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We Are Not Brains

ugly brain

Want a hug?

As a mental health counselor, and as a human being, I’m tired of hearing about the human brain.

Nowadays you can’t discuss depression, anxiety, resilience or even a bad day without someone bringing up brain chemistry.

A counselor can’t swing a box of Kleenex without hitting a professional training on “The Neurobiology of Narcissism” or “The Angry Brain.”

It’s as if we’re all just walking, talking, jiggling gray matter ruled by chemicals — mindless, soulless biological phenomena instead of human beings.

A Piece of My Mind

I’m sick to death of this Age of the Brain. And it’s just getting started.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m fine with the idea that chemical changes in the brain parallel changes in feelings and/or behavior.

But what are the implications of this?

News flash: WE DON’T KNOW.

Just ask your favorite neuroscientist. She or he will tell you that what we actually understand about how the brain works can fit on the head of a pin.

Scientists have been able to tease out correlations here and there between brain chemistry, behavior and subjective experience. But there is zero evidence so far of which causes which.

We don’t know whether your brain chemistry causes you to be depressed, or the fact that you’re depressed changes your brain chemistry.

Or maybe neither is true.

What makes me grumpy is that the brain, not the person, has too often become the focus of clinical attention for both mental health professionals and lay people alike.

Minds, hearts and souls are getting lost in a forest of dendrites and axons.

Brain Chemistry vs. Mental Health

Brain health is not the same as mental health. (And don’t even get me started on “behavioral health.” What does that even mean? As long as your behavior looks healthy, you don’t need help?)

If the chemicals in our brains actually held the keys to mental health, as the pharmaceutical industry would have us believe … AND if we could fix whatever was “broken” with the right pill, we wouldn’t need to pay so much attention to this project we call *life.*

No more relationships, no need to find meaningful work, no goals, dreams or aspirations required. Just the right brain chemistry, courtesy of Big Pharma.

Sound like heaven to you?

Well, it doesn’t to me.

Let’s keep up the important work of learning about the brain, but let’s not be in such a hurry to throw away our souls.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Related links:

Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain

Psychotherapy at the Crossroads by Dr. Andrew Weil

Anti-Depressants: The Emperor’s New Drugs?

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "We Are Not Brains"

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 24, 2012 - 11:10 am Reply

      Awesome article, Maricezza; thank you so much for sharing it. I’m reminded of how “the biological clock” was created by the media based on NO science whatsoever, and has become accepted as a universal truth.

  • Chris Edgar
    December 2, 2012 - 12:57 pm Reply

    Thanks, that’s an important point to keep in mind — it may be that depression, for instance, is associated with a particular balance of brain chemicals, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about what to do about depression or what the cause of it is. On a more “spiritual” level, it’s ironic that scientifically-minded people will sometimes say “I am a brain,” because clearly the consciousness we call “I” doesn’t control many of the brain’s functions, such as circulation.

  • Isabel A. Spradlin
    December 12, 2012 - 10:07 am Reply

    LOVE this post, Tina! Attributing everything to the brain is so BORING. And, as you say, it’s all still so little understood. My favorite rant lately (which I inflict on anyone who will listen) is that people need to trust their own experiences more than they trust studies. Studies and “facts” are so limited by the biases of time and culture, the inherent flaws in any system of research, and the restrictions of resources. Studies are not life, they rarely represent the fullness of life in any realistic way and it’s crazy to me that people trust “them” more than they trust themselves and their own lived experiences.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 12, 2012 - 1:11 pm Reply

      Well said, Isabel. Research involving humans can only examine one piece of the puzzle at a time, and so you’re right that any given research study can’t capture the fullness of human experience. If we want to understand ourselves, we have to pay attention to our own experience, and not just rely on external information. Thank you for your thoughtful contribution.

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