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Chemically Imbalanced

Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery

Chemically Imbalanced

Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery

Everyday suffering—those conditions or feelings brought on by trying circumstances that arise in everyone’s lives—is something that humans have grappled with for millennia. But the last decades have seen a drastic change in the way we approach it. In the past, a person going through a time of difficulty might keep a journal or see a therapist, but now the psychological has been replaced by the biological: instead of treating the heart, soul, and mind, we take a pill to treat the brain.

Chemically Imbalanced is a field report on how ordinary people dealing with common problems explain their suffering, how they’re increasingly turning to the thin and mechanistic language of the “body/brain,” and what these encounters might tell us. Drawing on interviews with people dealing with struggles such as underperformance in school or work, grief after the end of a relationship, or disappointment with how their life is unfolding, Joseph E. Davis reveals the profound revolution in consciousness that is underway. We now see suffering as an imbalance in the brain that needs to be fixed, usually through chemical means. This has rippled into our social and cultural conversations, and it has affected how we, as a society, imagine ourselves and envision what constitutes a good life. Davis warns that what we envision as a neurological revolution, in which suffering is a mechanistic problem, has troubling and entrapping consequences. And he makes the case that by turning away from an interpretive, meaning-making view of ourselves, we thwart our chances to enrich our souls and learn important truths about ourselves and the social conditions under which we live.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Cognitive Science: Neuroscience

History of Science


Psychology: Social Psychology

Sociology: Medical Sociology


“Suffering is that experience that seems to escape the bounds of our rational explanations and of the science mobilized to cure it. Chemically Imbalanced documents the ways in which neurobiological metaphors have taken hold of such experience of suffering, reducing it to a mechanical response to the world. This book is an urgent and much-needed addition to our understanding of the many ways in which social control is exerted through the control of suffering. It will compel us to ask questions about the very nature of therapy.”

Eva Illouz, author of The End of Love and Manufacturing Happy Citizens

“Davis’s Chemically Imbalanced tackles a profound issue. Twenty years ago, most of us would have figured people always have and always will explain themselves and what they do in terms of reasons and motives. It was inconceivable we might think in terms of some glitch. Now, as Davis shows, many of us figure it’s natural to think in terms of glitches that can be adjusted with meds, the way you might manage your eyesight. In this illuminating book, Davis doesn’t force an explanation for this change down our throats, but he will leave readers wondering just how this happened and what, if anything, we should be doing about it.”

David Healy, author of Pharmageddon and Let Them Eat Prozac



"Chemically Imbalanced is an excellent addition to the works in social sciences and humanities that examine the distress of ordinary Americans from the second half of the twentieth century onward, a period when commercialized pills and the psychology-based notion of self-improvement entered the minds of Americans."


"Chemically Imbalanced raises important questions, offers new insight into the power and reach of the biomedical model and neurobiological thinking, and I highly recommend it. I encourage readers to assign it, especially in graduate-level mental health and illness classes—or any class looking for a discussion on people’s experiences with suffering and the broad impacts of biomedical thinking and treatment."

Social Forces

"In any event, we have sort of two ideologies working together in sync today: one of the 'neurobiological imaginary,' to justify taking drugs for everyday unhappiness, and to keep people from feeling badly for doing so; the other of the imagined higher self, which lets people feel proud in another way. What Davis has helped to expose is the contradiction in all this, the juxtaposition of the biological with the purely psychological. Tocqueville may have put the situation best when, over a century ago, he criticized scientists who went on stage to preach their doctrine of pure materialism, not unlike the way some scientists today preach the link between brain matter and mood. He observed they were as proud as gods, while declaring that man was less than a beast. Davis may have caught the same peculiar, yet, oh so human, tension within the 'neurobiological imaginary.'"

Law & Liberty

"In our 'troubled quest for self-mastery,' Davis implies, the risk that we’ll misconstrue factors as pervasive as self-criticism and self-contempt by rendering them somatic malfunctions all but guarantees that the suffering will continue—and will, as a result, continue to be misunderstood and mistreated."

Psychology Today

"Chemically Imbalanced will no doubt motivate important scholarship." 

Medical Anthropology Quarterly

"It can be difficult for pharmaceutical historians to know as much as we should about the single most important characters in our histories: the people who actually consume medicines... Ethnographies and interview-based research provide a crucial resource for filling this gap, especially historically informed works like Joseph Davis’s Chemically Imbalanced, which is based on eighty interviews with people who identified themselves as struggling with sadness, anxiety, or concentration and attention problems... Davis’s analysis is insightful and empathic, and historians will find it useful as we work to understand the archivally elusive main characters in our own narratives."

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

Table of Contents


One / The Neurobiological Imaginary
Two / The Biologization of Everyday Suffering
Three / Appropriating Disorder
Four / Resisting Differentness
Five / Seeking Viable Selfhood
Six / After Psychology
Conclusion / A Crisis of the Spirit

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