A DrHurd.com reader asks for my thoughts on the following:
A new University of Wisconsin-Madison imaging study shows the brains of people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have weaker connections between a brain structure that controls emotional response and the amygdala, which suggests the brain’s “panic button” may stay on due to lack of regulation.
Here’s the problem. This research asks you to uncritically accept something. It expects you to take it for granted that the physical make-up of the brain determines your emotions.
It just isn’t so.
Think of a computer. A computer consists of hardware and software. It’s true: The software cannot operate without the hardware. If the hardware is damaged or destroyed, the software will be worthless.
At the same time, the output of the computer—everything that makes the computer purposeful and useful—is the software. Try imagining a laptop computer without any programming. No operating program such as Windows, no browser programs to allow you to access your favorite website, no anything. It’s just a pile of junk.
Research like this University of Wisconsin study treats the hardware of the brain as the only relevant factor in emotion. It leaves out any notion of programming, and reduces all mental functioning—all thought, all emotions, all feelings—to sheer mechanics.
Yet emotions are the result of the way our minds are programmed—programmed by ourselves, or programmed by others we choose (either consciously or by default) to program our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and viewpoints for us.
The technical name for the attitude fostered by this study is biological determinism.
Biological determinism is the false belief—advanced by scientists and even some mental health professionals—that we are all hardware (i.e. brains) with no software.
The truth is much more complex and much more magnificent than that.
It’s a fact: Our emotions—such as anxiety—are the result of a complex array of thoughts, beliefs, ideas and (critically understood or not) underlying premises. One person views life as a vale of tears in which he’s hopelessly incapable of mastering his mind and his environment. His chronic emotional state is one of low self-confidence, anxiety and even despair. Another person views life as a benevolent place where answers are possible and his reasoning mind (combined with the reasoning of others in science and business) can figure tons of things out. As a result, his chronic emotional state is one of joy and self-confidence, with little or no anxiety.
It’s not the amygdala making one person confident and the other profoundly anxious.
Emotions and inner states used to be what psychology and psychiatry focused upon. The brain is actually the proper province of neurology and biology—not psychiatry or psychology. Psychology and psychiatry are supposed to be studying and finding solutions for problems with our software, not our hardware.
It’s fascinating to me how research simply takes this faulty premise for granted. What I’m saying here is never denied or refuted; it’s simply ignored. It’s taken for granted that our mental/emotional/psychological programming is totally the result of the structure of the brain.
How do we know that the brain is not operating in a different way from one person to another because of the personality, attitudes and choices of the individual? I won’t deny that individuals have a certain physical temperament. But this coexists with the more fundamental programming of the mind generated by social, cultural, intellectual, individual and ultimately (in some sense) chosen factors.
We all choose whether to think, or not. And we all choose what to think—or what not to think about, and by default subjecting ourselves to the will, belief, actions and attitudes of others.
Either way, it’s a choice. The physical hardware of our brains, while not irrelevant, is not the fundamental cause of our emotions, thoughts, ideas and values.
I miss the relevance of the mind in what used to be the field of psychology. Knowledge of the brain’s functioning is no threat to psychology; but it wasn’t supposed to replace the field, either.
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