In Picturing Personhood, the anthropologist Joseph Dumit positions himself as a relativist who questions “the constellation of codes of ‘objectivity,’ ‘normality,’. These are questions posed and answered by Joseph Dumit in his book Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (). Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans are currently used by the popular press and the entertainment industry to provoke great excitement.

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Google contents of this website: Google full text of our books: Book Description Reviews Table of Contents. No part of this book personhiod be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or pictkring storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web.

Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links persnhood Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions press. Sitting in a paneled conference room at the University of California, Los Angeles, with framed brain images on the wall, I am talking with Dr.

Michael Phelps, one of the fathers of positron emission tomography PET scanning figure 1. As I explain my project on the history and anthropology of PET brain images, he interrupts to turn the question back to me:. PET scans are generated by an incredibly complex, expensive, and deeply interdisciplinary set of techniques psrsonhood technologies.

A PET research licturing also needs the expertise of physicists, nuclear chemists, mathematicians, computer scientists, pharmacologists, neurologists.

The aim is physiological: PET scanning is the solution to the problem of how to follow a molecular substance like water, oxygen, sugar, or Prozac and see where in the body it goes, how much goes there, and whether it stays or circulates out of the area. With the use of a cyclotron, radioactive isotopes of one of the four common biological atoms carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and fluorine, the latter standing in for hydrogen are substituted for the original atoms in the molecule of interest.

This radiolabeled ppersonhood functions exactly like the normal molecule. As it decays, the radioactivity is captured by the scanner and reconstructed in a map of the flow rate of the molecule.

The result is a “picture” of the molecular flow in the body. This description is, of piccturing, very general and overlooks many qualifications, assumptions, and variables in PET. This description is also not neutral.

It will take the rest of the book to explain how each description of PET by different PET researchers is part of an ongoing attempt to define the meaning and purpose of PET and PET images, to make claims of invention and contribution, and to give ontological persknhood to the brain. As an anthropologist, I have observed and interacted with various facets of this community for over 3 years, and I feel PET to be an incredibly important and increasingly powerful technique for producing images of living human brains.

On the basis of my research, I have identified an area of PET signification that I believe is critical in debates over the roles of PET in the world today: These images travel easily and are easily made meaningful. Because they are such fluid signifiers, they can serve different agendas and different meanings simultaneously.

While representing a single slice picturung a particular person’s brain blood flow over a short period of time, one scan can also represent the blood flow of a type of humanbe used to demonstrate the viability of PET as a neuro-science technique, and demonstrate the general significance of basic neuroscience research. In this book, we will be exclusively discussing PET brain images of mind and personhood, which are the most prominent PET images in the media.

However, they are only one small part of PET’s usefulness. In addition to imaging the brain, PET is used clinically to image the heart, to help determine the ability of the heart to withstand a heart-bypass operation. PET is also extremely useful in whole-body and specific organ personyood to detect different cancer types by using a radiolabeled tracer that is attracted to metastatic and not benign tumors e. This is because these other uses of PET can be calibrated directly with their referent.

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The heart, for instance, can be looked at surgically, and in comparison with the PET image one can learn exactly what signals regularly correspond with different tissue states. But in the case of mental activity and brain-types, there is no corresponding calibration. Thus in many cases, though we can say that PET accurately identifies the location of the radiolabeled persojhood in the brain, we cannot verify that personood additional oxygen flow through the frontal cortex is a symptom of schizophrenia.


The brain scans that we encounter in magazines and newspapers, on television, in a doctor’s office, or in a scientific journal make claims on us. These colorful images with captions describe brains that are certifiably smart or depressed or obsessed. They describe brains that are clearly doing something, such as reading words, taking picturring test, or hallucinating. These brain images make claims on us because they portray kinds of brains.

As people with, obviously, one or another kind of brain, we are placed among the categories that the set of images offers. To which category do I belong? What brain type do I have? Xumit such claims requires an ability to critically analyze how these brain images come to be taken as facts about the world–facts such as the apparent existence and ability to “diagnose” of these human kinds.

Behind our reading of these images are further questions of how these images were produced as part of a scientific experiment, and how they came then to be presented in a popular location so that they could be received by readers like us. As readers, all of the processes of translation of facts, from one location and form of presentation to another, should be imagined when we critically assess a received fact.

We should try to become as aware as possible of the people who interpret, rephrase, and reframe the facts for us the mediators. We should also critically assess the structural constraints of each form of representation–peer review, newsworthiness, doctor presentations to patients the media.

In the case of the brain, these processes of fact translation are caught up in a social history that includes how the brain came to be an object of study in the first place, and what factors–conceptually, institutionally, and technically–were part of its emergence as a fact. When did it first become possible to think of the brain as having distinct areas that can break or malfunction? How and when did the brain come perssonhood have “circuits”?

How did techniques and technological metaphors like telegraphs and electricity make it possible to pose the problem of brain imaging? In turn, what disciplinary and institutional funding mechanisms were available to make the questions posed answerable?

An early appearance in the popular media of brain images can be seen in a article in the fashion magazine Vogue see Plate 1. Entitled “High-Tech Breakthrough in Medicine: Above each shape is a white word in bold font standing out from the black background: The article does not personhod to be read to be understood. The juxtaposition of words and images brings home quite forcefully that the three colored ovals are brain scans, and that the three brains picturiing are different.

These images insist that there are at least three kinds of brains. Presumably, these brains belong to different people–who are three different kinds of persons because their brains are not the same. The cultural and visual logics by which these images persuade viewers to equate person with brain, brain with scan, and scan with diagnosis are also the subject of this book.

Facing the brain images in Voguethere appears to be something intuitively right about a brain-imaging machine being able to show us the difference between schizophrenic brains, depressed brains, and normal ones. This persuasive force suggests that we ignore the category question of whether three kinds of brains means three kinds of people.

How could there not be a difference in these three kinds of brains if pituring are such differences in the three kinds of people, schizophrenics, depressed, and normals? And after seeing the different brain images, how could one not perceive a difference between these three “kinds” of people? The images with their labels are part of the process of reinforcing our assumptions of difference and making them seem obvious and normal. Rationally, we may still remember that this is a category mistake, a substitution of a small set of scan differences for the universal assumption of differences in kind.

Thus, the effect of such presentation of images is to produce an identification with the idea that there is a categorical difference between three kinds of humans that corresponds essentially to the three kinds of brains–or brain-types.

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So we see, too, that in our encounters with brain images we come face-to-face with an uncertainty regarding our own normality and “kinds” of humans that we and others are. Alongside the social and institutional components of brain-fact production, we must face this question of how cultural identification and intuition coincide with these representations of reality so that we are persuaded to take them as true. What does it mean to encounter “facts” like brain images in popular media?

How are “received facts” like these used in other contexts and by other people–in courtrooms, in doctors’ offices, before Congress? The labels and stories accompanying the image may be far removed from the careful conclusions of the original scientific journal article, and the news story may include comments deemed “indefensible” by the original researchers. Nevertheless, popularization is not a simple one-way process of corrupting by dumbing down a scientific message.

In many cases, picturinf researchers will continue to participate with journalists in constructing these stories because there are not many other ways to get the facts out. Publicity in all of its forms, with all of the transformations it conducts on the facts, is how we come to know facts about ourselves Myers ; Nelkin ; Prelli In any case, like scientists, as scientists, eprsonhood supplement our knowledge with facts, knowing full well that the facts almost always have qualifications.

This does not stop us from incorporating these facts, however, and from assuming them and acting on them Hess ; Martin Many researchers have pondered how risks, danger, and stereotypes notions of human kinds are best explained in cultural terms.

Ranking uncertain dangers, acting in the face of contradictory facts, and imagining human kinds and attributes are culturally and historically variable practices Douglas and Wildavsky ; Gilman Borrowing picturijg term from psychology and semiotics, we can characterize our relationship to culture as identification.

Rhetorician Kenneth Burke defined identification as the “ways in which we spontaneously, intuitively, even unconsciously persuade ourselves” Burkep. As personhoood analyses of ideology, the rightness of facts seems to emerge from our personuood experience.

We might call the acts that concern our brains and our bodies that we derive from received-facts of science and medicine the objective-self.

That we “know” we have a brain and that the brain is necessary for our self is one aspect of our objective-self. We can immediately see that each of our objective-selves is, in general, dependent on how we came to know them. Furthermore, objective-selves are not finished but incomplete and dumt process. With received-facts, we fashion and refashion our objective-selves.

Thus it is we come to know certain facts about our body as endangered by poisons like saccharine, our brains as having a “reading circuit,” and our fellow human beings as mentally ill or sane or borderline.

Objective-selves always pull at issues of normality, and with brain scans there is a powerful semiotics of what counts as normal.

Picturing personhood: Brain scans and biomedical identity | Joe Dumit –

However, normality can be a variety of things. In the history of science and medicine, Georges Canguilhem has described the many different ways in which the “norm” has been crafted. What is normal has been defined as an average in a population, as a typical member, as an ideal type Canguilhem In the case of the PET images in Voguenormal does not necessarily mean “healthy”; it means “nonschizophrenic” and “non-depressed.

The qualifier usually must be emphasized, because most tests for biological conditions are not percent accurate. They often have both a false-positive rate and a false-negative rate. If so, does it matter how many individuals were used, or if they were all right-handed, or all male, or all of college age?

Likewise, as critical readers or consumers of depression-industry products and services, we would like to know what criteria were used to select individuals as “depressed.

Were they depressed for a long time or only recently? Were they actively depressed while they were being scanned? Had they ever taken antidepressant medication?