From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Insanity, craziness or madness is a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns. Insanity may manifest as violations of societal norms, including a person becoming a danger to themselves or others, though not all such acts are considered insanity. In modern usage insanity is most commonly encountered as an informal unscientific term denoting mental instability, or in the narrow legal context of the insanity defense. In the medical profession the term is now avoided in favor of diagnoses of specific mental disorders; the presence of delusions or hallucinations is broadly referred to as psychosis. When discussing mental illness in general terms, "psychopathology" is considered a preferred descriptor.
In English, the word "sane" derives from the Latin adjective sanus meaning "healthy". The phrase "mens sana in corpore sano" is often translated to mean a "healthy mind in a healthy body". From this perspective, insanity can be considered as poor health of the mind, not necessarily of the brain as an organ (although that can affect mental health), but rather refers to defective function of mental processes such as reasoning. A Latin phrase for "sane" is "compos mentis" (lit. "of composed mind"), and a euphemistic term for insanity is "non compos mentis". In law, mens rea means having had criminal intent, or a guilty mind, when the act (actus reus) was committed.
A more informal use of the term insanity is to denote something considered highly unique, passionate or extreme, including in a positive sense.
During the 18th century, in England and France, humane treatment of the insane was introduced and mental hospitals were built. The first mental hospital in America was built in Williamsburg, Virginia around 1773. Before the 19th century, these hospitals, or asylums, were seen as a place to hide these people from the view of others. Pictures from these dark times portrayed them as tied up and bed ridden. Straitjackets and chains controlled patients and forced them to be seen as inferior. Depression, a very understandable issue for people who have been through tough times, was often a factor in the “insane.” The sadness would force people to do things which others did not understand. Things like self-mutilation and suicide were misinterpreted and misunderstood. These people were locked up and treated unfairly which caused them to lash out and become even more mysterious.
Because people seemed to be so unfamiliar with people who acted this way, it caused scientists and other people to become more involved with studying them. It eventually caused people to study parts of the brain and how they function with resulted in many scientific achievements. This was also why the word "insane" is no longer used as a medical term, but "mentally ill" is. People have researched and discovered that someone is not just insane, but something has caused them to be that way. Insane is now either used as a slang term or used in law.
In popular culture, "insane" could also refer to something extremely foolish, while persons may be deemed "insane" if their behavior strongly deviates from accepted social norms; in the past, insanity has been used to refer to individuals who have exhibited apathetic, cruel, hypersexual and homosexual behavior. The term is typically negative, but departure from established norms may also be seen as a positive quality; in this case, being "insane" is being daringly unconventional or individualistic. This use of insane is illustrated by the following quote from Henry David Thoreau's A Plea for Captain John Brown, an essay supporting the well-known militant abolitionist:
- Many, no doubt, are well disposed, but sluggish by constitution and by habit, and they cannot conceive of a man who is actuated by higher motives than they are, accordingly they pronounce this man insane, for they know that they could never act as he does, as long as they are themselves.
In this sense, "insanity" is not implied to be an actual disorder, let alone severe.