Pythagoras, not Prozac!

11/6/2002 1:15:12 AM

I have gotten a lot of flack from people who say that I don’t understand the validity of depression as a serious physiological illness for which drugs must be taken, and that I don’t have the expertise to say why anyone is suffering from it.  This is not true.

I consider depression to be a real and serious psychological disorder, which is often caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.  Specifically, a disruption in the natural production of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine (which are produced by the amino acid tryptophan) causes a break in the normal transmission  and activation of brain sector that allows us to feel happy, sociable, excited and such.   

Prozac and other anti-depressants sometimes are successful in restoring normal neurotransmitter production, though they are only temporary cures, and depression returns (sometimes much worse) when the drug is removed – unless seratonin production is restored in the meanwhile by the body itself.

For some people (I am not qualified to give numbers) Prozac (and like chemicals) is the only method available to restore normal brain function, and there is nothing wrong with using it for that purpose.  However, my argument is not addressed towards those people.  My argument concerns individuals who’s philosophies (remember, a philosophy includes a person’s entire approach to life) cause their brain to lock up and shut down and induce depression artificially.  When Prozac is used by such people it is sometimes effective in creating a semi-permanent and addictive high, but the long run effects are extremely harmful, as I will explain.

First of all, the maintenance of the body’s psychologically relevant hormones and chemicals is related to many controllable physical factors, such as diet, exercise, and significantly, exercise of the mind.  Studies show that both physical and mental workouts increase brain cell regeneration rates and dendrite growth, and the general efficiency of the brain.  These are significant externally controllable “all-natural” factors that along with diet and rest can have a significant positive (or negative) impact on depression.  However, my argument is not primarily about these alternatives to dangerous chemical anti-depressant.

The proper function of the brain is to allow the mind to function properly.  The proper function of the mind involves taking raw sense-data inputs, processing them into shapes, objects, and sensations (the sensual level), converting the data into concepts (the perceptual level), then relating the concepts to one another(the conceptual level), so as to create a model of reality, create and apply value judgments to possible alternative actions, and then choose a course of action that has the best probability of achieving the individuals values.  (Obviously, there is much more to this, and I will write a thesis on it some day, but for now, I’ll stick to the mind as it relates to depression.)  So, the brain and body is the hardware, and the mind is the software – and the proper function of the software depends on the proper function of the hardware – and vice versa, since the hardware is wired to develop areas the mind focuses on and waste away the areas that are not used.

Where does depression and happiness come into the equation?  The initial observation is that depression serves a valuable purpose – evolution has been such that a balance of sadness and happiness is present in most advanced mammals (including humans, of course) and serves a valuable purpose.  What is that purpose?  The purpose of happiness is to release neurotransmitters in response to successful actions (therefore the successful achievement of values) to enforce the brain paths (or whatever the specific mechanism is) that led us to the successful action in the first place.  The purpose of sadness is to destroy the brain paths that led us to failures (and unachieved values.)   This process is crucial to all advanced life forms that have the ability to learn in any way shape or form.  (Humans have some unique abilities in this area, but this is another topic.)

What causes depression then?  It is the failure of the process of serotonin (and other chemical) production in response to successful achievement of values.  When this is not a natural chemical imbalance, it will be for one of two reasons: our methodology is incorrect (this can usually be auto-corrected) OR that our values are incorrect --that is, they do not meet the criteria for “good” values, as described in my previous email: they are unachievable, inevitable, contradictory, etc.  Successful actions require that proper values and proper methodology (which are really aspects of the same thing) be accepted.  “Good” values allow for self-correcting methodology – also known as virtues, examples of “basic” good values include rationality, integrity, self-honesty, and skepticism.  These lead to good higher level values such as honesty, self-reliance, reason, and confidence.  The specific values are not key to my theory other than that I believe that Objectivism is the philosophy that best maximizes good values – but whether you disagree or agree with me on that point does not affect the fact that certain values are superior in leading to self-corrective methodology (socially recognized as good and/or moral actions.)  

So, the point of describing the process above is to point out that certain values need to be present consciously, and subconsciously (as integrated into your basic  thought-process) in order for the mind to function properly, and the balance of neurotransmitter production to be maintained.  The great danger of anti-depressants and other stimulants is that they stimulate the mind completely arbitrarily, without regard to whether the pathways they are encouraging are those that lead to good or bad actions and values.  The general effect of prolonged use is to diminish our ability to think -- to reason  and evaluate actions in the process described above.  For a well known example of this, take drug use.  Pot heads and alcoholics feel good all day long, but (unless your daddy is president) that usually leads them to lose all ambition and generally stop caring about their life.  Not that there is necessarily something inherently wrong with enjoying yourself every now and then, but habitual use destroys our mind’s ability to function.  Bad values (and bad philosophies that lead to those values) do the same thing. 

What is a “bad philosophy”?  The most common example is the person who gets his values randomly, absorbing fragments from his parents, his church, his peers, media, etc – without ever integrating it all in any way.  To some degree, this describes the great majority of people alive today.  They live their lives in a daze, unable to choose the course of their live by consistently working towards self-chosen goals.  They are apt to follow any leader with a message like sheep because they cannot make any independent values of their own and would rather have someone else think for them.  They cannot enjoy their successes because contradictory values tell them that it’s both good and bad to achieve something on their, that it’s both good and bad to make money, that love should be unconditional, yet we love some more than others, than logic is useless, yet some actions seem to be logical and some don’t, that all values are relative, when certain values inherently “feel” better than others.

This mindset often leads people to give up on values entirely and become nihilists (usually implicitly, without even knowing what the word “nihilism” means.) Of course, nihilism is just another value to the mind, which tries, unsuccessfully, to integrate it into your trash pit of conflicting values and ends up locking up, the cogs hopelessly unable to decide on a course of action because thinking itself becomes feared.  Such a person is unable to maintain proper levels of serotonin production (not to mention many other chemicals we do and don’t know of) and subsequently becomes depressed.  I have seen this happen in many people – some who I have known well, some who I have not.  I myself went through a period of depression just once in my life -- during my junior year of high school and can affirm to this process. 

Thus, proper function of the mind is dependent on proper values.  The most important condition of values is that they are consistent.  This means that they must be integrated so that that are non-contradictory and directly related to real-life experience.  If values are not integrated, we will be unable to fully enjoy the pleasure that comes from successful actions, and if the values are not tied in reality, they will never be achieved, since we do not know what it takes to care them out in daily life.  Unlike animals, who’s values are entirely integrated and consists of the single command “SURVIVE!”, human values are self-chosen and often oppose our physical survival (not always bad) and our rational mental function (always bad.)  Implicit rejection of the function of the mind (as in most people) is bad enough, but the “post-modern” explicit rejection of the mind (aka “materialist behaviorism” in psychology) in favor of a robotic, chaotic animal is a betrayal of the worst kind, because it destroys our own ability to reason and correct improper values.  It is what Ayn Rand called the “blank out” – the refusal to focus, and fundamentally, the refusal to think.  When it becomes a way of life, it is no wonder that depression is the result in so many people.