Report on the Joint Conference of ISHN and Cheiron (Calgary, June 2011)

ISHN—International Society for the History of the Neurosciences, and

Cheiron—International Society for the History of the Behavioral and Social Sciences

Joint conference and workshop, Calgary and Banff, June 16-23.

This year, for the first time, ISHN and Cheiron held a joint meeting, in recognition of the research interests shared by members of both societies.  Among the aims of the joint meeting were to spark conversation on areas of shared concern, to encourage cross-fertilization among scholars of clinical psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and neurology, and to mark what many agree is the increasing neuroscientization of psychiatry.  Senior scholars as well as graduate students participated in what many agreed was a very successful experiment in disciplinary boundary-crossing; explorations of topics ranging from gender, race, brain and mind to emotions, neurophilosophy and neuroscience and art proved lively and provocative.  And, the setting—especially for the workshops in Banff—could not have been more stunning.

Here I’ll highlight several of the keynote lectures.  Bryan Kolb of the University of Lethbridge gave a fascinating insider’s account of the evolution of brain-behavior relationships from the 1960s to the present, emphasizing how the foundational work of Karl Lashley and his students limited the field’s ability to assimilate findings inconsistent with it, “misdirecting” researchers for years.  A related panel discussion worried the issue of the relationships among psychology, psychiatry, and the neurosciences—between mind and brain—and explored the tension between the optimism of neuroscientists with respect to the on-going revolution their specialty has sparked in conceptualizing behavior on the one hand and, on the other, the fact that little has changed in the treatment of mental diseases despite the promises of biological psychiatry.  Should the relationship between the fields be conceptualized as complementary, or should they be thought of as one and the same?  Many other panels probed this and related questions from a variety of perspectives—including the visual arts and music—throughout the conference.

Emily Martin of NYU took a fresh look at “introspection” before it was defined out of the experimental field, focusing in particular on the early anthropological field work of W. H. R. Rivers in the Torres Straits.  Rivers and his Cambridge colleagues conducted experiments with islanders as well as on themselves, assuming a malleability of mind that was, Martin argued, compelling to fellow Cantabridgian Ludwig Wittgenstein, a critic of experimental psychology.  Wittgenstein’s later work was not, Martin argued, politically conservative as much as it was deeply materialist, incorporating a familiarity with an evolving anthropological perspective.  In another keynote, Andrew Scull of UCSD gave a masterful overview of the relations between psychiatry and the social sciences in the postwar period in the United States, covering issues ranging from the founding of NIMH, to the rise and fall of psychoanalytic hegemony within psychiatry and its institutions, to the emergence of mental health economics.

A range of other panels offered biographical perspectives on major figures in psychiatry, the behavioral sciences, and neuroscience (Abraham Maslow, Robert Lindner, Hans Seyle); examined paradigmatic experiments and experimental settings; looked into state-sponsored programs of eugenics, especially in Canada;  explored ethics and therapies, across the disciplines; focused on treatments of brain injury and the evolution of neurological surgery; looked at  memory, emotions, empathy, mind and body; and considered how best to teach our students the multiple histories that fell under the capacious rubric of the conference.  Medical, neuroscience, nursing, psychology and history students presented their work on the last day of the conference workshops, the range of their interests and research testifying to the vitality of the fields the gathering brought together.

The conference program may be found here.

– E.L.

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