The complexity and mystery of the human brain continues to fascinate and mystify us. That complexity entices researchers to continue extensive studies that have allowed us to understand some of the functions, connections, disorders and workings of the brain.
That understanding leads to treatment and hope for many illnesses and mental health disorders that were once thought to be the passing down of traits or the random disbursements of chance that made some people “different.”
Today, as Nobel Prize winning psychiatrist Eric R. Kandel shows us, many specific findings related to autism, depression, schizophrenia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Parkinson’s Disease can be pinpointed to some areas or functions of the brain. In studying the brain functions of people with disorders, scientists discover important connections to other brain functions.
Kandel's book, The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us about Ourselves, published in 2018, is both a detailed examination of scientific research that has given us more understanding of the brain and a hopeful view of steps along the way to help us understand the complexity of human behavior.
Kandel says, for example, “Today’s brain-imaging technologies...have enabled scientists to identify at least some components of the neural circuit responsible for depression.” With patients who volunteer for research studies, scientists have come to understand which patterns of neural activity are altered, so they can examine the effects of antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy.
These important studies have made the treatment of depression more specific.
“Recent brain imaging technology has allowed scientists to identify biological markers in the brain that indicate which patients would benefit from just psychotherapy and which patients would need both drug treatment and psychotherapy,” says Kandel.
Kandel points to research that has found that genes play an extremely important role in autism. But the human body and the brain have many variables.
Autism is not a simple one-gene, one-disease disorder, says Kandel. Many genes are likely to contribute to the risk of autism.
“We cannot rule out environmental factors because all behavior is shaped by the interplay between genes and the environment,” says Kandel.
Overall, studies of the brain related to autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia and mood disorders have made important contributions to the understanding of the healthy brain, says Kandel.
The book includes extremely detailed neurological information and diagrams related to several disorders, so it provides a solid foundation on which to understand scientific findings and to confirm that one finding often leads to important discoveries about other brain functions.
For that reason, this book is not a quick read, but for those who seek understanding of these important issues that affect so many families in one way or another, it provides a solid grounding in the most recent neurological research.
One interesting portion of the book delves into creativity and how it is affected by the brain.
“Although we know little about the biology of creativity, it is clear that creativity entails the lifting of inhibitions,” says Kandel.
“Creative people experience moments in their work in which they undergo, in a controlled manner, a relatively free communication between the unconscious and conscious parts of their mind,” says Kandel. “Because unconscious thinking is freer and more likely to be associative - it is characterized by images as opposed to abstract concepts - it facilitates the emergence of “Aha” moments that promote new combinations and permutations of ideas.”
For all the scientific discoveries that have allowed researchers to see the brain through imaging, to pinpoint areas with disorders that are different from most brains, and to use findings to specify effective treatments for many disorders that help people to function in daily life, many endless mysteries of the brain remain. The brain is physical and many of its functions can now be studied.
“Brain disorders result when some parts of the brain’s circuitry - the network of neurons and synapses they form - is overactive, inactive, or unable to communicate effectively,” says Kandel.
Human beings have a waking consciousness, as well as dreams and a profound and mysterious consciousness during sleep. We have shifting moods that can change on a dime, influenced by interactions with others. We plan, we imagine, we are persistent or disenchanted. We make decisions, get angry, feel kind, fall in love. While studies of the brain can offer some insight into why and how we manage individual consciousness, much is unknown.
Kandel’s conclusion on that subject is: “Consciousness remains a mystery.”
Kandel, E.R. (2018). The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Jasanoff, Alan, “A Nobel Laureate Asks What Makes A ‘Disordered Mind’,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 2018.