11.37, Friday 21 Apr 2006

In the post on Mind Hacks on the link between ADHD and electronic media, Vaughan points out that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is disputed as a single syndrome. In the comments, Tom points out that the word 'attention' covers a variety of faculties. It has a technical meaning (and there as aspects you can measure), but also a colloquial one, and then there's "concentration" as an idea too.

In short we don't know what "attention" is, and ADHD - as a thing which exists - is being created in-front of our eyes. Perhaps it'll turn out to be like Hysteria or Phlogiston. What I mean to say is, diseases are created. It's like (taking a central example from Latour's Pandora's Hope) Pasteur identifying yeast as a fermenting agent by constructing models, experiments, papers, arguments, methods and so on. To create "yeast" was work done by Pasteur and (of course) the nonhuman agents of the fermenting stuff, but what's key is that it was effortful and collaborative (human and nonhuman). When I say that a disease is created, I mean that it is carved out from things that happen, made a single thing, identified and revealed as a risk, potentially cured or mitigated, invested in as an entity, and given life by social and market forces that want it to continue.

This idea of a thing that isn't stable - like a rock - but is instead dynamic, existing only in as much as it is balanced between endpoints colossal glaciers of processes holding it aloft, reminds of the Grants' story in The Beak of the Finch (told by Weiner). They track the natural selection of Darwin's finches on the Galapagos, seeing how species, at the very earliest point, branch and merge. The species exist only in-as-much as they are held in place by the weather, available food and (importantly) other finches--they have not yet been created as things.

ADHD is similarly speciating. It is appearing in a niche that has emerged like a volcanic island, risen out of the ocean: that of modern psychology and mental hygiene. Mental hygiene is similarly created, and is an idea I find ugly--it appears to be based on efficiency and a top-down declaration of how to have a valid internal life. It's military, and it smacks, to me, of eugenics of modes of consciousness. Later in its life, it had a relationship with cybernetics, the bad sides of which can be read about in From Cybernetics to Littleton--Techniques in Mind Control.

What I want to know is: Is anybody studying this? The combination of individual work, industrial and social motivations, history and nonhuman agents would make for an incredible story.