environmental effects on mental illness

August 2, 2007

Environmental Connections: A Deeper Look into Mental Illness

I love when I see articles discuss environment/biology in ways that are cutting-edge, instead of “nature versus nurture” or even “nature and nurture are both important”.  This one is a good one.


disordered brains are not normal brains minus adequate practice

July 12, 2007

Study Shows People Can Suppress Bad Thoughts

People can get better at suppressing negative memories over time, and the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain known to be involved in executive control, i.e. planning, carrying out plans, and inhibiting impulses) is involved. They would like this to point toward directions for therapy in post-traumatic stress disorder.

The article is somewhat misleading (although I’m fairly certain the research is much better):

Research by neuroscientists shows that, with practice, people can suppress emotionally disturbing memories. Investigators say the finding could lead to therapies for individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s not hard to read into this the notion that what works for normal people will work for disordered people if they just work at it. I.e., people with post-traumatic stress disorder just need to work at suppressing them harder; people with bipolar disorder just need to cope with their emotions better; people with AD/HD just need to concentrate harder; people with depression just need to take a shower and get out of the house for a bit, etc. But the problem isn’t that people with disorders are failing to employ normal coping techniques – it’s that those normal coping techniques do not fix the disorder, because the dysregulation you see in a functioning system – brief unpleasant memories from seeing a photograph – is not the same kind of dysregulation as in a disordered system, such as vivid, disabling reliving of memories of a situation that occurred personally to you in which you thought you would die.

The article isn’t saying that people with PTSD will be fixed by practicing suppression harder, but it’s not doing a good job of explaining the relationship between research on normal self-regulation and treatments for disorders. Humans have have very intuitive, unquestioned frameworks for thinking about other (normal) people, and in the absence of being told that those frameworks don’t apply (and having that pounded into our heads repeatedly until it overrides the intuitions), we frequently jump to the conclusion that everyone is a normal person so of course what works for everyone else will work for the person at hand, and if it doesn’t, then they’re probably just not doing it right. (And should be blamed, etc.)