Alfred Freeborn

Measuring the “Broken Brain”: Neuroimaging and the “Biological Revolution” in American and British Psychiatry

In 1984, the American psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen published a book entitled The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry in which she announced ‘a new mode of perception’ for psychiatry, in which mental illnesses are to be understood ‘in terms of how the brains works and how the brain breaks down.’ Central to this ‘revolution’ was the use of imaging technologies to, in Andreasen’s words, ‘look directly to the brain.’ Over the next thirty years, Andreasen and her colleagues in Iowa used imaging technologies to investigate schizophrenia in the living brain. This paper focusses on the specific experimental designs constructed to measure psychiatric illnesses in the living brain. Rather than establish from the outset the success, failure or legitimacy of a “biological revolution”, by following the evolution of research practices, the shifting goal posts of the discipline’s epistemic expectations reveal the temporal dynamics of psychiatric knowledge as they emerge and as they become represented by the actors’ themselves. Moreover, this approach highlights, more effectively than any critique of biologism alone, exactly how the achievements of research are distinct, less impressive, and more complex, than the heady claims in funding documents, popular images of science and science journalism. In short, the achievement of the last forty years has been to create a radically new space of measurement for the brain: while its clinical significance is as of yet unclear, this transformation has greatly affected the entire ecology of psychiatric theory and practice.