The story of madness is unfolding, now, as you read these words, in laboratories all across the planet. Over the course of 15 weeks, we’ll try to keep pace with the latest discoveries and theories, many of which keep me up late at night with a very nerdy sort of excitement.
Professor Ken Swan
Department of Psychology
This is a story about madness. It begins, as so many stories do, with ferocious battles between angels and demons; with our prehistoric forbearers viewing mental perturbations—like hallucinations or immobilizing anxiety—as the ruinous work of malevolent spirits wreaking havoc on otherwise healthy human minds and bodies. Our best archeological evidence suggests that, for hundreds of thousands of millennia, “abnormality” in another person’s behavior signaled the ominous presence of a shadowed, inscrutable monster.
Today, we fancy ourselves a bit more enlightened. We’ve since invented science, and we’ve discovered that in fact mind is what brain does. We’ve replaced angels and demons with notions of childhood traumas and atypical neural connectivity, and we’re creeping, little by little, toward a hard-won answer to the question of what mental illness really is, deep down at its core.
Spoiler: we don’t yet know. We’ve certainly learned a good deal since the time of our witchcraft-wary ancestors, but I’m afraid that there still aren’t any simple solutions. Mental illnesses just don’t behave like particles of matter do in a collider (i.e., predictably in controlled environments*)—they arise from a messy confluence of genetic (are you “wired” for depression?) and cultural (how do we determine what’s “normal,” anyway?) factors that we’ve only just begun to map. They’re problems that will require us to apprehend deeply how the human brain, with its billions (and billions) of potential neural pathways, produces the indescribable magnificence that is conscious, self-aware mental life.
The story of madness is unfolding, now, as you read these words, in laboratories all across the planet. Over the course of 15 weeks, we’ll try to keep pace with the latest discoveries and theories, many of which keep me up late at night with a very nerdy sort of excitement. In the process, we will:
- Traverse the sordid history of mental illness conceptualization and treatment
- Glimpse the vigorous debates among mental health professionals and scholars concerning the best ways to study, diagnose and treat mental distress;
- Dissect the major classes of mental disorders as most mental health practitioners understand them, including anxiety, dissociative, eating, mood, neuro-developmental, neurocognitive, obsessive-compulsive, psychotic, somatic, and trauma disorders.
So, if you’re ready to step up to the edge of what we (scientists) know about people, who are all more-or-less normal and abnormal in some measure, join us for a story not just of madness, but of our unending march toward a greater understanding of the nature of (and our place in) the universe.
Here’s how it works:
At the beginning of each week, find a “This Week at a Glance” summary on our Canvas home page. It’ll outline tasks for the following seven days, which will usually consist of reading a textbook chapter, perusing some additional content (articles/videos/audio files), taking a quiz, and posting something interesting in an online discussion forum. There’s a “book club,” too, in which I’ll offer up a selection of my favorite trade books published within the last ten years or so on abnormal-psychology-related topics. Some present cutting-edge, controversial ideas. Others are critically-acclaimed personal memoirs, designed to pull readers into the bona fide phenomenological experience of someone living with a so-called mental disorder. They’re all bestselling, gripping, and full of elegant prose, in my opinion. Pick one, read it during the course of the semester, and we’ll talk about it.
The story awaits.
*Note: To be fair, particles of matter get up to some unpredictable and strange behavior, too, especially when they’re really, really small. See quantum mechanics.