After reading this, your brain will quite simply never be the same again. My ideas, transformed by my brain into a series of muscle stimulating electro-chemical nerve impulses and transferred by my fingers into my computer’s systems, will have been launched across the internet’s intricate web, eventually spawning a torrent of photons that will have streamed though your eyes and onto your retinae, unleashing another chain of bio-electro-chemical reactions of almost unimaginable complexity.
Your brain networks will have been activated and deactivated; hormones secreted and metabolised; neurotransmitters released, sucked up, converted and degraded; your genome read; proteins synthesised, cut up and stuck back together, synapses formed and broken – and at the trendy edge of science, your brain cells will have experienced epigenetic change. None of this is fully reversible. You’ll likely never be able to completely forget that you read this, no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try to forget, the more these words will worm their way into your biology.
Sorry about that.
Of course, although this is all incredible, it’s also absolutely normal. There is nothing very special about these words. Your brain is being changed all the time, by everything and anything that stimulates any of your various different senses. And should you for any reason, find yourself in a sensory deprivation tank, well, your brain will self-stimulate to a quite worrying extent. The cascades of psycho-bio-electro-chemical events will never stop.
Well, only once.
So next time you read an headline like: Doctors Explain How Hiking Actually Changes Our Brains or Science Proves Premarital Sex Rewires the Brain, I suggest the best response is a yawn (well actually, my recommended response to that second link is a bit more than a yawn; indeed I recommend you activate your ‘disgust at the hijacking of science to promote your own agenda’ network. If you’ve not developed such a network yet, please do.).
None of this is to say that the science behind these headlines is not interesting or important. It often is. Almost as often as it’s misrepresented to get the most advertising revenue possible.
(By the way, if you doubt that my words permanently altered your brain, ask yourself, if they did not, how it is that you can still remember what I wrote, and how is it that you’ll most likely still recognise those words in a year’s time?)
Now this blog post has been at the back of my mind for a while. I was finally inspired to actually write it today when I read Vaughan Bell’s critique of ‘Critical mental health‘. Which brings me to the ever present question of ‘Biological’ Vs. ‘Psychological’.
I’m often asked whether a problem is biological or psychological in origin, and quite often, when I first see a client, they tell me that their doctor told them something along the lines of:
“You have a chemical imbalance in your brain, which we can try and fix with this medication”.
This is the kind of thing that upsets me*. For me, it’s a problematic misuse of ‘biological’ theories of mental function, and I have a number of concerns with this kind of explanation:
Firstly, the doctor has absolutely no idea whether what they said is true. Setting aside the wider debate about whether antidepressants and anxiolytics do what they claim to do, without running a test, one cannot know whether another person’s brain chemicals are ‘unbalanced’ (whatever that might mean); and frankly, we don’t even have any meaningful tests to tell us whether this might be true. It occurs to me, that the doctor in this case is misusing science to convince their patient to take a medication.
Secondly, and connecting back to the beginning of today’s blog, it feeds into a wider problem, which is the tendency to separate the biological and the psychological. I don’t see this as the doctor’s fault, it’s simply a tendency we have in today’s society, and which is reflected in every article expressing surprise that hiking, sex or meditating changes the brain.
There are significant consequences of labelling a problem ‘psychological’ or ‘biological’ and these vary from problem to problem, culture to culture and person to person. It’s hard to know how an individual may respond to the idea that their brain is unbalanced and needs medication to make it better (hopefully a doctor will also indicate that psychology might also help this person, but that’s certainly not a given). For some, it may be useful to have a ‘biological’ explanation, but for others, it may take away any sense of agency, any sense that they can do something about their condition other than take a medication (a good topic for a post to come).
There are indeed meaningful ways in which we can say a mental health difficulty may have a significant ‘biological’ cause (as in psychosis and chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, which Vaughan references), or may have a clear ‘environmental’ trigger, such as when a person develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a trauma**.
Yet when it comes to ‘psychological’ vs ‘biological’, there is no sensible way to separate the two. As I hope I may persuaded you earlier, anything and everything that you experience changes your biology, both temporarily and permanently . If this was not the case, you’d experience nothing, you’d have no memories of what happened to you, and psychological therapy would have no purpose.
Thus I believe that we should stop trying to separate the biological from the psychological and learn to always recognise the two as different levels of explanation for the same thing. Perhaps if we can do that, we might finally stop being surprised that exercise could make a person not only fitter, but also mentally healthier, and that this would be reflected in changes in the brain. And perhaps it would stop us giving trite explanations like ‘your brain chemistry is unbalanced’.
(As usual, feedback of any polite kind very welcome. That includes comments on writing style, grammar, spelling, as well as agreements and disagreements. Be as pedantic as you like).
* Of course I never know exactly what the doctor has said, and of course, I’m sure they have done it with the best of intentions.
**As always, in nature vs nurture, in both cases, the story is likely more complex.