Conference: Situating Mental Illness Between Scientific Certainty and Personal Narrative

April 28-29th 2011, Berlin, Germany

Contemporary neuroscience reduces mental illness to brain-based operations, instantiating a division between biology and culture, mechanism and context, brain and biography. This has the effect of marginalising a richer, inner-subjective complex of individual meaning, personal history and narrative. This meeting surveys recent significant shifts in biological psychiatry methods for the assessment of mental illness and questions their validity and limitations. It also explores nuances and interstices between the regard of psychiatric disorders as neurochemical flaws and experiential conditions; the cultural history of psychopathologies; and how brain-based accounts of mental illness circulate in the public domain and are incorporated in culture.

List of Speakers: Lisa Appignanesi, Noga Arikha, Lisa Blackman, Laura Bossi, Felicity Callard, Trudy Dehue, John Forrester, Allen Frances, Stephan Schleim, Ilina A. Singh

The meeting has three main sessions:

1. Tensions of Diagnosis
The current neuroscience set of co-circulating methods including diagnostic categories, behaviour rating scales, animal models and biological markers implies a superimposition of subjective symptoms, neurochemical markers and objective endophenotypology.  What are the advantages and limitations to the introduction of biological measures in DSM-V? What are their repercussions for epidemiology, criteria of inclusion in trials and treatment? The scope of this session is to illustrate difficulties conciliating validity/reliability of measurements with respect for heterogeneity in disease manifestation, both at the biological and phenomenological level and to bring emerging evidence from clinical, epidemiological and biological research, as well as sociological analysis.

2. Voices from within
The second session will be devoted to exploring nuances and interstices between psychiatric disorders as neurochemical flaws and as experiential conditions, the former characterization now being favored due to its measurability, and thus facilitation of standardization. Attention will be given to the role of narratives and personal accounts in illustrating differences in severity and sequence of symptoms as well as values and motivations among patients behind biological interpretation of illness, and pharmaceutical treatment.

3. Neurotransmitters and psychopathology in history and culture
In the final session, we will explore the history of certain psychopathologies and how brain-based accounts of mental illness circulate in the public domain and are incorporated in culture.
What ideas and representations of ‘illness’ do biological interpretations let circulate in culture? How are they welcomed, endorsed or resisted by the general public? What scientific or commonsensical ideas do we live by to describe and explain illness, and what is their valence?

There is no conference fee. For further information and to register please contact Giovanni Frazzetto at giovanni.frazzetto(at)

Updated information will be available on the conference website.


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