Saturday, January 21, 2006

Unhappy Brains

"Your happiness level is determined mostly by the structure in your brain — not by whether good or bad things happen to you.” So says Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the new book The Happiness Hypothesis. "The key to the psychology of happiness is to move to the upper range of your potential,” which is predetermined by genetics. Haidt claims that it is not the events in life that really determine our happiness, but rather how our brains respond to those events.

OK. There is a profound truth here, along with a disturbing error. The wisdom traditions of the world have taught for millennia that how you respond to events is more important than the events themselves. Pain can refine us, and success can corrupt us, depending on our mindset and reaction. However, brains to not make decisions about how they will respond. Brains react. People decide. My decision, which is of course influenced by bio-chemical factors in my body, precedes the state of my brain in the midst of a crisis. It is at least a 2-way street – brains affect attitudes and vice versa. At most, our minds and souls are really the source of control here. True freedom resides in the soul, which is ultimately free to transcend the body.

Why is this important? Because if we embrace the idea that good psychology is really nothing more than good chemistry, then we are not far from the brave new world of Huxley. Pills will be the solution to every problem in life. (Sound familiar?) This is fundamentally dangerous because it is grounded in the belief that thoughts and beliefs and desires are nothing but neurons firing in your brain and certain chemicals being released. Electro-chemical brain states are not “true” or “false," "good" or "evil." Also, if this is all our mental life amounts to, then freedom is an illusion. We cannot really be considered responsible for any of our attitudes, emotions, or desires. Soon every person can attain happiness and enlightenment through the right combination of drugs. People who display unacceptable psychological conditions like anger, depression, shyness, or even religious intolerance could have mandatory medication imposed on them (for their own good, of course.)

If you’re a pharmacist, however, this is really good news.


Anonymous Joel said...

You seem to have a couple of different points being argued here. The first having to do with the role of the "brain" the "mind" and the "soul" in determining human behavior and the second dealing with the utility of drugs (or, as some would like to call them, medications) in assisting in the psychological well-being of individuals.

To the first argument, I would respond by suggesting it is not the role of psychology to determine how the "mind" or "soul" contributes to human behavior. Those entities cannot be observed or measured in any reliable or valid manner. What psychology (and physiological psychology in particular) can do is describe how brain chemistry, structure, etc. reacts to environmental stimuli, situations, and experience and further, how this chemistry, structure, etc. correlates with mental health. As soon as psychology starts dealing with unobservable events, it disqualifies itself as a science.

To the second argument, I think you might have an ally in Tom Cruise of late. Though, I'm not sure you would welcome that alliance. To me, your last paragraph comes across as suggestive of a personality flaw for people who use the right combination of drugs to alleviate mental illness, or, in your words "attain happiness and enlightenment." Perhaps that is not how you meant it. I have read the paragraph many times and can not come to another conclusion. I would be happy to read your elucidations on this point.

One aspect of good psychology is, indeed, good chemistry. That aspect of psychology should, in turn, assist with establishing good psychiatry. In addition to good chemistry, there are many other aspects of psychology. However, each aspect deals with observable variables that can be reliably and validly measured.

There. That's my bite.


10:21 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Wow. I was just having this exact same conversation with a good friend of mine 2 days ago; I even used the example of soma from Huxley's book. My friend is manic/depressive and thus needs medical treatment to maintain emotional stability. However, he was in total agreement with my concern that antidepressant/mood-altering medication is prescribed far too much in America today. For example: I know of 5 Christian pastors and evangelists right now who are taking antidepressants and probably only 2 of them actually need the medication. I wonder what kind of statement this makes to nonbelievers?

And think of individuals in the Bible who showed signs of stress and depression. Elijah, David, and Paul to name a few. Could you imagine any of these men medicating themselves to deal with their problems?

I am in now way unsympathetic to people who actually need medical help (like my manic/depressive friend) but I am deeply concerned that we are heading to a future in which emotions are totally medically manipulated. How will a lost man or woman ever come to Christ if they can't feel the sorrow that accompanies a life without Him?

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Hold on a minute there, Josh. Only 2 of them actually need the medication? On what grounds do you base this statement? Are you their mental health provider? And, what statement does it make to nonbelievers? It makes the statement that mental illness is no different than other physiologic ailments and can be managed effectively through appropriate medication. There is no spiritual deficiency that results in mental illness. Mental illness is not a sign of personal or moral shortcoming. It is simply part of the human condition, like diabetes or cancer or arthritis.

Can I imagine any of our Biblical heros taking medication to help with mental illness, absolutely.

You might not be unsympathetic, but your comments reveal that you question the "real" need for psychiatric treatments for mental illness. This stance perpetuates the zietgiest surrounding mental illness as a weakness of the individual suffering from it.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

I think you misread me Joel. I am in no way disavowing the need of legitimate psychological treatment as I mentioned already in the case of my friend. I do believe, however, that antidepressants and mood-altering drugs are overprescribed without sufficient diagnosis.

Let me give a few examples.

The first is personal experience. A few years ago I visited our family doctor because I was having episodes in which I would break out in cold sweats, hyperventilate, and other unpleasant things. I told him what was going on and he stated that I was having anxiety attacks after which he immediately wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant. I was reluctant to get it filled so I got a second opinion. On the second opinion I was simply told to get more sleep and slow down my schedule a bit. I followed this advice and the episodes stopped and have never occurred since.

Secondly, one of those five ministers I mentioned above is dead now. He committed suicide about two years ago. But it was not depression that drove him to it. An autopsy revealed that the combination of antidepressants he had been taking had been proven in many cases to drive individuals to suicide. His friends and family have stated that he began to act extremely erratic shortly after he began taking the medication.

Another case. I work with the youth in my church. About 4 years ago I noticed an incredible change in a sweet, little nine year old girl that had been coming via our bus ministry. She had always been one of the most loquacious and vibrant children in the group, yet she was now in a constant state of dazed lethargy. Come to find out, she had been prescribed a powerful antidepressant. Her parents eventually had her taken off of it.

My dad (who is also a minister) was prescribed some antidepressants by his doctor about five years ago. The adverse affects of this medication brought him within a hairs breath of committing suicide himself. Another doctor whom he was seeing became aware of what he had been taking and weened him off of it. He has been completely fine ever since.

Again, I'm not trying to come across as unsympathetic to mental illness b/c I am very aware that it exists and can be treated effectively. However, I strongly believe these medicines are vastly overprescribed in American society. Mental illness should be treated where it exists, but there are far too many doctors who are prescribing powerful medicines in what appears to be a very capricous and careless manner.

I don't view people with a mental illness as being weak any more then I would view my Mom - who has a thyroid deficiency and must take medication - as weak. But I am very concerned about the way these medicines are prescribed and by the worldview of many of the doctors who are presribing. Chris is right, we are heading to a society in which 'mental illness' may very well be defined as having any emotions or tendencies that the doctor may think disagreeable.

8:21 PM  
Blogger chris said...

Sorry for my delayed repsonse -- I've been absent from the blogosphere.

I should have known Joel would call me out on my sloppy reasoning here. The truth is, when I read this article, it bothered me greatly, but I found it hard to discern what exactly the problem was, or to crystallize my argument against it.

You're absolutely right, Joel -- I wouldn't want Cruise as an ally. I would never go so far. My concern is with the OVERemphasis on chemistry, or when people begin to suggest that ALL mental illness is NOTHING BUT chemistry.

For the record, I believe that in many, many cases, drugs have literally saved peoples lives in cases of mental illness.

Thanks for keeping me accountable, Joel. It's nice to have an expert around.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

I think I understand your discomfort with the article. And I'm equally unable, I fear, to crystallize my counterargument as evidenced by the poor job I did responding to Josh. Let me take another crack at it.

First, an attempt at clarifying my thoughts on the use of medication. It is my opinion that medication is perhaps overly prescribed across all aspects of medicine in the US. For years, antibiotics were dispensed capriciously. The result has been the development of "super bacteria" that are resistant to this treatment approach. Currently, getting antibiotics is rightfully more difficult. There is perhaps a similar problem with respect to psychotropic medication. That is, there are probably examples that can be generated of individuals receiving these medications that do not meet diagnostic criteria for any mental illness. It should also be pointed out that many psychotropics can be used for treating other ailments that mental illness. For example, the antidepressant Welbutrin is often helpful for smoking cessation. So, I will concede that psychotropics might be overused; the overuse of medication, though, does not seem to be the sole providence of psychiatry or the treatment of mental illness.

Second, and attempt to address Chris' discomfort with chemistry. Chris, you indicated that your concern with psychology is not on the OVERemphasis of chemistry, but on a singular emphasis of chemistry in mental illness. I can understand that concern. The science of behavior/psychology is unique because each of us, whether learned or not in the field, is somewhat of an expert in human behvavior. Eacho of us has a lifetime of experience trying to understand and predict it: our own, our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends. So, when another expert ignores something that your experience tells you is important, there is a "nuh uh" reaction. I think this is where the science has to be separated from things that are not amenable to experimental manipulation or evaluation (e.g., the soul, etc.). Haidt is an academician. A quick literature review reveals about 30 publications, many of them peer reviewed articles. Thus, he will likely restrict his discussion to those variables that can be reliably and validly measured. I would not expect Haidt to introduce a discussion of the role of the soul in mental health issues. This restriction is somewhat incongruous to yours, Chris (I assume), and that is discomforting. My thought: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Try to incorporate what the academicians suggest into your own understanding of human behavior/mental illness. I think this paragraph restates what I was trying to type in my initial response. Perhaps this attempt is a bit more lucid. Your call.

Third, an attempt to address the issue of the “reality” of mental illness. Each of us posting here has either explicitly stated or heavily implied that they agree mental illness is a real phenomenon. However, the very fact that we are having a discussion about it suggests that mental illness is not perceived in an identical manner as other illness. For example, we would not have this type of discussion regarding the reality of the thyroid condition Joshua’s mother has. And, if we did, I doubt we would discuss the ramification of taking medication for such a condition on an individual’s ability to witness their Faith. If I told you I take medication to control a condition like acid reflux, would you wonder whether I “really” had acid reflux? I will go out on a limb and guess you would not. However, if I told you I take medication to control clinical depression, you might wonder whether I “really” had that problem. As much as we (we meaning society, religions, etc.) want to be sympathetic regarding mental illness, the fact is that it still is a marginalized condition, or set of conditions. Again, the fact that we are having this discussion is evidence of this marginalization.

A final thought. I don’t personally believe that the power of the God I worship can be muted or thwarted by psychotropic medication. Perhaps using such medication might allow for a lucidity of thought/meditation that would allow an individual to initiate a spiritual journey or even resume one that was interrupted by illness. I have no data to support these statements. They are statements of belief and conjecture. They might even reflect a coping mechanism allowing me to continue my favorable outlook on the field of psychopharmacology and the benefits it can bring in relieving mental illness. I’m okay with that.

I appreciate the dive into psychology, Chris. I sincerely enjoy(ed) it. I am going to try to follow you lead and comment on the topics you raise that are outside my comfort zone and area of expertise (that is, every other topic you have ra

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

The end or my post should read: ...raised to date). Sorry 'bout that.

8:59 PM  
Blogger chris said...


I really appreciate your thoughts. I've learned a good bit. When I first started blogging about the evolution issue, I was sloppy and a friend (professor) here at KSU gently pointed out my errors. This has been equally helpful. I feel extremely blessed to have so many friends who are so wise in these important areas.

I think I'll blog on this again.

9:59 PM  

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