Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Brain Is Not Like Your Brain

One of the annoying things about conservatives is their infatuation with the self-made myth. If people just work hard enough, they can be successful too! You try to talk to them about the systemic obstacles that people face. But if people just work harder, they can overcome those obstacles!

I want to leave social inequality aside for a little while. Lets talk instead about the fact that not everybody looks at an obstacle and sees a challenge to be overcome. Some people try to deal with obstacles and are rewarded with crippling panic attacks. Some people don't see the point of trying at all. Some people, the harder they try to accomplish something, the more the areas of their brain that are needed to complete that task shut down. Some people are incredibly brilliant and talented, but find it difficult as hell to interact in society in a productive way.

The infuriating thing about conservatives is that they chalk this up to personal weakness when it has nothing to do with will power. It has everything to do with brain chemistry.

The images in this post are SPECT scans of the human brain, showing different patterns of brain activity. A person with depression, pictured above, has lower levels of activity in many areas of the brain, and higher levels of activity in others. Overcoming depression is not a simple matter of having determination and toughing it out. The pattern of brain activity means that it's easy to get into cycles of negativity and hopelessness when you have clinical depression. It means that the area of your brain which drives motivation is under-active. It means that conservative adages about bootstraps are useless, and inapplicable.

Here are some other images illustrating the difference between perfectly functioning brains and the brains of people with mood disorders.

An active scan of a healthy brain
A surface scan of a healthy brain
Surface scan of a female with Attention Deficit Disorder -
which I have been diagnosed with. 
Active scan of a male with Anxiety and Depression - which
I have also been diagnosed with.
An active scan of a female with Bipolar Disorder - which
several women in my family have been diagnosed with.

Mood disorders and other kinds of neurological disorders can have different causes: substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma, and genetics. They are not always debilitating. People who are bipolar or manic-depressive may tend towards the manic side, and hence, more often than not, be very effective people. Some people effectively self-medicate with alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs. People who come by neurological disorders genetically often tend to be highly intelligent and creative, and may find ways to manage their conditions. To do so requires a lot of effort and insight into one's own personality; not to mention a level of control over one's circumstances in life.

And here's where social inequality re-enters the picture. Proper nutrition and dietary supplements can mitigate the effects of neurological disorders, while a poor diet can exacerbate them. To eat properly people need time and money, not just to buy fresh food and cook, but also to get regular check-ups to see if their diet is lacking in any area, and to buy dietary supplements. Exercise can also have a mitigating effect, if you have the leisure time and facilities to exercise. Having social and financial security can provide someone with a solid grounding from which to manage their disorder, while being deprived of those things can send someone spiraling into depression, anxiety, disphoria and/or apathy. Depending on where you live, getting reliable psychiatric help may be restricted to the very well-off. In Ontario, psychiatrist sessions are covered by OHIP, but medication for many disorders are not; and while there are programs in place to assist with costs, they are not comprehensive. Class privilege lowers the impact of being neurologically atypical. Poverty and neurological disorder feed back on each other.

This is my argument for progressivism. Even if someone does not have a neurological disorder, they still need a nurturing environment - a certain minimum standard of living - to have a healthy mind and to reach their full potential. Until we ensure that minimum standard of living for all people, the conservative panacea of hard work and bootstraps will not in any way be valid.

For more images and information, see The Clements Clinic's section on brain-SPECT imaging, and Alternative Recovery Counselling.

Recommended reading: Dr. Daniel Amen's Magnificent Mind at Any Age, which is partially available for free online.


  1. Thank you! Excellent job explaining how HARD it is to "take care of yourself" when you're sick.

  2. It's true that we don't all come from a place of equal footing. I think the reason a lot of people assume a person with a mental illness can pull herself up from her bootstraps is there serious denial about the fact that they themselves could develop a mental illness at any time and they wouldn't be able to easily rid themselves of it. Also, thanks for posting the scans! More people need to see these. I have Schizoaffective Disorder, and have a couple of family members who have Bipolar Disorder, so I understand all too well the power of the brain to dictate what happens with a person's life.

  3. "Some people are incredibly brilliant and talented, but find it difficult as hell to interact in society in a productive way."

    Ugh, I currently (even more today) feel like I am becoming more like one of those people. Like I have all this intelligence (and a degree) but just don't know how to use it in society. :( And I want to help people somehow.

  4. So cool, I love looking at images of the brain. It's so fascinating.

    What I love even more is using science to dispel conservative mythology. You can't beat the facts, no matter how much they try.

  5. wow. great to know that i have loads of red-and-white things floating around in my brain (i'm kiiidding i'm kiddding)haha

  6. Marissa I think you make one good analysis about how the conservative beliefs make a difficult context to recovery from neurologycal deseases. Sorry if my english is not so good, I'm from Chile and here -as many many countries- we have been influenced by this kind of thinking asociated to the ideology of a neoliberal economy, and every day is more outrageous in the midia, particularly with the shitty government we now have...
    Anyway, I would like to add a factor that I believe is as strong as the social and structural conditions you point: my argument for an spiritual development. I think this is the basis of resilient answer in situations of adversity, including all the diagnosis you mention. Maybe it's a bit of a third world kind of thinking, but I think from personal experience, it can help a lot of people, like Lindsey above. I think I'm coming out of that same stage, and yes there have been a few diagnosis for me too... Greetings.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Enid. I know spirituality is an important part of how a lot of people deal with adversity.

    I'd be interested if you could expand on what you mean when you say, "Maybe it's a bit of a third world kind of thinking..."

  8. Hey Marissa, do you know the film 'The secret life of a Manic Depressive' by Stephen Fry? It's quite impressive. He goes in search of how other people live with their bipolarity (he's bipolar himself), and how that could help him in dealing with it. Very open-hearted and inspiring.
    Best, B


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