Cognition & Reality

Monday, 7 February 2011

The 4 Humors & Chemical Imbalances

Filed under: Chemical Imbalance,Psychomyths,Science — drtone @ 12:33 pm

Not entirely as a matter of coincidence, the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on “chemical imbalances” and the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the Four Humors of ancient (and not-so-ancient) medicine each describe the corresponding concept as “discredited.” The latter theory (if that is a historically correct term) dominated medicine until fairly recently, the middle of the 19th century. A hundred years later, in an attempt to bring mental and emotional disorders within the structure of Western medicine, physicians of the late 20th century reinvented the concept of humoral imbalance to explain something they could not quite explain otherwise, probably without recognizing the historical significance of what they had done.

Although the Wikipedia article on the chemical imbalance hypothesis denies its validity, it makes two other moves that are worthy of mention. First, it quotes a prominent expert who describes chemical imbalances as a “useful heuristic” for understanding mental illness. Let me say that it’s difficult for a construct to be misleading and useful at the same time. Second, it mentions that “no other demonstrably superior hypothesis has emerged,” as if that somehow supplies validity to an otherwise discarded framework. It is a way of keeping “chemical imbalances” on life support and at the service of the pharmaceutical industry.

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