On May 25, Wesleyan University will hold its 182nd commencement. Among the graduating seniors will be an advocate for the destigmatization of mental health disorders. Neuroscience major Taylor Goodstein’s senior thesis tackles the challenge of “the broken brain.” Goodstein interviewed dozens of people with neurological illnesses—from brain trauma, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s to anxiety, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. By pairing each person’s narrative with the latest neuroscientific research, she aims to “clarify the daily struggles of living with a broken brain in the hopes that doing so will illuminate and rectify some of the stigma that is associated with neurological disease.”
The idea for the project arose when Goodstein perceived “a disconnect between [her]knowledge of neuroscience and the people who neuroscience seeks to understand.” From a scientific perspective, the brain is basically “a collection of wires and molecules”—utterly depersonalized. Yet it’s the brain that generates all our human emotions and makes us who we are. In her project, Goodstein aspired to reconnect these two disparate views of the mind. Since she loves to write, she decided to integrate the written word into her own pursuit of neuroscience. By and large, scientific writing is some of the driest in existence, so having a true wordsmith conducting research is a real asset to the field.
Goodstein was surprised how eager participants were to answer even the toughest questions about “what it was like to have their brains.” In fact, she concluded that living with a “broken brain” gives people a burning desire to share their stories—perhaps because so few others are willing to listen.
Wrapping Our Heads Around The Head
Goodstein did listen, and in doing so she discovered what she admitted was a “seemingly obvious truth:” a broken brain gets stigmatized and ignored in ways a broken ankle never would. Yes, she’s far from the first to make this comparison, but she takes it one step further and questions why exactly this double standard persists. She suggests that the human brain often fails to comprehend its own weakness because it is so fundamental to the way we function in the world. People are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that a brain could be as fragile as any other body part.
Of course, within the wide variety of disorders Goodstein studied, the stigma varies as well. I don’t doubt that people with brain trauma or MS get unfairly marginalized and discounted by society, but nobody tells them to just “grow up and get over it,” the way many people write off anorexia or anxiety. There’s a distinct divide between what gets put in the “neurological” versus the “mental health” bin, and the language matters. The former kinds of disorders are perceived more like physical failings of the brain, while the latter carry connotations of emotional or even a moral weakness. It would be fascinating to read Goodstein’s thesis to see if she raises this distinction—and, of course, to read what her subjects have to share about their struggles. In fact, her project sounds like something everyone would benefit from reading. We wish her the best of luck in her career, and hey, maybe we could recruit her for a story or two.
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