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Are We Chemistry?

<sarcasm>Here is the pretentious post I promised.</sarcasm> Actually it’s something I think about a great deal. What are we? Are we spirits? Are we chemistry? Are we both? Personally I think we are chemistry (but I’d love to be convinced otherwise).

Like many bipolar people, my behaviour goes through profound changes when I take my meds.

To recap my symptoms: without my meds, when I am high I am reckless, over-confident, monomaniacal, hyper-sexual, empathetic, consumerist, spendthrift, and highly creative. Then I get too high and these qualities become self-destructive (those that aren’t already). My attention span becomes so short that I become incapacitated. Without my meds, when I am low I am withdrawn, uncommunicative, self-criticizing, despairing, self-harming, unimaginative, uncreative, profoundly unmotivated, and unemotional. I will do anything to avoid change. It is almost impossible to think.

With my meds, the most of these symptoms are either eliminated, or else made manageable. My question is, what does this say about personhood and the brain? If these very profound behaviours can be altered to any degree by changing the chemistry of my brain[1], then what am I? Am I chemistry?

I actually want to say “yes”. That would fit in with my atheist world view.

However, between the two polar states, there is a core person named “Travis” trying to survive. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from Guy Gavriel Kay, it is as if the mental illness is a mountain that has been placed on top of me. It is easy to forget who I am because of all the weight. One could say that the meds lift the mountain and let me remember who I am. Travis may be subject to the chemistry but some part of him is also separate from the chemistry. I’m not sure I believe that.

So am I just chemistry? When I am high or low does my whole personhood change? Or is there a person in my brain somewhere separate that somehow gets “filtered” by the bipolar disease? Some people even believe that our personhood is spiritual but I’m not willing to go that far. Trying to describe how a spiritual personhood interacts with a chemical disorder and chemical medicines stretches things too far for me[2][3]. That may be an inadequate response for some, but to me inadequate proof is reason enough to disbelieve. Personally I think if we are spirits, then chemistry should have little or no effect–yet it does.

I guess if I have to make a conclusion, I believe that our personhood is encoded in our brain and that it is affected by the chemical imbalances of bipolar disorder. The fact that the same person keeps coming back mood swing after mood swing leads me to believe that the personhood is set. I may be affected by chemistry, but something in there is permanent.

[1] http://bipolar.about.com/od/lithium/a/010312_lithium1.htm

[2] As a computer programmer I am perfectly fine thinking of the human brain as a staggeringly complex biological computer–especially since we basically know how it works.

[3] Trying to understand how the brain could interface with an undetectable spiritual energy field, and how that energy field could maintain a coherent pattern using another undetectable mechanism, is too much for me to imagine–especially since there is no need for it. The brain does everything we need except transmit the consciousness.

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  1. March 1, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    This is fascinating. I hadn’t done much epistemological thinking since I graduated from university.

    I think your conclusion is sound, however, that the “middle” you is the You.

    I agree with the spiritual thoughts. Does one say “I am a body” or “I have a body”? I can more easily believe our consciousness, intelligence can be transmitted or stored in another medium, but not without one.

    Running with your computer analogy, then the issue is with the hardware; The software is sound, but if the hard drive overheats it won’t matter one whit how good the programming is.

    (My G4 tower had this issue with a secondary hard drive I had stacked on top of it without a proper frame to allow airflow between the two. Oops.)

    So, perhaps the meds are like installing a heavy duty fan and cooling fins.

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