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Last time we looked at how mass communication technologies were shaped into the propaganda tool that big media is today. This time, a look at how the medical profession has responded to similar systemic pressures, gradually refining technologies and public expectations about physical and mental health so as to buttress the status quo. After Jess Martin's talk on 'disability' we hear Gary Greenberg on the DSM-5. We conclude with an alternative perspective from Tony Wright - that modern society, far from being a healthy norm from which any deviation is suspect, is itself a deeply dysfunctional result of millennia long changes in human brain biochemistry.
Thanks to We Are Many for the Jess Martin talk and Madness Radio for the Gary Greenberg interview.
We start the show with Jess Martin who summarizes the history of 'disability' in USA. Missing eyes or limbs were common in the colonial period, she notes, but generally unremarked upon and presented no great barrier to participation in agriculture or small scale production. Outlining the development of institutions for dealing with mental and physical diversity, she suggests that a distinct category of "the disabled" resulted from the advent of factory work, with its associated metaphor of 'man as machine'. While not neglecting the story of the 20th century disability rights movement as self-empowerment by an oppressed minority, she offers an complementary perspective, noting that "disability" tends to be defined with respect to concomitant problems of taking part in the capitalist machine.
Next we hear a short 1930 newsreel about Hellen Keller from her (visually impaired) teacher, Anne Sullivan, who recounts how she started to teach her to speak.
Gary Greenberg, author of "The Book of Woe, the DSM and the un-making of society" speaks on the DSM5, noting that it is effectively a political document. By specifying how people ought to feel, he suggests that the DSM functions as a kind of modern day moral text, a function formerly fulfilled by religious texts such as The Bible.
"[To let medicine make these determinations of mental health] gives the people who create the labels too much power. You know, that's the problem we have with the DSM and the American Psychiatric Association - they simply have too much power. They're a private guild, they're basically a corporation and they own these diseases, they own mental disorders and I mean it literally. They own the intellectual property that tells us what the mental disorders are and what the criteria are by which they are known. That's a huge public trust and it's privately held." — Gary Greenberg
Greenberg points out that the DSM clearly states that it is symptomatic only - i.e. it does not address the causes of the disorders, but that the importance of this point seems little understood by most doctors. His talk, "Unmasking Diagnosis", suggests that both patients and doctors in US have been finely attuned to the "biochemical imbalance in the brain" idea. He terms it a carefully constructed myth which serves the purposes of society's powerful players - in particular the medical industry, but more broadly all those seeking to avoid a serious rethink of capitalist society's precepts and the unsustainable direction in which it is heading.
We conclude the show one one man intent on promoting a serious rethink about human society. Tony Wright, whom we heard once before on the show (episode 652), outlines why he thinks diet is important in influencing brain chemistry. The interviewer refers to Jill Bolte Taylor, who told her remarkable story in episode 655. Wright draws inspiration from both personal experience and from the still unexplained phenomenon of genius - how a few people are so much better at thinking than others, with brains that appear to be physiologically unremarkable. Some relatively simple experiments could be done, he says, to test whether diet relates to left-brain dominance, potentially providing invaluable evidence about whether these ideas offer hope for mankind to fundamentally reshape how we see the world.