The Distance Between Difference and Deviation

There are many models which have been developed over time to explain illness. Some of these models describe illness as biologically-identified (as pathological). I have recently completed a lengthy dissertation on a description of mental illness known as “neurodiversity”. On several, previous occasions I have written about this subject: an emerging conception of mental illness, characterized not from a purely socially-constructed perspective, but from the perspective of valuing difference. This characterization relies on neurobiological distinctions yet to be made by science, in other words: no one knows precisely which brain differences might make one depressed, schizophrenic, autistic, or bipolar. Without a clear understanding of these differences, does it make sense to offer an explanation that relies on biological claims? Especially when there is strong evidence to suggest that many neurodiverse conditions are a result of many factors, which are, at least, influenced by socialization processes. What’s my point?  

My point is this, there are many things that make us different from each other, yet some of these differences are mortar in the structure of our society, rather than causal explanations of the structure of our neurobiology. We forget, that our understanding of the brain is mapped by our understanding of society. Furthermore, even when biological differences underlying autism and bipolar are discovered, we will still be unable to “cure” conditions which are part of a system which generates mental illness. Take for example, biological explanations which notoriously reinforced gender norms, the criminalization of homosexuality, and slavery throughout history. Objective science claimed to show differences proving the inferiority of different groups over time. Yet, the explanatory force of modern medicine still holds sway over conceptions of “mental illness”. 

As social and medical conceptions of “mental illness” merge into a more progressive, hybrid model, which recognizes the value of these differences as well as the needs that come with them, advances in neuroscience will continually challenge what it means to be different on a neurological level. I think it is important to remember that science is influenced by society and that objectivity is fallible when humans are involved.  

I still believe that a tool like neurodiversity can address the gap between objective science and claims which are too deviant. Yet, as I have discussed before, there seems to be a difficult balance to strike between scientific claims and individuals’ claims. This balance is the pressure point in any real progress between these opposite camps. How to balance it, I’m not sure.

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