A little bit of Amen

The Brain in Love
The Brain in Love

So I read some of The Brain in Love by Daniel Amen, M.D.; narrated by Patrick Lawlor.  A few thoughts:

  • The book spends a lot of time talking about brain scans as a key diagnostic tool. At first, it sounded pretty intriguing: peoples’ brains are the root of all their problems! Defective brain patterns account for many of the strange habits we have! But then a few things started to sound weird. First, the Dr. recommended a lot of dietary supplements, including stuff that I am pretty sure gets listed as bunk by many scientists, like Ginkgo. Second, there were only three or four areas of the brain listed, and he regularly returned to these as governors of, well, MANY many behaviors. Dubious.
  • The book also buys into many of the old canards about the sexes with deterministic, brain-scan-based explanations for them. Men don’t like to ask for directions because the direction-asker in their brains is smaller than womens.’ Women think about relationships all the time because their emotion-thinker is bigger (or more active) and so on. Some of these insights ring true (stereotypes often due), but I kept finding myself thinking, “But that’s not really me.” It’s a little like reading a horoscope: you notice the things that fit and leave the rest out.
  • After I finished reading it, I looked up Dr. Amen and found that the brain scans he talks up as the end-all and be-all of psychiatric diagnosis are neither generally supported by the scientific community nor, more importantly in my opinion, backed up by solid scientific research. I noticed that much of his discussion in the book was anecdotal or about studies using really small sample sizes; turns out this is one of the biggest complaints about his work. The general gist seems to be that there COULD be something here, but he hasn’t produced the scientific evidence to prove it.

The part of the book that most interested me, though, was the assertion that our basic personality traits — like being a cranky jerk — are due to elements in our brain that can and should be adjusted by supplements or medication. Which lead me to the classic meditation on self — what does it mean to say I have a certain personality if a small change in diet (such as a specific root or supplement) can drastically change who I am and how I relate to people? Amen’s ideas that we can correct our flaws through these methods underlies a larger question about how we govern who we are. What does it mean to say I’m “better” if I change those ideas? Am I a different person? If someone has always been cranky and they become not-cranky, what is it that has changed?

As always, JoCo has an opinion, in the form of a scifi song about the future in which we use pills to control all our behavior (see also: Gun, with Occasional Music).


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