Ill Definition

February 27th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Personal, Psychology.

The way we define things and how we name them determine how we view the world and, as a result, how we act and treat one another. Modern neuroscience shows that human perceive not the thing itself but a copy, an illusion created by the human brain, a copy that is as created by mental beliefs and attitudes as much as it is generated by energies in the physical world. Things are not as they appear, and how things appear can change over time.

A story I heard today on the radio show “This American Life” illustrates how powerful definitions are and what it can take to change them. “204: 81 Words,” covers the history of how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided in 1973 that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness. It’s about both the power of a family story and a social label, artfully and informatively told by National Public Radio reporter Alix Spiegel.

The story’s professional theme shows how the 81 words in American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that defined homosexuality as a disease were replace by 204 that say it is not. For years, psychiatrists treated it as a disease to be cured, and psychoanalysts probed patients to see where the causes lay in family history.

I assume that “This American Life” host Ira Glass and his crew decided to rebroadcast the show, originally aired in 2002, because the forthcoming fifth edition of the APA’s manual, DSM-5, to be published in 2013, is now available for public comment. Comments are due April 20, 2010.

The story’s family theme focuses on the power of family stories. The reporter, Spiegel, is the granddaughter of a man who played an important role in revising the DSM description of homosexuality. Her family’s family story was more or less single-handedly responsible for the change. The granddaughter, in telling the history, found that the true story was much more complex and her grandfather’s role much less central, though still important.

I am not sure how Spiegel and her family changed through her telling of the story and the consequent shattering of the myth of her grandfather. I’d like to, for family stories provide a powerful organizing device for a family and the perception of its members. A change in the narrative generally changes the characters in the future, but his is not in Spiegel’s scope.

My personal interest centers on how things become named–more properly how people use language to designate aspects of human experience with words that have meanings upon which people act. “80 Words” recalled how appalled I am at the number of psychological experiences have been labeled diseases that should be treated by drugs.

About two years ago, I got into a cab on the way home from Midway airport and had a conversation with an extremely articulate and bright cab driver about philosophy, politics, and, of all things, drugs. When I mentioned that the drug seller’s on the streets of the city were not necessarily the biggest causes of the country’s drug problems, and my driver took that bait.

“Oh yeah, the real pusherboys work for the big drug companies,” he said.

“Makes the guys on the street seem like rank amateurs,” I replied in agreement.

Turned out we had both read an article in The Chicago Reader that week (2/14/08) called, “How Shy Became Sick.” That article and the book it profiles, Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, provides a critical bit of history on the development of the psychological profession in recent years. It convinced me that if I had been in high school in the mid 90s rather than the mid 70s, I would have been on meds.

I would have been a very different person, and not for the better, though it occurs to me that I was on meds not sanctioned by the psychological profession. But that’s a different story.

“204: 81 Words” is well worth the hour it takes to play.

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