Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Neurological Basis of Mental Pathology: Why It Matters

In the past, the concept of an interrelated whole, whether in terms of the ecosystem, individual organisms, or the human mind, was poorly understood. Thus, people killed off entire species with impunity, racing to slaughter the last Carolina parakeet or dodo bird or quagga. Babies underwent major surgery without anesthesia, receiving only sedation, as recently as 1986 (David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.). Victorian women diagnosed with epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria were subjected to clitoridectomies (Robert Darby, PhD). Dr. Walter Freeman performed frontal lobotomies on patients, pioneering a method of doing so without anesthesia. John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was among Dr Wheeler’s patients (or victims, depending upon your outlook). Society operates upon the same principles of any other interrelated system: what affects one part affects the whole. In the context of neurology, psychology, and any other science even distantly related to the human mind, this rule clarifies why an understanding of mental pathology can be beneficial in the absence of a cure.

Research: understanding the basis of mental illness aids in our comprehension of how the mind functions in the neurotypical population. As noted in the text, Psychology Core Concepts (Zimbardo,2008), the mind is a virtual galaxy of neurons. In spite of the Human Genome Project and the various methods of brain scanning and measuring tools, the brain of Homo sapiens remains very much a mystery and a puzzle. Every particle of information gathered towards that mystery, even the most obscure puzzle piece, aids in grasping the bigger picture, forges connections we may not have made before, and builds bridges across gaps of knowledge. People with mental illnesses, injuries, and developmental disorders have served both as guinea pigs and pioneers in the field of neurology. Phineas Gage (Zimbardo, 2008), Helen Keller, and Temple Grandin are but three examples of individuals with neurological and or sensory variances who were not cured but made enormous contributions to the understanding of the human brain and behavior. It could be easily argued that they made more of an impact than they would have if they had been normal.

Secondly, many illnesses are incurable. A brief perusal of these includes AIDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis, ADD, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, several types of leukemia, emphysema, fetal alcohol syndrome, herpes, cerebral palsy and Alzheimer’s (CDC, 2008). Although classified as incurable, research has made significant strides in the treatment of symptoms, management of the disease process, and in some cases, prevention or at least minimization of the damage of the condition. Early diagnosis often affects the long term prognosis, making research into testing and early detection key. In the course of studying these diseases, insights are made which benefit not only the sufferers and their families but also society at large. Even if cures are never found, we still enrich ourselves to learn as much as we possibly can about the cause, process, and effects of mental illnesses.

Lastly, supportive therapy can be implemented more effectively if the cause of the illness is known. A parallel can again be drawn between mental and physical disability: a blind child might never be able to see, but what a difference if he or she can learn Braille, get a Seeing Eye dog, and learn basic life skills! Similarly, with scientific evidence of a neurological basis for the disease, the patient is likely to fare better than if he or she were characterized as being “crazy”, “possessed”, or “looking for attention”. Comprehension of the origin of the illness helps to remove some of the stigma towards it. The human world is ruthless, and the individual with mental illness is poorly equipped to defend themselves against it. The popular misconception that people “choose to be ill” or should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or “snap out of it” persists, and will only be combated effectively through consistent education of the general public. When people realize that the “crazy cat lady down the street” is just as much a person as themselves, that her mental illness has physical, neurological origins, prejudice will begin to erode, and people will be able to seek help without fear of being permanently labeled as a “nut case”. This again, would benefit society at large. Just as it is impossible to wound a part without injuring the whole in some way, it is inevitable that the gains made in helping the mentally ill will aid us all.


Excerpts from "Babies Don't Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine"
by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.
Robbie Davis-Floyd & Joseph Dumit (Eds.) (1998), Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots. New York and London: Routledge.

The Benefits of Psychological Surgery: John Scoffern's Satire on Isaac Baker Brown
Med Hist. 2007 October 1; 51(4): 527–544.


John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Rosemary Kennedy

Zimbardo, 2008. Psychology Core Concepts, 2008. Page 64, 77.

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