Interpreting Hope: Scans as Life/Death Technology   Leave a comment

My first introduction to the PET scan was in regards to my mom’s often-referenced cancer diagnosis. I had heard the term, along with X-Ray, MRI, CAT scan, and other non-invasive viewing technologies (I use the term non-invasive loosely), but did not know what distinguished one from the other and certainly did not know how political its history and use could be. As far as my family is concerned, the PET scan is the method to delineate the location and advancement of cancerous tumors, and is the most advanced approach to track the return or growth of said tumors. Our reliance on such technology is literally based on life and death; all courses of my mother’s treatment have been determined using PET scans and, of course, the interpretation of them by her oncologist and his research team. Needless to say, reading this book (as well as last week’s class discussion) has been disconcerting and casts doubt on the very tool we have relied so heavily upon.

PET scans, along with other imaging technologies, are one part machine and one (or more) parts human interpretation. Such technologies are meaningless without human interaction. Like a car that sits immobile in a driveway until an individual starts the ignition, scans are meaningless without expert interpretation. Dumit plays on the “age-old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words” to elucidate the complexity of PET image interpretation, indicating that perhaps “PET images require millions of words to be understood” (24). Each time my mom had a scan, we were given a printed sheet with results. The first time we had no idea what the numbers and references meant, and relied upon the doctor to decipher and translate for us. The second time, we put the results from each scan side by side and compared the numbers. “Look! All the numbers have gone down; that must mean the tumors are shrinking!” we so aptly determined. Of course this could have meant any number of things, but we read it as we wished, applying a combination of hope and common sense.

My mother’s doctor did not initially rely solely on the PET scan to determine her course of treatment. He also surgically removed a tumor and examined it “in person,” under a microscope, and confirmed what the PET scan “told” him. He has since only utilized scans (and physical exams) to track her recovery and remission. We feel comfortable with this for multiple reasons: 1) we have been taught to “believe” images (“seeing is believing,“ as referenced last week in class); 2) we have been taught to trust technology; 3) medical images are thought to produce “objective” data on which we can base our decisions; 4) our doctors tell us these images are reliable and we tend to trust doctors. As Dumit argues, “Brain’s imaging power comes to be a combination of scientific and medical authority, machinic and now digital objectivity, as well as cultural norms and social desirability” (113). The combination of such scientific and digital objectivity, paired with the role of doctors in our cultural and social contexts is powerful and leads to often unquestioned dependence on such technologies.

That judges are careful about the use of such imagery in the courtroom creates an interesting (and disturbing) paradox. Why are we willing to utilize and trust these images in the context of medicine and life/death treatments but not to trust them when determining innocence or guilt? Simply put, because jurors cannot interpret such images appropriately but bias can be produced through them. Dumit points to the power of images when interpreted by lay people or the public. He also addresses the role of rhetorical choices regarding such images. When doctors and such experts read these images, they do so through a different framework based on physiology and professional medical knowledge. Jurors do not have access to such knowledge so images can be misleading (and/or jurors can be persuaded based on such images and the choices that accompany their presentation). Much like we infused those PET scan results with our own meaning, jurors may do the same, creating another type of “life or death” situation based on easily manipulated and highly confusing images.

My discussion question is not necessarily related to my response but is something I thought about while reading: How do doctors or other “experts” negotiate “normal” brain scans with mentally ill patients? If we look to brain scans to explain abnormal behavior, how does this work when a “normal” brain results in “abnormal” behavior? Or vice-versa?


Posted November 9, 2010 by Lela in Uncategorized

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