A 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 plays a key role in the processing of emotions. The study suggests that the brain’s “panic button” may stay “on” due to lack of regulation. Not so fast!
This research asks you to uncritically accept that the physical makeup of the brain determines your emotions. Period. My experience has shown that it just isn’t so. Think of a computer, for example. The machine consists of hardware and software. It’s true that the software cannot operate without the hardware; if the hardware is damaged or destroyed, the software is worthless.
At the same time, the output of the computer — everything that makes it useful — comes from the software. Imagine your laptop without any programming – no operating system like Windows, Safari, Firefox, nothing. The machine is worthless. Research like this University of Wisconsin study treats the hardware of the brain (i.e., your laptop) as the only relevant factor in emotion (output). It leaves out any notion of programming (i.e., the operating system) and reduces all mental functioning — thought, emotions, feelings — to sheer mechanics. The technical name for the attitude fostered by this study is “biological determinism.”
Yet emotions come about as a result of how our minds are programmed by ourselves or by others who (either consciously or by default), we allow to program our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and viewpoints.
Biological determinism is the false belief advanced by scientists and even some mental health professionals that we are all hardware and no software. The truth is much more complex and magnificent than that. Our emotions (take anxiety for example) are the result of a complex array of thoughts, beliefs, ideas and underlying premises. One person might view life as a vale of tears in which he’s hopelessly incapable of controlling his mind and his environment. His chronic emotional state is one of low self-esteem, anxiety and even despair. Another person views life as a benevolent place where answers are possible and his reasoning mind (combined with that of others in science and business) can figure things out. This person’s chronic emotional state is one of joy, self-confidence and little or no anxiety. It’s more than just the amygdala that makes one person confident and the other profoundly anxious.
Psychology and psychiatry used to focus on emotions and inner states. The brain “hardware” is indeed the proper province of neurology and biology, but it is psychology and psychiatry that are supposed to be finding solutions for the software malfunctions. The concept of emotions and ideas (software) is never denied or refuted outright; it’s just ignored. This study and others like it take for granted that our mental programming is entirely the result of the physical 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 that person’s personality, attitudes and choices? Of course all individuals have a certain physical temperament, but that must coexist with the fundamental programming of the mind; data generated by social, cultural, intellectual and ultimately chosen factors.
We all make choices whether or not to think. And we often choose what (and what not) to think by subjecting ourselves to the will, beliefs, actions and attitudes of others. Either way, it’s a choice. The physical hardware of our brains – the amygdala and all the rest – is certainly not immaterial, but 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 will never replace it, either.
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