Thursday, December 06, 2018


When I first found the National Institute for Mental Health "RDoC" (Research Domain Criteria), I had the idea that it related somehow to the advertising/political categories used by Cambridge Analytica et al to target voters in the last presidential election.  Instead, it turned out to be another attempt to medicalize human beings, to make them scientifically explainable.  It's mildly interesting, esp. if you go to the next level of subcategories down from what I reproduce here, when the listers begin to elaborate with examples from the experience of those working on the categories.  You can get to them with the link below, but I didn't include them here.

What soon becomes obvious is that the most human emotions -- the passion, the yearning, the bonding, the rage  -- are not there.  Many of us feel that this "medicalizing" -- which is a form of Enlightenment professional rationality -- works to make us into obedient zombies, grinning ninnies who have been "adjusted", the kind of thinking that gave us lobotomies.  Once that grievous danger is noted, maybe posted above one's computer, then it's still absorbing.  But it ain't poetry.

"RDoC is a research framework for new approaches to investigating mental disorders. It integrates many levels of information (from genomics and circuits to behavior and self-reports) in order to explore basic dimensions of functioning that span the full range of human behavior from normal to abnormal."

Ever since the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, we've suddenly awakened to the idea that a lot of data, properly interpreted, can put us into categories that are very helpful in predicting what will affect us.  In this case it was elections, but the technique was developed for marketing/advertising and intriguingly analyzed when "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" became a framework for thinking about the content of pornography.  (Stigma provides the kind of secrecy that makes us all curious.)  This RDocC is not quite like those, I THINK, being more concerned with how and why the domains or systems work than what will make you buy more tomatoes or be more excited by imagining the grip of an octopus than by a Japanese school girl giving you the time of day, which might turn your neighbor on.

I have lists of criteria and prescribed values that go back to the Fifties when I was in high school, the days of Menninger.  My mother was taking psych classes at Portland State as preparation for teaching and she was also noting these lists.  We were both trying to be "good," "adjusted," compliant, successful, and those were the values of the times.  In her classes were many Korean War veterans pressed to self-examine, get control, be good employees, just as they had been pushed to conform as soldiers.  PTSD was not identified as such, but there was concern about "brain-washing," even as they did it without realizing because they thought it was benign.

Here's the NIHM list.  There are five "Domains."  (So far, they admit.)  Probably they arrived at these with brain-storming and discussion, mostly among people with the values of educated white men. 

  Acute threat (Fear)
  Potential threat (Anxiety)
  Sustained threat
  Frustrative non-reward

  Approach motivation
  Initial responsiveness to reward attainment
  Sustained/longer-term responsiveness to reward attainment
  Reward learning

  Declarative Memory
  Cognitive Control
  Working Memory

  Affiliation and Attachment
  Social Communication
  Perception and Understanding of Self
  Perception and Understanding of Others

  Circadian Rhythms
  Sleep and Wakefulness

Nowhere is there a place for sex, genders, or identity.  There's no murder or giving birth or brain dislocation through concussion, infection or substances.  The automatic balking of the ODD is missing.  It's flat and white-washed, like the people who use the categories.  Where are the consequences of stigma or the results of children torn from parents and put into concentration camps?  These are the big impossible categories that plague ordinary people.

This sort of list is the result of reflection about personalities, one might guess related to patients, rather than actual scientific research into process in an electrochemical sense.  It is a result of thinking of thought as a function of the brain and no other part of the body, though we know that what a brain really does is sort and record what the body receives from itself and its environment.

Bodies work by making loops of recurrence so that function that goes too far one way then compensates by going the other way in the style of a thermostat.  If the loop is distorted or prevented -- and it is organic, produced by contact neuron to neuron -- then the person shows psychiatric symptoms.  Sometimes these are dealt with by reasoning with the patient, as though it were deliberate misbehavior.  

There's a parallel in the larger society, going one way and then compensating like a pendulum returning.  If the swings are too wide, the society can die.  We seem to be dangerously approaching the limits that keep us functioning but the signs of pushing back the other way are also perceptible.  Uncomfortably now we are shaken to the point of doubting evidence.

We had thought we could tell by looking at behavior and presentation of a person whether they were honorable in a strictly moral way, but here's Bush who seems so courtly and yet whimsical with his crazy socks.  He did good things and bad things -- which-are-which depends on whom you ask.  He had a devoted marriage, talented sons, pretty women and marvelous property.  A charmed life.  But he still died.  And he was still dependent on maintenance from others.  When the living presidents are arrayed in a pew as the steady march of funerals requires, there's a lot of scope for speculation.  Some even say that Trump smashed an evil standing order by taking power to such a ridiculous extreme that it was unsustainable.  And Carter, so clearly a good Christian man, seems to have had little impact.

Preparation for the semi-Christian ministry created even more lists for me to ponder, and then studying Comparative Theology threw many of them off the table.  For me, leaving Enlightenment assumptions about being rational has been a relief in some ways and yet prescribed a whole new list of aspirations about the wholeness of the emotional person and fittingness to this new world we muddled up.  Idleness and withdrawal are values, but not usually when in the face of exasperation.

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