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Sarah Durston, Professor of Developmental Disorders of the Brain, will kick off her fellowship at IAS with an online presentation. She will present her research topic and explore possible links with researchers from other fields.

Event details of Psychiatry as an emergent phenomenon? (online)
Date 11 February 2021
Time 16:00 -16:45

Psychiatry as an emergent phenomenon?

In this lecture, I intend to introduce myself and my IAS fellowship topic. I have a background in neurobiological psychiatry research and spent years studying how the workings of the brain underlie psychiatric symptoms. In recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the medical model falls short of explaining the variability we see in psychiatry and that even factoring in psychological and social aspects may not suffice. Rather, I have come to think that cultural norms and expectations are important and that (individual) psychiatric symptoms may perhaps be better understood as phenomena emergent from our complex societies. Relatively well understood examples of emergence in physics teach us that the emergent phenomenon only has meaning in relation to an observer and at its scale: both the temperature and the pressure of the air have no meaning at the level of the molecules, but only at the level of the (human) observer. Questions I hope to ponder in the course of my fellowship – hopefully in dialogue with fellow fellows – will include the role of the observer (both in science and in the world at large; does it require an observer for a phenomenon to be emergent?), the question of scale (is there such a thing as emergence at smaller/larger scales? Can we say that atoms emerge from subatomic particles? Or is that only meaningful to us as (human) observers? Or is it just semantics?), and how this relates to mental health, psychiatry and society in general: can we consider psychiatry a phenomenon emergent from our cultural norms? If so, it is perhaps better conceptualized as a shared rather than an individual problem, and that has implications for who we place responsibility for psychiatric care with, and for how we treat individuals who are already at a societal disadvantage.