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Town Hall Seattle: Science Series

Town Hall’s Science series is dedicated to understanding the world around us. Whether we’re hearing from a legendary physicist or a UW graduate student, the Science series explores math, biology, chemistry, the environment, and so much more.

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Dec 23, 2019

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness—how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? Author Susanah Calahan made her way to Town Hall to explore the history of psychological understanding in our country with her book The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness. Cahalan chronicled the 1970’s story of David Rosenhan, a Stanford psychologist who took himself and seven other people—sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society—on an undercover study into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment.

Cahalan presented new research showing that very little in Rosenhan’s watershed study is exactly as it seems. She examined interviews with Rosenhan’s colleagues and peers, searches for the anonymous participants or “pseudo-patients,” uncovers new never-reported material and information, and unravels the mystery surrounding Rosenhan’s research. Sit in for an explosive investigation that sheds new light on the findings reported in Rosenhan’s landmark study—and unpacks what this new information means for our understanding of mental illness today.

Susannah Cahalan is an author and journalist who has become a leading voice on the treatment of mental illness in America since her bestselling memoir Brain on Fire, where she chronicles her own struggles with modern medicine after being misdiagnosed with a serious mental illness. Brain on Fire has sold over a million copies, spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a feature film.

Presented by Town Hall Seattle. Recorded live in The Forum on November 18, 2019.