“James,” my acupuncturist said once, “you think too much. You need to think less.”
Apparently my brain is sort of like the Macbook Air I’m typing this on: it occasionally overheats. I can be prone to what might be called “binge thinking.” Have you ever had a piece of fish that had lots of tiny bones that weren’t removed, and you’ve spent your whole meal dissecting it with fork and knife to find the bones, and chewing each mouthful carefully and thoroughly and probingly to find and remove any hair-thin bones you missed, lest they puncture your intestine? My thought processes can get like that from time to time.
Not that I think thinking is bad. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can think they ever stop thinking. How can you not constantly be thinking? I don’t mean being lost in thought all the time, but at least always considering everything before, during, and after, and – when nothing else is going on – having lengthy mental dialogues with yourself or imagined others. When is there ever a space where there’s nothing going on? I remember the line from Billy Joel: “Should I try to be a straight-A student? If you are then you think too much.” Ha! If you think you’re ever not thinking, then you’re just not paying attention. Right?
But overheating is bad. Brooding is bad. Fixating. Spiralling. Forming mental centres of gravity that become black holes. It can be a key feature in depression and anxiety disorders.
Which is where kufungisisa comes in. Kufungisisa has nothing to do with kung fu or ISIS or fungus or the Kurfürstendamm. The word kufungisisa means ‘thinking too much’ in Shona, a language (and culture) of Zimbabwe. It’s a cultural view of a particular set of mental disorders – or, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) puts it, “an idiom of psychosocial distress.” If you have it, you’re ruminating on various upsetting thoughts. It is associated with various conditions, including “anxiety symptoms, excessive worry, panic attacks, depressive symptoms, and irritability.” Which means that I, and many of you too, have had kufingisisa. Or would have had I (and you) been Shona.
Mental illness diagnoses are culture-bound, after all. Expression of mental illness can be strongly culture-bound too. Some cultures have names for culture-bound syndromes where, for instance, a person just “snaps” and runs amok – in fact, amok is from a Malay term for just that culture-bound syndrome. Japan has a disorder called tajin kyofusho that is “characterized by anxiety about and avoidance of interpersonal situations due to the thought, feeling, or conviction that one’s appearance and actions in social interactions are inadequate or offensive to others.” Cultures with strong expectations regarding body image will give rise to mental disorders related to those body images, never mind that other cultures – or that same culture at other times – may have entirely different views on body image.
But people are people, and some things are fairly common at the underlying level. Depression, for example, appears to happen everywhere, though not necessarily with the same incidence and certainly not with the same interpretation. The DSM-5 notes that “thinking too much” is a common way of describing certain kinds of mental distress in many cultures. Indeed, “In many cultures, ‘thinking too much’ is considered to be damaging to the mind and body and to cause specific symptoms like headache and dizziness.” In Nigeria, excessive study is thought to cause damage to the brain, “with symptoms including feelings of heat or crawling sensations in the head.”
Maybe it is possible to overheat the brain. Intense thought can be different from ordinary thought, after all, and if there are strong emotions involved, well, this is not exactly some kind of Spock thing. But I rather suspect that much of this is focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause. Brooding doesn’t cause depression; depression causes brooding.
It’s like calling nausea or earache a condition. They’re just symptoms. So is binge thinking. I think.