Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?The actual words written by Ian McEwan, in his novel Saturday about a day in the life of a neurosurgeon, are worthy of awe of the human mind. In a recent blog post I referred to a piece by psychologist Gary Marcus in which he calls attention to "the trouble with brain science." Perhaps inspired by this very piece of writing, he refers to the lack of a bridge between neuroscience and psychology comparable to the bridge between genetics and living beings that discovery of the double helix provided.
I describe how absence of this bridge is the problem inherent in the oft-used comparison between depression, or ADHD, and diabetes. NIMH director Thomas Insel has called for a study of the neuroscience of mental illness in the same way we study cancer, food allergies, and diabetes.
Diabetes is a disorder of insulin metabolism. Insulin is produced in the pancreas. For the pancreas, there is no corresponding mind in the realm of thoughts and feelings. The pancreas does not love, does not grieve, does not produce great literature.
This wish to compare psychological experience to physical illness ostensibly comes from a wish to destigmatize emotional suffering. But in fact it may have the opposite effect, as it devalues the human relationships. It is an effort to apply certainty to situations ripe with uncertainty.
There is a dark side to the certainty of neuroscience. Years ago I treated a young girl, Charlotte, who had been diagnosed with ADHD by a previous doctor. I took over her care, following the standard practice in pediatrics for visits every 3 months for review of "symptoms" of hyperactivity and inattention and adjustment of medications. When she continued to struggle, her parents paid a large sum of money to have a brain scan done by a doctor who claimed to identify the exact location of her problem. Despite the alleged certainty of these results, her "symptoms" continued. I referred the family to a therapist, but lost touch with them when I left that practice.
Recently I learned from her mother, Jennifer, when I ran in to her on the street, that she was doing much better. "I know why," she told me. She had hidden from me, and from herself, that all along Charlotte's stepfather had been physically and emotionally abusing her. Only now, with this story brought to light, could she begin to heal.
Missing from treatment of this girl was not knowledge of brain science, but time for listening. In 30-minute visits every three months, with Charlotte and Jennifer together in the room, neither she nor her mother felt safe enough to share what was really going on.
The week between Rosh Hashannah, the days of Awe, and Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, seems an appropriate occasion for contemplating these issues. It offers an opportunity for awe at the wonder of the human mind. It might also offer opportunity to atone for not listening to children like Charlotte. When we make diagnoses, and use brain scans to verify them, we may miss the complexity of human experience. The essence of being human is the ability to find meaning in behavior. I hope that going forward, we can protect space and time to listen, to discover that meaning. We are not likely to find it on a brain scan.