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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a person going through a time of difficulty might keep a journal or see a therapist, but now the psychological has been replaced by the biological: instead of treating the heart, soul, and mind, we take a pill to treat the brain.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.

Author Information

Joseph E. Davis is research professor of sociology and moderator of the picturing the human colloquy of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self, also from the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor, most recently, of To Fix or to Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine and The Evening of Life: The Challenges of Aging and Dying Well.


“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

Audience: Professional and scholarly;