Reduced to This…

Today’s Writing 101 challenge – to imagine a favourite festival, conference or event never happening again or being taken over by an evil corporate force…

I have enjoyed some very memorable conferences in beautiful cities such as York, Edinburgh, Canterbury and Dresden. The connecting theme has been around psychology and the practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They offer an opportunity to keep up to date with developments and – more importantly – to keep up to date with professional gossip. There is a great sense of community. We may have different understandings about what makes us human, but at heart is the sense that to a large extent we are agents of our own lives, within the confines of what nature and nurture conspire to wrap round us.

My nightmare scenario would be these events being taken over by the large pharmaceutical companies. Pharmacology has a significant role to play in the field of mental health, but it does tend to promote a very reductionist view of the human condition. By this, I mean that all our hopes, dreams and desires can be understood in terms of the neurochemical pathways in our brains. While at one level this seems to be a truism – no brain, no thoughts, no feelings – , it neglects the two-way interactions that occur between brain function and the environment. For example, it has been well demonstrated that abuse and neglect in early infant life can have a profound negative effect on brain development. It is not just a matter of disturbing memories being stored, there are observable differences in brain structure and function. Every experience, every new fact learnt, has to be neurochemically encoded. And each experience that changes us in some way will change the way we attend to and thus perceive the world.

If our beloved conferences were to be dominated by the pharmaceutical industry  then it would fatally undermine our firm belief that people can change their lives for the better. Again, it has been shown that the process of psychotherapy changes the connections in the brain. Today, there was an item on the radio news about a new drug that reduces the desire to drink more alcohol after the first drink. It does this by targeting the pleasure (reward) pathways in the brain. Whither motivation, personal responsibility and self-efficacy – having a sense of being an agent in the world, a fish able to swim against the current rather than a twig being swept along by the flow of the river?

In a reductionist view of the human condition, we are like the cinema film in a tin –  a roll of celluloid with complex electromagnetic traces. At this level, there is no difference between “Citizen Kane” and “Johnny English”. But when you run the film, – ahh, then we start to understand what it means to be an individual.

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