When the mind is like software, then how can pills for treating the hardware – the brain – cure mental problems?

by Chaitanya Charan dasJanuary 31, 2017

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Transcribed and edited byNayanasundari Devi Dasi

QuestionIf the body is like hardware and mind like software then how is it that by giving pills, people’s mental problems can be addressed?

Answer (short)

  • Brain is like a hardware and mind is like a software. Just like software needs an undamaged hardware to function properly, mind also needs healthy brain to function properly. Many of the mental (or mind) problems are sometimes actually related to brain.
  • Two kinds of mental problems may relate to the brain – structural damage and biochemical imbalance. When the problem is at the level of the brain, taking pills will help solve the problem.
  • Other mental problems are actually psychological problems and taking pills will not help. For example, anxiety exists for many of us but most people do not need medicine for that. Such problems require more human solution.
  • One of challenges with mental problems is that they difficult to diagnose whether it is related to brain (hardware) or mind (software).
  • The brain and the mind are connected and their connection is more correlational than causal. We cannot deny the role of either of the two in a person’s overall wellbeing.

Answer (long)

The word mind is used very commonly in various departments and various areas of knowledge. It has different meaning in different context. For example, the word, “mind”, as it is used in the Bhagawad Gita, refers to a specific level of reality. We have gross matter, soul and mind. In the western philosophy, they talk about mind-matter duality and mind is often equated with the soul. This implies that the non-physical aspect of our being is known as mind and equated with soul also. According to western materialists, mind is simply an epi-phenomenon (i.e. byproduct of another phenomenon) of the brain. When the engine is running, the smoke comes out. Similarly when the brain is functioning, consciousness emerges from there.

The mind is subtle. Subtle mind requires certain gross instruments for functioning. Just as mind desires, “I want to eat something”. It requires tools like a hand to catch it and mouth to eat it. Similarly, brain is the physical mechanism that is required by the mind for information processing. Dendrites and synapses get connected in the brain and the various cells come together at contact points; through these contact points the information is transmitted.  There is something called as software and then we have the hardware through which the software is operated. The brain is like the CPU or the hardware. The mind is the software or IOS.

In today’s world, someone might have some mental problems. Let’s understand what does the term ‘mental problem’ mean?

When we talk about mental problems, we need to understand that some of the problems may actually be brain related problems.  Two kinds of problems may relate to the brain.

  1. Structural damage and
  2. Biochemical imbalance.

When there is certain structural damage in the brain, it’s like a particular part of the hardware is damaged. Then even if the software is still functional, it will not show desired results because the hardware part which is a tool is damaged. Without the tool the software cannot work. Similarly certain aspects of thinking, feeling or acting can be impeded, though they originally come through the soul, they are routed through the mind. The brain is the tool which is required for that. In this way the structural damage of the brain can affect the behavior of the person. Similarly the chemical imbalance in the brain can cause problems too, because the brain is basically a device and it requires certain chemicals for proper functioning. If a hormone or enzyme goes down, that may affect particular faculties of functioning.

So there are 2 different fields -psychology and psychiatry. Psychiatry is more brain centered and comes under a field of sciences. Psychology is more behavior centered and comes under field of arts. The two are related. Psychologists and psychiatrists are two distinct professions. If a person has any structural or chemical problem within the brain, although we may call it as mental problem, it’s not actually a mental problem. It is a brain related problem. That can be addressed by appropriate way e.g. by some surgery to correct the structural damage or by giving some pills to correct the biochemical imbalance.

I know one devotee who has a biochemical imbalance, because of which he couldn’t sleep for one and half year. He tried various things but nothing worked. Finally after visiting a doctor, it was found that he had some chemical imbalance, because of which the conditions required for sleeping were getting disrupted. Doctor gave him one injection, and he went off to sleep peacefully. So we cannot say that all problems are necessarily simply mental.  They can be related to brain’s structural imbalance and they need to be treated accordingly.

One extreme is to deny the brain’s role and other extreme is to deny the mind’s role. That means for every single mental problem, one may try to solve it by taking a pill. If someone has some anxiety, he is advised to take certain kinds of pills called as tranquilizer. These pills have become so popular that a book was written on them, called “Age of anxiety – the history of America’s turbulent love affair with tranquilizers”. People who are in hi-stress profession like movies, business, etc. they found that by taking these tranquilizers they could stay really cool. This has become a very big industry. But none of these tranquilizers can keep you tranquil for a long time and often these tranquilizers’ effects are not tested adequately.  They have lots of side effects too. In the above book the author says, “For biochemical problems one can have biochemical solutions, but for human problems, one cannot have chemical solutions”.

When we are happy and cheerful, a particular chemical is secreted in the brain. By artificially taking a pill, which increases the secretion of that chemical in the brain, that’s not going to make me happy. If somebody has lost a loved one and he is grieving, taking a pill is not going to help one overcome this grief. One has to go through the natural process of grieving, accepting, learning and growing beyond it.

One attempt is to pathologize all human problems, which means considering every problem as a disease, and taking pills accordingly, which is also bad. Many people go to mental health professionals, for mental care for small problems, for them it may feel like big problem, but it’s more of a human problem which needs human solution. Other extreme especially in our devotee circle is, if anybody has a mental problem, he is given advice that ‘you just have to become stronger mentally, may be Chant Hare Krishna”. We shouldn’t see the spiritual and the scientific as competitors. Sometimes few devotees may have some problem in the brain. That’s not a sign of weakness. Just like somebody may have a hand fracture or acidity or structural chemical problem in the brain and that can be cured by proper treatment.

The whole problem with the brain related issues is that most of the time the problem is not easily diagnosed. So if someone has malaria, a blood sample is drawn, and if a certain kind of bacteria is present in the blood that’s an indication of malaria. But in case of behavioral problems and brain problems, it’s not so easy to diagnose. So if there is a clear diagnosis, that there is some structural imbalance or there is this biochemical imbalance, then it’s good to take medication. Otherwise when there is no clear diagnosis, a name is given to some behavioral problem – “Acute anxiety syndrome” or something like that. Anxiety exists for many of us but most people do not need medicine for that.

So both extremes have to be avoided –

  1. To reduce everything to the brain &
  2. To reduce everything to the mind and deny the role of brain.

The brain and the mind are connected and their connection is more correlational than causal. Correlational means when I am happy a particular chemical is secreted in the brain, but the secretion of chemicals is not the cause of happiness. It’s a correlation. So correlation is important to understand, but we can’t equate it to causal. There shouldn’t be any stigma for anyone who is taking any mental health counselling. If somebody feels the need, he can take it. But that should not become a trend, as I have a problem I have to go to a mental health care.  But especially if there are structural or chemical issues, and they are clearly diagnosable, taking treatment is essential for addressing it.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan das

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