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Wikipedia, the DSM, and Beavis.

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There are some nights that Wikipedia raises more questions for me than it answers.

The other evening, reminiscing about some of the background noise of my life (viz. “Beavis and Butt-head”) when I was in graduate school, I happened to look up Cornholio. After I got over my amusement that its first six letters were enough to put my desired search target second on the list of Wikipedia’s suggestions for what I might be looking for (right between cornhole and Cornholme, I read the entry and got something of a jolt at its diagnostic tone:

After consuming large amounts of sugar and/or caffeine, Beavis sometimes undergoes a radical personality change, or psychotic break. In one episode, “Holy Cornholio”, the transformation occurred after chewing and swallowing many pain killer pills. He will raise his forearms in a 90-degree angle next to his chest, pull his shirt over his head, and then begin to yell or scream erratically, producing a stream of gibberish and strange noises, his eyes wide. This is an alter-ego named ‘Cornholio,’ a normally dormant persona. Cornholio tends to wander aimlessly while reciting “I am the Great Cornholio! I need TP for my bunghole!” in an odd faux-Spanish accent. Sometimes Beavis will momentarily talk normally before resuming the persona of Cornholio. Once his Cornholio episode is over, Beavis usually has no memory of what happened.

Regular viewers of “Beavis and Butt-head” probably suspected that Beavis had problems, but I’m not sure we knew that he had a diagnosable problem. For that matter, I’m not sure we would have classified moments of Cornholio as falling outside the broad umbrella of Things Beavis Does to Make Things Difficult for Teachers.

But, the Wikipedia editors seem to have taken a shine to the DSM (or other relevant literature on psychiatric conditions), and to have confidence that the behavior Beavis displays here is properly classified as a psychotic break.

Here, given my familiarity with the details of the DSM (hardly any), I find myself asking some questions:

  • Was the show written with the intention that the Beavis-to-Cornholio transformation be seen as a psychotic break?
  • Is it possible to give a meaningful psychiatric diagnosis of a cartoon character?
  • Does a cartoon character need a substantial inner life of some sort for a psychiatric diagnosis of that cartoon character to make any sense?
  • If psychiatric diagnoses are based wholly on outward behavioral manifestations rather than on the inner stuff that might be driving that behavior (as may be the case if it’s really possible to apply diagnostic criteria to Beavis), is this a good reason for us to be cautious about the potential value of these definitions and diagnostic criteria?
  • Is there a psychology or psychiatry classroom somewhere that is using clips of the Beavis-to-Cornholio transformation in order to teach students what a psychotic break is?

I’m definitely uncomfortable that this fictional character has a psychiatric classification thrust upon him so easily — though at least, as a fictional character, he doesn’t have to deal with any actual stigma associated with such a psychiatric classification. And, I think perhaps my unease points to a worry I have (and that Katherine Sharpe also voices in her book Coming of Age on Zoloft) about the project of assembling checklists of easy-to-assess symptoms that seem detached from the harder-to-assess conditions in someone’s head, or in his environment, that are involved in causing the symptoms in the first place.

Possibly Wikipedia’s take on Beavis is simply an indication that the relevant Wikipedia editors like the DSM a lot more than I do (or that they intended their psychiatric framing of Beavis ironically — and if so, well played, editors!). But possibly it reflects a larger society that is much more willing than I am to put behaviors into boxes, regardless of the details (or even existence) of the inner life that accompanies that behavior.

I would welcome the opinions and insight of psychiatrists, psychologist, and others who run with that crowd on this matter.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. marclevesque 5:53 pm 08/31/2012

    “or that they intended their psychiatric framing of Beavis ironically — and if so, well played, editors!). But possibly it reflects a larger society that is much more willing than I am to put behaviors into boxes, regardless of the details (or even existence) of the inner life that accompanies that behavior”

    I think you are right on both accounts and that the first one’s workings depend on the second being relatively true.

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  2. 2. CherryBombSim 12:06 pm 09/2/2012

    I loved this observation! It is so easy to go along with the story without thinking “Hey, wait a minute! You can’t psychoanalyze a cartoon character.”

    What it made me think of is the way evolutionary psychologists will “box” a behavior and act as if it is some sort of concrete object that can be inherited. Sure, there are definitely behavioral traits that can be inherited and are subject to selection pressure, but the behavior in your “box” is an arbitrary subset of the total behavior. In turn, the total behavior is some non-linear function of all the traits interacting with the environment. It is an uglier problem than most of them will admit.

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