IMDb
Source: IMDb

If you want to see a totally sick, dark, and disturbing (yet highly entertaining) portrait of what truly fragmented family dynamics look like, check out Michael Weschler’s new film Altered Minds, starring Judd Hirsch as a retired psychiatrist and family man. (It will be released in theaters as well as to video-on-demand on November 20.)

I won’t give away the plot—you have to experience the twists yourself to fully appreciate the suite of unpleasant emotions that are elicited by this film—but I’ll say this: It represents family dynamics at their worst.

The film takes place in a high-end mansion in a suburb of New York City, and features an ailing, elderly father, his wife, and their four adult children. Let’s just say that not everyone gets along and lots of bad stuff happens.

I attended the New York premiere of the film this week, as well as a panel discussion which included three of my Psychology Today colleagues, Jane Greer, Hara Marano, and Guy Winch, which focused on how powerful negative childhood events can shape one’s psychological development and mental health. As an evolutionist, I’d add one more angle to the dialogue of the issues brought up by this thriller.

Evolutionary Mismatch and Mental Health in the Modern World

In recent decades, zookeepers have come to clearly see how damaging it can be to keep a wild animal in an unnatural environment (such as a monkey in a cage). Monkeys who are raised in cages show all kinds of markers of psychological and behavioral distress. As is well-documented by evolutionary psychologists (see Geher, 2014; Montgomery, 2010), modern Westernized living for humans is very much like living in a cage.

In the film, characters exist in a world full of mismatches—full of ways that do not match the environments that surrounded our ancestors for the lion’s share of human evolution. Here are some specific ways the world presented in Altered Minds is out of sync with ancestral conditions:

  • Psychiatry is a relatively new field (in terms of an evolutionary timescale) with few if any analogs that existed under ancestral conditions. The entire premise of psychiatry (which is deeply questioned in this film) mismatches ways that ancestral humans would have dealt with personal issues.
     
  • The nuclear family itself also represents a major mismatch. Under ancestral conditions (and in nomadic groups around the world today), a child is raised by a community—typically with the mother at the center and with many of her (usually female) relatives and close friends as playing lead roles in the process (see Hrdy, 2010). The idea of a monogamous couple playing a dominant role in the raising of four children is fully outside the box of how human parenting worked for hundreds of thousands of years.
     
  • Labeling of mental illness didn’t exist. The medical model of mental illness is a relatively recent development. The idea of “having someone be committed” or being “beyond repair” matches our modern medical approach to mental health, and these issues emerge in the film.
     
  • The film also deals with the psychology of soldiers and the large-scale post-traumatic effects of battle on such young men. While war has always been a part of the human experience (see Smith, 2008), the magnitude of our wars and the number of affected individuals who need psychological and psychiatric services as a result of Vietnam, Iraq, etc., is evolutionarily unprecedented. This mismatch partly accounts for the large-scale mental-health issues that exist in our world today.

Put it all together, and it’s not so surprising that a modern nuclear family—with a father who is a prominent military psychiatrist—will have some major “issues.” As is often the case, an evolutionarily informed approach can help us step back and think about how mismatches from ancestral conditions help us understand the problems of the modern world.

Altered Minds
Source: Altered Minds

Bottom Line: Want to be creeped out and disturbed for 92 minutes? Want to see a worst-case scenario of the dark side of family dynamics? Can’t get enough of Judd Hirsch? Then check out Altered Minds. It's certainly not a feel-good film, but definitely one worth watching.

References

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Montgomery, J. (2010). The Answer Model: A New Path to Healing. TAM Books.

Smith, D. L. (2009). The most dangerous animal. New York: St. Marten’s Griffin

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