things we’re doing without seeing the predictable outcomes of obesity, Type II diabetes, sleep depravation, anxiety, depression… All those things are predictable if you live a life where you’re constantly at the edge.
Jagow: How long can we keep this up?
Whybrow: Well, you know, it’s not everybody who’s indulging in this. We can do something about it individually, but I think we have to think about it collectively as a real problem. What happens in mania is first, people are very happy and they seem to be extraordinarily engaged. And then slowly, everything begins to fall apart as they become completely driven by this growing physical and mental derangement. And so it’s almost as if we’ve gone beyond happiness.
Jagow: Hmm. That’s scary.
Whybrow: Well, we could stop it — you know, the good thing about the human being is we do have a rational part of ourselves. The only problem is, at the moment that’s all we have, because all the social restraints have disappeared. And when you take off the social brakes, and we have individualism as the icon of what we’re all trying to achieve, there’s no social feedback that traditionally in the market has prevented people from being greedy, to put it bluntly. I mean, if you look around, there are lots of evidence of greed, which I consider to be a behavioral disorder.
Jagow: Dr. Peter Whybrow. His book is called “American Mania: When More is Not Enough.” Thank you so much.
Whybrow: Thank you.
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