I’m presenting the following paper at the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) Annual Conference 2020 in Sheffield, UK*. *Due to the outbreak of Corona virus in 2020, the conference has been canceled.
A growing body of evidence indicates that human mental health is intimately intertwined with the ecology of its gut microbiome. Microbiome factors have been found to play a role in cognition and emotion, in stress and anxiety, and in mental disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression and anxiety (Reid et al., 2019, Valles-Colomer et al., 2019). Microbiome science itself is at an early stage and the complexity of causal pathways between microbiota and host is beyond current understanding, yet this body of research attracts considerable scientific and public interest, and major research funding. There is a need to engage with this literature from an inter-disciplinary perspective, examining the epistemic values and assumptions that underlie it, and how these embody into healthcare. I analyse a series of highly cited papers in the microbiota-gut-brain axis (MGB) literature published within the last decade, tracing the health protagonists they bring to the fore. In dialogue with Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag theory of fiction’ (1989), I examine narrative structure and devices in these papers, tracing which features of the complex encounters between microbiota and host are foreground and backgrounded. From microbes themselves to metabolites and host-microbiota ecology: who or what are the mental health protagonists emerging from this literature? I finish by examining the ontological assumptions behind this body of research, and considering some epistemic consequences within a public health context.
LeGuin, U. (1989). Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, Grove Press, New York.
Reid G. (2019). Disentangling What We Know About Microbes and Mental Health. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne) 10:81.
Valles-Colomer, M., Falony, G., Darzi, Y. et al. (2019) The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression. Nat Microbiol 4, 623–632.
Photo: “MicroB : Brief Encounters” by Mahendra Nazar. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0