The Mysteries of the Mind
Two recent articles in the New York Times ("The New Science of Mind" by Eric Kandel, 9/9/2013 and "Selfless" by Linda Logan, 4/28/2013) remind me how little we really understand about the brain, and it’s child, the mind. It also reminds me that we need to be cautious about what we believe to be true. It can change on a dime.
When I was in graduate student in the 1970’s, I was taught that schizophrenia was caused by disturbed family dynamics, particularly by mother’s who created "double binds" for their children. Of course, 15 years later, this "theory" was disproved by research that demonstrated the genetic and biological basis of this painful condition. As a student, it never occurred to me that the "facts" of the time were merely "theories"—possible, but untested. I look back at some of the work I did then—without intending to, I "blamed" the families that had schizophrenic children. I am sure that it was damaging to the families I worked with. I feel bad that I was so sure of myself and so confident in the beliefs of the time.
In Kandel’s article, he points out that far too often scientists make "too much" of brain scans and their meaning. While these new technologies may help us understand the brain better in the future, most of the findings are only "suggestive" and have not reached the final destination of fact. He says— "The problem for many people is that we cannot point to the underlying biological bases of most psychiatric disorders." However, he is bullish about the future. He cites some recent research that shows how "cognitive-behavioral therapy" worked better for some patients that had more activity in one part of the brain than medications which worked better for individuals who had more neural activity in another area. He is hopeful that sometime in the future, brain scans may help us select which treatment will be most effective for a depressed person. That would be wonderful for the many children and adults that struggle with depression.
The article by Logan is less about our brains and more about our minds. She portrays her descent into mental illness over many years. She describes the mind numbing effects of the medications she took and the loss of her marriage and her role as mother and writer. She feels like she lost "her self" during those years of struggle. She lost a sense of who she was and who she had become. Her story is beautifully written and describes the pain and confusion she experienced over those years.
So what’s my point?
We live in a time of great technological development. We have made great advances in understanding the human body and it’s workings. We can mend the body with surgery and medications. But we should be honest about what we don’t know. We don’t really understand how the brain works and how it gives birth to what we call our "minds." How are "thoughts" created? How do ideas come into being? What is the biological basis of choice? What are the physical processes that underlie the development of our sense of self? Truly, these issues are not well understood.
I am thankful for all of the advances we have made. But my experiences in the 1970’s have made me cautious about the "truths" of today. The great technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries have not brought us less war or strife. They haven’t improved our ability to be compassionate, loving human beings. And even with modern medications for major mental illness, as Ms. Logan points out, what about the side effects and the loss of self? It is important for us to acknowledge our own limited understanding and for us to approach our "knowledge" with humility and caution. Many of today’s truths will be discarded in the future and replaced with newer, fuller understanding.
There is still mystery, which we seek to apprehend—how can we be better human beings? I don’t think the answer will arrive in the form of a pill or a potion.
Share your point of view!