Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, May 30, 2016

No ghost in the machine: is humankind suffering of a global Alzheimer disease?

The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe. It is also fragile, and prone to malfunctioning. Civilization is also a complex system, fragile and prone to malfunctioning. Perhaps some ailments of the human brain, such as the Alzheimer disease, have their equivalent at the civilization level.  (image source)

My parents had been married for 58 years when my mother died. That was a terrible loss for my father, then 86 years old, and I was much worried about his health. But I was relieved when I saw that, after a few months, he seemed to have recovered from the shock. He remained active and he could manage his everyday life without special assistance. He could take the bus, alone, and walk alone in the neighborhood. He even made new friends and spent time with them.

However, something was wrong with my father. Terribly wrong.

I remember a conversation that my father had, at that time, with my son about some plants that were growing on a steep slope of the garden. He wanted to cut them down and my son, who is a geologist, was trying to explain to him that it wasn't a good idea; the roots of these plants were keeping the ground of the slope stable. But my father didn't agree and he insisted that he wanted to get rid of those plants. I watched that conversation, more and more distressed, while my father kept building up all sorts of arguments to counter my son's ones. Jumping from one subject to the other, he was able to move the conversation in a cycle; never really answering on any point, but always switching to something else. It went on, perhaps, for one hour and it ended with my father not having budged of an inch from his position, leaving me and my son looking at each other, baffled.

That conversation was the first evidence of the onset of the Alzheimer disease for my father. At that time, I didn't really understand that, mainly because I didn't want to. But the symptoms kept mounting until my father died at 92, his mind gone. Nevertheless, for a few years, he managed to hide very well the symptoms of his mental decline. He was both intelligent and brilliant and he had developed all sorts of strategies to avoid finding himself trapped in a situation that would show his problem. He would get out of troubles by a joke, a witty comment, a humorous quip, or simply by changing subject.

But my father could get away with his problem only with acquaintances. For the members of his family, his condition was evident. Maybe you know the metaphor of the "ghost in the machine;" it says that there is a little ghost in the brain or somewhere that controls the bigger machine that's the human body. That ghost wasn't inside my father anymore. He was gradually becoming something like an answering machine, a very sophisticated one, but a machine. He was like one of those computer programs that purport to simulate human intelligence. He would be able to speak to people, and even to answer to them in ways that seemed to be superficially correct. But, like an answering machine, he wasn't really listening, the ghost was gone.

This story of some years ago came back to my mind as I was reading an article by David Dunning, titled "The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump" You may know Dunning in relation to the "Dunning-Kruger" effect, a feature of the human mind that makes people convinced that they are competent in some subject, and that makes them the more convinced, the less they know about that subject. Or course, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not the same thing as the Alzheimer disease, but in his article Dunning highlights the fact that there is a mental problem with many people engaged in the political debate. I think it is true. There is such a problem.

When I read or hear Donald Trump's statements, I can't avoid thinking about that ill-fated conversation when my father argued with my son about cutting those plants in the garden. It was the same kind of exchange: people who just appear to be debating, but aren't really understanding each other. In the political statements by Donald Trump, I see something of the way my father would react during the initial stages of the disease. The same unsupported statements shot at random, the same absolute certainty shown by someone who, really, had no idea about what he was speaking about.

That doesn't mean that I can say that Donald Trump has Alzheimer. He might, others seem to have noticed that there is something badly wrong in the way he behaves (h/t Clark Urbans for the link). But there is no way to diagnose Alzheimer with any certainty when it is in its early stages. However, the problem is not specifically with Donald Trump. No; this sensation of discussing with an Alzheimer patient comes often to me when following a political discussion in the media or in the comments of a blog or on social media. The debate doesn't seem to be among people who listen to each other. Rather, it seems to be among people who throw statements at each other as if they were tennis balls. Think of tennis players: they are not interested in the color of the ball they play with, only to throw the ball back to their opponents as fast as possible. So, in these debates, people don't seem to be interested in the meaning of what's being told to them, just to throw something back at their opponents as fast as possible.

Do you know the political tactics called the "Gish Gallop"? It consists in drowning an opponent in a torrent of arguments, one after the other, ignoring the counter-arguments. It can be used by perfectly sane people, but, at the same time, it is the ideal strategy to conceal one's mental disease. It describes very well the strategy that my father used for that purpose. So, those people whom we call trolls, are they just nasty, or are they sick? How many people in high-level position could be affected by the Alzheimer disease and yet be smart enough to hide the early symptoms? We already had a president, Ronald Reagan, who may have been in the early stage of Alzheimer during the last period of his presidency. That may not have caused big problems, but don't you have the sensation that the world is ruled by people affected by some form of dementia?

Could it be that we suffer from an Alzheimer-like civilization disease? That would explain why civilization never arrives at doing something useful about the terrible threats if faces, first of all, climate change. Maybe there really is no ghost in the machine we call civilization. It is a giant machine that stumbles around while arguing with itself in an endless squabble and getting nowhere.


My father, Giuliano Bardi (1922-2014) was an architect and a high school teacher. As an architect, he didn't have the chance to build many structures, but those that he built show the cleanliness of lines that was typical of the modernist school of architecture. He designed and had built the house where he lived until his death and where his family still lives today. I remember him for his keen spirit of observation that made him able to discover unsuspected details on anything. He was also a brilliant teacher, much loved by his students. So much that at his funeral many of them remembered him well enough that they came to say farewell to him for the last time.   


  1. Which reminds me of Ian McGilchrist's book, "The Master and His Emissary". He does not mention Alzheimer, but talks about schizophrenia instead. (Me, I'm reminded of certain alcoholics). According to McGilchrist the West is caught in the "hall of mirrors" of the left brain hemisphere. I can also see this in some Eastern (diverse Buddhist) philosophy. Ecopsychologists like to talk about the Cartesian split (mechanism vs. organism) and indeed McGilchrist notes signs of schizophrenia in Descartes. Cartesian schizophrenia is outlined in Mikulecky & Coffman's "Global Insanity" along Robert Rosen's (mathematically half-baked) model of mechanism vs. organism.

    Methinks this psychopathology is a general symptom of civilization and its financialization of the environment (when food and work become equivalent to an abstract token).

  2. Loved that post Ugo, as I have a friend whose husband is suffering from Alzheimers and you described his behaviour exactly.

    Yes, there is definitely something wrong with the majority of people in power today. I wonder how bad climate change and oil depletion has to get before they will accept it. Maybe they will just die out and the new generations will be different. We can only hope so.

  3. Ugo a very personal perspective on a wider situation, thank you. I don't know about politicians and mental deviance but on a wider level the organisations we have created are psychopathic (corporations) so underneath that must also lay a more personal psychopathology. When you recast your mind to more ancient times, the clear lesson from civilisations of the past, Greek, Roman, Persian was how they were all denomninated by tribe or clans. the unceasing activity of persons or groups (tyrants and dictators) of a pathologcial disposition, psychopathic kleptomaniacs to obtain power and control and the wilingness of many go along with such behaviour and its consequences for all as a group, great if your a winner not so great if your a loser. I am in agreement, that as you so nicely put it, there is no 'ghost' in the machine but perhaps now this machine so deftly based on tribalism and clans has morphed into a self perpetuating monster that is using up the very things we need to live (the atmosphere, water, land, edible plants and animals) while pandering to the narcissistic, immature and selfish desires we all harbour. Despite millenia of exhortation by wise and sober minds and patient accumulation of knowledge of what the 'Ghost' could and should be, we have collectively learned nothing and remember nothing nor do our genes which so amazingly produced us in the first place, I guess a hundred thousand years is just not a long enough time scale compared to the millions that it really takes for adaptation to occur. We are stuck - can we get a ghost into the machine before it is too late for all? Then again maybe we are a biological dead-end after all, how else could you describe our inability to properly react to the clear and imminent danger we are now in?

  4. Ugo -- Interesting thoughts. To my mind, the problems with how civilizations are run is not Alzheimers, but the fact that there are two subspecies of humans: those who have empathy and are thus able to cooperate and act socially, and those who have none (sociopaths) and who are thus fundamentally only in it for themselves. Sociopaths cannot cooperate, but they can stomp on others' necks to seize power for themselves. Empathy and ability to cooperate versus no empathy and thus no ability to cooperate seem to be largely genetically wired traits. Evolution has programmed different people with different survival strategies. Cooperation is not a rational behavior -- the subspecies with empathy does it because it "feels right." Dogs are no smarter than cats, yet dogs are cooperative, social hunters and cats are uncooperative, solitary hunters. Cats can never "decide" to cooperate because that behavior is not wired into them. Similarly, sociopaths cannot either. They might try to fake it for a while based on a rational analysis that it will advance their cause, but ultimately they are in it for what they can get for themselves and do not care one whit about anyone else. This is the fundamental problem, and there is seemingly no cure for it. Any society of cooperators is always subject to invasion by non-cooperators, as game theorists have told us for a long time. So even if 100% of humans were wired with empathy and cooperative genes, eventually a mutation would occur that removed the empathy and cooperation, and that mutation would have a field day living as a parasite on the cooperative population, until it grew to some steady-state level wherein the advantages and benefits of sociopathology were evenly balanced by the disadvantages and defense mechanisms of the empaths (which is where I think we are today, though with that boundary shifting around somewhat, the advantages to sociopaths seeming to be greater than the historical average at this moment in time).

  5. The Renewable Energy Survey is now UP also on Global Economic Intersection.

    This should further diversify responses from outside the collapse and energy blogs and forums.

    Currently we are @ 165 Submissions, which is quite sufficient for gross analysis of the numbers. However, we would like to have enough numbers to parse this out by the demographics.

    We are still low on female submission numbers, so encourage your wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters to submit a response! Bribe with chocolates and roses if necessary!


  6. I am sorry to hear of your father's illness, and the sadness that must have caused you. My father also suffered from Alzheimer's, and I can well remember the conversation where I first thought 'Maybe he's not being stubborn - maybe he doesn't understand'. It was just as you describe.

    Your post prompts two thoughts in me:
    1. Before someone is diagnosed there is - presumably - a period where their cognitive functioning is impaired. If there are many people in this state, does that have implications for the effectiveness of evidence based arguments in politics?

    2. If there is an infectious element in the illness, maybe there is a global illness in a literal sense.

  7. My mother also died of Alzheimer not long ago.

    But Trump nor tertulians ned not be sick to act as they do. In fact theyvare ve wellntrained by vtheir communication and PR specialists, who show them a handful of studies in mass psychology that insist in the sad fact that this kind behaviour is in fact the most effective. Voters don't like doubters, changing minds, because that would affect their own inner personality, and they want it to be safe and stable. They are not looking for new ideas, they are not even looking nfor nthe truth. They are looking for confirmation of their previous thoughts.

    The same applies when excoriating the opponents, when using simple and loaded words for complex issues. It's not Alzheimer disease. It's the big PR multinational companies advising, and a fundamental lack of ethics.

  8. It can be very hard to tell the difference between Alzheimer's and narcissistic personality disorder. I've heard and read the sort of garbled, incoherent gibberish and non sequiturs that Trump and Palin spout before from narcissistic people, again and again.

    The main difference is that unlike Alzheimer's, NPD is a lifelong disorder that starts in adolescence.

    The truly terrifying thing about Donald Trump is not that he may be senile or have NPD; it's that a huge proportion of US voters don't see just how mentally damaged he is.

  9. An aunt of mine died with Senile Dementia; I'm not sure it was Alzheimer's. However, she never displayed the traits mentioned here, altho up until the end was preparing for landing, she was sharp as a tack. And opinionated, tactless, humorous, and possessed of immaculate good taste.

    This essay really made me think. It is far too soon for me to have much in way of opinions about it. I gotta think of a ghost in the several societal machines.

  10. one can never know what actually goes on the mind of someone with any form of dementia. Once you get there--everyone is locked out; or so it seems to me.
    There would appear to be some form of certainty--that everything is right, particularly so if everyone else would just stop interfering.

    but we could apply that to humanity in a collective sense, irrespective of whether Trump is bonkers or not.

    consider the collective delusions:
    the certainty that all would be fundamentally well with the world if only "they" would stop interfering.
    The verbal/physical aggression against those who try to point out things that are not as they should be.
    denial of facts no matter how logically presented.
    denial of any imminent danger...the certainty that it isn't there.

    Trump's mindless followers have the same mindset that he does, his thoughts are their thoughts---therefore he cannot be crazy. His sanity is underwritten by the perceived sanity of those around him. It is an existence of mutual justification.

    Maybe humankind has also reached a certain terminal stage in our collective reasoning power.

  11. Five of my close relatives have died with dementia. Each dementia was different and arguably two of them died of old age. Lack of recall when asked questions - zero recall of what happened two minutes before - was standard, but not on every occasion, and some kind of judgement and personal non-verbal interaction was retained although conversation could be difficult and on some levels impossible. (One relative did produce circular verbal arguments of the kind noticed in Ugo's father, with the same stubborn courtesy.) We imagined that their internal conversations became routinely impossible for all of them.

    The world is not made of 'facts', nor is it 'out there', and we interact on many levels prosperously or not. Analysis is possible but needs testing and more often remains speculation about seemingly contradictory scenarios. Trump, it seems, has discerned that pretending otherwise cuts no ice with the many Americans who have seen the stalling of old material promises and the faltering of the imaginings that went with them. Loss of collective class identities and assumptions seem to have become as widespread as individual traumatic life experiences. It’s hard for many people to know who they are anymore. (Grim prospect!) The more he and his followers are denounced as ‘idiots’, the stronger his case becomes.

    In my view he may be more realistic about US foreign policy and the nexus with US economics, and perhaps more likely to cut realistic deals, and perhaps to cut losses.

    PS I do not relish his golf course projects in Scotland, but, hey, there is worse stuff than that going on. US priority on climate change and resource consumption has been insufficiently precautionary for a long time; one could say since the ‘realism’ that President Jimmy Carter tried to pronounce and to take the lead on. The American working or wage class was going down about the same time amid the detritus of growing ‘rust belts’.

  12. Update - I have just seen this in the Guardian:
    Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the US presidential election, has announced he is to visit the UK on the day after the country votes on whether to remain in the EU.

    The billionaire property developer will be at the Turnberry hotel at the golf course in south-west Scotland on 24 June for its official relaunch following a £200m redevelopment. ....“I think I would be a great uniter. I think that I would have great diplomatic skills; I would be able to get along with people very well,” Trump said. “I had great success [in my life]. I get along with people. People say, ‘Oh gee, it might be tough from that standpoint’, but actually I think the world would unite if I were the leader of the United States.”

    He hss set us all in a twitter! ;-)




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)