It’s all in your brain

The Douglas Institute recently released a video designed to spark interest and debate about mental health and to encourage people to consult our website, which is a rich source of up-to-date and scientilically validated information on a wide variety of mental health topics. The video was designed to grab people’s attention and in this respect it certainly succeeds.

Disturbing yet kinda cool

My personal reaction upon first watching the video was quite mixed. It is somewhat disturbing yet it is also tender in the message it portrays. In fact, most people’s reactions to it were similar to mine. However, a small number of individuals, including many of our mental health experts, had strong negative reactions. Take a look.

OK, now that you’ve had a chance to judge for yourself, let me throw in my two cents about the message in the video and the various objections to it.

It’s just plain gross

Well, yeah, pulling out a pile of brain is not the most pleasant image but it certainly does grab your attention. I think it is done with enough gentleness that it remains within the spectrum of good taste. The most important thing about this scene is that the brain in the video is NOT human. Some people were afraid the Douglas used samples from our brainbank. No humans were harmed in the making of this video. Cows on the other hand…

It is too reductionist

Many professionals feel the message in the video is far to reductionist – that is, it suggests that every mental health issue is about brain and the cells that make up its structure. There appears to be no room for learning and environmental factors in this view of mental illness. However, I think the video actually shows a number of scenes which show how much our brains are affected by outside influences – intellectual challenge (chess), social activities, nutrition, physical activity, etc.

The real debate is about whether the mind is a separate entity from the brain. Some people feel we cannot truly comprehend the mind by examining the brain, that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Others feel the mind is a manifestation of brain and the two cannot be separated. I fall into the latter camp.

Here’s my philosophical take on things. Just like any other organ, the brain can be affected by either disease processes or by normal input. If we take heart disease as an example, some individuals can have a genetic propensity to high levels of cholesterol with hardly any influence of diet, while others can develop high levels because of what they eat. The brain too is prone to influences in the same way. Some are “disease-like,” such as schizophrenia, which appear to occur in a certain percentage of people regardless of experiences, while others are more a result of experiences. A person who was physically abused for years, for example, will suffer as a result of it (depression, anxiety, anger, relationship difficulties, etc). In such a case, the brain was operating normally. Symptoms such as depression are the natural product of the experiences. The end result is always in the brain.

If you tell me your name and I am able to recall it at a later date, where is that memory? Obviously my brain changes in some way when you tell me your name. Researchers and journalists always get excited when we can show brain changes in people who are depressed compared to non-depressed people. Furthermore, we can show that such changes can be reversed as a result of either psychological or pharmacological treatment. While the technology behind this brain imaging is truly impressive, I still want to say, “No DUH!”

Obviously the mood of a depressed person is different. Since our moods are located in our brains, of course we will see differences when we take a look inside. We now happen to have the technology to see more signs of the mood than before. In the old days we had to rely on more overt signs such as tears streaming down someone’s cheeks. (“Hey, look! When the subject reports feeling depressed, there appears to be a liquid substance dripping from the eyes.”) Since our moods are located in our brains, successfully altering them through treatment, will also alter the manifestations of them (fewer tears, different brain activity).

I know I am getting long-winded but my point is simple (there is an even more long-winded argument in my earlier post, My life and my brain), admitting that everything is ultimately in the brain DOES NOT MEAN there is no room for nurturing, love, learning and all the other things that make us human. Reducing experience to brain does not reduce mind!

We cannot prevent mental illness by “Taking care of our brains”

The video tends to imply we must take care of our brains so as not to be prone to mental illness. I don’t think this was the intent but it certainly does come across that way. Obviously some mental illnesses are more genetically based and we cannot “love” our brains in such a way as to prevent them. Nevertheless, even biological illnesses can be influenced by environment.

The video promotes labels

The opening scene depicts a series of brains labeled Depression, Schizophrenia, Anorexia, etc. The brain taken by the actor was not labeled. Many people felt we were perpetuating the labeling bias in mental illness which often defines people by the diseases they suffer from – a person with schizophrenia becomes a schizophrenic, for example. While this smacks of political correctness to a certain extent, I tend to agree. Mental illness labels carry so much stigma they often obscure the person behind them.

It is what it is and nothing more

I am always amazed by how much reaction is generated by things such a simple video. We can analyze it to death and every person sees a different symbol in every scene. Like any art, beauty – and meaning – is in the eye of the beholder. The video was produced for one very simple reason. We wanted to encourage people to consult our website. We are proud of our site and, more importantly, of the quality of its content. In an age where everyone is competing for our attention on the web, we needed something to make people stand up and take note. I think in this regard, the video succeeds.

Physical illness versus mental illness

I would like to make one final point. We tend to talk about mental illness as a single entity. This makes about as much sense as lumping all physical illnesses into one category. A head cold is a physical illness but it has nothing in common with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease). The same goes for “mental illnesses.” To lump them all together is indeed reductionistic.

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Posted in Mental health.

Posted on 12 Oct 2010

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2 comments to It’s all in your brain

  1. fares khalil
    On Oct 15th 2010 at 18:56

    thank you for sharing once again, but this was indeed spectacular!

  2. roclafamilia
    On Oct 21st 2010 at 09:37

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!