Lowell Lecture Series Responses

by Jennifer Clark and Kate Lindenburg

Jennifer Clark on “The Mysteries of Chronic Illness” with Meghan O’Rourke

Last Thursday, March 30th, I attended Meghan O’Rourke’s lecture titled “The Mysteries of Chronic Illness” in Gasson 100 at 7pm. This lecture was focused on O’Rourke’s current project, with the running title “What’s Wrong With Me?” In her lecture, O’Rourke briefly described her literary history: how she worked as an editor and a literary critic for many publications including the New York Times, has written two books of poetry, and has also recently published a memoir titled The Long Goodbye about dealing with grief after her mother’s passing. However, the majority of her lecture focused on her current project.

What I thought was interesting about the lecture is that it was less focused on her writing process and more focused on the content she was writing about.  Her upcoming book details her experience with a chronic autoimmune disease, and especially how society views illnesses like these. O’Rourke had to go to many different doctors and suffered through many false diagnoses. She discussed gender and how it impacts relationships with patients and doctors; in some of her research, she discovered that when women were seen by doctors for symptoms of autoimmune disease, they were often asked questions about their psychological health, or considered a hypochondriac. One startling claim O’Rourke quoted from her research was the fact that the average amount of time a doctor spends with a patient is merely eight minutes.  With her new book, O’Rourke is essentially critiquing how the medical world views patients, especially women, with these chronic illnesses.

I found this talk to be really interesting, and not quite what I was expecting. I went in thinking that O’Rourke would be talking more about her literary process than about the actual content itself, but I found her research on autoimmune diseases and the data that she found to be particularly shocking. I had previously had an interest in looking into the Medical Humanities minor here at BC, and her talk influenced me to definitely try it because she emphasized how important and influential narratives are when it comes to teaching about medicine and health.

*Meghan O’Rourke began her career as one of the youngest editors in the history of The New Yorker. Since then, she has served as culture editor and literary critic for Slate as well as poetry editor and advisory editor for The Paris Review… O’Rourke is also the author of the poetry collections Once (2011) and Halflife (2007), which was a finalist for both the Patterson Poetry Prize and Britain’s Forward First Book Prize. She was awarded the inaugural May Sarton Poetry Prize, the Union League Prize for Poetry from the Poetry Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Front Page Award for her cultural criticism…A graduate of Yale University, she has taught at Princeton, The New School, and New York University. She is currently working on a book about chronic illness. She lives in Brooklyn, where she grew up, and Marfa, TX. http://meghanorourke.net/Bio

Kate Lindenburg on “The Neurobiology of Addiction: Reflections on Moral Agency,” with Steven Hyman

I attended Steven Hyman’s talk titled “The Neurobiology of Addiction: Reflections on Moral Agency”. The talk took place on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at 7:00 in the Murray Function Room of the Yawkey Athletic Center. This discussion was the last segment in the Park Street Corporation Series. In his introduction, Hyman was described as a man who speaks his mind and conscience even when he holds an unpopular opinion. Hyman respond once he took the podium by saying due to his profession, he thankfully didn’t need to be liked. One of Hyman’s first comments struck me as interesting. Hyman shared: “All of our decision making and behavior occur not freely but within causal claims…Every decision is constrained by prior events and prior causation. Decisions we make are the result of unconscious mechanisms that are opaque to introspection.” In other words, our decisions are not the manifestations of our morality. In a way, they are out of our control. Right off the bat, it seemed that Hyman would make the argument that moral agency does not play a role in addiction. However, Hyman did take time to explain the moral model of addiction which suggests that excessive drug use is a reflection of some sort of moral failing. Hyman said that he wanted to justify the medical model during this talk. The medical model reflects a loss of control over one’s decisions as a result of one’s neurobiology.

The talk itself was very complex, with various levels of discussion on philosophy and neurobiology. Hyman is a skilled communicator, an important skill when one is trying to explain incredibly complex biological processes to a group of undergraduate students (who are not all pre-med students). Hyman shattered a lot of my preconceptions on moral agency, citing philosophers who claimed human agency as a whole was an illusion. Hyman was not exactly this severe on the topic of agency and addiction, but rather explained how addiction fights our agency through various biological processes like Pavlovian conditioning and the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Whether it be in the form of sugar as in Hyman’s example, or drugs, he explained that our brains actually punish us if we are expecting a surge in dopamine and do not follow through with this reward. When addicted to drugs, our brain tells us that use of drugs is needed for our survival. Based on Hyman’s explanation, it is clear to me that the issue of addiction is not black and white. Addiction is incredibly complex and not the result of an addicted individual’s conscious decision to destroy one’s body and one’s life. I hope Hyman’s work has a positive effect on addiction counseling and treatment. Hopefully, emerging neurobiological evidence will remove the stigma from addiction in order to help those who suffer from this disease.

*Steven E. Hyman is director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a core member of the Broad, and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. From 2001 to 2011, Hyman served as provost of Harvard University, the university’s chief academic officer. As provost, he had a special focus on the development of collaborative initiatives in the sciences and engineering spanning multiple disciplines and institutions. From 1996 to 2001, he served as director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he emphasized investment in neuroscience and emerging genetic technologies. He also initiated a series of large practical clinical trials, including an emphasis on children, a population about which little was known…Hyman received his B.A. summa cum laude from Yale College, a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Cambridge, which he attended as a Mellon fellow, and an M.D. cum laude from Harvard Medical School. https://www.broadinstitute.org/bios/steven-e-hyman