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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This is your brain on drugs...

 As always, for more information click the highlighted links.

First-- that's a misleading title.  I really want to talk about neurotransmitters, not drugs.  Let's call them NTs for short, because I am a lazy typist.

NTs are the little chemical stews that regulate much of our emotional life.  Too short or overstocked on some, and we fall on one end or another of the bell curve that folks call "normal".  In the next few posts I will be talking about the spectrum of difference we call mental disorders and how chemistry may be involved.  I will be doing some wild speculating, so take me with a grain-- or block-- of salt.  The theories spring from many years of work in the field and lots of reading, as well as my own particular biases.

Let's start with my biases.  I think that humans are profoundly affected by both nature and nurture.  By nature, I mean the machines of our particular genetics and the effect of environment on the same.  Familial nutrition (up to generations back), and current physical environment such as toxin exposure effect the nature part.  By nurture, I am referring not only to the emotional climate of our upbringing but exposure to information and experiences throughout life.  I firmly believe in the plasticity of every brain-- the ability to reroute, change and grow in spite of our genetics.  But I also believe those genetics set up the game.

Seems to me those pesky NTs and hormones play a pretty big role.  How much dopamine, oxytocin, testosterone, serotonin etc is flowing in the system-- either manufactured or being able to be received and used-- appears to have a lot to do with how we act and feel.  It may define our temperament and personality. 

I also believe that humans are naturally narcissistic.  As one author put it (and sorry, being a print surfer I can't remember where I read this), everything we know, feel, see comes through our filter and has happened to us. We are the lead actor in our lives, and the rest of the world our backdrop.   From birth on, we see our view as The View.  Luckily, we are usually naturally altruistic too.  But since our genes and those pesky NTs may decide in advance what we feel, we may have a lot harder time understanding how it is that someone else can feel or act a lot differently. What we cannot perceive, we cannot receive. In addition to what we learn, see and experience, NTs are involved in development of empathy.  Some of us have a lot of it, and others not so much.

More biases:  I think "normal" is overrated.  We benefit greatly from the variation of expression and thinking that results from the edges of that bell curve.  Folks with what I suspect is lots less dopamine than the average homo sapien tend to be perfectionistic, orderly, obsessively detailed and restricted in their emotional range and expression.  They don't get overly excited or reactive, and they are meticulous in thinking and performance.  That's just what I want in my accountant or surgeon.  I'm not saying that all in those field are like that, but that it is adaptive and helpful in certain professions or experiences.  On the other hand, people with bipolar disorder tend to have lots of energy, emotion and enthusiasm- at least some of the time--- as well as creativity, quick-wittedness, and quirkiness.  They make better artists than those dopamine-deprived folks.  Again, I am talking in generalities.

Last bias:  as hinted in the previous paragraph, I think nature is doing its deal by spreading out the variations to the gene pool.  Barbara Kingsolver talks about this in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  In any given year, heirloom (read: not genetically modified) corn seed will produce a variable yield.  That's because some of the seed works well in wet years, some in dry; some with early warmth and some with later frosts.  This insures that any given year at least some of that corn will grow.  It's no different with us humans.  Some of our genetic tendencies will be either culturally or environmentally more desirable in a given era.  Luckily, it's not only those that get passed down, because times change.

Related post:  What's in A Name?  Diagnostic Dilemmas

That's it for tonight. See you soon,
Must be an Ani DiFranco sort of week...

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