You don’t have to be an expert in a field to appreciate a good argument. Take the recent row in psychology circles, driven by the release this weekend of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5.
Almost two decades have passed since the last major update of this comprehensive manual used by psychiatrists and others in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. This “bible” of the profession, now 947 pages, put together by the American Psychiatric Association, plays a crucial role in the health-care system. Among other things, it defines the diagnostic codes that shape the decision-making of insurers about paying for treatment.
What caught my eye was a recent article in the New York Times in which the director of the National Institute of Mental Health declared that the DSM-5 lacked scientific validity. One of his predecessors called the work “an absolute scientific nightmare.” These critics want psychiatric research to focus more on the basic biology, emphasizing causes instead of symptoms, getting away, as one put it, from patients receiving multiple diagnoses when they really have one underlying condition.
Critics argue that the updated manual goes too far, turning normal episodes, such as memory loss or temper tantrums, into mental illnesses, ripe for treatment as “mild neurocognitive disorder” or “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.”
Those who revamped the manual insist the new edition serves providers and patients well. They cite improved precision, advancing diagnoses and treatment, the DSM-5 carefully applying current science.
What may surprise is that the final word in this argument could come some day from Akron, at College and Mill streets, where the Center for the History of Psychology resides, across from the University of Akron campus. David Baker, the executive director and a professor of psychology, describes the center as the “collective memory of psychology.”
Since its founding in 1965, the center has been the repository for the archives of American psychology — including manuscripts, photographs, notes, correspondence, instruments and films. Researchers come from near and far to mine the materials, telling the story of how the field of psychology has developed, or how we have tried to know ourselves.
The past decade, Baker has elevated the profile. Most notably, the center moved three years ago from the dark, almost hidden reaches of the Polsky’s building to the far more appropriate setting of a revived century-old, brick factory building. Now there is room for further remodeling and expansion, better reflecting what we have — a jewel of a collection, national, even global, in scope.
Walk into the center, and you find a small, entertaining museum (open weekdays and Saturday) tracing the evolution of psychology. Examine handwritten letters from Freud and Jung, or the apparatus gallery, its primitive instruments a reminder of how young psychology is. There are items from landmark moments, including the Stanley Milgram shock box and its lessons about the nature of evil, and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, which taught the same and echoed at Abu Ghraib.
Near chilling is the display about the work of Kenneth Clark on the harm of racial segregation. The findings of his “doll studies” drove the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. An accompanying video captures a recent reprise of the studies, the results similarly troubling.
And there under glass are the previous four editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The first, in 1952, runs 130 pages, featuring 100 diagnostic conditions. The next arrived in 1968, and by the third in 1980, the size had expanded to 500 pages with 265 disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
The 1994 edition covers 900 pages and almost 400 conditions.
All together, the museum sketches the fascinating struggle to understand the brain and its complexities, reinforcing, in its way, an impression of how much we do not know.
Those themes emerged two weeks ago as the center launched the inaugural Ludy T. Benjamin Jr. Lecture, another part of David Baker heightening its presence. Henry Roediger of Washington University in St. Louis presented a lively look at Sir Frederic Bartlett, a celebrated pioneer in the study of memory. If Bartlett wasn’t technically rigorous, he did make a brilliant and enduring observation about how our memories are shaped by previous experience, or the “schemata” each of us forms and applies.
The late novelist Walker Percy wrote a playful book in the early 1980s, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, in which he posed the question: “Why is it possible to learn more in 10 minutes about the Crab Nebula, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you have been stuck with yourself all your life?”
The Center for the History of Psychology is a big part of telling the story about the search for answers.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.