The Quandary of a "Biochemical Imbalance"

Posted on October 5, 2012
We, from the mental health community, basically believe that emotional illness is due to a biochemical imbalance of the brain.

It seems to make sense; after all, emotional illness is due to aberrant thoughts and feelings. And where do these originate from? Well, they’re products of brain processes. These functions are the result of biochemical reactions. For it must be remembered that the brain is, in a sense, a biochemical factory.   All these chemicals, working together in very complex ways, produce our thoughts and feelings.

So, if you’re having serious problems with abnormal thoughts and feelings, they’re due to the biochemistry of the brain, of course. This biochemistry has something wrong with it—“a biochemical imbalance”—which plays havoc with thoughts and feelings.

The “cure” for this “biochemical imbalance” is to “fix it” with remedial chemicals—medicines. In a sense, these “pharmaceuticals” restore the biochemistry to a “normal balance.”

Our experiences reinforce this belief. For example, five years ago I was very psychotic. I was experiencing severe delusions and hallucinations, so I was hospitalized for six weeks. My medications regimen was altered, and the voices and paranoia lifted. And it was totally due to the medicines. The “biochemical imbalance” was repaired. I’m sure many of us have experienced similar episodes or know people to whom this has happened.

This process—chemicals producing thoughts and feelings—makes for interesting speculation. It must be the same for “normal people” with their thoughts and feelings; however, they’re generated by “normal biochemistry.”

According to this philosophical viewpoint, thoughts and feelings—what makes us humans—are out of our control. They’re all chemical reactions which, like those of people with mental illness, can’t be controlled by the individual. Consequently, who we are, such as our morals and thoughts, are the products of a biochemistry that an individual can’t control. After all, those with mental illness can’t control them either.

If we’re the products of an independently functioning set of chemical processes, then we are not responsible for what we do—and now I’m referring to “normal people.” Let’s say you lead a criminal lifestyle. You can say it’s not your fault—you’re not responsibleIt’s simply one of the many versions of “normal biochemistry.” In the same way, liars, manipulators, the indolent are not responsible for their reprehensible behaviors. It’s due to biochemistry, which individuals can’t control—like their heartbeats.

What is the final implication of this philosophy? There is no free will; we’re incapable of making moral choices, for our behaviors are controlled by mechanistic, predetermined chemical processes.

Therefore the concept of morality—knowing right from wrong and acting accordingly—is now null. It’s a mere fantasy. We can’t choose our moral behaviors. After all, the way chemistry works is in a predicted and necessary manner. Chemical processes, it must be remembered, work systematically and cannot choose how they will unfold. It’s a chemical reaction. This must be stressed and always kept in mind.

But, again, back to those with mental illness. “Regular people” have trouble understanding what mental illness is. If we say it’s due to a “biochemical imbalance,” it seems to make it more intuitively comprehensible. It makes us less “alien,” for we are suffering from an illness like diabetes—a disease of the biochemical imbalance of insulin. Consequently, we now suffer from “physical disease.”

Other theories of emotional illness, specifically psychological theories, are difficult for the layman to understand; after all, psychological theories deal with the unconscious, a concept that makes matters obscure. People ask, “What is the unconscious?” but in the end, all we can say is that everybody has it, but they’re not aware of it. 

I, however, think that psychological theories, as opposed to “medical” ones, can not only explain mental illness - they can cure it. They also bring back free will and personal responsibility into the picture.

But those are for other essays.

Decio A. Calderon
2nd floor, Fountain House

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