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Neuroscience and mental illness

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We know how the heart works, and what to do when something goes wrong. Why can’t we do the same thing with the brain when mental illness strikes? Good article here, which is a more applied version of the mind-body problem:

Even so, suppose that we knew at each instant what each neuron was doing – what chemical it was releasing and where. Suppose further that we could relate this to something the brain was doing at that moment (say, making you hungry, or seeing someone you knew) – a circumstance way beyond contemporary neuroscience. Would we really ‘understand’ what we were observing? Would we ‘know’ why this pattern represented a thought, a perception, a motivational or emotional state? Could we then predict what a different state of mind (say, thirst, or recognising a banknote) might require? There is no theory of neural function that would allow us to do this, beyond a vague generalisation that the particular activity of a neuronal assembly or network was responsible (and even this might vary in different parts of the brain). We don’t actually know what to look for.



  1. Alex says:

    Great article. But since when is depression a disease? Should we also find a cure for sadness? What about grief? The way scientists, and the salesmen of various pills for whom they are employed (perhaps a 10 billion dollar industry for 30 million or so Americans) have redefined the term for the worried consumption of Generation X seems to be based on some faulty propositions.

    I’m thinking of two: first, that there is some neurological standard for a “well-designed” human being. Secondly, and more importantly, that humans ought to be cheerful to begin with.

    Are the happiest people the ones with the best-arranged neurons? Shall the best human specimens, in the future, not be anything like the depressed artists whom we adore in the past, but those who are stable, healthy, happy, comfortable, convivial, normal, languid, phlegmatic, boring, uninteresting, passionless and dull…?

    Life’s most profound experiences and moods are depressive. That’s nothing new. The Old Babylonians thought humans were beer-brewing slaves for the gods, who frequently brought about genocide because of the noise with great floods (Utnapishtim/Noah). Hardly the Prozac commercial response to life’s troubles. The Greeks saw wisdom in suffering (pathei mathos). European art after the Black Plague was not made by a group of unfortunate and unscientific cavemen who had not yet discovered the proper response to life by adjusting their neurons.

    Depression, in many ways, is not a disease – it’s the culmination of sanity and a proper response to having one’s eyes open. There must be better and more humane ways of responding to challenges of depression than fiddling around with one’s neurons, which is dangerously commodifiable and marketable.

    If only we could deal with a terrifying existence in which there is not nearly enough love with a few tweaks here and there – a duct-taped synapse, a glued cerebellum. If anything, a certain sense of wishful thinking on the part of scientists who think we might perfect a broken world is the mental disease.

    Perhaps we might try talking to each other more, and not charging money for it. Maybe about the meaning of life. There must be a more humanistic way to help people deal with the fact that life is depressing. But there’s no money in the humanities anymore, and how could a bunch of old literature and art possibly have to do with coping with human suffering?


  2. Huenemann says:

    Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!


  3. Alex says:

    Only thanks to WWII is that an idiom! Proves my point! Where’s my laxatives? *grumble*


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