Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


34th Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2008

Event Details

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B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper Session #360
CE Offered: BACB

Blaming the Brain

Monday, May 26, 2008
10:00 AM–10:50 AM
Grand Ballroom
Area: CBM; Domain: Service Delivery
CE Instructor: Elliot Valenstein, Ph.D.
Chair: Jonathan W. Kanter (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee)
ELLIOT VALENSTEIN (University of Michigan)
Dr. Elliot Valenstein is a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. His theories challenge the conventional assumption that mental illness is biochemical, rejecting the simpleminded 'chemical imbalance' theories used by drug companies in marketing their products, contending people should be suspicious of such claims while suggesting the targets of the marketing are usually medicating themselves unnecessarily. In his 1998 book, Blaming the Brain: The Truth about Drugs and Mental Health, Valenstein argues that while psychotropic drugs sometimes do work, they do not even begin to address the real cause of mental disorders, since in his view biochemical theories are an entirely "unproven hypothesis" used to excuse what he sees as often unconscionable marketing practices of the drug industry. Valenstein acknowledges a combination of medications and psychotherapy often offers the best chance of success at treating common disorders, but stresses no one knows exactly why. Valenstein examines the various special interests behind the ascent in the latter half of the 20th century of purely biopsychiatric hypotheses, which appeal strongly to pharmaceutical companies. Their commercial motives are driven by the enormous, multi-billion dollar stakes involved in the intensely competitive marketing for such drugs as Prozac, Zyprexa, and Zoloft. Aggressive marketing, Valenstein contends, has dramatically changed practices in the mental health profession. He explores other aspects of the growing influence of drug companies, which sponsor research, lobby government officials, market directly to both consumers and primary care physicians (the primary prescribers of psychiatric drugs), and pressure psychiatric journals to downplay studies casting doubt on drug safety and efficacy. In 2000, Valenstein presented "A Critique of Current Biochemical Theories of Mental Illness" as the keynote speaker at the Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan (BAAM) convention. In his 1986 book Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness, Valenstein explores the history of lobotomy’s heyday, in the 1940s and 1950s, while questioning the legitimacy of widespread use of such unproven medical treatments. The truth, says Valenstein, is that we are only at the dawn of an understanding of mental illness. "The factors that fostered (the operations’) development and made them flourish," explains Valenstein, "are still active today."

It has been said that explaining the mental illness has changed from blaming the mother to blaming the brain. The latter refers to the wide acceptance of the theory that abnormal brain chemistry can explain mental illness. The talk will include a look at the biochemical theories of mental illness by reviewing some of the historical roots, examine the logic and empirical evidence used to support these theories, and discuss why these theories are so popular.




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