We need a stoplight at this intersection…

I’m not going to start this post off with a lie, so here it is: I always used to think of depression and anxiety as an inherent ‘problem’ with the neuronal circuitry of the brain. Miller & Keller’s article, Psychology an Neuroscience: Making Peace, certainly put me in my place (and may have even made me feel a little silly for oversimplifying things all these years). As a person who has been diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, I used to always assume that my wiring just wasn’t right. That I just wasn’t born with the right amount of serotonin receptors, and that I was biologically flawed. It was so easy to attribute what I saw as my own shortcomings to biology, to the gene pool, even to my parents (well, I can definitely blame my short stature and blue eyes on them….). It wasn’t until recently that I began to think of these ‘disorders’ as anything other than purely biological flukes; and it wasn’t until today that I ever considered that my attitude or my mood could actually have an impact on the biology of my brain.

Honestly, I struggled with this reading. So often we hear of the ‘underlying biology’ of a disorder, or the ‘psychological consequences’ of some injury to the brain, or alteration of genes or otherwise. Without much thought, it is so easy to attribute theoretical psychological concepts to more easily explained biological mechanisms (of course, as a Psych Neuro major, I may think at times that biological processes are more easily understood than abstract psychological concepts, but please, feel free to disagree with me!). As I read through this short article, I kept thinking to myself how I thought it made so much sense that there would be biological aspects underlying many, if not all, psychological phenomena. Then I read this:

“The phenomena that ‘fear’ typically refers to include a functional state (a way of being or being prepared to act), a cognitive processing bias, and a variety of judgements and associations all of which are conceived psychologically (Miller & Kozak, 1993). Because ‘fear’ means more than a given type of neural activity, the concept of fear is not reducible to neural activity. Researchers are learning a great deal about the biology of fear–from studies of the amygdala (e.g., Lang, Davis, Ohman, in press), but this does not mean that fear is activity in the amygdala. That is simply not the meaning of the term. ‘Fear’ is not reducible to biology.” -(Miller & Keller)

It was like a light bulb had finally gone off in my head. I had always simplified these concepts to the point that I completely forgot that all of these biological systems are involved in so many things. There is just no way that fear comes solely from the amygdala. There are so many circuits and connections and all of the processes are so intertwined–and it is that which makes trying to discern which parts control which behaviors (or perhaps, which behaviors shape which parts..) that shows us just how complex the human brain, and the human psyche, are. Just like the amygdala isn’t the only thing involved in the psychological concept of ‘fear’, we can extend this to other aspects of psychology: serotonin is not the only aspect of depression, much the same as dopamine or any other neurotransmitter are not the only factor involved in schizophrenia or Parkinson’s. There is a wealth of contributors to these overarching terms, and it is important that all sides be considered. We must not only look at what is malfunctioning, but what is functioning normally, or maybe even extraordinary. Additionally, we must consider these inherent differences within all of our biologies when we question what the ’cause’ is; whether it is biological, psychological, or perhaps both.

It is imperative that we consider the interconnectedness of these two fields and not give emphasis to one over the other, or else we will find ourselves at a standstill. Furthermore, we must consider the importance of the intersection between psychology and biology, as this intersection is what will ultimately shed light on the timeless questions of the human condition. In order to do this, however, we must slow down and stop at this intersection and take time to consider all of the points of view before we accelerate into the future. We mustn’t be hasty: rather, open-mindedness is needed to really tease out these questions and to get at the core of the intersection without getting ourselves into a nasty accident.

Maybe my mother was right when she said “mind over matter…”

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2 thoughts on “We need a stoplight at this intersection…

  1. Jenn, this is a terrific way to kick off the site. It warms the cockles of my heart to see one of my favorite analogies elaborated on. I refer to your awesome title. The fear=amygdala example is a great one. For me, I always swam upstream on the memory=hippocampus. It limits thinking about memory in novel ways and outside of the hippocampus and it nearly eliminates thinking about the hippocampus as doing anything else. Good stuff.

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  2. I agree Jenn that we need to slow down and look at the intersection of brain and behavior. I thought it was interesting in the article when they said that interaction wasn’t the right term for how these two different fields of study meet.

    I also think your mention of mind over matter is multifaceted and I wonder if there ever would be a way to determine the amount that biology vs. psychology accounts for in mental health or illness, although I’m sure this would have to be done on an individual basis.

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