Tag Archives: public understanding of science

Review of Noll’s (2011) American Madness

PsychCentral, one of the larger psych-blogging hubs, has posted a review by Margarita Tartakovsky of Richard Noll‘s (2011) American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox.

In her reading of it, the book can be situated at the boundary between the history of psychiatry, the history of psychology, and the public understanding of science:

The public was introduced to dementia praecox by a 1907 piece in the New York Times that recounted the testimony in the murder trial of architect Stanford White. The superintendent of an asylum in Binghamton, N.Y. testified that the murderer, Harry Kendall Thaw, might’ve been suffering with dementia praecox.

In the late 1920s to the 1930s, dementia praecox started making its exit, replaced by Eugen Bleuler’s “schizophrenia.” At first, Noll says, these terms were used interchangeably in both clinical practice and research (which, naturally, made things very confusing). But these disorders had distinct differences.

Although he didn’t use the word, Noll—in a recent interview posted at the blog run by Harvard University Press—explained the overlap as being a consequence of schizophrenia’s “indigenization” into the American context. This then wrought changes in meaning:

By 1927 schizophrenia became the preferred term for inexplicable madness, but the Americans reframed Bleuler’s disease concept as a primarily functional or psychogenic condition that was caused by mothers or maladjustments to social reality. When Bleuler visited the United States in 1929 he was horrified to see what the Americans were calling schizophrenia. He insisted it was a physical disease with a chronic course characterized by exacerbations and remissions of hallucinations, delusions and bizarre behaviors.

This duality, of madness caught between mental condition and physical disease, also provides a connection from the mind back to medicine. Continue reading Review of Noll’s (2011) American Madness

On the History of Memes

An article by AHP founding editor Jeremy Burman on the history of memes was recently published in the journal Perspectives on Science. Burman’s “The misunderstanding of memes”  is currently the journal’s most downloaded article and may, for the moment at least, be downloaded for free from MIT Press here.

In this article, Burman traces how the original meaning of memes became distorted over time. Intended originally to be a mere metaphor, “memes” have come to stand for the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The full title and abstract follows below.

“The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999,” by Jeremy Trevelyan Burman. The abstract reads,

When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaning-construction in scholarly communication more generally.

You can find the full article here.