My mind has such wonderful qualities, and I am just beginning to feel its potential. Yet when I reflect on the images given to us by neuroscience, I am perplexed. The language of neuroscience seems totally inadequate to describe what I actually experience. I realize that the images are generated using actual data, and yet they do not co-relate in any obvious way with my own internal experiences.
The difficulty becomes even more pronounced when I experience poetry or art. The gestures and forms of my mental activity in no way relate to the spidery motifs that propagate in neuroscience imagery. Anyone who pays even cursory attention to to their own inner life will readily make the same observation.
Or will they? Are people beginning to believe that the images generated by neuroscientists are actually pictures of the brain and its activity? Will they lose interest in the unique qualities of their own thinking, and focus instead on the optimization of synapses and neural pathways?
The late Ursula Franklin, writing about cultural conformity, put it this way:
The technology of an activity defines the activity itself, and in so doing excludes the emergence of alternatives.
I have recently come across several helpful articles by psychiatrist Renato Alarcón. For instance, in this Article in Psychiatric News, he explains how cultural factors are very important in diagnosis, and says that outcomes would be much improved if psychiatrist paid more attention to them.
Taking culture into consideration enables psychiatrists to depathologize behaviors they might otherwise view as symptomatic, and to obtain a fuller picture of what patients are experiencing. Knowing patients’ traditions and beliefs may allow psychiatrists to employ culture in a psychotherapeutic role, by building rapport and collaboration.
Of course, this is easier said than done. To help shift attitudes, Dr. Alarcón helped develop the DSM-5 Cultural Formulation Interview, which helps clinicians account for the influence of culture in their clinical work, improve patient-clinician communications, and ultimately improve outcomes.
In his work, Renato Alarcón demonstrates the power of liminality – of actually meeting people. (See Key Concepts Page on this blog.)
The important thing is to understand the human entity, the patient’s background, why he or she comes to see you now but didn’t come earlier, and how he or she explains their symptoms and causes of those symptoms. The individualistic approach, a strong aspect of American life and of Western culture in general, stresses that people need to take responsibility for their own behavior. It often neglects, however, a cultural background that encourages reliance on family and friends. If psychiatrists fail to ask about cultural issues, he said, their work is incomplete.
Xavier Le Pichon – Global expert on plate tectonics and people
In a recent post, I wrote about the philosophy of disability – the practice of thinking through issues without giving privilege to able-minded or able-bodied perspective. As I begin to practise this philosophy, new horizons of learning are opening up for me (and giving me inspiration for future blog posts!)
In other words, I am beginning to appreciate the value of socio-diversity, and why it is just as critical for our survival as biodiversity. Here are quotes from two recent articles which have provided me with helpful background and context:
People began to use the word “normal” in the early 19th century. With progress in medical statistics, scientists began to figure out what “typical” species functioning was, and this gave them a standard endorsed by evolution. The typical human being was seen as a successful example of the species. Anyone who was not “normal” was a deficit – a threat to the species. This was the beginning of eugenics.
...paraphrased from an interview with Anita Silvers. Professor of Philosophy, San Francisco State (CBC Ideas podcast, minute 38)
As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system, which is too perfect, is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve…One can ask whether it is not also true of our societies. We tend to dissociate the individuals who are well adapted to our social life from those that have difficulties to follow the pace that is imposed on them by our life style. Yet a society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic.”
…Xavier Le Pichon, quoted in a blog post by Trent Gillis
United we stand, divided we fall.
Is she there? Who can say where there is? What are the consequences if we get it wrong?
A recent CBC Ideas podcast – Open Minds explores these questions, and challenges widely-held assumptions about the nature of consciousness. Even if a person with a traumatic brain injury does not respond to an MRI scan, she may in fact be conscious on another level. The researchers have found that intensive behavioural assessments at the bedside, actively involving family and friends, reveal activity not detected by the machines.
Unfortunately, the results of MRI scans are often used to justify critical decisions. For instance, the person is labeled “vegetative,” and shuttled off to a long-term care facility, where there is little or no chance of recovery. In the worst case, there can be pressure to harvest the organs, as a gift to people who still have the possibility of a “useful” life before them. So it’s really important to make the best possible diagnosis before making any decisions, especially irreversible ones!
One surprising aspect of the research is the development of 2-way MRI processes that enable the subject to respond to simple questions with MRI signals. This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for communicating and building relationships with people who were previously thought to be “brain dead.”
The podcast concludes with a discussion about the “philosophy of disability” – the practice of thinking through issues without giving privilege to able-minded or able-bodied perspective. Lots of breakthrough possibilities!
Overheard last evening at the opening of Constructed Identities:
Separated from ourselves tied together by discarded bits and pieces…This is a gallery with tragedy and joy…Disability is just part of being human – it’s not an adjustment. Sighted people are afraid of what they can’t imagine…Be in your body and emotions in whatever way makes you comfortable…
How refreshing to be in a roomful of (very diverse) people surrounded by these entangling sculptures! I also look forward to spending some time in the gallery when it’s a little quieter. (The exhibit runs until July 6.)
Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media in 1964, and 52 years later, we are still struggling to understand. Media literacy is a wicked oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. I often feel baffled, confused, and even overwhelmed.
What happens when my identity is constructed by disconnected random events? I felt this way yesterday when I visited the Constructed Identities exhibit at the Tangled Arts Gallery.
What happens when I make choices freely, and guide my life accordingly? I am learning that people with visible or defined disabilities make great teachers. For this reason, I am looking forward to the upcoming ReelAbilities Film Festival – understanding media in new ways.
Here are links to trailers for the featured films:
A Whole Lott More
The Way He Looks
The Rainbow Kid
Touch Of The Light
Constructed Identities, an exhibit of new works by Persimmon Blackbridge, opens Wednesday at the new Tangled Arts Gallery in Toronto. I attended an artist’s talk and preview last evening, and was moved by the experience. She gives a compelling counter-narrative to many of the messages circulating during Mental Health Week, and the exhibit deserves wider attention.
Readers of this blog will understand why I think the subject of Constructed Identities is so relevant. We so often affix labels to people – often without their consent – and then expect them to conform to our standards of socially-defined sanity. Rather than helping to heal people, we constrict them. How is it possible for folks to give meaning and direction to their lives, when their very identities are imposed on them from outside?
I am grateful when people with defined disabilities come forward and express themselves, as Persimmon has done. She helps to wake the rest of us up. Everyone has disabilities, and it’s the undefined ones – hidden, ignored and denied – that do the most damage.
The opening reception of Constructed Identities is on Wednesday, May 4th, 7-9pm at 401 Richmond St. West. Maybe I’ll see you there.