language

Neuroscience, Pseudoscience and The Vast Gulf Between

A guest blog and opinion piece at the top of the search pops on the subject of psychiatry at Scientific America is entitled Why Psychiatry Needs Neuroscience. The author is one Daniel Barron. The claim was made in this piece that there was a war between the two fields to which Neuroskeptic blogger at Discovery Magazine replied with a post of his own, The Fake “War Between Neuroscience and Psychiatry”.

Daniel Barron writes:

That the relevance of neuroscience to psychiatry is still questioned is blatantly outlandish: what organ do psychiatrists treat if not the brain? And what framework could possibly be more relevant than neuroscience to understanding brain dysfunction?

Hold on a minute, “what organ do psychiatrists treat if not the brain?” Uh, I’ve got another one for you, what organ do neurologists treat if not the brain?  I suggest we take it to Google and ask for a definition of psychiatry and  then a definition neurology. If we do so, we get this:

Psychiatry: the study and treatment of mental illness, emotional disturbance, and abnormal behavior.

Neurology: the branch of medicine or biology that deals with the anatomy, functions, and organic disorders of nerves and the nervous system.

It is not brains that psychiatrists study, in other words, it is misbehavior. Whether the misbehavior of people can be linked to misbehaving brains, and by extension, nervous systems (misfiring neurons) is another thing altogether.

Psychiatrists, in other words, deal with mental disorders while neurologists deal with brain injury and disease.  Prove you’ve got a bona fide disease affecting the brain, and, as happened with syphilis early in the twentieth century, it is no longer on the turf of psychiatrists, it is then in the territory of neurologists. This is a divide that can’t be breached by wishful thinking.

With the new emphasis on brain research, everything associated with neuro is trendy. Okay, today there are people calling themselves neuropsychiatrists, and that I would characterize as a mystification, pure and simple. Nobody, after all, who has not gotten into trouble with the long arm of the law, is likely to be called a “psycho-neurologist” anymore.

The question becomes, when it comes to behavior, over which people certainly have some measure of control, as conscious decision making must come into play somewhere along the line, should we be placing all the blame for aberrant behaviors on mechanical actions taking place inside the brain, or do they have more to do with other factors–schooling, parenting, etc.–involving a whole constellation of other things.

Again, back to the case of syphilis. Technically speaking, psychiatrists don’t study and treat the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is brain disease. Neurologists handle that. ADHD, distraction among students, is accounted a mental disorder, a matter for psychiatry.  When it comes down to it, we are no closer to reliably attributing distraction in students to dysfunctional brains than we are to attributing it to dull and uninteresting subjects of study.

Although war is an awful strong word to use, I imagine there is plenty of room for disagreement between these two, seemingly similar, disciplines. The present detente worries me much more than any conflict that might arise between them would. I can’t help but imagine bribery, backhanded deals, and suppression of information keeping those lips that should be speaking sealed in the interim..

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Unlearning Spurred On By Undiagnosis

Unlearning is very important to me. The school system I grew up with taught me I couldn’t do anything correctly. Unlearning this education meant I could do things correctly despite all I had been taught to the contrary. One wonders how many lives have been squandered at the alter of learned futility. Unlearning, in this case, was a matter of recognizing the value of utility instead.

Obviously, being taught that you are “incapable” of doing anything worthwhile is going to complicate the project of living one’s life severely. This complication translated, for yours truly, into a “serious mental disorder” diagnosis. Taught by the education system that I was “incapable”, there were all these doctors ready and willing to jump in with a “disease” diagnosis. My “incapacity”, in their eyes, was due to my having a “disease”, specifically, a “disease” of the brain.

If you read the literature on institutionalization, you will find mention of something they call “learned helplessness”. One could say, in a sense, that this diagnosis process merely represented an extension of the business of education. Here was, after all, confirmation that I was “incapable” of producing anything of value. Not only are people taught that they are “incapable”, but the suggestion is made that this “incapacity” is owing to having become “stricken” with “disease” rather than schooling.

If you succeed in failing at being educated, no wonder, for continued if lower education, we’ve got the mental health system. It can help if this unlearning process is accelerated by the shock of the mental health system. Through the mental health system, I learned to undiagnose fictitious disease. or rather because these “diseases” come to you through other people, pretty much the same thing, to unlearn them. The mental health system could be referred to as a form of radical unlearning.

If learning is a diagnosis, continued unlearning must, logically enough, encompass undiagnosis. Anyway, it makes sense to me. If nobody ever told you to be wary, if the mental health system doesn’t unteach you wariness, that wrong place must be the right place for you. Theoretically speaking, of course. There are some evil scoundrels in the world, and some of them are in positions of authority. Cardinal rule: You don’t attain positions of authority through unlearning.

More and more people it seems are discovering unlearning. The textbook may have black print on white paper, but transparent print on a transparent sheet of, say, plastic isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. One has to wonder, in most learning situations, where is the person in the classroom to tell the class to take everything said in front of it with a grain of salt? If there is such a person, it’s usually the person catching hell from the teacher. I would like to suggest that this may be because the teacher has a lot of unlearning to do yet.

The Definition of Antipsychiatry Updated

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Although the Wikipedia page on the subject of antipsychiatry goes a good bit farther, the only dictionary definition of antipsychiatry on the internet readily available that I found was that supplied by Collins English Dictionary at Dictionary.com.

an approach to mental disorders that makes use of concepts derived from existentialism, psychoanalysis, and sociological theory.

Given that the term is used to refer to the views of dissident mental health professionals, psychiatric survivors, Scientologists, conspiracy theorists, conservative political commentators, academics of all persuasions, random citizens, etc., etc., etc. I find it, as far as definitions go, thoroughly inadequate.

A preferable approach, not to anything called “mental disorders”, but rather to defining the word antipsychiatry, would be to look at the component parts of the word itself. You take the prefix anti, meaning against or in opposition to, and add it to the word psychiatry, meaning the study and treatment of “mental disorders”, and then you can envision better what you’ve got en toto. In other words, a more embracive definition might be as follows.

opposition to the practice and profession of psychiatry.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because of a dialogue I’d been having with a person who, under the intellectual influence of Thomas Szasz biting criticism of what was referred to as antipsychiatry on the European continent, was saying that the antipsychiatry of R.D. Laing and David Cooper, and here we mean the antipsychiatry of David Cooper as R. D. Laing came to disavow the term, was actually a school of psychiatry to be opposed by people who are part of an antipsychiatry movement, real or imagined.

A primary criticism Szasz leveled at Cooper, by the way, which hopefully we have hereby surmounted, is that he never defined the term. Again, simply look at the definition of the prefix, and the definition of the word it is attached to, and I think we have that territory, more or less, covered.

On another level, we have to look at the term as it has been used historically, and I think to do so, we should be speaking in the plural, rather than of antipsychiatry, of antipsychiatrys, that is to say, I don’t think there is one homogeneous grouping of people that can be called antipsychiatry, but that rather it is a heterogeneous grouping of people that might conceivably come under a blanket description covered by this appellation.

  • Anti-bio-medical psychiatry (R. D. Laing, David Cooper, Critical Psychiatry Network, etc.)
  • Anti-non-consensual coercive psychiatry (Thomas Szasz)
  • Anti-bio-medical psychiatry + anti-non-consensual coercive psychiatry (early psychiatric survivor movement 1969-1985[?])
  • Anti-the-profession-and-practice-of-psychiatry (grassroots anti-psychiatry activism today)

Also, some of these people would definitely not refer to themselves as antipsychiatry while others of them would be emphatic in their identification with the term. Many of the leading authorities of the reigning biological medical model of psychiatry are prone to refer to all critics of their approach to the treatment of mental disorders by the term antipsychiatry. This leaves us with another set of antipsychiatrys, plural, when it comes to use of the term.

  • People who don’t identify themselves as antipsychiatry but who are identified as antipsychiatry by others—the slandered.
  • People associated with antipsychiatry (or the antipsychiatry movement) who don’t themselves identify with the term, or who would not personally be identified with it, but who yet remain an influence—philosophic or theoretical association.
  • People who identify themselves as antipsychiatry—the partisan resistance.
  • People who identify themselves as antipsychiatry, and say that others who also identify themselves as antipsychiatry are not really antipsychiatry, or true versus false antipsychiatry–factionalism.

Another reason for writing this piece is to dismiss the idea, so often circulated, that antipsychiatry is a thing of the past, a movement, or an approach to problematic persons, that belongs to the 1960s and 1970s, and that is no longer relevant to current concerns, and to contemporary times. Antipsychiatry was around before the word was coined, it is still with us today, and it will  be with us in the future. Antipsychiatry, in fact, will be around so long as people are having their human rights violated by  oppression within the psychiatric system. Antipsychiatry is still very much alive and kicking, and if it ever remits, that remission is only a surface matter, as it is always under the skin, and threatening to bubble over into the body-politic of day to day life and living. Psychiatry, on the other hand, at present is often said to be undergoing a crisis. Antipsychiatry, however, is confident that this crisis will resolve itself somehow in a manner that will not prove favorable to psychiatry.