Why do brains go wrong? Who decides?

“All the world is mad but you and me, and even you are a little strange..” Unbalanced mental states range all the way from depression to killer crazy to just being out of politcal fashion. In Australia in any given year 4 million people will experience a mental illness, and 1 million Australians have a disabling psychiatric disorder. The favoured treatments of the age are mostly pharmaceutical. How smart is this?
Thor May

Adelaide, 2016




This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Wrong Brains " topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 




Basic contact links:  

meetup group: http://www.meetup.com/Adelaide-Active-Thinking-Meetup/

topic suggestions: thormay@yahoo.com   

topics already discussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm

comments: Thor May - thormay@yahoo.com  

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at https://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay  ;

2. personal site: http://thormay.net [an ancient site with many byeways]


=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:

a. Introduction

She was one of my brightest university students in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. She actually liked to debate ideas, which was unusual. One day our animated discussion drifted into politics, a risky digression here where a little green book from the police had instructed me on things not to be done or talked about. In mid sentence she suddenly stopped, tapped her forehead in an agitated way, and muttered "Oh! I had a wrong idea!"  It wasn't the idea itself that concerned her, but that the knowledge that her idea could ruin her future, put her on a path beyond the pale of her society, and as some of her unlucky peers had discovered, into treatment for "mental problems". It wasn't unique to her country, this political classification of mental sanity. It has recently reasserted itself in the Russian Federation. Under the name of apostasy it can get you stoned to death in a number of countries. And under the name of "a failure of judgement"  it can get you driven to suicide pretty well anywhere on the planet. What is it about thinking that puts you within or without the bounds of society, a family, or your own capacity to live with yourself?

b. Starter questions

1. What is sanity anyway?

Sanity is our shorthand way of talking about someone with normal mental function, but not all sane people are normal, and there are times when normality can lead to insane outcomes. Looking a little more closely it becomes clear that the idea of sanity can be interpreted in various ways:

a) in daily life sanity is often a social judgement made by large or small numbers of people about another individual;

b) in organizational life sanity may be a political judgement made by an authoritarian figure (or figures) who can’t tolerate having their own judgement challenged by the ‘insane’ individual;

c) in the clinical settings of psychology, psychiatry and medicine, sanity may be a judgement made about a patient who meets certain criteria laid out in DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders);

d) Sanity may be a clinical observation made about a person who is suffering some kind of physiological disorder that can be traced to the central nervous system.

In colloquial culture there is often a distinction drawn between people who seem to be “out of their mind” and people suffering from a classifiable neurological disease, as in example d) above. The first is subject to  strong social stigma while the second is more likely to elicit pity. This distinction stems from the still widespread belief that “mind” and “body” are somehow different entities, whereas the treatment of mental illness or shall we say, mental strangeness, has mostly progressed by assuming that “mind” and “body” are an inseparable unity, even if our persona is a construction of many parts and conditions.

2. A recent newspaper headline said “research shows that 10% of bosses are psychopaths”. We don’t call these people “mad”. Why not?

Most people spend a large part of their lives trying to cope with the behaviour of other people. At times this can be extremely difficult, either because of the fragile condition of the experiencer her/himself, or because of the intrusive or damaging behaviour of a perpetrator. We all have limits of tolerance, some more than others, and these limits may expand or contract depending upon the particular life role we are playing at a certain time.

For the majority of individuals everywhere, families are the source of their most intimate and long lasting relationships, but also the least open to external scrutiny, opinion and laws. What passes for acceptable behaviour is generally governed by the values of the dominant members of a family, and their own interpretation of cultural norms. This means in practice that relatively large numbers of families follow behaviour patterns, sometimes mentally or physically violent, that would not be acceptable in the wider society, perhaps even judged ‘mad’ or criminal. Children growing up in these environments struggle to recalibrate their thinking and behaviour when they interact outside the family. Some never succeed. Others are handicapped for decades. Every school teacher is familiar with this dilemma.

Workplaces bring together all kinds of people to labour on non-personal objectives such as producing a product or providing a service. That is, at least in principle workplaces are not supposed to be arenas of personal contest. At this point in history companies are heavily regulated, on paper, and large scale cooperative endeavour incentivized by money has been the most notable achievement of modern societies over the last three centuries. However, the daily reality of workplaces is that all the normal human vices are in play. Not everybody adapts well to suppressing their bad home family habits, or taming their aggression.

The margin of tolerance for deviance is generally narrower in a workplace than within a family, but the power hierarchy is larger and more enticing for those drawn to power. In a contest for power, those with no inner attachment to principle and no empathy for others have an inherent advantage if they can conceal those deficiencies and market a desirable face for the season. This pretty well defines a classic psychopathic profile, so it is no surprise that psychopaths are well represented everywhere in positions of power. Once unfettered with authority over others psychopaths can wreak havoc on the morale of an enterprise (as can a pantheon of other malignant personality types in their own ways). These problems have always existed within families, and within organizations. In  other words, societies are pretty well adapted to reluctantly tolerating (or submitting to) the ugly lumps in human personalities. They can’t be legislated away. You can only make laws to contain certain bad effects on other people (e.g. injury) and property loss. There is now quite a lively public conversation about pathological behaviour, but by their nature psychopaths (who are often intelligent, and charming when necessary) will typically weave their way around sanctions. The ones who do most harm will certainly not get themselves locked away as “mad”.

3. What does the common expression, “a mental breakdown” actually mean?

When a car breaks down it is not usually written off. With a bit of tender loving care it is expected to go again, as well as it did before. Sadly, the same is not always true when they whisper “she had a mental breakdown”. The implication quite often is that she is a weak minded individual likely to fade again at any moment. So the largest proportion of people who have a “mental breakdown” not only omit to put it on their CVs, they don’t tell their best friends either. Well, what is a mental breakdown?

It must be a rare person who at some time has not had a flash of anger, doing or saying things they would rather not remember. Anger might be a rather disordered mental condition, but it is also mostly a passing storm which most are prepared to forgive, or fearfully take care not to provoke again.

On another track most of us at some time in our lives have set out to get very drunk, or smashed on recreational drugs. This can be from teenage exuberance, or a personal crisis, or just an end of week binge. For some people with more underlying problems this becomes chronic, but generally, like anger, it is a passing event, not stigmatized and sometimes admired. Nevertheless, being drunk or high on drugs definitely involves a mental disturbance where balanced judgement and behaviour are almost impossible.

Like anger, or being drunk, a mental breakdown in common parlance usually implies something that is time limited, but debilitating of normal life functioning. The human nervous system is phenomenally complicated both in design and operations, so there are innumerable things which can go wrong. Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems constantly counter-check each other, stimulated by hormones, and when these get out of whack one consequence can be extreme stress, inciting anxiety, and typically followed by that damping down of the whole system which we call depression (e.g. see Breuning 2015, and Wikipedia 2016 on mental breakdown). A host of physiological effects can follow, and if the effects are severe enough the individual withdraws from normal functioning, including social interaction.

This whole syndrome has been  around in human societies forever. It tends to afflict women more than men, but by no means uniquely (many men are more physically active, which has a mitigating effect). Typically, medical doctors and their mentors, pharmaceutical companies, deal in treating symptoms rather than whole life cures, so drugs claiming to stave off depression and anxiety have been a major modern financial bonanza. The drugs, unfortunately are often addictive with bad side effects. Nevertheless, the “depression industry” has spread diagnoses of depression so liberally through communities that taking antidepressants now carries little of the stigma associated with “mental breakdown”. If everyone ran or walked briskly a few kilometers a day to reset their systems much of the depression/mental breakdown epidemic would simply vanish. However, human laziness does seem almost incurable and excites endless rationalization (not to mention profit for those catering to it). At a personal level I have never suffered from clinical depression, although I have known my share of anxiety. Being a lifelong distance runner has probably kept my "happy chemicals" in reasonable balance. However with a 71 year scorecard, I have lost count of the number of medical practitioners who have warned that running is bad for me, and will "wear me out". They just don't get it, or to take a cynical view, maybe there is no money in well-functioning people.

4. General health issues are now often linked to lifestyle and diet. Could the same be true of mental health issues?

5. A proportion of every population can’t cope mentally with the demands of everyday living, even self-care. What can best be done with such people?

6. In many, even most families there are individuals who are a borderline risk to themselves and everybody around them. At what point should outside help be sought to assist with these tensions?

7. Over everyone’s life cycle there are periods and incidents of high stress. Surviving these crises is a liberation for some, and crippling to the self esteem of others. Is this just a process of ‘natural selection’, or do people like psychologists and social workers have a useful role to play here?

8. There are genuinely creative people, innovators, thinkers, pioneers … who stand apart from accepted attitudes and ways of doing things (the majority may follow them a generation or more later). These people can be under intense pressure from social disapproval, and hence more liable to temporary “mental breakdown” or even suicide. How much space should a society give people like this? [note that they usually have little in common with modern fashionable poses of ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ etc].

9. Officially recognized treatments for mental distress fall into several categories. The first is chemical treatment, either through doctors (prescription drugs), or self-medication (alcohol, tobacco, food, illegal drugs etc). The second is through some kind of person to person consultation (friends, doctors – who have little training in this, psychologists and psychiatrists, various kinds of counselors, social workers). A third is through lifestyle changes (changing jobs, holidays, leaving toxic relationships, diet, exercise etc). A fourth is institutionalization (which usually means a heavy drugging routine). How effective is the balance of these options in Australia? How well informed are people about the options?

10. An accusation or suggestion of mental imbalance carries great stigma. It fatally undermines trust in a person’s capacity to perform responsible roles (e.g. see the political theatre of the current American presidential election). In some countries an administrative classification as “insane” is a way of removing political enemies. In Australia, is the stigma of mental imbalance ever used maliciously, or is it ever used to create a set of hidden rules about who can do what, when, where and how?

11. The classification of mental problems seems to be increasing constantly (e.g. see the controversy over DSM5. e.g. Rees 2013 contends that DSM, psychiatry's "bible" that defines all mental illness, is not scientific but a product of unscrupulous politics and bureaucracy). Have we all been entrapped by a new industry, making money from issues that have always been there?

12. The official levels of mental illness internationally vary quite widely by country. Do these differences reflect actual conditions in these cultures? If so, in what ways?


[more to come]


Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)

AFP (May 20, 2015) "Elite athletes’ brains 82% faster under pressure, study finds". The Australian online @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/elite-athletes-brains-82-faster-under-pressure-study-finds/story-e6frg8y6-1227361269705

Asser, Jonathan (9 March 2014) "'If I move he'll attack': mastering rage in prisoners. Jonathan Asser used to struggle with his extreme rage until he learned to master it – and discovered a skill for calming violent prisoners. His experience led to a film and best-newcomer award at the London Film Festival". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/09/attack-body-language-critical-mastering-rage-in-prisoners  

Australian Government (2016) National Mental Health Commission online @ http://www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au/

Bergland, Christopher (February 2  2013) "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure - 8 habits that stimulate your vagus nerve and keep you calm, cool, and collected". Psychology Today online @ https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201302/the-neurobiology-grace-under-pressure

Berry, Sarah (9th Sep 2016) "Why men neglect their mental health". JuiceDaily website online @ http://www.juicedaily.com.au/news/why-men-neglect-their-mental-health/  

Berry, Sarah (March 16 2016) "Neurologist David Perlmutter gets to the guts of brain health with surprising advice". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/neurologist-david-perlmutter-gets-to-the-guts-of-brain-health-with-surprising-advice-20160316-gnk8c4.html    

Breuning, Loretta Graziano (December 16, 2015) Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels. Publisher: Adams Media; ebook and paperback online @ https://www.amazon.com/dp/1440590508/

Carroll, Rory (14 September 2016) "We need human interaction': meet the LA man who walks people for a living". The Guardian online @ https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/14/los-angeles-people-walker-chuck-mccarthy

Colborne, Michael (September 14 2016) "Russia revives Soviet-era psychiatric punishment: Crimean Tatars, dissenters suffer". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/russia-revives-sovietera-psychiatric-punishment-crimean-tartars-dissenters-suffer-20160913-grfoy8.html

Crair, Ben (May 2, 2016) "The Cure For Fear - Scientists have discovered a radical new way to treat our most traumatic memories". The New Republic online @ https://newrepublic.com/article/133008/cure-fear?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits  

Deegan, Partricia (19 Jun 2008) “Recovery from mental disorders, a lecture”. Youtube video online @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhK-7DkWaKE

Deegan, Patricia (1996) “Recovery and the Conspiracy of Hope”. Patricia Deegan website online @ https://www.patdeegan.com/pat-deegan/lectures/conspiracy-of-hope

Edward, Jessica (December 12, 2014) "How my brief patch of insomnia saw me labelled with depression". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/health/how-my-brief-patch-of-insomnia-saw-me-labelled-with-depression-20141212-11hqsd.html    

Elsevier. "High-fat diet alters behavior and produces signs of brain inflammation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 March 2015. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150326110954.htm 

Ha, Thu-Huong (Dec 18, 2013) "How should we talk about mental health?". Ideas.Ted.Com website online @ http://ideas.ted.com/how-should-we-talk-about-mental-health/?utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=

Hendy, Nina (March 3, 2014) "How to stay calm in a crisis". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/small-business/franchising/how-to-stay-calm-in-a-crisis-20140218-32x77.html#ixzz2uqcYNMpL  

Kaplan, Sarah (November 24, 2015) "Woman was blind for 17 years - then one of her other personalities started to see". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/woman-was-blind-for-17-years--then-one-her-other-personalities-started-to-see-20151124-gl7423.html

Karolinska Institutet. "How physical exercise protects the brain from stress-induced depression." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 September 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140925131345.htm  

Knott, Matthew (October 12, 2014) "The black dog roaming Parliament House". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/the-black-dog-roaming-parliament-house-20141010-1144ls.html  

Mad in America Foundation (2016) Index of articles on DSM-5 online @ http://www.madinamerica.com/?s=DSM5  

Mad in America Foundation  (n.d.)  Mad in America website of Science, Psychiatry and Community, online @ http://www.madinamerica.com/

Martin McKenzie-Murray, Martin (Sep 10, 2016) "The Tromp family's crisis". The Saturday Paper online @ https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/09/10/the-tromp-familys-crisis/14734296003715

Maisel,  Eric R.  (Apr 17, 2016) "Rethinking Mental Health - Shery Mead on Intentional Peer Support". Psychology Today website online @ https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rethinking-mental-health/201604/shery-mead-intentional-peer-support  

Mead, Shery (n.d.) Intentional Peer Support - about. Website online @ http://www.intentionalpeersupport.org/about/

Mead, Shery (n.d.) Intentional Peer Support - articles. Website online @ http://www.intentionalpeersupport.org/articles/ 

Mental Health Australia (2016) [Peak non-government organization in Australia representing health care professionals and stakeholders]. Website online @ https://mhaustralia.org/

Mills, Tammy and Tom Cowie (September 3 2016) "Missing father Mark Tromp has been found in Wangaratta". [a case of family group psychosis]. Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/victoria/missing-father-mark-tromp-has-been-found-20160903-gr84pk.html  

Nutt, Amy Ellis (February 23 2016) "The mind's biology: Doctors are reaching past the symptoms of mental illness to fix the circuits that breed them ". Washington Post online  http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2016/02/19/brain-hacking-the-minds-biology/  

O'Sullivan, Suzanne (16 May 2015) "'You think I'm mad?' – the truth about psychosomatic illness - Yvonne went blind overnight, Matthew couldn’t walk, Shahina lost the use of her hand – but doctors found nothing wrong. Were they faking it, or was the mind playing tricks? A neurologist on her most intriguing cases". The Guardian online @  http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/16/you-think-im-mad-the-truth-about-psychosomatic-illness

OurConsumerPlace (n.d.) Australian resource centre for mental health consumers. website online @ http://www.ourconsumerplace.com.au/consumer/trainingevents  

Patty, Anna (September 13 2016) "One in five bosses is a psychopath, research reveals". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/workplace-relations/one-in-five-bosses-is-a-psychopath-research-reveals-20160913-greyg6.html

Rees, Hope (May 2 2013) "The Real Problems With Psychiatry - A psychotherapist contends that the DSM, psychiatry's "bible" that defines all mental illness, is not scientific but a product of unscrupulous politics and bureaucracy". The Atlantic online @ http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/the-real-problems-with-psychiatry/275371/  

Remeikis, Amy (September 15 2016) "Julian Leeser's maiden speech prompts the sound of furious compassion from the House". http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/julian-leesers-maiden-speech-prompts-the-sound-of-furious-compassion-from-the-house-20160914-grg1gh.html 

Reynolds, Gretchen  (February 17, 2016) "Which Type of Exercise Is Best for the Brain?" New York Times online @ http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/well/2016/02/17/which-type-of-exercise-is-best-for-the-brain/?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits   

Reynolds, Gretchen (January 1, 2016) "A fit body leads to a fit brain". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/a-fit-body-leads-to-a-fit-brain-20151231-glxnx1.html

Robertson, Joshua (27 November 2014) "Queensland police may get instant access to mental health records - Mental health commissioner says while mental illness is yet to be confirmed as a factor in latest police shootings, plan would be a big advance in how police deal with such confrontations". The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/27/queensland-police-may-get-instant-access-to-mental-health-records  

Rousso, June (March 19, 2015) "The Role of Beneficial Bacteria in Mental Health". The Epoch Times online @ http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/blog/the-role-of-beneficial-bacteria-in-mental-health/

Seattle Children's Hospital. "Area of brain responsible for exercise motivation discovered." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 August 2014. http:// www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140820164321.htm

Siddique, Haroon (10 August 2016) "WHO's recommended level of exercise too low to beat disease – study. Bigger reductions in risk of five common chronic diseases only achievable with five to seven times more activity, research finds". The Guardian online @ https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/09/whos-recommended-level-exercise-too-low-beat-disease-study  

Solon, Olivia (16 September 2016) "My therapist gave me a pill’: can MDMA help cure trauma?" The Guardian online @ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/16/mdma-ptsd-therapy-trauma-maps-medical-study

The Conversation (2016) Index of articles on DSM-5. online @ https://theconversation.com/au/topics/dsm-5-2189  

University of Texas at Arlington. "Using light to image and potentially to treat PTSD." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 September 2016. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160906213622.htm

Wikipedia (2016) “Patricia Deegan”. Wikipedia online @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhK-7DkWaKE

Wikipedia (2016) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DSM-5

Wikipedia (2016) “Mental Breakdown”. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_breakdown

Winterman, Denise (17 October 2013) "Rumination: The danger of dwelling. The Stress Test - Results". BBC online @ http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24444431 

Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

Why do brains go wrong? Who decides?©Thor May September 2016


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