Social Justice Warfare and Mental Health 

If your ambition is to rescue people from oppression and misery, then mental health is a good place to start.

People with poor mental health struggle to find employment

They die younger…

…and the gap does not diminish as longevity advances generally, even in the most supportive societies.

They’re more likely to be homeless…

…been maltreated

…and that continues through their lives

Of course, these discoveries about mental health could only be made because people had ways of telling the difference between good and bad mental health in the first place. This difference is codified in either diagnostic criteria or questionnaire cut-offs, and judicious use of either (or sometimes both) is pretty good at identifying people with difficulties in their mental health.

Now consider this

The idea that diagnosis identifies mental disorders which may become objects of study has created theoretical and practical divisions between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ which have hindered understanding of behaviour and experience in general – not just that said to be symptomatic of mental illness. Abandoning diagnosis is therefore an important step in practising what we preach – in creating a unified approach to our subject.

This is part of a position statement in UK Clinical Psychology. My previous blogs on this site explain, at some length, why I think this is mistaken in principle. Here, I’ll merely point out that without any ability to identify the mentally unwell, none of the statistics which justify interventions, and can measure improvement would have been collectible. As this statement has been made by people who have dedicated their working lives to helping this group, something must be seriously amiss. It’s time to meet

The Social Justice Demon

Lucifer: according to Milton, the first social justice warrior

Social Justice sounds so good that it’s tempting to agree with it without further ado. It also has a long and honourable history going  back to Augustine of Hippo, who argued that justice was the yardstick by which states could measure their legitimacy. Its most important recent proponent, John Rawls, both defined it and extended it to all justice using the concept of “justice as fairness“.  Unpacking this apparently simple definition eventually required an awful lot of words

which expand on a few basic principles

The original position

Imagine we get together to agree on a society. If everyone is to receive fair treatment, it follows that they should not know of their own personal characteristics or position in society when deciding its rules, to avoid bias in rule selection. Rawls called this “the original position”, and saw it as the first principle to be fulfilled, his view being that fair rules could not be decided otherwise. He called the state of mind associated with the original position “the veil of ignorance”.

The difference principle

If, like Rawls, we accept that there has to be some difference in society’s roles and rewards, then the veil of ignorance means we don’t know whether we are going to be winners or losers when we agree society’s rules.  It is therefore no more than prudence to propose that society’s differences should be arranged so that the poorest and weakest are protected from adverse effects of the differences we accept.

Principle of equality of opportunity

By the same kind of reasoning, to avoid keeping  ourselves from the roles that would most benefit ourselves in our society, the opportunity to attain these roles must be equally available for all.

Rawls saw these principles as fundamental to liberal and social democracies, and most folks agree with him. After all, what’s not to like?

Given that we are currently in the land of pure principle and fluffy bunnies, it’s not surprising that we have to be positively demonic to see what could possibly go wrong

When Lucifer demanded equal rights for angels

It is striking that the sentiments Milton gave Lucifer were very similar to those that we’ve just heard from Rawls, and probably account for some of the sympathy we feel towards him when we read Paradise Lost. In a society which insisted reason was ultimately bounded by revelation (and the authorities which claimed the right to interpret it), this is obviously good propaganda. However. revelation has been replaced by law as the justification for our society, and following Rawls, this is conceived as a form of social contract. As we can no longer turn to an omniscient God to rescue us, let’s think about what happens when Rawls’ principles hit the real world.

The real world is an uncomfortable place for pure principle

Our precious veil of ignorance gets replaced by a veil of approximate knowledge, whose reliability varies according to topic. We have absolutely no guarantee that the rules we make will have the results we desire. Physical realities such as distance and time, as well as societal decisions, impinge on equality of opportunity.

If we try to get back to Rawls’ original position from here, we end up with the first rule of the social justice demon

True justice is based on refuting difference 

What this does is to reverse the direction of Rawls’ veil of ignorance. If Rawls said “if we have a veil of ignorance then we may have justice” this claims “if we are to have justice then we need a veil of ignorance.” Unlike Rawls, who only used the original position as a rational basis for his other principles, this goes against the basic conception that Justice is about treating equal things equally and unequal things unequally, as we are now seeking the same implementation of rules for different things, rather than simply designing rules to fairly cover all possible circumstances. This leads to the second demonic rule

If people experience different degrees of benefit in their lives, then unfairness has occurred

This is  the exact reverse of Rawls’ difference principle, which specifically allows for differences in benefit, according to what people do in practice. Of course, if we retain ignorance of what people are doing differently in relation to our benefit assessment, then equality of benefit is the inevitable consequence. A similar reversal occurs with the third demonic rule, which is

Opportunity should be regulated to ensure equality of benefit. 

This of course arises because inequality of benefit has already been declared unfair. Though the implementation will look superficially like positive discrimination, it is different, because the target is not prior inequality of opportunity, but inequality of benefit.

Politically, the social justice demon belongs to the Left, just as the Nazi demon belongs to the Right…

Pol Pot giving voice to the social justice demon “only several thousand Kampucheans might have died due to some mistakes in implementing our policy of providing an affluent life for the people”

…but its relationship to socialism is like that of lung cancer to the organ. If we think of the classic socialist quote

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

It’s clear that evaluation of personal differences, including abilities and needs, are at the heart of this statement, which disappear when we consider its monstrous progeny. It’s like cancer in another way too: it starts small, but grows through the social body it infests until that body is destroyed.

How the social justice demon influences our actions

The person who first wrote about how such schemas as the social justice demon influenced us was Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: the man who wrote about demons

He coined the term I’m using, and named one of his greatest novels after them. Writing from a rightist, patriotic, and religious perspective, he described how the introduction of Western, progressive ideas destroyed the social structure of a provincial Russian town, by shaping the behaviour of those who believed, or came to believe in them. More recently, they have entered public consciousness as memes: fragments of thought or learned procedure that travel from person to person by either deliberate communication or mimesis.

There are three qualities which, in combination, make the social justice demon so virulent.  The first we’ve already discussed: it closely resembles a genuinely virtuous moral position, so statements and actions based on it can be hard to argue against, and conforming to its precepts is likely to feel good. Secondly, it’s a warrior meme. Milton’s myth has Lucifer going to war with God over a perceived injustice to angels. Other warriors for the social justice demon have fought for heaven, to rescue souls from feared damnation through attachment to the wrong beliefs

The social justice demon’s warriors fighting to get everyone to heaven

Because the social justice demon ultimately opposes knowledge of difference, and in the real world most differences are relative, it can fight on either, and frequently both sides, in any dispute. Its third quality, (which may be deduced from the previous two, and its base in pure principle), is its absolutism. The idea of incrementally approximating towards perfection, which might thus never be reached, is anathema to the demon. Imperfections must be rooted out, and the promised perfection makes the cost worthwhile

A 15th century illustration of the costs of insisting on perfection

This also means that, while the social justice demon claims to be responsive to evidence, in practice no evidence can convince it otherwise, because all evidence, and especially scientific evidence, carries a margin of uncertainty. So, it will only accept (and promote) evidence which supports its a priori view: confirmatory bias. As this involves denying knowledge of difference, the evidence it uses will tend to be skeptical.

The social justice monster in mental health

As the social justice demon offers itself as an ethical position, it makes sense to look for it in ethical discourse. In mental health, it has taken up residence in what was previously called “anti-psychiatry” and more recently the “critical” movement in psychiatry and clinical psychology. It’s not hard to find statements indicating its presence: we’ve already quoted one insisting that we deny difference between those with mental illness and those without, in terms of the signs and symptoms which denote disorder. This of course is the first demonic rule.

It is also not hard to find examples supporting the second rule. This quote is from a fringe mental health treatment group “re-evaluation counselling“.

“Mental health” oppression is the systematic suppression of discharge (their term for symptomatology)  and the invalidation of people’s minds. It is the attempt to control people by enforcing standards of conduct, invalidating the discharge/re-evaluation process, categorizing people into diagnoses, pressuring them to take drugs and other harmful treatments, and punishing attempts to stand up for their liberation. The point of “mental health” oppression seems to be to oppress “mental” patients. However, it is actually to maintain the status quo by reinforcing and obscuring the functioning of other oppressions, and enforcing conformity.

Compare that with this, from a very senior UK Clinical Psychologist, prominent in the “critical” movement

‘If the authors of the diagnostic manuals are admitting that psychiatric diagnoses are not supported by evidence, then no one should be forced to accept them. If many mental health workers are openly questioning diagnosis and saying we need a different and better system, then service users and carers should be allowed to do so too.’

The authors of the diagnostic manuals are of course saying that their evidence for diagnosis has uncertainty and variability, not that is no evidence for any of them. This transformation from doubt to denial is a good sign our demon is at work, particularly when it leads to a claim of oppression: the major difference between the quotes is that here the claim is expressed implicitly.

The third rule, limitation of opportunity to ensure equal benefit,  has recently had an airing in the popular media.

Despite the balancing qualifier “a tiny minority”, the message is clear: take these pills and you risk becoming a monster and ending up here

Hell: the destination for all sinners (and some medication users)

The social justice demon has two problems with pills, or indeed physical treatments of any kind. First, if they are successful, then they have been successful through modification of individual difference, which the social justice demon forbids: all such modification is “oppressive”. Secondly, physical treatments come with side effects, and side effects, however balanced with benefits, are barriers to perfection, however impossible. Hell beckons.

I’d agree this is a bit extreme for a professional position, but it can nonetheless be found in professional recommendations influenced by the “critical” movement.

Many people find that ‘antipsychotic’ medication helps make experiences such as hearing voices less intense, frequent or distressing.

It can be particularly useful at times of crisis when the experiences can feel overwhelming.

However, the drugs appear to have a general rather than a specific effect: there is little evidence that they are correcting an underlying biochemical abnormality.

There are significant risks as well as potential benefits, especially when people take medication over many years.

Prescribers need to help people to weigh up the risks and benefits of taking particular drugs or indeed taking medication at all. People need to be able to try things out and arrive at an informed choice.

Services should not pressurise people to take medication.

While measured and thoughtful, there’s no doubt that the mood music of this quote is the same as the television programme, albeit less intense. It’s worth taking a moment to dissect these superficially reasonable statements, to uncover the baleful influence of the social justice demon within them.

Consider the second and final paragraphs together. A psychotic crisis involves much more than simply having odd experiences: thought processes themselves can become incoherent and incomprehensible.

Florid psychosis written down

Imagine someone who talks to you like this (and I can assure you that some psychotic folk do). Do you know what they’re talking about? Do they? Take it from me, after they recover, they won’t be able to explain this stuff to you — they’ll struggle to remember it at all.  If they say “yes”, or “no”, do we even know if it’s being directed at us, or part of the conversation we think we’re having? We also know what someone in this state is capable of

Note for animal lovers: the lions were shot for behaving like lions, and discovering humans were good eating

As stated, the final paragraph is virtue signalling, making clear that whatever the reasons, giving drugs without agreement is oppressive. The social justice demon is setting its battle lines according to its second rule: it simply cannot accept that there are individual differences that might affect capacity to consent.

The conversion of doubt to denial is also well in evidence. To read this summary, it would appear that nothing more is known about antipsychotic drugs than that they they are calming, ie sedative. This is misleading

Image result for neuroimaging antipsychotic medication bentham

Across multiple studies, antipsychotic drugs affect brain areas associated with schizophrenia

Brain regions structurally and/or functionally affected in schizophrenia

Antipsychotic drugs have visualisable targets of action, that correspond to those areas affected by psychosis (eg frontotemporal & parietotemporal) and their side effects (eg striatum and cerebellum) as the above images show. We do not fully understand how the drugs work because our theory of schizophrenia isn’t complete, but the summary has taken this uncertainty and used it to convert our understanding of antipsychotics from a specific treatment for psychosis to something that will keep patients calm and biddable. In fact, the sedative effect of antipsychotic medications is temporary, but the summary gently introduces the idea that they are no more than “chemical coshes”. Once again, drug use has been linked to oppression, now irrespective of consent.

On the other hand, psychotherapy, especially that which aims towards an idealised human relationship, fits the social justice demon’s bill perfectly.  Human relationships are universal: no differences need apply. Also, if they are perfect, then there is no difference in benefit, as benefit is distributed through relationships. We are in heaven

The social justice demon’s take on psychotherapy

When we look for the equivalent summary for professional recommendations for psychotherapy, we read

Psychological therapies – talking treatments – are helpful for many people.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has reviewed the evidence and recommends that everyone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia should be offered talking therapy. However, most are currently unable to access it.

The most researched therapy is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Trials have found that on average, people gain as much benefit from CBT as from medication.

‘Family interventions’ have also been extensively researched and many people find family meetings very helpful.

Talking therapy is very popular: demand vastly outstrips supply in the NHS.
There is an urgent need for further investment in psychological approaches to ensure that all services come up to the standard of the best, and so that people can be offered choice.

Different approaches suit different people. Not everyone finds formal psychological therapy helpful and some find it positively unhelpful. We need to respect people’s choices.
All staff need to be trained in the principles of a psychological approach as outlined in this report so that it can inform not only formal therapy but also the whole culture of services and every conversation that happens within them.

We are invited to conclude that the only reason schizophrenia isn’t being treated with psychotherapy is either lack of resources or some patients’ distaste for formality.

Compare this with the section on drugs and it’s a no-brainer

To unpick  this, let’s start with the NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which evaluates treatments) guidance. What the standard states is

CBTp (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for psychosis)  in conjunction with antipsychotic medication, or on its own if medication is declined, can improve outcomes such as psychotic symptoms. It should form part of a broad‑based approach that combines different treatment options tailored to the needs of individual service users.

The meaning’s quite clear: a combination approach is best, though acceptability is important, too. (Offering any treatment that the patient won’t use is pointless).

As might be expected, given the demon’s preference for confirmatory bias, the equivalence of drugs and psychotherapy is asserted without any caveat or qualification, even though this area is highly contested

The effects of CBT may be less than small

While the effect of antipsychotics is moderate or greater

with their non-preferred studies giving different results.   Entirely different standards are being used to bias decision-making towards psychotherapy, irrespective of the quality of evidence of benefit.

Lurking behind this false contrast between psychotherapy and drug therapy is the third demonic rule: access to physical therapies must be restricted as they lead to imperfect and intrinsically unequal benefits.

Exorcising the Social Justice Demon

Social justice is a good thing. We therefore need ways of deploying it in mental health that avoid invoking its demon.  Two philosophers, Beauchamp and Childress, have developed a system of principled biomedical ethics which can include it. They propose four, equally important principles

  • Acting to respect our patients’ autonomy
  • Trying to do good
  • Avoiding doing harm
  • Acting with justice

And, being philosophers, are well aware that principles struggle in the real world

A principle being tormented by some philosophers

They recommend a 3-step process to connect principle to reality. First, the relevant principles must be specified in terms of the real situation: hopefully it’ll be less fiendish than that in the trolley problem.  It is, however, more than likely that the principles will point in different directions: for example, drugs have intended and adverse effects. Beauchamp and Childress recommend, in their second step, to trying balance the opposing principles. Their third step is to employ dialectical reasoning to synthesise the opposing, weighted and balanced principles (for none can be ignored) into a course of action that expresses them all to the fullest extent the constraining circumstances allow. The result is what the social justice demon hates; an ethical compromise.
Compromise lacks the grandeur and purity of the heroic stance pushed by the social justice demon. However, ethical compromises are constrained to benefit their subjects. Dostoevsky reminds us that the endless battles over principle that the social justice demon promotes can destroy what was being fought over

which in our case are patients, services, scientific integrity and professional credibility. As my introduction implied, achieving social justice for our patients is a goal we should all be contributing to. However, this is one of those occasions when the best really is the enemy of the good.

Why Psychiatrists Should Care about the Identity Hypothesis 

The other day I was reading a blog post by a psychiatrist who I greatly respect. Her post was about how worthy, dreary and unexciting she found modern neuroscience, and how it had failed to live up to its clinical promises, compared to more psychosocial approaches of understanding mental health. However, she also said this.

I would really like to hear more how we can link up a little more across the multidisciplinary divide – and try to understand the interactions between the person, their environment and their brain.

This post is my attempt to say a little more about how I see those links developing, and why, far from being drearily “mindless”, they represent a massive intellectual challenge to clinical psychiatry (and psychology), which we have not begun to address. This challenge may be stated in three words, which make up my first heading. 

The Identity Hypothesis

The identity hypothesis is for cognitive neuroscience what the “efficient market hypothesis” is for economics, an unproven assumption which acts as a conceptual foundation for the discipline. It claims that states of mind are also states of brain. Most people these days know the hypothesis, even if they don’t know its name, but tend to say “Yeah, OK” and carry on as before. To show how big a mistake this is, let’s start with an analogy. 

This is, of course, the famous image which can be interpreted either as an old woman in profile, or as a young woman turned three-quarters away. It follows that every feature of the old woman is also a feature of the young woman, so here we have not just an identity hypothesis, but a truly dual identity. Despite this, we cannot see both images simultaneously, even though we can readily choose which image to observe. This is true even if we try to focus down on the individual features which are key to the transformation. 

Both the optical illusions, and our inability to see past them,  provides valuable information about how our visual understanding of the world is processed, including information about when and how much the apparent certainty provided by it may be trusted. This diagram, courtesy of Richard Gregory, shows how much of our visual reality arises from internal processing

What we are doing when we look at a cocktail glass

Our “old-young lady” illusion demonstrates just how powerful that hypothesis generator is.  Once we have decided, say, that we have seen an ear, rather than an eye, our visual hypothesis generator imposes such a large confirmatory bias as we process other forms in the image that we must perforce encode the whole as a young woman, despite knowing things can be otherwise. 

We may also be affected by illusions of identity, as wittily demonstrated in this painting by Magritte 

We are confronted by a painting of the sea, set on an easel in front of, and depicting, the same sea, in the same moment that is recorded in the painting. Most viewers will feel this is uncanny. What is happening is that the painting, through our long familiarity with pictures, is creating an illusion that the background sea is more real than that in the frame, when the frame, the frame’s contents and the background, arise simply from cunningly contrived reflections of light on painted canvas: there is no sea. The flaming tuba illustrates the greatest power of the illusion of identity: it can make the impossible seem possible, as we now see so often in our films

An impossible duel brought to us by computer generated imagery

We need to unpack the identity hypothesis a little, to appreciate what it is really saying. 

The Identity Hypothesis

We are talking about all our possible states of mind: in symbols ∀{Μ}

We are also talking about a set of possible brain states {Bi}

We go on to claim that, for all our states of mind, there will be corresponding brain states, and that each of those brain states will be reflected in the equivalent state of mind. 

In symbols we write ∀M(Mi ≡ Bi)

Note that this allows the existence of a complementary set of brain states {Bj} that do not contribute to states of mind. That’s needed to cover things like coma, the brain’s internal housekeeping etc. 

∀M(Mi ≡ Bi) allows us to predict any state of mind from its corresponding brain state (assuming we can identify it), and vice versa.  

However, we also know no two brains are identical, and as brains develop and senesce, an individual brain’s function will also vary through the life cycle, as well as being  affected by e.g., illness.  We also need to include this brain variability {V}

In symbols, we write ∀M(Mi ≡ Bi | Vi)

Which means, “states of mind and brain states may be used to predict each other, conditional upon relevant brain functioning” 

Here is a visual representation of all three components of the identity hypothesis.

The image shows brain activity related to two different tasks, performed by two different groups of people. We can see that tasks involving symbols and those involving numbers involve different (albeit overlapping) brain geographies. This is Mi ≡ Bi. However, which geographies are involved also depends on which language the brain employs (Vi). This doesn’t prove the hypothesis: we have only tested it in one direction, as we cannot trigger brain states with sufficient accuracy, and it only exemplifies one set of tasks and conditions. But, to date, no exception has been found. 

Thinking about the Identity Hypothesis from Inside the Box

Read books of philosophy and one could easily believe that thinking happens in an unrestricted and infinite mental space, where thought can freely move without obstacles or pitfalls. However, if we think with our brains, then this is nonsense. Optical illusions teach us that the brain struggles with dual identity in the visual world, and there is good reason to think similar limitations hold more generally. 

At present, we write about states of mind using language, while states of brain are described using mathematics (either visually or algebraically expressed). We have already seen that these all use different brain systems. Are there limits to how we can put them together?  While we don’t fully know the answer, we do know that different languages support learning mathematics to different extents, and we are also aware of mathematical objects which exist, but cannot be denoted in language, such as the square root of -1. There is also an everyday example, which is particularly telling as it involves our emotions: music. 

A musical challenge to psychosocial formulation

I love opera. Richard Wagner (who also helped to prove that talent is independent of moral rectitude) described it as “Music Drama.” These days, when we go to a performance, we are assisted by “surtitles”: translations of the lines into our local vernacular displayed above the stage. However, even before surtitles, people who did not speak the opera’s language could still follow most of the development of the plot, from a combination of the action on stage and the music that was playing. In ballet, opera’s close relative, we follow the story simply from music and dance. From this, as well as musical forms such as tone poems, we know that music can tell a story. Furthermore, the story is being told through our emotions. 

Psychologists argue that music bridges language and emotion, eliciting the latter through temporal information common to language and music, so suggesting an innate dimension of emotional encoding

This encoding can be visualised as a brain state  

When people are familiar with a tune, their brains show increased activity in the regions shaded in green in this fMRI image. Red areas respond to salient autobiographical memories, and blue areas respond to tunes that a person enjoys. The brain region known as the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex responds both to familiarity and autobiographical associations (yellow).

We are seeing dual identity, as this description of the research makes clear 

A lifelong music buff, Janata had earlier created a model for “mapping” the tones of a piece of music as it moves from chord to chord and into and out of major and minor keys. By making tonal maps of each musical excerpt and comparing them to their corresponding brain scans, he discovered that the brain was tracking these tonal progressions in the same region as it was experiencing the memories: in the dorsal part of the medial pre-frontal cortex, as well as in regions immediately adjacent to it. And in this case, too, the stronger the autobiographical memory, the greater the “tracking” activity.
“What’s cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that’s tracking the music is the same part of the brain that’s responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is,” Janata (the researcher) said.

In this particular case Mi is the state of mind associated with familiar, emotionally charged music, while the the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is necessary for Bi. This state of mind is pretty universal, and we can recognise its commonality, mutatis mutandis, across individual memories and pieces of music. However, like the rest of us, the researcher ends up with an ungainly mix of memory, music and emotion to describe something we experience as a single state of mind, without fragmentation being apparent in Bi either.  

Now, let’s think back to our old-young woman. Every feature was both a part of the young and the old image: a perfect correspondence. What we have expressed here is Mijk ≡ Bi, where the subscripts ijk refer to the combination of memory, music and emotion that is equivalent to Bi.  Notice, however, that there is nothing in the language-based definitions of music, memory and emotion to link them (in symbols D(i,j,k,) ≉ Mijk). We can therefore write, for our everyday definitions, (Di ⊥ Dj ⊥ Dk) | Bi, where ⊥ signals conditional independence, and |, as previously, denotes conditionality. It is obvious that, simply staring at the images (Bi) without knowing the mental states being explored (Mijk) wouldn’t be enough to deduce the latter. Our demonstration of  the independence of D(i,j,k) from each other, conditional on Bi, shows that we also have no way of reasoning from how we normally understand these states to the idea that they are conjointly instantiated in a single brain state, as independence means “no link is as likely as any link.” So, we may not even put the three together, and would be able to argue with anyone who does. What we have shown is that our linguistic and brain based formulations are as separated as our young and old female images; without separate knowledge that they correspond, we cannot combine them, even though we can move smoothly enough between them once we have ascertained their joint existence. 

Having chopped all the logic we need, we can now set out our musical challenge 

  1. In the absence of brain–based evidence, no psychosocial formulation, no matter how reasonable, and even if the patient agrees, can be assumed to describe how the patient has encoded the formulation’s topics in the brain. 
  2. If we are formulating a patient’s emotional trajectory, then a musical formulation, validated by the patient’s confirmation of the experiences elicited by the music, is likely to have a closer connection with the brain than a linguistic one,  as the additional layer of linguistic definition, and requirement for reason, is absent. 

The purpose of this challenge is not to suggest we should all start humming to our patients, and music therapy is not the topic of this post. Instead, what this does is to show that the constraints imposed on psychosocial formulations by the identity hypothesis, when combined with our cognitive limitations, undermines our received wisdom that any psychosocial formulation, however well constructed, and even if checked with the patient, is the best way of understanding our patients. The next section thinks about how this happens.  

My Tuba is on Fire! The spurious rationality of the psychosocial formulation

Most psychiatrists, even religious ones, accept the identity hypothesis in their practice. In fact, it does not deny spirituality per se, as it simply asserts that, like all other states of mind, a spiritual experience will have an idenfiable brain state associated with it. However, though there are a few exceptions, psychiatrists make an additional assumption that, even if it occurs at all, parapsychological influence on the brain is too rare and/or faint to account for the hallucinations and delusions presenting in their clinics. 

This version of the identity hypothesis asserts that brain states cause (using Aristotelian terminology, are the efficient cause of) states of mind. Attempts to help people with mental illness by assuming otherwise tend to end badly. 

It’s worth listing what follows from this version of the identity hypothesis. 

  • The brain is connected to the world (through its sensory and motor nervous systems) and interacts with it
  • Accessible states of mind are how it communicates to us (and partly also to itself)
  • Mental health business is changing certain brain states, recognised through states of mind
  • If it is to be effective, any treatment, be it physical, psychological or social, must improve the brain state causing the problem

So, any understanding of our patients must be able to predict how their brain states will respond to the intervention we choose, even if that brain state is measured through a corresponding state of mind. The previous section showed how our psychosocial formulations could not be trusted to make the necessary link. This section examines how they can nonetheless trap us in committing to them. 

Meaning and its imitators

Consider this list of words 

furiously sleep colourless ideas green 

They appear pretty random, don’t they?  However, if we rearrange them we get

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

 This famous sentence was coined by Norman Chomsky in 1957, to illustrate how meaning arises from syntactic structure 

Syntactic structure giving meaning to a set of otherwise random words

Now read this


Jean Arp with a piece of his work

While Chomsky was trying to create an illusion of meaning, and Paul Eluard was trying to capture the thought and work of an abstract artist, both independently discovered a similar technique; to arrange words so that their juxtaposition suggests meaning, even though their individual definitions did not. The discovery that symbols actually derived their meaning from connection to other symbols, rather than what they  symbolise, was actually made by Ferdinand Saussure, Chomsky’s great predecessor. If we look back to our Matisse, we can see exactly the same technique being used on our visual sensorium. It works because both language and vision rely on feature detection to construct the reality we observe. Chomsky’s sentence is a verbal analogue of Matisse’s burning tuba: the plausible juxtaposition of Matisse’s images and Chomsky’s words are both perceived as meaningful, even though the individual interpretations of each word or form warn us they should not be combined.  

The hidden surreality of psychosocial formulation

Both psychiatry and psychology have broadly  similar approaches to formulation. Summarising greatly, they are purposeful documentary accounts of the patient’s condition, which specifically include and link to relevant theory, and thereby provide both understanding and guidance to appropriate remedial action. 

This statement is part of the psychology guidance 

However, psychological formulation starts from the assumption that ‘at some level it all makes sense’ (Butler, 1998, p.2). From this perspective, mood swings, hearing voices, having unusual beliefs and so on can all be understood as psychological reactions to current and past life experiences and events, in the same way as more common difficulties such as anxiety and low mood.  

In terms of the identity hypothesis, the authors are asserting that the states of mind associated with psychosis, {Mp}, should not be understood differently from ordinary mental responses to the environment {M}, so we should write Mpi ≡ Bi ≡ Mi. Because equivalence is commutative, we are also asserting that Mpi ≡ Mi, which is obvious nonsense.  Why then is the claim so plausible? First, it uses descriptors of psychosis (hearing voices, unusual beliefs etc) {D(p)} instead of the set of psychotic experiences itself {Mp}. As our musical challenge showed, substituting one for the other leads to different conclusions. It also proposes an entireIy different cause for states of mind; “psychological reactions”.  To the identity hypothesis, a psychological reaction is simply another state of mind, reflecting a brain process intermediate between two others. It is therefore no more than a subset of either {Mp} or {Mi}.  However, its linguistic position within the verb part of its sentence biases us to believe, impossibly, that something non-physical can be an efficient cause. The truth being presented here is the same as that found in Eluard, Arp or Matisse, not everyday reality.

Why we should never confuse life with literature

Psychiatric  formulation is less committed to continuity with the normal population, and more accepting of diagnosis, than psychological formulation. However, current UK guidance on formulation introduces its  value for psychiatrists as follows 

At the same time, a major criticism of psychiatry at present is that there is a reductionist overemphasis on diagnosis and biology. Psychological care is sometimes seen as the domain of psychologists, with psychiatrists’ roles becoming increasingly confined to prescribing and managing psychiatric problems that have a physical basis. A less limited view of what it is to be a good psychiatrist depends on psychiatrists being able to offer psychologically minded care. Formulation is a key part of this, and of making psychiatric practice more therapeutic.

It’s clear that a “reductionist…overemphasis on biology” is not consistent with an appreciation of the significance of the identity hypothesis. Our current understanding of brain states requires more biology,  not less. The implied claim that the identity hypothesis’ biological approach impedes psychological care is equally wrong. Think back to our old-young woman. We can use either our “old” or “young” understanding of her features, provided we know either denotes the same feature set. If we know that our psychological descriptions match brain states, there is nothing to stop us using them. In the absence of knowledge about the corresponding brain state, knowing that a treatment is effective for a condition implies it can alter brain states in the desired direction. So, far from being problematic, the identity hypothesis predisposes us to adopt an evidence-based approach to the choice and delivery of psychological treatments. The fact that the same arguments are entirely general, so can also be applied to the equally sketchy theories surrounding drug or social therapies, is an added bonus, as it gives a theoretical base for using physical, psychological and social therapies conjointly, as well as separately.  

By now, it should be clear that there is something seriously wrong with how we think about our mental health, if we accept the identity hypothesis.  The cognitive errors we’ve explored explain how they have arisen; it’s time to move on to thinking about why. 

The Religious Interpretation of the Biopsychosocial Model

This model underpins both sets of guidance we’ve just critiqued.  It is usually ascribed to George Engel’s papers in 1977-80,  though it was actually developed in the early 20th century by Adolf Meyer. The identity hypothesis has no problem with it, as  biology, psychology and sociology simply describe different classes of influence on brain states (though in sociology, the brains are studied en masse, and their states therefore assumed to be averaged, rather than proceeding brain by brain). Despite the  comments quoted above, this is not reductionistic, as it does not preclude patterns  which are only apparent when interactions are considered, as the picture below illustrates. 

Dots interacting to make an image. Now imagine them as brain states

Given the problems with studying brain states, and especially if brain states are not our object of  study, it makes good sense to move from the suspected cause to an observable consequence, as, according to the identity hypothesis, this should be mirrored in the brain state(s) which generate the consequences we see.    

Where the Biopsychosocial Model happens

  However, this is very different from claiming that the cause leads to the consequence without the necessary mediation of the brain. Then, the psychological and social domains become separate orders of metaphysical reality, superimposed upon but interacting with the physical world. Having done that, it’s easy to add more layers e.g.,

This kind of reasoning has a venerable (and venerated) history, as it was used by St Thomas Aquinas to describe how body and soul combined to create human beings 

There are two requisites for one thing to be the substantial form of another. One requisite is that the form be the principle of substantial being to that whereof it is the form: I do not mean the effective, but the formal principle, whereby a thing is and is denominated ‘being.’* The second requisite is that the form and matter should unite in one ‘being’; namely, in that being wherein the substance so composed subsists.

With the difference that he’s talking about four parts, rather than two, here’s Steven Rose with the modern version 

every aspect of our human existence is simultaneously biological, personal, social and historical

 Interestingly, this modern version is cited in both the psychology and psychiatry guidance quoted above. Though religious psychiatrists (and others) might take comfort in the possibility of building levels all the way to God, as Aquinas did, this is of course unnecessary: Steven Rose is himself an atheist.

However, the problem with all metaphysical accounts is that there is no way for the non-physical to influence the physical, which gets us here 

This approach thus creates an impassable causal barrier between states of mind (which is where we find the issues we subject to formulation) and brain states (which is what we want to change). Unfortunately, it follows from our previous arguments that, without the possibility of such a link, we will not be able to see past whatever illusion the language of our formulation puts before us.

An Unsatisfactory Solution, but the best we’ve currently got: diagnosis as Sancho Panza.

Formulation and diagnosis exploring the unknown

Compared to the intellectual sophistication of generating a formulation, assigning a diagnosis seems almost pathetically simple:  elicit a set of symptoms and/or signs, match them to a standard template, and offf you go. However, if the diagnosis has been well established, the list has been standardised across lots of brains in lots of states of mind.  Let’s now think back to our full version of the identity hypothesis. It was “every state of mind M can be mapped to a corresponding brain state B, conditional upon relevant brain functioning V“.  In symbols we wrote this as ∀M(Mi ≡ Bi | Vi).  Provided the validity samples for the diagnosis were sufficiently large, all relevant states of mind and brain states will have been captured, even if we don’t know precisely what they are. That means our diagnosis is pointing squarely at relevant brain functioning Vi.  Better still, if we make the not unreasonable assumption that Mi ≡ Bi would be normal in the absence of Vi, then we can restrict our attention to Vi, rather than the much more challenging (because it’s so much larger and more variable) set of Bi.  Unfortunately, in mental health we still mostly have to infer Vi through the set of symptoms and signs we observe, summarised as a diagnosis. Furthermore, the symptoms and signs we usually use to make a diagnosis will very often be a subset of the complete list of criteria. In symbols, we write this as follows 


  • {} indicate sets 
  • () indicate terms to be read together 
  • s is the symptoms and/or signs we observe 
  • S is the full set of diagnostic criteria 
  • Δ is the diagnosis 
  • V is brain functioning 
  • ⊆ means the former term is a subset or equal to the latter term
  • X ⊃ Y means “If X then Y”
  • i indicates correspondence 

{s ⊆ S} ⊃ (Δi ⊃ Vi)

Which shows why things can go downhill. First, because of {s ⊆ S}, we should re-write it as

{s ⊆ S} ⊃ (Δi ⊃ {V₁…N})

Where {V₁…N} are the brain states associated with each possible subset of S.  We can’t even be sure if our initially proposed set of criteria is complete!  We can see the practical effects of this when we come to treatment; we often have to sift through several (including some combinations) before we get one that can modify Vi.  There is, however, a ray of sunshine. Because {s₁…N} overlap each other, the identity hypothesis predicts that {V₁…N} will overlap too, as the state of mind associated with any elementary symptom will associate with a specific brain state, even if we’re not quite sure what an elementary symptom is. This is consistent with our real life observations that alternative treatments do resemble each other. So, we can think of even imperfect diagnosis as a kind of lens, focusing our attention on the treatments most likely to work.

 Secondly, because we’re only talking about one-way inferences, this can be re-written as

~{s ⊆ S} ⋁ (~Δi ⋁ {V₁…N})

Where “~” means “not” and “⋁” means “and/or”. 

In English, this is the almost incomprehensible “either there isn’t a set of symptoms, which may either be a subset or the full set of diagnostic criteria, and/or there either isn’t a diagnosis and/or a corresponding set of brain states.” But, what it means is that the set of brain states may exist without the diagnosis, and either the diagnosis or the brain states might exist without the symptoms. Though theoretically awful, this can be managed empirically by validity studies.  Let’s use a simple example to see how this works. 

Using the same notation, what he’s discovered is 

Rub sticks ⊃ stick fire

Let’s imagine he keeps experimenting, until he can make fire reliably. He will probably deduce

Rub sticks & long time & stick dry ⊃ stick fire

However, because he can do it reliably, he can also say (provided he ignores the time dimension)

Stick fire ⊃ rub sticks & long time & stick dry

Because he also knows that, while he’s seen fires caused by volcanoes and lighting, they’re not happening nearby right now (or the story would have a tragic ending). 

Putting these together, he arrives at

Stick fire ≡ rub sticks | sticks dry, long time. 

Notice this is conditional predictive validity: he knows that spending a long time rubbing sticks together will result in fire, and if he sees a fire of sticks it’ll be because someone else has done the same, provided the circumstances are similar. Obviously, the process of validating diagnosis is much more complicated, and the conditional assumptions harder to verify. But, the basic principles, to move from “if then” to “equivalent to”, under specified conditions, is the same. However, the chained implications  that currently link diagnosis to its causal brain conditions, and their likely multiplicity, make validation prolonged, demanding and difficult to achieve.  

We can think of diagnosis under these conditions as being rather like Sancho Panza to formulation’s Don Quixote. It’s more limited, has smaller ambitions, and its reliability (and therefore validity) can sometimes be suspect. However, it makes up for all this by offering a route to the real world, which is formulation’s Achilles heel. 

The Promise of Cognitive Neuroscience

The promise of cognitive neuroscience can be expressed quite simply: it offers to directly represent both brain states Bi and their associated brain variability Vi, thus drastically shortening the chain of implication and its associated uncertainty.  This would allow us to create the conjoint psychological and neurological space we need to make best use of the identity hypothesis. 

If we set aside our religious interpretation of the biopsychosocial model, and accept that, at the very least, we can’t confidently connect a formulation to reality without a brain state, then cognitive neuroscience has already started to prune unrealistic formulations. 

In men who had ADHD, PET scans showed that they processed a memory task in visual areas in the occipital lobe of the brain, as indicated by the yellow spots in the left image. Non-ADHD men used the temporal and frontal lobes, shown at right (

We can eliminate the proposal that ADHD is simply medicalisation of ordinary behaviour, as we can show that men with ADHD process the same tasks Mi ≡ Bi differently from men without, so V(Normal) ≉ V(ADHD).  

We can also show that effective psychological treatments target brain states thought to generate psychiatric diagnoses, and aren’t just soothing talk. Here’s a theory of brain states Vi relating to depression

Neural regions involving in voluntary and automatic regulation of emotion, and emotion and reward processing shown in the human brain OFC: orbitofrontal cortex, ACC: anterior cingulate cortex, VLPFC: ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, mPFC: medial prefrontal cortex, DLPFC: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. source: Kupfer et al., 2012

And here’s the changes observed in the brains of depressed patients, for both CBT and an antidepressant (Paroxetine) 

Changes in regional glucose metabolism(fluorine-18–labeled deoxyglucose positron emission tomography) in cognitivebehavior therapy (CBT) responders (top) and paroxetine responders (bottom)following treatment. Metabolic increases are shown in orange and decreasesin blue. Frontal and parietal decreases and hippocampal increases are seenwith CBT response. The reverse pattern is seen with paroxetine. Common toboth treatments are decreases in ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. Additionalunique changes are seen with each: increases in anterior cingulate and decreasesin medial frontal, orbital frontal, and posterior cingulate with CBT and increasesin brainstem and cerebellum and decreases in ventral subgenual cingulate,anterior insula, and thalamus with paroxetine. oF Indicates orbital frontalBrodmann area (BA) 11; vF, ventral prefrontal BA 47; Hc, hippocampus; dF,dorsolateral prefrontal BA 9/46; mF, medial frontal BA 10; pC, posterior cingulateBA 23/31; P, inferior parietal BA 40; T, inferior temporal BA 20; vC, subgenualcingulate BA 25; ins, anterior insula; and Th, thalamus. Slice location isin millimeters relative to anterior commissure. Numbers are BA designations. Goldapple et al 2004

As glucose is the fuel the brain uses, glucose metabolism is a marker of brain activity. We can see that the frontal areas of the brain identified in our model have become less active following Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). As frontal brain activity is largely inhibitory, it suggests that CBT might lead to less inhibition of our innate emotion regulation systems. However, the involvement of other areas as well, and the very different pattern showed by an equally effective antidepressant, suggests that our current model Vi is overly simplistic, and needs updating. Applying the identity hypothesis means that we might also want to look for additional symptoms and signs of depression, which we know, from our previous analysis, might have no conceptual relationship with those we currently use, and so could not be guessed at otherwise.  This is using constant comparison of our psychological and neurological maps to improve both, rather like this

The Cave Brothers encouraging each other to go faster

 We’re now in a position to say six things about cognitive neuroscience in clinical practice. 

  1. We will only find cognitive neuroscience helpful if we learn to understand the identity hypothesis correctly. As we have seen, that may not be easy, or even acceptable for some. 
  2. Cognitive neuroscience has the potential to significantly improve our diagnoses, which are what connects our formulations with the bit of reality we need to change, if our patients are to get better. 
  3. Cognitive neuroscience (used with the identity hypothesis) enables us to require that any formulation is consistent with cognitive neuroscience studies.
  4. In the event of an inconsistency between a formulation and a cognitive neuroscience study, the onus is on the formulator to demonstrate errors in the study, irrespective of the plausibility of the formulation. 
  5. Including neuroscience in our formulations helps us define what we do not know about our patients. The linguistic structure of psychosocial formulations makes them bad at this. 
  6. Just as with diagnosis, cognitive neuroscience offers the opportunity to identify potential treatments which could not otherwise have been imagined. 

It is now generally accepted that there have been no major clinical advances in treatment for a generation. While this can be regarded as a failure of the promise of neuroscience, an alternative could be that our religious interpretation of the biopsychosocial model has prevented us from generating good clinical hypotheses that neuroscience could test.  

    In the blog that inspired this response, my colleague commented that she 

    wanted to be a doctor who listened, thought carefully about the options, discussed them, and then tried to help using every avenue available.

    Unfortunately, given the current state of our knowledge, “trying to help” (especially without guidelines) can involve an awful lot of false alleys. It would be great if this could be improved, and maybe thinking differently about neuroscience in clinical practice, and the identity hypothesis, might help. I agree with her that there is certainly still lots to think about. 

    If diagnosis is so good, why do so many people hate it?

    Diagnosis is at the core of what I do when I practice psychiatry.  I’ve already blogged about how I use it, and I get good feedback from my patients (yes, I still use that term, as I don’t think of myself as a service to be used: I’m nothing like a mobile phone).  So, today’s blog is setting down some of my impressions about why things seem to go wrong with diagnosis for so many.  And, as it’s a blog, I’ll be making assertions without always quoting data, so please correct me in the comments section if you think I’m wrong, saying why.

    The Perils of Chinese Whispers

    I currently do my clinical work in private practice.  OK, my practice involves families and children, so assessments take longer than usual, but I typically take 3.5 hours across two appointments and some background work if an assessment is uncomplicated.  That’s despite using an online interview schedule to cover the routine questions.  What am I doing?

    • Explaining to the patient what the assessment is going to cover, and why.
    • Reading the results of the online assessment, and preparing my candidate list of diagnoses.
    • Reviewing my candidate diagnoses with the patient.  They’re usually correct, as the online assessment tool is reliable and valid, but I explain how they’ve been arrived at.
    • Checking that the diagnoses made make sense to the patient: in particular, whether they still support what they’ve put into the online assessment.
    • Undertake some standardised tests of cognitive function, and see if any of my diagnoses need reviewing in the light of those findings.  There may be blood tests, brain scans (rarely) and the like too.
    • Describe the scientific background to the diagnoses, and how they have been modified or clarified by any additional tests.
    • Discuss the implications of the diagnoses for the patient’s life, and how their identification can improve it.  This may include a discussion of appropriate and available treatments.

    Health service assessments are now often made by teams of people with different backgrounds and skills. The general rule followed is that the cheapest person (based on salary) with the skills does the part of the assessment that their skills can cover, and are then handed on to more skilled (and expensive) team members for additional assessment components if required.  Diagnosticians (mostly doctors) are among the most expensive team members, and may make routine or obvious diagnoses from information provided by other team members, without seeing the patient themselves, which saves scarce medical time.  Sometimes, the diagnosis may be so obvious a professional diagnostician may not be needed.

    But, that’s the health service perspective.  What about the patient’s? He or she gets to see one or more different people, whose relationships, background and training are mostly invisible, beyond them working (sometimes) in the same building.  Let’s imagine the patient is initially seen by a nurse, and a doctor confirms a diagnosis without seeing the patient.  What the patient (and probably the doctor) will not realise is that the nurse is trained to understand diagnosis quite differently from the doctor, as this figure shows

    nursing process.001

    A diagrammatic account of the relationship between medical diagnosis and the nursing process

    Here, the nurse has defined two sets of signs and symptoms from the medical diagnosis, grouped them either as assessment targets, or as new “nursing diagnoses” and used these, rather than the medical diagnosis, to inform the actions the nurse will take.  The nursing textbook I used offers a range of common nursing diagnoses occurring in DSM psychiatric disorders.  For autism, it suggests as common nursing diagnoses “risk for self-mutilation”; “impaired social interaction”; “impaired verbal communication” and “impaired personal identity.”  Doctors would only recognise the middle two as part of the autistic syndrome.  Other differences in this book are more extreme: for example, the nurses’ diagnoses associated with Tourette’s syndrome do not mention tics, the cardinal feature of the medical diagnosis.  While nursing diagnoses per se have not been widely adopted in the UK, the nursing process which underpins them has, but with nursing assessments leading directly to nursing actions.  The same argument can be made, mutatis mutandis, with respect to the other professions making up a multi-disciplinary team.

    So, dependent on which professional the patient talks to, and in what order, there are likely to be a melange of possible explanations of what having a diagnosis means.  These different explanations will be scattered across several appointments, possibly weeks apart. Each individual appointment will probably be too short to explore the patient’s understanding of what they’ve been told in any depth, even though, in total, they probably took up more time than I spend.  The end result can be patients who don’t understand what they’ve got, don’t think what they’ve been told fits their experience, or know why people think they’ve got it.

    Diagnosis by Kafka

    kafka the trial

    Confusion, incomprehension and contradiction are not the only complaints made against diagnosis.  An assertion, common to some service users (I’m happy with that term in this context) and anti-diagnosticians alike, is that diagnosis is a kind of sentence, allowing The System to make all sorts of arbitrary, unhelpful decisions about people’s lives, where appeals get lost in endless bureaucracy, and failure to agree is countered by mind-bending chemicals or deprivation of even more liberty.  Even worse, many service users describe experiences where this is exactly what is happening.  While anti-diagnosticians and I can argue the toss endlessly about whether this is inherent in diagnosis, my position means I must come up with another explanation of how this is happening, as it clearly does.  Simply saying “bad practice” isn’t good enough: very few health professional go to work to make their patient’s lives worse, and those that do are rare enough to be international news, and go on to long prison sentences.

    beverley allitt

    Beverley Allitt with a baby

    Also, while these sorts of thing occur more frequently in poorly performing units, it is part of US inpatient culture, and similar patterns can be identified in even the best UK units.  As both the presentations I’ve linked show, it doesn’t have to be that way.  The presentations I’ve linked also give one explanation, the way these over-controlling behaviours by staff are backed by a framework of false stories, that prevent the discovery of alternatives.  Pacifists incarcerated in mental hospitals in the Second World War were able to discover de-escalation techniques similar to modern recommendations very rapidly, while the usual staff were not.

    1943 pacifist mental hospital

    These stories aren’t coming from the patients’ diagnoses, but rather from the formulations we use to understand their behaviour.  I’ve already blogged about the dark side of formulation, so I won’t repeat myself here, but medical science has a long and honourable history of removing the worst of these from psychiatric patients.


    However, there is another possible reason, which deserves its own section.

    The Misuse of Diagnosis in the Nursing Process

    Nurses are the most widely employed staff in Mental Health: they serve as its helping hands, its backbone, and a good chunk of its nervous system, especially the bits related to organisation and planning.  Almost universally, they use the Nursing Process as a template for delivering care, and it is seen as essential to having defined them as a profession.  If you compare the flow-charts of the Nursing Process with how I use diagnosis (both given above) you can observe a striking difference.  In my treatment approach (which is typical for a doctor) diagnosis comes mid-way through the process, which begins with symptoms, and ends with an agreed treatment.  However, in the Nursing Process the medical diagnosis is the beginning, with the signs and symptoms observed by the nurse following from it. This is actually a serious error

    but to understand why it’s important, and what the consequences can be, we need to be clear about how psychiatric diagnoses are constructed.

    How to build a psychiatric diagnosis

    As I explained before, diagnoses, including psychiatric diagnoses, don’t depend on understanding the cause of a problem to be useful.  Their primary job is to predict a range of useful treatments, and indicate a likely outcome.  Individual symptoms (what the patient complains of) or signs (what the diagnostician observes) are usually lousy at this.

    Yup, she’s worrying.  But is depression? or anxiety? or hyperthyroidism?

    after all, she looks pretty worried too, unless you realise the reason for her “worried” expression is actually lid lag, and yes, worry is a symptom of hyperthyroidism.

    Diagnoses start to become reliable when we combine symptoms and signs together: these combinations are called “syndromes”.  The image of hyperthyroidism just above is an example of a syndrome based on signs, though in reality these are also combined with symptoms and laboratory investigations to make the diagnosis: the key is to combine symptoms and signs that all relate to the condition they denote.  Needless to say, this is no easy task, especially in mental health, where there is usually no way to directly measure whatever system is causing the problem.  So, psychiatric diagnoses make it into the great classification manuals, currently ICD-10 and DSM 5, only after extensive review and testing, which never stops.  They aren’t safe even after they arrive, as they may be modified or dropped as new research findings emerge.  Because the science that validates them has, inevitably, a margin of uncertainty, subtle differences may also arise in how the different systems describe and encode the same condition.  This is why a psychiatric diagnosis should always be qualified by the system and version it has been made under.

    However it has been arrived at, making a psychiatric diagnosis involves collecting signs and symptoms from the patient, and then seeing if there are enough, that have enough severity, to fit one or more diagnostic categories.  So, the diagnostic profile arrived at is directly related to the patient’s presentation, and the categories have been extensively tested to be fit for purpose.

    Using the language of formal logic, we can state

    If a patient has a set of symptoms (and signs etc) x, then we can infer that they have diagnosis y (in symbols, this is x y)

    However, what logicians, but not a lot of other people, know is that this statement can be re-written as follows

    Either there is not a set of symptoms x and/or the diagnosis is y (in symbols, ~x y)

    So, while it’s safe to infer (a valid and reliable) diagnosis from symptoms, it’s not safe to infer symptoms from a diagnosis. We experience this in real life as the same diagnosis presenting differently in different people. More formally, it’s because a set of symptoms sufficient to make a diagnosis is only a subset of all the possible symptoms related to the diagnosis, so many different subsets are possible.

    …meanwhile, back in the Nursing Process…

    The cart has been put firmly before the horse by requiring the nurse to assess the patient in terms of a pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis.  As the diagram shows, this means that there is a risk for the diagnosis to be seen as a cause of a presenting problem.  From what we’ve just said, it’s clear that it’s nonsense to say that a diagnosis causes anything, as it’s simply a collection of signs and symptoms with predictive value. Instead, its role is as a moderator for what we are observe.  Hopefully, a diagram will make this point more clearly

    In the diagram I’ve borrowed, causes are called “Predictors”, and their effects are “Outcomes”.  It’s good practice to think this way, as all to often that’s the most we can say about a putative cause. Each arrow denotes a path of influence, hence the name “path diagram”. They’re arrows because, as we’ve just argued, the paths go in one direction only. Path “a” tracks the predictor to the outcome. Path “b” tracks the moderator. Path “c” tracks the interaction between the predictor and the moderator. Let’s create an example, to see how it works in practice.

    A patient has a Conduct Disorder

    He is served some soup with a hair in it

    He throws the soup at the wall

    We can easily fit this to our path diagram

    a) predictor = hair in soup -> rejection of soup

    b) moderator = Conduct Disorder -> aggressive behaviour

    c) interaction = hair in soup X Conduct Disorder -> rejection of soup X aggressive behaviour -> soup hits wall

    The extra step in path “c” describes the interaction.  Conduct Disorder is a moderator because its influence is on how the soup is rejected; the cause of the rejection is clearly the hair.

    I’m now going to construct two interchanges between our patient and a nurse.  In the first, the nurse focuses on the patient’s Conduct Disorder as causing the problem, in the second, s/he focuses on the hair, while treating the Conduct Disorder as a moderator.

    Focus on Conduct Disorder

    (Crash! Splat!)

    N: “Oh my! what’s going on!”

    P: “There was a f-cking hair in my soup!”

    N: “You’re angry, and I can appreciate that.  But, I’m worried that your anger might spiral out of control.  I think it’s important we tackle that”

    P: “J-sus f-ck! I just want something I can eat, that’s not sh-t!”

    N: “When you’ve managed to control your anger, we can discuss the soup.  Do you think you need some help with this?”

    P: “I’ll f-cking take your help and stick it up your a-se!  I’m hungry and want something that’s not been cr-pped in!”

    Conduct Disorder as Moderator

    (Crash! Splat!)

    N: “Oh my! what’s going on!”

    P: “There was a f-cking hair in my soup!”

    N: “Oh dear! That really won’t do!  I’ll see about getting another bowl for you.  The only thing is that we’ve now got two more problems…”

    P: “Uh?”

    N: We’ve got broken crockery on the floor, and soup dripping down the wall.  Would it be OK for you to sort those out while I tackle the soup problem?”

    P: “I suppose…”

    N: “That would be great! I can get the soup sorted, and complain to the kitchen, while you get rid of the mess.  Thank you!”

    Of course, these are not real-world dialogues, and even if they were, it might not happen that the first does lead to escalation, while the second de-escalates the problem.  However, these artificial vignettes do demonstrate how much harder it was to validate the patient, when the diagnosis was understood as the cause of the problem, rather than the soup.  They are also consistent with this study of involuntary hospitalisation, (referred to in the table as the “nonexistent fact”) as their tabulated results show.

    While law requires involuntary admission to be an explicit care topic in many jurisdictions, the pattern of commentary will be familiar to all who work, or have been patients in mental health.  We can see how so much invalidation of the patients’ experience has been through the improper understanding of diagnosis as a cause, rather than a moderator of what is happening. As the Nursing Process is used in Brazil (usually without a nursing diagnosis) it also fits with UK observations that, despite claiming a more holistic approach than medical diagnosis, the nursing process carries a risk of reductionism.

    Diagnosis as a Scapegoat for Organisational Oppression

    William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat.jpg

    Organisations have three routes to oppress people: they can create confusion; they can dominate the discourse; and they can invalidate experience.  In relation to mental health, we have seen the first of these arise in the opacity and fragmentation of the multidisciplinary team; the second in the deployment of formulations; and the last in misusing diagnosis within the Nursing Process as a causal, rather than a moderating factor in patients’ experiences.  It is ironic that all these three are seen as protections from the tyranny of medical diagnosis, rather than contributors to the disempowerment of patients.

    “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is probably the paradigmatic anti-psychiatry film, and has demonised ECT, possibly forever.

    However, it’s primarily about the power wielded by psychiatric nurses: doctors are portrayed as ineffectual legitimisers of Nurse Ratched’s regime.  In the book, a striking feature is that treatments are provided to control disruptive behaviours, or justified by formulations.  The main protagonist, McMurphy, is eventually treated without a diagnosis ever being finalised for him.  Diagnosis, properly constructed and appropriately used, acts to protect patients’ rights and freedoms.

    A Hi-Fi nerd’s approach to psychiatric diagnosis

    The debate over whether formulation or diagnosis best captures psychiatric disorder waxes and wanes, but never goes away.  In the world of those who spend huge sums (think six and even seven figure sums) on perfect music reproduction, a very similar debate occurs, only this time the opponents are those who favour digital, versus those who prefer analogue reproduction.  In fact, the analogue-digital debate among audiophiles can teach us a lot about our own argument, and why we aren’t likely to resolve it anytime soon.

    Just like psychiatry, Hi-Fi has two approaches to evaluate perfection.  One involves lots of gadgetry, which can say how similar the sound that comes out of the system is to the sound that goes in.  This is the science.  The other is our ears, and the response we get to hearing the reproduction: of course, we usually don’t get to hear the original sound that was recorded, so we have to imagine it instead.  You can guess what happens: the reproduction the machinery reports as best isn’t always what our ears prefer.  Furthermore, while we understand some of why this is, some of this gap remains unexplained.  In the world of diagnosis, it’s the gap between one that’s serviceable, and one that allows perfect understanding.  In the commercial world of Hi-Fi, bridging that gap is what costs so much.  Digital and analogue are alternative approaches to Hi-Fi nirvana, just as diagnosis and formulation are to the psychiatric equivalent.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the alternatives, we need to understand that bias, reliability and validity impact on Hi-Fi as much as they do psychiatry.

    Despite the tendency of Hi-Fi companies to stick “Research” in their names, the science of electronic music reproduction, be it analogue or digital, is fully understood.  However, when we listen to music, there is so much more happening than modulated pressure waves in the air hitting our ears.  Our ears do not simply transfer the sounds they receive to our nervous system: instead, like our eyes, they sample and reconstruct.  We are more sensitive to sounds inside the range of human speech than outside; rhythm engages us emotionally, and other cues, such as echo, interference and binary hearing lead to different kinds of understanding e.g., spatial awareness. Our emotional responses to music are also influenced by some distortions e.g., a subtle emphasis placed on high frequencies makes music sound “brighter”, and while the addition of some additional harmonics is experienced as harshly discordant, others are experienced as enhancing. From the perspective of the Hi-Fi engineer, there is thus a constant tension between providing accurate sound reproduction, and introducing subtle tweaks that can simulate the sense of emotional immediacy which comes from the social cues and anticipation associated with a live performance.  The Hi-Fi engineer is thus seeking what we will consider “the best” rather than “the correct” reproduction.  Because “the best” involves our emotions, which signal our values to ourselves, some of us are willing to spend huge sums to get the value we seek.  So, the engineer introduces some distortions to bias the output, which is insufficient to invalidate the connection between the reproduced music and the true original, while also reliably reproducing the emotion we anticipate from our imagined original.

    The diagnostician has a very similar task to the Hi-Fi engineer, though the science of diagnosis is much less complete than that of music reproduction.  A diagnosis must be serviceable i.e., it should point to effective treatments, if available, and indicate a prognosis.  However, the purpose of both treatment and prognosis is to increase the value in our lives, either by removing or adapting to the condition the diagnosis denotes.  Thus, in exact parallel to Hi-Fi, there is a tension between description and utility, and because it involves values, people can (and do) make enormous investments in their choices here.

    The analogue and digital modes of music reproduction represent two, radically different solutions to the same problem; how to store the information encoded in sound.  They’re both shown in the image below


    The red, smooth line shows a perfect, visual analogue transcription of a single tone (a sine wave).  The blue staircase is a digital attempt to code it, using only two bits, giving four steps in total.  These are shown to the right of the figure.  The digital coding looks pretty rubbish, doesn’t it?  However, that’s because only two bits were used, and there is no limit to the number of bits that can be used.  If you look closely at the red line, you’ll notice its edges seem a little blurred, compared to those of the blue one.  Look more closely, and you’ll discover that the red line is also a digital staircase, the blurred edges resolving into tiny steps with enough magnification.  Thus, digital offers a “gradus ad parnassum” approach to perfection; able to get as close as one likes, but theoretically never reaching it.

    Purely analogue reproduction (e.g., vinyl recordings), on the other hand, suffers from a “Garden of Eden” problem


    In theory, there are no losses or distortions associated with analogue reproduction.  However, this ideal state never survives contact with the real world, and the serpents that live therein.  Materials have impurities in them; there is no tolerance without a margin of error, and there are plenty of opportunities for all sorts of added noise to creep into the system.  Formal measurement usually confirms that digital approaches provide more accurate reproduction than the best analogue systems.  However, analogue systems have never completely died out, and their popularity is now increasing again.  Curiously, while quantitatively greater, the biases introduced by analogue systems do not disrupt, and may even enhance, our musical enjoyment, which seems not to be true for digital systems.

    It’s hopefully becoming clear that I liken diagnosis to digital, and formulation to analogue methods of sound reproduction.  In fact, the earliest system of diagnosis was a 2-bit system.  The Smith Papyrus, written by Imhotep in the 17th Century BCE, defines 1) ailments I can treat; 2) ailments I may fight with (though not necessarily win) and 3) ailments not to be treated.  Not having an ailment forms the (implicit) fourth step.  Here’s an example of how it recommended its diagnoses be employed:  the principle hasn’t changed much in around 3,700 years

    smith papyrus.001

    Of course, many more diagnoses have been developed since then, ICD and DSM being the depositories for those that are most widely accepted in mental health.  Keeping our “gradus ad parnassum” analogy going, modern diagnoses are like digital staircases attempting to approximate a smooth incline: dependent on the resolution we seek, we can either say that our approximation is sufficient for our purposes, or insufficient, in which case we need to change our steps accordingly, knowing that while we will never reach absolute perfection, we may be able to get close enough for it to make no difference.  In fact, the argument we’ve developed has shown that a “perfect” diagnosis is actually a chimaera.  What we’re after is the “best” diagnosis: something that simultaneously denotes the condition sufficiently accurately, while flagging up effective treatments and reliable prognoses which may be worked with, or adapted to.  The technical term for this is predictive validity.

    Let’s now turn to formulation, the psychiatric (or, in this context, psychological) equivalent of the analogue approach.  In theory it should be a perfect model, expressed in words of equivalent meaning and value to all who use it, of everything relevant to the condition and the person experiencing it.  This is definitely Garden of Eden territory, given the current state of our knowledge.  In particular, the brain, whose functioning seems best expressed by complex mathematical simulations, tends to get left on the “too hard” pile when formulations are constructed, thus excluding the organ we use to experience our mental health.  Expressed like this, the formulation seems a futile attempt to erect a pavilion of understanding upon an ocean of ignorance.  However, the effectiveness of formulation in delivering understanding on minimal data has long been understood in the arts.  Here’s a photograph of the damage done to Guernica


    and here’s Picasso’s famous visual formulation of the same event


    While the photograph is probably sufficient to determine that something bad had happened, communicating the dreadful truth of mass bombing on unprepared towns required, not more data, but more imagination.  Picasso’s Guernica works because verisimilitude has been tempered with Picasso’s emotions, signalling the values we should apply.

    Unfortunately, it’s often possible to make opposing formulations about the same states of affairs.  Here’s what the Spanish fascists were saying


    so it therefore should come as no surprise that psychiatric (or psychological) formulations show much greater propensity to bias, demonstrated through reduced reliability and validity compared to diagnoses.  At their worst, they can simply be sales pitches or propaganda, because the information they provide really comes from the storyteller’s understanding, which stands between us and the facts themselves.  However, as previously, in psychiatric diagnosis we are after the “best” formulation, so our imagination should be limited to stories which have the closest possible link to the circumstances before us, not the circumstances we would like to believe.  This constrains the best formulation to be consistent with the best available science about the circumstances it is attempting to explain.

    It’s instructive to see how the Hi-Fi industry has approached its two, very different approaches to music reproduction.  There are both digital and analogue purists: the systems either design produce great sound, differing in character but of very similar value.  However, whichever you choose, the costs for a top-end system will be eye-watering, and the systems remarkably temperamental (especially if you have gone the analogue route).  Ordinary mortals need a different strategy.  We cherry-pick our systems across different manufacturers, trying to select components whose strengths support each other, and whose weaknesses cancel each other out.  Digital and analogue components thus frequently end up in the same system.  Does this approach work? The short answer is yes, with significant cost savings and no appreciable overall loss of sound quality.

    In psychiatry, the everyday reality is that formulations and diagnoses are used side-by-side, either explicitly or implicitly.  Diagnosis keeps us rooted in our data and evidence.  Formulation lets us co-construct imaginative stories that link the science to experience and value, offering both understanding and credible ways forward.  Purists continue to try for a “one size fits all” approach, but, just like the hi-fi purists, set themselves tasks which can only be achieved expensively, intermittently and with difficulty, if at all.