About Constance Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, Ph.D., is Project Director of the non-profit The Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

A Comparison of Epigenetics and the Higgs Boson (Science at its Best)

The is me retweeting David Dobbs “great” new piece on epigenetics (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die”), typical Twitter swarm mentality.

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Retweeting before reading is a lazy practice and I really try to avoid it. When I got around to reading the original piece I picked up on the great money quote about football (which reminded my of something Chomsky said years ago re baseball), but I was confused. Dobbs’ first example seemed to refer to genes regulating other genes. The second critical example re his argument involved humans and West-Eberhard’s theory of genetic accommodation in evolution. Crucially,”epigenetics” wasn’t mentioned in David’s original version as a possible precursor mechanism of genetic accommodation  – heritability via this route is still not well understood or supported – adding to the confusion caused by the breathless, sensationalistic style that drew so much criticism. But a rich post-pub review process (see my thread on Facebook’s Neuroanthropology Interest Group page) put us all back on the right track.

It’s tricky to find a “way in” to other people’s science when you’re a professed inter-disciplinarian (read “jack of all trades, master of none”): You start by picking up on the things reputable scientists and science journalists are communicating about in their talks, blogs, and tweets (how they connect to your own interest in, e.g., mental illness) then link to the original papers and struggle through them. Fortunately, over time a kind of synthetic (albeit still relatively shallow) understanding emerges and you are able to dive a little more deeply into the methods, technologies, implicit assumptions, cultures, philosophies, politics, and economies of specific labs, departments, academic institutions, societies, journals, and government funding entities, and so it goes.

Slight, and rather obvious, observations on my part. But compare the muddle generated by the above writing, reaction, rewriting, trying to bridge opposing views, etc. above with the following experience I had in reading a book and listening to a related talk, also created for the general public, about particle physics, which was vastly different in kind and currently represents for me “science” (in the service of addressing a common public misconception) at its best.

To be fair, the search for the Higgs boson reflects a $9 bn project and  “many, many socially able geniuses”  (about 3000 co-authors on average per paper) – from all over the world converging on a single endpoint (discovery of a new particle), i.e., my “comparison” is not a level playing field, but the latter is a very complex subject. Yet Sean Carroll’s book (“The Particle at the End of the Universe“) and related YouTube video beautifully convey knowledge that will profoundly change your understanding of the universe, which is the very definition of  great science writing for the public and deserves much more attention than it gets vis-a-vis epigenetics, which you can now read about in Elle magazine (“Become the Happiest Person You Know”) of all places, and which probably deserves less.

I was so inspired I am posting the “must-see” video below – and I’ve never used that exhortatory phrase more happily/seriously. For busy readers, here is my attempt at the TL-DR version, but best to watch the video. He’s awesome!

Everything you think you know about genes the universe is wrong. The world is made of fields filling space – electron field, electromagnetic field, quark field, gravity field; most of these vibrating fields are not visible to us. Carroll defines the particles which make up atoms as the tiny part of the universe that you can actually see – to be a little more technical, they represent perturbations of the quantum fields; a particles exists at a specific location within a  field. At resting state – the minimum energy state, the electromagnetic, quark, etc., fields are at or near zero. But the Higgs field is nonzero, even in empty space. And the massless particles we’re made up of get heavier thanks to the existence of the Higgs field, i.e., the more interactions with the Higgs field, the more mass. Otherwise, electrons, e.g., would just “zoom around at the speed of light.” The Large Hadron Collider, which essentially acts like a giant microscope, has generated data consistent with the existence of a Higgs particle, the Higgs boson, which can only be identified through its decay, but which generates enough of a “bump” in the data  to support the existence of the Higgs field and the emergence of mass.

Bravo Sean Carroll!

An Interview with Anthropologist Karen Nakamura

[This interview is cross-posted at somatosphere.net and cbdmh.org]

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews anthropologist Karen Nakamura for the FPR.

Nakamura-informal Karen Nakamura is Associate Professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Yale University. A cultural and visual anthropologist, her research focuses on disability and minority social movements in contemporary Japan. Her ethnography about sign language, identity, and deaf social movements, Deaf in Japan, was published by Cornell University Press in 2006. More recently, Nakamura has been engaged in a new project on the comparative politics of severe physical and psychiatric disabilities in the United States and Japan. While her main focus is disabilities and minorities, she also works on issues surrounding gender and sexuality.

Below, Nakamura discusses her new book, A Disability of the Soul, also published by Cornell University Press just this month. It is a fascinating portrait of Bethel, a community of schizophrenics living in Northern Japan. Chapters of the book alternate between profiles of Bethel members, and such topics as the history of psychiatry in Japan, Bethel’s founding, the role of religion, and the attending psychiatrist and his philosophy of treatment. Nakamura also produced two documentary films that accompany the book, one of daily life at Bethel, and the other of the funeral of one member. She describes her experience living at Bethel while researching her book and films – including how she prepared to live in the environment; her methods of observation; how doctors, staff, and patients themselves manage schizophrenia; how that compares with treatment in the West; concepts of “giving up hope” and “a life in decline,” and how her work at Bethel changed her.

KAF/FPR: How did you prepare to immerse yourself in the Bethel environment?

KN: The position of an ethnographer can be ambiguous, especially in clinical settings. We’re not patients/members/clients/family members and we aren’t staff/clinicians/nurses, although we mix with people in all of those categories. Because of our own educational backgrounds, it’s often easiest for anthropologists to focus mostly on interactions with professional staff. From the beginning, I wanted my project to approach Bethel from the ground up, from the perspective of the members rather than the staff.

One of the things that I didn’t do before going to Bethel was read a lot of clinical manuals. While I knew about the basic contours of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions, flattened affect, etc.) and the other mental illnesses that the Bethel members have, I didn’t want to consciously or unconsciously try to diagnose them.

While I went over to the doctor’s house from time to time, and spent a good amount of time with Mr. Ikuyoshi Mukaiyachi, a social worker at Bethel, my main interaction on a daily basis was with the Bethel members. I tried to adjust my own daily rhythm to theirs.

KAF/FPR: How does your book differ from other ethnographies about people living with mental illness?

KN: With a very few exceptions, such as Susan Estroff’s Making it Crazy, most ethnographies of mental illness have fallen into one of two categories: (1) clinical ethnographies of psychiatry and psychiatrists that look at the social construction of a particular mental illness; or, (2) person-centered ethnographies of an isolated individual with mental illness. A Disability of the Soul was designed as a community study, the type of village-level study that anthropologists used to do. I wanted to understand what made Bethel work. There are very few functional communities of independent people with mental illness, so I can understand why the ethnographic literature in this field is relatively limited.

KAF/FPR: Was there any resistance to your being a “participant observer” at first? If so, how did you overcome it?

KN: No, although I also avoided some of the people who had long been the focus of attention and were most probably quite tired of outsiders. For example, Kiyoshi Hayasaka, a Bethel member (OK to identify him that way? yes) wasn’t interested in yet another retelling of his life story, and didn’t necessarily want an anthropologist always hanging around waiting for the next sound bite. We’re good friends, but I think that was because I backed off of the participant/observation role and just related to him as a person.

KAF/FPR: Let’s talk about your interviewing and observation methods – if and how you modified them. Did you alter your usual way of working for this community?

KN: My first book, Deaf in Japan, looked at a social-movement organization and the social history of the deaf civil rights movement in Japan. I spent most of the time in the headquarters of the Japanese Federation for the Deaf in Tokyo or at their regular meetings.

A Disability of the Soul is really more of a community study. The town of Urakawa is quite small, so I would wander around (much like Bethel members), going to events or workshops, stopping by people’s homes.

KAF/FPR: In your book you explain that the goal for people with schizophrenia at Bethel is to accept their condition and to learn to live with it. How does this differ from current treatment elsewhere in Japan today and in the past?

NK: For most people with schizophrenia in Japan, the diagnosis of schizophrenia means a life sentence in the psychiatric ward of a hospital or secluded at home. Life is permanently interrupted for them as they occupy what sociologists call the ‘sick role’ — passively accepting their diagnosis and treatment, remaining optimistic about their prognosis, willing to give up other social roles, etc. The Bethel philosophy is to try to recover their social lives by working again, recreating social bonds, creating families, etc. There is no cure for schizophrenia, only medications that can dampen the symptoms (while causing side-effects of their own). It’s really the shift from seeing schizophrenia as a chronic mental illness to seeing it as a psychiatric disability.

KAF/FPR: How does it compare with current treatments in the West?

KN: The same recovery-based movement is visible in the United States as well, but it’s made considerably more difficult because of our lack of a good social welfare network and universal health coverage. In Japan, people with mental illness can access a living income, housing, and free health care. This makes the Bethel system possible in a way that’s still unimaginable for most in the United States.

KAF/FPR: Is the manifestation of schizophrenia and paranoia filtered by Japanese culture? In other words, do Japanese people with schizophrenia have different symptoms from their American counterparts?

KN: From my experience, not really. But I wasn’t interested in looking at the symptoms or diagnostic category as I was in how the community functioned.

KAF/FPR: What are the three most interesting or unexpected things you learned from Bethel about learning to live with schizophrenia?

KN: The related concepts of “giving up hope” and “a life in decline” were the most difficult for me to grasp. I still struggle to view them positively. Hope is such a powerful motivator and upward mobility such a core element of contemporary society. Given that there is no cure for schizophrenia and many Bethel members die quite young from the side-effects of the illness, comorbid conditions, or the side-effects of medications (prescribed or self-administered), I can see why the philosophy of “a life in decline” is a more realistic prognosis than saying that one could regain one’s position in the rat race of Japanese society. It relieves a great deal of pressure from Bethel members, but still…. I have trouble with the concept that this isn’t just about giving up.

KAF/FPR: I am fascinated by two ideas that you discuss in your book: (1) Community members share what their voices say so that they know they are not alone and can benefit from others’ interpretations. (2) The doctor does not believe in eradicating their illness, but rather facilitates learning to live with the disease. There is no notion of cure.

Are there analogous ideas in other cultures with regard to diseases or syndromes?

KN: (1) Hallucinations and delusions follow regular patterns. UFOs land regularly in Urakawa. Invisible people are quite frequent. But, symptoms of schizophrenia are often episodic, so members can learn to recognize when the symptoms are flaring up in other members, and then apply that self-understanding to themselves. The Doctor likes to say that Bethel members are the main experts in (“on,” or is this on purpose? Note sure about the right grammar: They are experts in themselves (their own background and history) and their own particular symptoms) themselves. This is quite contrary to most clinicians who believe that people with schizophrenia have low self-awareness. Insight is possible if the appropriate social conditions are created. (2) One parallel is between the shift from understanding deafness as an auditory condition to deafness as a culture.

KAF/FPR: The head psychiatrist seems very charismatic and the community itself is quite insular. What ideas about mental illness or methods of treatment might carry over to the United States?

KN: The close working relationship between the hospital, the town social workers, and the Bethel organization is quite unique, even in Japan. Still, even though the social welfare system is fraying in Japan because of the prolonged recession, there are enough services to make something like Bethel still function.

I’m quite pessimistic about the future of mental health care in the United States. Most proposals for mental health reform have followed mass shooting incidents, and have thus focused on greater surveillance and institutionalization, not for improved treatment in community-based programs. There are, and have been, experimental programs in community-based care in the United States, but they have been under attack by fiscal conservatives.

KAF/FPR: What is your greatest hope for the influence of your book and films?

KN: That it will make people stop and think. Given that schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses manifest in people’s late teens or early twenties, I hope that my book is read by college students, who will push their schools for better accommodation for students with mental illness.

KN: That it will make people stop and think. Given that schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses manifest in people’s late teens or early twenties, I hope that my book is read by college students, who will push their schools for better accommodation for students with mental illness.

KAF/FPR: How have you changed as a result of your study of Bethel?

KN: I’m half a decade older and my body and mind are definitely in decline (smile). I’ve learned to accept more of myself as I am and not to punish myself for my self-perceived failings. In that regard, I really appreciate the Bethel philosophy. But I am also much sadder. I’ve made many lifelong friendships at Bethel, but some of those people have also died much before their time.

Karen A. Frenkel is a journalist, editor, and author who covers science and technology and their impacts on society.

Further resources:

A trailer for Bethel: Community and Schizophrenia in Northern Japan

DSM-5 on Culture: A Significant Advance

[A]ll forms of distress are locally shaped, including the DSM disorders.

– DSM-5 (APA, 2013, p. 758) 

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  (DSM-5; APA, 2013) was finally presented on May 18th at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. Much ink has been spilled in the media about the ten-year process leading up to last month’s unveiling. But there has been virtually no mention of the fact the DSM-5 is a vast improvement in its treatment of culture. It reflects a much more inclusive description of the range of psychopathology across the globe, not just the particular constructs or exemplars most commonly encountered in the US, Western Europe, and Canada. I think the cultural component of DSM-5 has the makings of a model on which subsequent versions of the manual should be based.

What follows is a summary of a few talks that were given at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture on May 3–5 in Toronto outlining the changes.

According to cultural psychiatrist Roberto Lewis-Fernández (Columbia University), “including information on cultural concepts of distress in DSM-5 will enhance the validity and clinical usefulness of diagnostic practice” across the board. Lewis-Fernández began his talk by briefly describing the limitations of DSM-IV-TR, which listed twenty-five “culture-bound syndromes” in an appendix. The use of the term “culture-bound” made these conditions appear highly localized and confined, a cabinet of curiosities. The list was also heterogeneous, Lewis-Fernández continued, some “syndromes,” including nervios, seemed to represent specific situational predicaments, or variations in the way people express their distress, rather than coherent collections of symptoms. Other expressions, such as ataque de nervios, are syndromic, but do not always represent psychopathology. Still others (like shenjing shuairuo or ‘neurasthenia’) appeared to be a cover term for several common, but seemingly unrelated, human ailments (e.g., fatigue, dizziness, headache, GI problems, sexual dysfunction, excitability); another group of conditions simply defied DSM categorization, such as mal de ojo (‘evil eye’).

Under the direction of Kimberly Yonkers and Lewis-Fernández, chair and co-chair respectively of the Gender and Cross-Cultural Issues Study Group, DSM-5 is a vast improvement. The new volume is divided into three sections – Section 1: Introduction (“DSM-5 Basics”); Section II: “Diagnostic Criteria and Codes”; Section III: “Emerging Measures and Models” – and an Appendix, which includes a “Glossary of Cultural Concepts of Distress.” Section III includes a chapter on cultural formulation, featuring an updated version of the outline introduced in DSM-IV as well as an approach to assessment, using the Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI). The chapter also includes a section discussing “Cultural Concepts of Distress” (pp. 758–759).

As Lewis-Fernández explained, the notion of “culture-bound syndromes” has been replaced by three concepts: (1) cultural syndromes: “clusters of symptoms and attributions that tend to co-occur among individuals in specific cultural groups, communities, or contexts . . . that are recognized locally as coherent patterns of experience” (p. 758); (2) cultural idioms of distress: “ways of expressing distress that may not involve specific symptoms or syndromes, but that provide collective, shared ways of experiencing and talking about personal or social concerns” (p. 758); and (3) cultural explanations of distress or perceived causes: “labels, attributions, or features of an explanatory model that indicate culturally recognized meaning or etiology for symptoms, illness, or distress” (p. 758).

Lewis-Fernández used depression as an example of a cultural concept. For western clinicians, major depressive disorder (MDD) can be considered a “syndrome,” or cluster of symptoms that appear to “hang together.” But depression can also be considered an “idiom of distress,” in the sense that westerners commonly talk of feeling depressed in everyday life. Finally, the label depression can imbue a set of behaviors with a particular meaning. No single concept maps onto a specific psychiatric disorder, and, conversely, no single psychiatric disorder (e.g., MDD) maps onto a cultural concept (e.g., nervios). In all, the glossary lists nine of  “the best-studied concepts of distress around the world” – ataque de nervios (‘attack of nerves’), dhat syndrome (‘semen loss’), khyâl cap (‘wind attack’), kufingisisa (‘thinking too much’), maladi moun (lit. ‘human caused illness’), nervios (‘nerves’), shenjing shuairuo (re-glossed as ‘weakness of the nervous system’), susto (‘fright’), and taijin kyofusho (‘interpersonal fear disorder’).

In practice, according to Lewis-Fernández, “each illness has to be assessed in its own right” and both the practitioner’s expertise and epistemological assumptions and the individual’s understanding of the illness should apply. That is, the clinician must not only draw from diagnostic experience, available categories of illness, and the various dimensions along which aspects of the illness may range, but also recognize and try to understand each individual’s anomalous experience. Furthermore, he said that nosology “has to be constantly evolving” due to “cultural variation over time in the way that psychopathological experiences are constructed.” But the information provided throughout DSM-5, and particularly in the cultural formulation chapter should help practitioners avoid misdiagnosis, obtain clinically useful information, improve clinical rapport and therapeutic efficacy, guide research, and clarify cultural epidemiology.

Lewis-Fernández sketched the structure of the Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI), which is also included in Section III. The CFI is a semi-structured interview composed of 16 questions that focuses on individual experience and social context (the objective is to assess cultural factors using a person-centered approach). The text is divided into two columns, with questions on the right and instructions on the left. Two versions are available, one for the individual and one for an informant, such as a family member or caregiver. (The interviews are available online at psychiatry.org/dsm5.) There are also 12 Supplementary Modules to the CFI, which provide additional questions to flesh out domains assessed briefly in the 16-item CFI (e.g., cultural identity) as well as questions that can be used during the cultural assessment of particular groups, such as children and adolescents, older adults, immigrants and refugees, and caregivers.

Lewis-Fernández also described how the glossary works using ataque de nervios as an example. Briefly, ataque is a syndrome characterized by “intense emotional upset, including acute anxiety, anger, or grief; screaming and shouting uncontrollably; attacks of crying; trembling; heat in the chest rising into the head; and becoming verbally and physically aggressive,” or otherwise feeling out of control (p. 833). (Ataque, like depression, also qualifies as an idiom of distress and an explanation.) The entry in the glossary cross-references related conditions in other cultural contexts and in the main text of DSM-5 (e.g., panic disorder). Conversely, a section in the entry under “panic disorder” in Section II of the volume (“Culture-Related Diagnostic Issues,” pp. 211–212) describes ataque and refers the reader to the glossary. In this way, clinicians are alerted to culture-related features of DSM prototypes in the main text and in more detail in the glossary. The cross-referencing, absent in DSM-IV, should enhance the ability of the clinician to diagnose syndromes in an appropriate cultural context.

In closing, Lewis-Fernández said that further research must continue to improve the international applicability of DSM by exploring the range of cultural variation (such as the nine examples provided in the glossary) and making revisions. The objective is that DSM-5 and subsequent versions reflect a more inclusive description of the range of psychopathology across the globe, not just the particular constructs or exemplars most commonly encountered in the US, Western Europe, and Canada.

In the next talk, psychiatrist-anthropologist Devon Hinton (Harvard Medical School) discussed the glossary in more detail, using khyâl cup (‘wind attack’) as an example. He began by saying that the purpose of the “thick, more detailed” descriptions in the glossary is to increase the effectiveness of assessment by encouraging greater consideration of cultural concepts of distress and their role in understanding how something akin to, e.g., “panic disorder” might be expressed, understood, and treated in particular settings. For instance, he continued, work on khyâl indicates that an episode can generate catastrophic cognitions about panic attack symptoms that create pernicious feedback loops, which have to be addressed. (Similarly, the dissociation frequently experienced during an initial ataque may lead to more dissociative episodes in response to stress.) The entries in the glossary “are not just distractions but key parts of local ontologies that need to be evaluated.” In other words, thinking through the three concepts or dimensions (cultural syndrome, cultural idiom of distress, and cultural explanation) is clinically useful for a “rich” diagnosis (Parnas & Gallagher, forthcoming).

A khyâl attack is a syndrome found among Cambodians. Symptoms include palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, and neck soreness, the triggers for which might be worry, fright, standing up, riding in a car, or going into a crowded area. The attack also includes catastrophic cognitions related to the symptoms that create pernicious loops (fear of the symptoms amplifies the symptoms and consequently the fear). The point, according to Hinton, is that khyâl attacks are not just labels; more generally, cultural syndromes are “key ways in which realities (the body, social worlds) are experienced, and they profoundly shape how anxiety and other disorders play out in particular contexts.”

It is important to note that these attacks include other co-occurring symptoms that “you don’t usually see in Americans with panic attacks, or we don’t ask about at least, such as soreness of the joints, neck soreness, tinnitus, and also headache and a feeling of being out of energy.” In part this is because, according to the Cambodian understanding of the physiology underlying an attack, khyâl (a windlike substance that flows along with blood throughout the body) is suddenly flowing up toward the heart, lungs, and neck. The lack of downward flow of khyâl and blood causes hands and feet to grow cold, and possibly stroke; and as the khyâl and blood flow upward, they may potentially stop the heart or burst the neck vessels before the khyâl exits from ears or eyes (which causes the related tinnitus or blurry vision). A khyâl attack can be mild, moderate, or severe. Degree of severity is determined during the course of treatment, typically coining (the streaks can range from light red to a more serious dark purple). The coining is also a way to remove blockages and restore the flow of khyâl and blood; it can create a warming effect, which is considered curative because it means khyâl is travelling out through the streaks left by the edge of the coin on the skin.

Hinton’s final point was that every symptom that clinicians might associate with an anxiety attack is “read according to the local ethnophysiology of khyâl.” As one example, fear of khyâl overload makes Cambodians hyper-vigilant to any sensation they may feel on standing, especially if they haven’t slept at night or haven’t been eating well, he added, “so you can see how these panic cycles can happen.”


One comment at the close of the session by cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer particularly resonates: The DSM-5’s cultural revisions challenge “the fundamental logic of psychiatric nosology”– i.e., “describing problems located inside peoples’ heads” – which is at odds not only with the fact that “when we start talking about languages and suffering . . . we are embedded in social networks and interpersonal relations and local worlds,” but with new work in social and cultural neuroscience and social genomics that illuminates how social factors, like childhood adversity, social isolation, migration, and stigma, affect mental health and illness.

The cultural aspect of DSM-5 signifies a richer diagnosis for people “living under the description of” a psychiatric disorder, in the words of Emily Martin. And, as Roberto Lewis-Fernández and Devon Hinton’s work on ataque de nervios and khyâl has shown, identifying the right cluster has major implications in terms of helping to elucidate the complex interactions of mechanisms  – physiological, psychological, and social – and their various feedback loops.

3×5: Culture, Neurosci, Psychiatry Roundup – fMRI, Ian Hacking, A Historic Exchange (Bateson, Wiener, von Neumann)


Russell Poldrack (UT Austin) discusses the use of fMRI in cognitive neuroscience and the more recent focus on brain connectivity on UT San Antonio’s Neuroscientists Talk ShopRegarding fMRI, one of the issues he mentions is that the brains of, say, Chinese speakers and English speakers, look far more alike than expected due to the method’s high threshold for significance (see Lieberman & Cunningham, 2009 on Type I and Type II error concerns in fMRI research).

The opposite problem seems to occur in resting-state fMRI. Micah Allen has an insightful post on some possible confounds (“Is the resting BOLD signal physiological noise? What about resting EEG?”).

What’s the best tool for studying psychopathology? Is HCP the answer? Here’s a useful roundup of studies focusing on structural and functional connectivity which appeared in Barch et al. (2013): autism (Vissers et al., 2012), schizophrenia (Fitzsimmons et al., 2013Fornito et al., 2012Repovs et al., 2011 and Whitfield-Gabrieli and Ford, 2012), ADHD (Fair et al., 2012) mood disorders (Hulvershorn et al., 2011 and Strakowski et al., 2012), addiction (Sutherland et al., 2012),

Ian Hacking on Autism

Many thanks to The Center for Medical Humanities for posting a link to a podcast available on the British Society for the History of Science website featuring Ian Hacking: “Making Up Autism,” Inaugural C. L. Oakley Lecture in Medicine and the Arts, University of Leeds (May 13, 2013).

Ian Hacking’s website includes a list of related publications (see “The Making Up People Project“).

The First Macy Conference

Anthropologist Emily Martin (@hanmuli) via Somatosphere has unearthed a fascinating paper by Steve Heims that gives us a sense of the synergy at the first Macy conference (“Teleological Mechanisms”). The interdisciplinary Macy conferences (1946–1953) allowed scientists and scholars time and space to discuss mechanisms underlying biological and social systems and develop a common language (they were also the inspiration behind the FPR).  The first conference in 1946 brought together Gregory Bateson (cultural anthropology) and mathematicians John von Neumann (game theory) and Norbert Wiener (cybernetics). The Heims paper ends with a really lovely paragraph about Norbert Wiener. We need more peripatetic interdisciplinary geniuses like NW and Ian Hacking!

Wiener’s humane reflections and moral decision was one part of his public role. Another was his heralding, recognition, and interpretation of a new era: the era dominated by the concerns and the technology of communication, control, information, and organization. This recognition and interpretation of the present era was imbedded in and supported by a rich texture of historic and philosophical insight and a wide-ranging familiarity with contemporary science and high technology; morever, it was presented with literary fluency, style, and passion. His public function had become not that of a “mere” scientist, but that of an intellectual, an original thinker about the state of our society and civilization, one who also had a first-hand acquaintance with science and technology. Without that first-hand knowledge, he would not have been nearly so convincing. At MIT he came to play the role of peripatetic interdisciplinary genius, wandering from department to department, bending any willing listener’s ear with ideas, concerns, and suggestions, which might deal with topics in mathematics, physics, biology, engineering, psychology, or philosophy. Often, however, they dealt with humane and human concerns.


Allen, M. (2013, May 16).  Is the resting BOLD signal physiological noise? What about resting EEG? [Blog post]. Retrieved from  http://neuroconscience.com/2013/05/16/is-the-resting-bold-signal-physiological-noise-what-about-resting-eeg/

Barch et al. (in press). Function in the human connectome: Task-fMRI and individual differences in behavior. NeuroImage. Available online 16 May 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.05.033

Burklund, L., & Lieberman, M. (2011). Advances in functional neuroimaging of psychopathology. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 18(4), 333–337. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/ppp.2011.0054

Heims, S. P. (1977). Gregory Bateson and the mathematicians: From interdisciplinary interaction to societal functions. Journal fo the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 13, 141–159. Heims_1977.pdf

Lieberman, M. D., & Cunningham, W. A.  (2009). Type I and Type II error concerns in fMRI research: Re-balancing the scale. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(4), 423–428.

Poldrack, R. (Guest). (2013, March 7). Episode 96 [Audio podcast]. In Neuroscientists talk shop. Retrieved from http://snrp.utsa.edu/Podcast/Entries/2013/3/7_Russell_Poldrack_PhD.html


From Vera Keller, “The ‘new world of sciences’: The temporality of the research agenda and the unending ambitions of science” http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669047

The notion of intellectual voyaging has persisted, although desiderata have fundamentally changed. They now include lists of already extant mundane objects (such as specimens and books), which Bacon would never have considered desiderata. Philosophers still also compose ambitious epistemic desiderata, which for some play a central role as goals toward which scientific inquiry continually advances.22 Perhaps most novel, and most at odds with Bacon’s intentions, has been the recent evolutionary concept of “biological desiderata.” Biological organisms, parasites, and even parents and children have sometimes coinciding and sometimes conflicting desiderata lists. Such lists are dictated by the inexorable if nonteleological demands of reproduction, not by conscious human authorship, and they are fulfilled not by collaborative human effort but by genetic code. Rather than a means to unite humankind against nature, the concept of desiderata now divides individual organisms, both from each other and from human-authored cultural and moral goals.23


The “New World of Sciences, or Desiderata” envisioned by Bacon has changed beyond recognition. However, its former shape contributed to the idea of interlocking research specialties moving forward in concert. Researchers continue to conceptualize the advancement of knowledge as a process of filling in the gaps of scholarly literature. But advancement toward what? For Bacon, a new world lay at the end of the journey. Failure to reach that world has bequeathed to us the idea of unending advance. The edge of the horizon always retreats before us, and knowledge remains continually at sea.


Understanding Pain: Cultural, Neuro, Philosophical Perspectives (Roundup)

I’ve come across a lot of interesting material about pain –how we process our own pain experiences as all as those of others – and now the topic is so sadly present in the news. Here’s a quick roundup to keep track of some of the issues being considered/discussed/investigated, e.g., our “deep,” or embodied, ability to simulate others’ pain; the neural overlap between physical and social pain experiences; the frequent (clinical) cultural de-medicalization of patients’ descriptions of pain; and the tensions or paradox of pain experiences (from a philosophical perspective). Overall, we have an extraordinary capacity to feel others pain and to lighten it; it’s likely that our best selves emerge in this process. Continue reading

Lessons from Autism Spectrum Disorders – Early Identification of Autism, Mirror Neurons (CARTA videos)

Autism Spectrum Disorders.jpg

CARTA (Center for Research and Anthropogeny) has a great collection of videos from their 10/5/12 symposium: Human Origins – Lessons from Autism Spectrum Disorders. The symposium featured Daniel Geschwind, Eric Courchesne, Andrew Meltzoff, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Bernard Crespi. Continue reading

Joseph Dumit’s Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health

Excellent review of STS/anthropologist Joseph Dumit’s Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health (Duke University Press) by philosopher Sergio Sismondo (Queen’s University).

Revisioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health

The concept of mental illness in the West is largely shaped by the DSM diagnostic model. The DSM categorization of psychiatric disorders has been useful in driving research, and psychiatric neuroscience has made enormous strides in identifying some of the brain-based factors that contribute to mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as suggesting possible drug therapies. Continue reading

A Critical Neuroscience Look at “Experimental Entanglements”

I am vic­ar­i­ously enjoy­ing the fact that Angela Woods (@literarti), who did such a phe­nom­e­nal job tweet­ing and then stori­fy­ing our con­fer­ence (which Lance Gravlee updated), is en route to “Exper­i­men­tal Entan­gle­ments in Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science” meet­ing in Berlin (25–26 Oct 2012/ #EECN / About Abstracts (with a pre­vi­ous 10/3 entry of use­ful references). This work­shop will address some of the tacit assump­tions (as well as researcher-experimental sub­ject inter­ac­tions) of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science that our con­fer­ence periph­er­ally cov­ered in the open­ing ses­sion and in some of the talks.