The New Yorker: The Troubled History of Psychiatry

A new piece in The New Yorker takes a look at Anne Harrington’s new book Mind Fixers (covered previously on AHP here and here). As Jerome Groopman writes,

Her narrative begins in the late nineteenth century, when researchers explored the brain’s anatomy in an attempt to identify the origins of mental disorders. The studies ultimately proved fruitless, and their failure produced a split in the field. Some psychiatrists sought nonbiological causes, including psychoanalytic ones, for mental disorders. Others doubled down on the biological approach and, as she writes, “increasingly pursued a hodgepodge of theories and projects, many of which, in hindsight, look both ill-considered and incautious.” The split is still evident today.

The history that Harrington relays is a series of pendulum swings. For much of the book, touted breakthroughs disappoint, discredited dogmas give rise to counter-dogmas, treatments are influenced by the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry, and real harm is done to patients and their loved ones. One thing that becomes apparent is that, when pathogenesis is absent, historical events and cultural shifts have an outsized influence on prevailing views on causes and treatments. By charting our fluctuating beliefs about our own minds, Harrington effectively tells a story about the twentieth century itself.

The full piece can be read online here.

Anne Harrington: The Forgotten Tale of How Black Psychiatrists Helped Make ‘Sesame Street’

AHP readers will be interested in a piece by Anne Harrington on Chester Pierce, a founding member of the Black Psychiatric Association, who worked as a senior advisor on Sesame Street. The piece appears in the Daily Beast‘s Undark Magazine, which is dedicated to exploring science and society. As Harrington describes,

Small children of all ethnicities were growing up glued to TV screens. This worried Pierce, because he was not just a psychiatrist but also a professor of early childhood education. And from a public health standpoint, he believed, television was a prime “carrier” of demeaning messages that undermined the mental health of vulnerable young black children in particular. In fact, it was Pierce who first coined the now widely used term microaggression, in the course of a study in the 1970s that exposed the persistent presence of stigmatizing representations of black people in television commercials.

It seemed to Pierce, though, that the same technology that risked creating another generation of psychically damaged black children could also be used as a radical therapeutic intervention. As he told his colleagues within the Black Psychiatrists of America in 1970: “Many of you know that for years I have been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system and the mass media.” “We must,” he continued, “without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve rather than to oppress the black people of this country.”

The full piece can be read online here.

“Now Is a Time for Optimism”: The Politics of Personalized Medicine in Mental Health Research

AHP readers may be interested in a recent piece on mental health and personalized medicine in Science, Technology, & Human Values:

“Now Is a Time for Optimism”: The Politics of Personalized Medicine in Mental Health Research,” by Jonas Rüppel. Abstract:

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, personalized medicine has become one of the most influential visions guiding medical research. This paper focuses on the politics of personalized medicine in psychiatry as a medical specialty, which has rarely been investigated by social science scholars. I examine how this vision is being sustained and even increasingly institutionalized within the mental health arena, even though related research has repeatedly failed. Based on a document analysis and expert interviews, this article identifies discursive strategies that help to sustain this vision and its promises: “complexity talk,” “extension,” and “boundary work.” These practices secure its plausibility, protect it from criticism, and maintain stakeholder support.

The Place of Development in the History of Psychology and Cognitive Science

A new article in Frontiers of Psychology may interest AHP readers: “The Place of Development in the History of Psychology and Cognitive Science,” by Gabriella Airenti. Abstract:

In this article, I analyze how the relationship of developmental psychology with general psychology and cognitive science has unfolded. This historical analysis will provide a background for a critical examination of the present state of the art. I shall argue that the study of human mind is inherently connected with the study of its development. From the beginning of psychology as a discipline, general psychology and developmental psychology have followed parallel and relatively separated paths. This separation between adult and child studies has also persisted with the emergence of cognitive science. The reason is due essentially to methodological problems that have involved not only research methods but also the very object of inquiry. At present, things have evolved in many ways. Psychology and cognitive science have enlarged their scope to include change process and the interaction between mind and environment. On the other hand, the possibility of using experimental methods to study infancy has allowed us to realize the complexity of young humans. These facts have paved the way for new possibilities of convergence, which are eliciting interesting results, despite a number of ongoing problems related to methods.

Measuring souls: Psychometry, female instruments, and subjective science, 1840–1910

Joseph Rodes Buchanan

AHP readers will be interested in a forthcoming piece in History of Science, now available online: “Measuring souls: Psychometry, female instruments, and subjective science, 1840–1910,” by Cameron B Strang. Abstract:

This essay focuses on the history of psychometry, the science of soul measuring. For its founder, Dr Joseph Rodes Buchanan, the soul was simultaneously an object for anthropological research and a measuring instrument capable of revealing human character, interpreting natural history, and demonstrating the reality of an immortal soul. Psychometry taught that human souls, especially those of women, were capable of acting as instruments because they could feel the mysterious energies that people and objects radiated. Although orthodox male scientists rejected the visions of sensitive women as the antithesis of reliable data, psychometric researchers believed that the feelings of women were both the instruments and information that made their science possible. Psychometry promised to revolutionize science by insisting that sympathy and subjectivity, not detachment and objectivity, ought to undergird research. Yet as male experimenters worked to prove psychometry’s effectiveness, they almost invariably cast themselves as detached observers accurately recording the data provided by their female instruments. Thus, despite pushing for scientific reform, the methods and discourse of male psychometric experimenters eroded their field’s core arguments about connectedness and subjectivity and, instead, reinforced the notion that detachment and objectivity were essential to legitimate science. Challenges to objectivity could prove just how thoroughly it dominated scientific discourse and practice. Still, some psychometers, particularly women who practiced at home, were untroubled by the fact that their research was predicated on subjective feelings, and psychometry remained a viable pursuit among spiritualists even as it faded from the realm of science. Psychometry emerged and, ultimately, fractured amid tensions between widespread enthusiasm for sciences that emphasized spiritual connectedness and the mounting pressure to legitimize scientific knowledge through the language and practices of objectivity.