Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Prairie Madness?!

I've recently come across mention of a strange malaise called "prairie madness". Evidently in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Americans moving west would sometimes be driven insane simply by living in a wide-open expanse. The specific cause of the insanity seems debatable. Some people attributed it to the sound of the endlessly shrieking wind moving unobstructed over the land. Others speculated that it was the desolation and loneliness of living so far from any neighbors. There are even folks who claim that humans naturally prefer interrupted visas (sightlines). Apparently outdoor enclosures are vital to the perceived security of a city or town. The wide open skies and distant horizons of the prairie must have made its inhabitants feel (at the very least) very insubstantial. Additionally I would imagine that the imminent prospect of destruction as evidenced by quickly-approaching storms might also play a role in causing an intense fear that could lead to mental breakdown.

A lot has been said about the beauty of the topography in Pittsburgh. Maybe the reason that people seem to be drawn to this city is the multitude of tree-lined hills that contain all of the separate neighborhoods. The amount of information to visually process is limited by all of the features- both natural and man-made. There's a certain coziness inherent in that idea, as if one's neighborhood is a log cabin with a roaring fire. Then again, maybe that's why folks in this town can be so damned insulatory. It makes for a type of peculiar, site-specific fragmentation. But I can't say for sure whether or not there is a lower incidence of mental disorder here.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the "prairie madness" phenomena is the idea that mental illness can be caused by the characteristics of the space where one lives, rather than through a genetic component or interactions with others. When tracing madness to an environmental context, analysts usually concern themselves with the chemicals or other substances that one consumes. Can the features of the land cause mass psychosis? Is it the reason that so many of the nation's serial killers were born in the flatlands of the Midwest? There's no doubt that specific formations and other characteristics of terrain commonly evoke specific emotions. That's plainly evident in depictions of nature in art and literature. But insanity lies in a separate dimension of experience.

There are specific names for phobias associated with natural environments. "Thallasaphobia" is the morbid fear of the sea. "Kenophobia" refers to the fear of voids or empty spaces. "Anemaphobia" is the fear of air drafts or wind. "Auroraphobia" is the fear of the Northern Lights. "Dendrophobia" is the fear of trees. And of course, fear of open spaces is subsumed under the umbrella of "Agoraphobia". A phobia can cause severe anxiety, diorientation, panic attacks, and/or an overstimulated nervous system. The display of such symptoms could easily be interpreted as madness.

If I was forced to make a definitive speculation about "prairie madness", I would be inclined to say that there was no specific biochemical trigger for the condition. I would guess that whatever physical signs were manifested were the result of individually-based psychological trauma(s). Yet it seems that certain people are more susceptible to severe anxiety reactions than others, irrespective of the external situations that they find themselves in. If that is truly the case- we may someday look toward genetic predisposition for the cause of generalized phobic behavior. "Prairie madness" was endemic to a time in our history when pseudoscience provided flawed explanations for many afflictions. It's difficult in retrospect to isolate the causes of the phenomenon- if it even existed apart from some ill-defined cluster of behaviors.

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