Mind Changers, Radio 4

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The Independent Culture

As I returned from a festival last Monday, questioning my sanity and with beats circling my brain in lieu of sentient thought processes, it was perversely reassuring to tune into Mind Changers and be reminded what a flimsy concept sanity is anyway.

This excellent series opener examined US psychologist David Rosenhan's 1970s experiment in which eight "pseudo-patients" – including Rosenhan himself – tried to get into psychiatric hospitals by claiming to hear voices. All were admitted, mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia, before reverting to normality when they hit the wards.

But "context taints all behaviour", as Rosenhan's colleague Florence Keller pointed out. So it was that his note-taking was classified as "note-taking behaviour", a symptom of his illness. We also heard about a genuine patient deemed to have "oral acquisitive syndrome" after arriving early for dinner. Most comic was one hospital's reaction to Rosenhan's deceit: they asked him to send more impostors, and subsequently reported spotting 41 of them. Rosenhan had sent none.

If the study added fuel to the fire of the anti-psychiatry movement, exposing diagnosis as inexact and frequently absurd, then that wasn't its primary aim. For while the criteria for detainment were suspect, the treatment of detainees was even more so. Rosenhan observed how staff cast them as lepers. "The boredom, the mismatch between their needs and what the hospital provided, an unending litany of organisation peculiarities," he reported "those [made] nearly all of the pseudo-patients very anxious to leave."

Of course, while the dehumanising potential of psychiatric hospitals remains a major cause for concern, there's no likelihood of any modern-day Rosenhan coming forward to investigate. "If a journalist says, 'I'm going to go in and pretend to be such and such', the first amendment in the States would protect [them]," we were told. "If a psychologist says, 'I'm going to do it in a systematic way, report it in an unbiased way, and submit it to peer review', that's unethical." Now there's some genuine madness for you.