Posts tagged: bipolar

Computers on the Brain

Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological IssuesIt is not uncommon for psychologists to draw parallels between the modern computer and the ancient human brain.  Nearly all the people who read this article will do so with the use of a computer.  The computer allows the rapid categorization and transformation of symbolic information.  The information is symbolic since it does not contain the actual perceptual information of the event, but a representation of the information encoded into standardized symbols.  The symbols must be standardized, or the information could not be shared with others.  The symbols must also have the capacity of accurate storage, or the computer would only be useful on an intermittent and spontaneous basis.

The ancient brain processes sensory information in a symbolic fashion, as well.  It does not store holograms of what we see, smell, hear or touch, but encodes the information in proteins.  Recalling the information encoded in proteins allows categorization and association of the symbols removed from the actual event.  The human brain uses standardized sounds to communicate its symbols, otherwise the information could not be shared with others.  The storage of symbolic information must be fairly accurate, or the human could not learn to operate effectively within a given environment.

Both the brain and computer have an architecture specialized to encode and process information, yet there are differences.  There is no real equivalent of software in the human brain, as the physical architecture of the brain is altered to meet and master novel tasks.  Current computers cannot alter their architecture at this point in their development, but small alterations of software can radically change the type and method of information processed.  Neurotransmitters provide the closest parallel to computer software.  Their respective levels in different areas of the brain may favor and flavor the information processed.  The current understanding of neurotransmitter action does not allow for the sweeping changes possible with computer software.   The human brain exists in a dynamic flowing relationship with the environment, whereas the computer was designed to be an assistant in this relationship.

Currently, mental illness is most often viewed as a biological defect; similar to a diseased heart or lung.  Computer scientists might regard schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as faulty hardware, and depression, anxiety and angst as buggy software.  Similarly, psychosurgery has been used in the past to treat schizophrenia, and current psychiatrists modulate neurotransmitters to control depression.  The former deserves  little comment, and the latter has met with limited success.  Neuroscientists and psychiatrists have beaten the drum of biological mental illness for decades.  They have attempted changing the computer architecture in schizophrenia, and the computer software in depression.  The analogy tends to fail at this point, though, largely due to the negligence of a very important relationship.

The analogy breaks down due to the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment.  A person’s environment, especially their social milieu, may profoundly alter neurotransmitter levels.  Chronic stress is now known to cause actual alterations in the way genes are expressed.  Put another way, the environment alters the hardware and software of the human brain.  The brain evolves over a lifetime, whereas the computer is largely a static entity, such that the computer/brain analogy is always inexact.  To ignore the environment in the treatment of mental illness is similar to ignoring the road while driving a car.  Altering the brain’s software, without altering the environment, is to ignore a major difference between computers and people.  Social relationships may be an architect of human dysfunction, but also a foundation upon which we build our happiness.


Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological Issues Americans prize their independence.  Hollywood earns billions portraying characters that express their independence in an aggressive fashion.  Many Americans loath dependence and equate it with weakness.  Is dependence really equatable with weakness?

The author’s experience with nursing home and hospital patients over the last twenty years may shed some light.  The severely medically ill typically dread becoming a burden on their loved ones.  It is rare to find older adults who readily agree to live with their children.  Rarely does the avoidance stem from ill feelings, as from the aforementioned dread of becoming a burden.  The ailing older American is typically more resistive of living with their children than the children themselves.

Other cultures have less difficulty with dependence.  These patients typically experience less adjustment problems with illness and nursing home placement.  Forced dependence from medical illness is viewed as an unavoidable part of life, rather than stemming from a personal inadequacy.  Just as they may have taken care of ailing friends and relations, there is an expectation that it is a societal necessity to receive care in turn.  In such cultures, the resistance to unavoidable dependence would be taken as askew, and possibly indicative of mental illness.

These notions regarding dependence are focused on physical rather than mental illness.  Quite often long-term mental illness has a significant impact on parenting style and resources.  This impact may be resented by the children as they age; especially as they compare notes with peers whose parents did not suffer with mental illness.  Children of recurrent depressive and bipolar patients are often the least motivated to care for an incapacitated parent.  The very real physical responsibilities of providing care is even more difficult when the parent is uncooperative and apparently unappreciative.  It is nearly impossible for children to fathom the role of mental illness in parenting, as it requires a prospective obtained outside the confines of the family unit.

In regards to mental illness, there was a disorder termed Dependent Personality Disorder.  This so-called disorder is no longer a part of the diagnostic nomenclature, but its very existence is significant.  Dependent Personality Disorder was confined to the American diagnostic manual of mental disorders, and has never been a part of the international classification of mental illness.  Too much dependence was viewed as a mental illness, and psychologists and psychiatrists were given the task of drawing the line.  Dependence was not only considered a weakness, but possibly a disease that required treatment.

Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists now consider the the role of grandparents as an advantage unique to our species.  Grandparents living within the family unit were able to confer knowledge and skills to the children that the parents were too busy to provide.  This advantage may be the reason other forms of humanoids became extinct.  Prior to World War II, it was the norm for couples to live with their parents for many years.  Married couples initially depended upon their parents, and in turn, the parents came to depend upon their children.  It may be merely an artifact of simple economics, but the children and grandparents may have benefited in ways that were not reducible to mere income potential.

Dependence is a problem if either party perceives it as a problem.  Dependence is highly influenced by cultural norms.  Dependence stemming from mental illness is often less well received than physical incapacity.  Dependence may be an evolutionary adaptation that secured our species spot at the top of the food chain.  We depend upon others for their knowledge and experience, as well as physical support.  Others depend upon us for the very same reasons.  Perhaps dependence is often perceived as a weakness by those who are afraid of the responsibility.  The responsibility is to not hate those on whom we depend.  It’s very American.

All rights reserved

Switch to our mobile site