Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Compudrug Cocktail

The June 23rd issue of The New York Review of Books ran an essay called “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why” by Marcia Angell. The essay is occasioned by three books: The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch; Anatomy of an Epidemic:  Magic, Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker; and Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations About a Profession in Crisis by Daniel Carlat. The same issue of the NYRB featured a piece by Sue Halpern entitled “Mind Control and the Internet,” which dealt with the following books: World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity Machines and the Internet by Michael Chorost; The Filter Bubble: What the Internet  is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser; and You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. Angell’s essay deals with the controversy about antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil and Celexa, and antipsychotics like Zyprexa, addressing findings from double-blind placebo studies. The first in a two-part series, the essay is a thoughtful review of axons, dendrites and synapses, and the role of neurotransmitters like serotonin in bridging gaps between neurons. Psychotics were at one point thought to be suffering from a flood of serotonin, while those suffering from depression were thought to be experiencing a deficit. Thus, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor would prevent the secretion of serotonin by the synapse. One of the issues Angell brings up is how neurotransmitters are affected by the introduction of artificial substances into the brain, a process that becomes particularly important when a patient goes off of a medication. What is curious is how Angell’s essay on mental illness and the interior working of the brain and Halpern’s essay on computers and the mind are linked. A significant development of advanced computational theory is the increasing connection between computers and the brain—the brains of disabled people are now able to manipulate computer cursors and computers are able to access the brain. In discussing Lanier’s theories, Halpern remarks, “The ‘hive mind’ created through our electronic connections necessarily obviates the individual—indeed, that’s what makes it a collective consciousness.” On the other hand, computer programs of the future herald a world of utter subjectivity. “Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm’s perception of who you are, a perception that it constructs out of 57 variables, Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology and assumptions,” Halpern comments. The subject that unites the two pieces is really consciousness, a theme taken up by John Searle in his review of Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain in the previous issue of the NYRB. One thing that becomes clear in all of these pieces is that the human brain is inadvertently being fought over by both computers and drugs. It’s a struggle of Darwinian proportions, with the evolution of the brain ultimately mitigating the outcome.

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