|Neurodiversity celebrates "the unique manifestations of|
the human spirit."
Image courtesy of Reflections of a Chronic Anthropologist.
Wherever you go, there you are. I’ve considered this old adage quite a bit lately in my thoughts and conversations. Wherever I turn, I can’t get away from the brain. By this, I don’t just mean my own thoughts, but conversations about the brain and what it does and how it makes us do what we do and be who we are. More specifically, these “brain-centered” conversations often turn to mental health and questions about the role of brain function and chemistry in keeping us well.
This flurry of mentally-focused activity is strange for me. I am not a brain scientist. I am not more than casually acquainted with mental illness. My son doesn’t even have ADHD. In fact, I spent the better part of the last decade chipping at the walls of the Cartesian divide between mental and physical health and, thus, the idea that there is mental illness distinct from physical illness at all. As part of my recent doctoral dissertation research, I explicitly blur those lines, arguing that what we do and what we think and how we feel are fundamentally intertwined.
Despite the recent WHO definition, which outlines this holistic view of health, it is clear from everyday living that our medical community, and our popular culture, are not giving up “mental health” discussions anytime soon. From ADHD to autism to depression to PTSD, it is difficult not to become involved in mental health debates. Lately, I feel compelled to leap into these discussions, ignoring that I have almost no personal or professional experience with any of these disorders. Complaints fly that our culture is over-diagnosing, over-labeling, over-medicating, under-counseling, ignoring potential causation and generally freaking out. We are caught up in a multi-faceted mental crisis.
I have developed a career around the idea that labels, in their most basic sense, are bad. Humans are far too complex to be grouped by color or culture or behavior alone- let alone by “disorder.” How could that possibly be helpful? But, it seems that, most days, I am wrong. The frequency with which casual acquaintances mention their “disorders” as an explanation for behaviors is both shocking and comforting. It is shocking because of the ease at which these labels are owned, discussed and, importantly, medicated. It is comforting in that so many people no longer feel the need to hide their suffering and are willing to discuss it openly and work through it in public. Some of this comfort, both theirs and mine, stems from the recent movement to terminology that reflects a vision of brains that are “different” rather than “broken”- neuro-diversity rather than neurological disorders.
Despite my confliction about this whole neurological discussion, my reaction to discussion framed in terms of neuro-diversity are overwhelmingly positive. This idea that we can have difference without some kind of needing to “fix” or make something conform to a certain standard jives with my anthropological perspective. As anthropologists we see different cultures as “unique manifestations of the human spirit” (to paraphrase popular anthropologist Wade Davis), so seeing different ways of manifesting different neural processes as unique visions of the world has implications for inclusion and acceptance- both generally positive human endeavors. Instead of ostracizing folks with different neural processes and/or medicating them back to “normalcy,” we could learn to incorporate diverse learning styles, understand extreme moods and build healthier daily routines. We could take a walk together- a prescription currently being handed out by one of the leading mental health doctors in the UK.
I am not a doctor (well I am a doctor but not THAT kind of doctor). I am not a specialist. I have no personal experience. This discussion is not intended to diminish the suffering and expertise of the people and friends and families who are specialists in the area of mental health. What I do know is that, every day, I see new research about how environment matters to the health of our bodies. It matters in our everyday routines and daily health, but it also matters in the long term. More and more research shows that we, through our environmental interactions, have the power to change our bodies at the genetic level. Genes, neural pathways, our health- all dependent on what we think and what we do. Science is giving us the control back- I wonder if we will take it.
Kristina Baines is an ecological/medical anthropologist with a strong interest in corn, how what we do in our environment makes us well, and using innovative methods to make anthropology relevant and accessible to a wide audience. You can find out more about how these interests translate into projects and pursuits at www.coolanthropology.com or by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.