Brief Thoughts on The Brain

So I've been thinking lately about some different ways to view the brain, and causality, and I think there is an unsettled question.

I recall reading about a study of London cab drivers that suggested the part of the brain that stores directions was proportionally bigger in the brains of cab drivers who had been working longer, and I think the natural conclusion was that like muscles being exercised becoming stronger and healthier, exercising the "directions" part of the brain made it bigger and stronger as well. Which would make a lot of sense. But there is an alternative explanation, which would be that some people are born with bigger "directions" parts of the brains, and those people naturally become more long-term cab drivers. This doesn't fit quite as well if there is correlation between the length of time they've been a cab driver and the size of that brain part, because you'd expect to find young cab drivers with varying sizes, and the ones with the biggest being the ones you'd expect to last the longest. I'm not sure what the research found, I should probably be looking it up.

The reason I bring this up is that this second view tends to be how we view mental illnesses, as problems with the brain that cannot be reversed through "exercise". I find this particularly concerning with diagnosing children with mental illnesses, as their brains are still developing and I think we don't yet know enough to safely say a developing brain truly has a problem (in most instances), or if its merely a stage in the maturing process. I watched a documentary on medicating children for mental illness a few years ago on Netflix and was astounded by the fact that some children were diagnosed as young as five, put on drugs that affected their brain chemistry, and believed they could never function without them. I'm not saying that maybe isn't true in some cases, but I think it would take some pretty hefty evidence to convince me.

I've also been thinking for quite a while now that if we truly understood mental illness, we'd be able to cure it reliably, which we cannot, and that's an indicator we don't yet understand the problem. PTSD for example is cured in some people, but it seems that most that suffer from it continue to suffer from it indefinitely, suggesting we don't really know how to cure it. As opposed to traditional illnesses like bacterial infections or bone fractures.

Anyway, I'm not necessarily siding with one view or the other, just noting that there are two competing views on how the brain works, and while I want to lean towards the one, I think we still need more evidence to really know which. I suppose there is the possibility that both are true to varying degrees, but teasing apart the strength of each one would still be ahead of us as well. I guess just keeping in mind the fact that "practice makes perfect" is well established, and remembering that our brains are plastic and nothing is set in stone, are good things to know when dealing with mental illnesses.

2 Comments

  1. Reply
    Tom March 6, 2017

    Does the illness need to be determined first? Probably a stupid question, but I’m just trying to understand the theoretical steps that would need to be taken to determine what side has a more effective solution. Is the starting point what solution allows one to be a functioning member of society, or at least follow the rules of society? And if success is determined by such an ever-changing malleable factor, is it really attainable?

    • Reply
      cody March 6, 2017

      There’s a neuroscientist, David Eagleman, who wrote a really long article in The Atlantic about the effects neuroscience is having on the legal system, that I think ties into what you’re asking.

      I think our idea of what is “normal” is expanding, and making it less clear about what abnormality is. Sometimes people talk about “curing” autism and some autistic people will say they don’t think there is anything wrong with them, nothing to cure.

      The other day I was getting bothered by the idea of birth “defects,” because it implies there is a correct way for people to be, which isn’t really the case. On the other hand, there are a lot of severe things that can happen during development that make a fetus unviable, and everything in between, so it’s not like we can get rid of the concept either. I guess it just has more nuance than we’d naively guess.

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