Anticipatory measure: Alex Comfort, experimental gerontology and the measurement of senescence

AHP readers may be interested in a recent piece in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences that explores the history of gerontology and senescence.

“Anticipatory measure: Alex Comfort, experimental gerontology and the measurement of senescence,” by Tiago Moreira. Abstract:

Ageing is routinely measured by counting the number of years lived since the birth of an individual but at least since at least the 1930s, the validity, precision and sensitivity of chronological age as a measure has been criticised across the biological and behavioural sciences of ageing. This quest that has been reinforced by the contemporary investment in the possibility of technologically manipulating the rate of ageing to delay the onset the age-associated diseases. This paper explores the epistemic, institutional and political conditions that led to the formulation, at the turhn of the 1970s, of Alex Comfort’s (1920–2000) seminal proposal to measure human biological ageing rate. Drawing on published and archival sources, I argue that Comfort’s suggested measure of ageing can be understood as a form of ‘anticipation work’, and should be understood as an effort to evidence, and to make present, the technological and social promises that Comfort linked to experimental gerontology.

Psychedelic crossings: American mental health and LSD in the 1970s

A new (open access!) piece in the journal Medical Humanities will interest AHP readers. In “Psychedelic crossings: American mental health and LSD in the 1970s” Lucas Richert and Erika Dyck describe the history of American research with LSD. Abstract:

This article places a spotlight on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and American mental health in the 1970s, an era in which psychedelic science was far from settled and researchers continued to push the limits of regulation, resist change and attempt to revolutionise the mental health market-place. The following pages reveal some of the connections between mental health, LSD and the wider setting, avoiding both ascension and declension narratives. We offer a renewed approach to a substance, LSD, which bridged the gap between biomedical understandings of ‘health’ and ‘cure’ and the subjective needs of the individual. Garnering much attention, much like today, LSD created a cross-over point that brought together the humanities and arts, social sciences, health policy, medical education, patient experience and the public at large. It also divided opinion. This study draws on archival materials, medical literature and popular culture to understand the dynamics of psychedelic crossings as a means of engendering a fresh approach to cultural and countercultural-based healthcare during the 1970s.

Special Issue: The Death of the Clinic? Emerging Biotechnologies and the Reconfiguration of Mental Health

The July 2019 issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values may interest AHP readers. The special issue is dedicated to “The Death of the Clinic? Emerging Biotechnologies and the Reconfiguration of Mental Health.” Full details below.

“The Death of the Clinic? Emerging Biotechnologies and the Reconfiguration of Mental Health,” by Jonas Rüppel, Torsten H. Voigt. Abstract:

This guest editorial opens with a brief overview of the transformations of medicine and mental health that can be observed since the second half of the twentieth century. New genetics and biotechnologies hold out the promise of overcoming presumed limitations in the field of mental health care, that is, the fact that diagnostic procedures in psychiatry and clinical psychology still largely rely on the narratives of patients and questionnaires, supposedly subjective assessments by physicians and psychologists. It is envisioned that innovative genetic and proteomic tools, (neuro)imaging technologies, and objective laboratory tests for blood biomarkers will enable better diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases. We argue that emerging biotechnologies do not revolutionize mental health, despite their promise to do so. Instead, we observe a pluralization of research and treatment approaches in the domain of mental health. The second part of this editorial discusses the contributions to this special issue on emerging biotechnologies and mental health and outlines how they address some of the gaps in social studies of psychiatry and mental health in the twenty-first century.

““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.

“Psychiatry and the Sociology of Novelty: Negotiating the US National Institute of Mental Health “Research Domain Criteria” (RDoC),” by Martyn Pickersgill. Abstract:

In the United States, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is seeking to encourage researchers to move away from diagnostic tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). A key mechanism for this is the “Research Domain Criteria” (RDoC) initiative, closely associated with former NIMH Director Thomas Insel. This article examines how key figures in US (and UK) psychiatry construct the purpose, nature, and implications of the ambiguous RDoC project; that is, how its novelty is constituted through discourse. In this paper, I explore and analyze these actors’ accounts of what is new, important, or (un)desirable about RDoC, demonstrating how they are constituted through institutional context and personal affects. In my interviews with mental health opinion leaders, RDoC is presented as overly reliant on neurobiological epistemologies, distant from clinical imaginaries and imperatives, and introduced in a top-down manner inconsistent with the professional norms of scientific research. Ultimately, the article aims to add empirical depth to current understandings about the epistemological and ontological politics of contemporary (US) psychiatry and to contribute to science and technology studies (STS) debates about “the new” in technoscience. Accordingly, I use discussions about RDoC as a case study in the sociology of novelty.

“From the Profound to the Mundane: Questionnaires as Emerging Technologies in Autism Genetics,” by Gregory Hollin. Abstract:

It is widely argued that the final decades of the twentieth century saw a fundamental change, marked by terms such as biomedicalization and geneticization, within the biomedical sciences. What unites these concepts is the assertion that a vast array of emerging technologies—in genomics, bioengineering, information technology, and so forth—are transforming understandings of disease, diagnosis, therapeutics, and working practices. While clearly important, these analyses have been accused of perpetuating theoretical trends that attribute primacy to the new over the old, discontinuity over continuity, and the laboratory over the field. In this paper, I show that in the case of autism, the effects of genomic technologies can only be understood by simultaneously examining the role of questionnaires. Due to shortcomings in clinical diagnoses, genomic analyses could only progress once questionnaires had been developed to address a “reverse salient” within the “technological system.” Furthermore, I argue that questionnaires such as the Autism Quotient have a significance that surpasses the genomic classifications they were designed to undergird. I argue that to neglect the role of mundane technologies such as questionnaires in contemporary biomedicine is to miss complexity, bifurcate old and new, and do a disservice to innovation.

“Neurobiologically Poor? Brain Phenotypes, Inequality, and Biosocial Determinism,” by Victoria Pitts-Taylor. Abstract:

The rise of neuroplasticity has led to new fields of study about the relation between social inequalities and neurobiology, including investigations into the “neuroscience of poverty.” The neural phenotype of poverty proposed in recent neuroscientific research emerges out of classed, gendered, and racialized inequalities that not only affect bodies in material ways but also shape scientific understandings of difference. An intersectional, sociomaterial approach is needed to grasp the implications of neuroscientific research that aims to both produce and repair neurobiological difference. Following Benjamin’s critique of the “carceral imagination” of technoscience, this article considers how such research may fix in terms of helping, or in contrast, fix by classifying and reifying, vulnerable subjects. I address the potential for biosocial determinism in linking neural phenotypes and social problems. I use an intersectional approach to consider the presence and absence of race in this body of research and explore how some methodological and conceptual framings of the “brain on poverty” mark poor and minority children for intervention in concert with neoliberal approaches to poverty.

Psychology’s own mindfulness: Ellen Langer and the social politics of scientific interest in “active noticing”

AHP readers are sure to be interested in a forthcoming piece in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences from AHP contributor Shayna Fox Lee: “Psychology’s own mindfulness: Ellen Langer and the social politics of scientific interest in “active noticing”. Abstract:

Ellen Langer’s mindfulness construct is presented as “indigenous” to disciplinary psychology. Langer’s early work laid the foundations for the research program she would come to call the psychology of possibility. Studying inattentive behavior (mindlessness) and intentionally reflective cognition (mindfulness) placed her work directly in line with the theoretical priorities of the 1970s and influenced the direction of research in several subdisciplines related to social cognition. Positioning Langer’s work at an intersection crossed by various discourse communities in psychology explains much of its influence within the discipline. However, its relevance is additionally related to a broader field of research and application also employing the terminology of mindfulness. While superficially synonymous, the majority of mindfulness research is distinguished from Langer’s due to differences in origination, definition, and goals. Comparative assessments are used as a lens through which to interrogate the social politics of mindfulness theories’ burgeoning success over the past half century.