A New Mode of Self: How Pharmaceutical Companies Hijacked the Brain

by Samara Steele

A few years ago, I was given a prescription for Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SRIs) for a seizure disorder. Like cocaine (which is technically an SRI), pharmaceutical-grade SRIs prevent your brain from reabsorbing serotonin (“the happy chemical”), causing old serotonin to float around with nowhere to go, creating a sort of pleasant “hazy” feeling. SRIs are usually used to treat depressive disorder, but my neurologist explained that they sometimes prevent seizures.

For my first year on the drug, it seemed to be helping my epilepsy. But after two years, I started having problems. My thinking got fuzzy, it became difficult to use language, and for the first time in my life, I found it nearly impossible to make new friends.

I spent another year feeling like a zombie before I realized the SRIs were to blame. I stopped taking them, and after a painful period of withdrawal, I started feeling like I could think again. Recovery has been slow, though, and in the two years since I’ve been clean, I’ve had to gradually rebuild the skills I lost. Everything from my balance to my body-awareness to my short-term memory is still screwed up.

Sadly, I am not the only one who has been royally screwed  over by psychiatric medication.

In his latest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Rise of Mental Illness (2010), journalist Robert Whitaker shows how each type of psycho-pharmaceutical drug has its own unique way of damaging and debilitating its user. According to Whitaker, before psychiatric drugs came into mainstream use, 85% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder could return to their jobs within a year of diagnosis, and suffered no long-term brain damage. But now – with drugs being prescribed to a majority of bipolar patients – less than 30% can return to work, and most of them suffer from long-term cognitive impairment!

Whitaker’s book contains a bounty of scientific studies that show how the drugs used to treat “anxiety,” “depression,” “bipolar disorder,” and “schizophrenia” cause more harm than good. The author has made these studies free to the public at the Mad in America Website.

The bottom line is: Psycho-pharmaceutical drugs are not safe. They prolong the illnesses they are supposed to treat and cause long-term brain damage. (Not to mention the “official” side effects: liver damage, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, kidney failure, birth defects, increased risk of suicide among children – the list goes on and on!) Yet, today, 1 in 8 Americans is on a psychotropic medication, with these dangerous drugs being prescribed to children less than two years old!

This creates a bit of a mystery: if these drugs are so bad, why are people taking them?

I believe the foremost cause is the rise of an idea/practice of the treating the brain as self: treating yourself as if you are nothing more than a passive brain.

For the last two decades, pop-science writers and have been working relentlessly to convince people that they are their brains. The goal of these writers often is connected to opposition to religion. They think that, by convincing people they are simply brains, the idea of the soul will disappear and religion will vanish.

A good example of this kind of writing can be found in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1994) by geneticist Francis Crick. On the opening page of the book, Crick writes: “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” The book goes on for several hundred more pages, promoting the idea that the “self” is completely isolated to the brain.

In contrast, cognitive theorist Alva Noë is an adamant opponent of the idea of the brain-self, and in his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain (2009), he explains, “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. ….consciousness is the achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.” Alva also says that the idea of the brain-self is dangerous to individuals who use it.

But Alva’s words often fall on deaf ears. For decades we have been conditioned by “educational” magazine articles, books, and TV programs to think of ourselves as our brains. This leads us to believe that our thoughts, feelings, and urges are the results of “brain chemistry” over which we have no control.

So, when a believer in the brain-self has behavioral problems, unwanted thoughts, or uncomfortable moods, she observes herself passively and does not feel empowered to change. She is locked out of her own internality. Furthermore, traditional aspects of human culture like “love” and “free will” come into doubt. “If these things exist,” the logic goes, “they must already be hard-wired into my brain.” So the individual stops working to cultivate these things – she stops developing her personality. And she begins to feel miserable. Then she sees an advertisement…

The 40-billion-dollar psycho-pharmaceutical industry has hired a small army of advertisers and lobbyists to manipulate people into believing that their drugs will provide happiness, completeness, and a quick fix to all of one’s problems. And when someone believes they are their brain, these drugs seem like their only hope.

Many drug ads are also designed to make people think they have a mental illness when they don’t.

So the individual makes an appointment with a “psychiatrist” (they really should just be called “dealers” now…or maybe “priests” would be a better term).

Just as the Catholic Church stole the Platonic soul by claiming that their priests were the only ones with access to it, the institution of brain-based psychology has co-opted Freudian terms, (the word “psychology,” for example) and claimed that their agents are the only ones who can access an individual’s internality. Just as the Catholic priests held souls hostage, these new psychiatrists hold brains hostage.

Unlike Freudian psychiatrists of the past, these new brain-based psychiatrists do not talk to patients about their thoughts and feelings. Instead, like a Catholic priest in a confessional, a brain-based psychiatrist asks for a list of “symptoms” (sins) for which she administers a “medication” (absolution/communion). And, like medieval peasants on communion, patients fetishize these drugs (“These pills are saving me from my brain disorder!”), developing a deep emotional attachment. But unlike communion wafers, these drugs alter a person’s basic ability to think, express emotion, and feel desire – making it even more difficult to get away.

So, instead of dismantling religion, the idea of the “brain-self” has given rise to the Cult of the Psycho-pharmaceutical, with both patients and psychiatrists sucked into this oppressive structure of beliefs and rituals.

That’s right, the psychiatrists are believers themselves. One reason for this is that many “trusted” leaders in the field have sold out. For example, Dr. Joseph Biederman, a full Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, received 1.6 million dollars from drug companies from 2000 to 2007. In exchange, Dr. Jo authored dozens of “scientific” papers promoting the use of ADHD medications. Countless other field leaders let the drug companies buy them out, creating a sea of mis-information disguised as science.

On top of this, drug companies market directly to psychiatric practitioners, using even more intense propaganda than what the public sees. Additionally, a majority of psychology professors have been converted to pharmaceutical psychiatry, so most psychology students are only exposed to the doctrine of medication.

And it’s hard watching someone suffer. Who can blame psychiatrists for wanting there to be a quick fix for their patients’ problems? In their desire to help patients, they are led by their emotions to believe that the drugs work. The neurologist who put me on SRIs, for example, was also using them herself.

But the reality is, we have problems no pill can fix.

The global economy has entered a phase of Late Capitalism in which individuals are becoming increasingly isolated, environmental conditions are disintegrating, and the majority of the populace is working harder and harder for the benefit of a handful of elites. Then, when people are unhappy in this shitty situation, they are told they have a “brain disorder.”

By blaming our emotional problems on our own biology, we fail to look outside ourselves for alternative causes. Reality disorders – problems with the environment, social order, and workplace – go ignored while people obsessively drug their brains into oblivion.

Thanks to the idea/practice of the brain-self, the capitalist mode of production has infiltrated our bodies and penetrated our core beings. Our moods, thoughts, and emotions have been transformed into commodities to be sold back to us. And, as Late Capitalism slouches towards Neo-feudalism, we are stripped of our revolutionary potential.

Michel Foucault once wrote, “The body is the prisoner of the soul,” but more than ever, the body is becoming prisoner of the brain.

Lately, I’ve started seeing an acupuncturist once a week. Besides the needlework, she prescribes herbs and helps me plan my diet. My epilepsy has gotten much better, even though she isn’t specifically treating it: she and I are working together to take care of my whole body.

In the meantime, I’ve been obsessively reading real scientific articles about the brain, trying to get a better idea of what it actually is.

One thing I’ve learned is that the brain doesn’t just “stop learning” at some stage in development. The brain can actually stay “plastic” throughout adulthood, meaning you have the ability to learn new things your whole life. No matter how old you are, your brain isn’t written yet. You always have the power to change.

The brain is just part of the nervous system, which is just part of the whole body. Whatever you do with your body is going to have a direct effect on your brain. If your body receives healthy levels of exercise, wholesome food, sunlight, fresh air, and frequent human interaction, the brain remains healthy and “plastic.” But if the body doesn’t receive these things, the brain becomes “depressed,” impairing the brain’s ability to make new connections. This makes it harder for the person to learn new things, and can lead to other disorders.

Our Late Capitalist system keeps most people too busy to engage in the healthy lifestyle needed to keep the brain “plastic.” If, as a culture, we had time to prepare and eat healthy food, exercise at least three times a week, hang out in the sun, breathe fresh air, and actively socialize for an hour or two a day, most of the “illnesses” psycho-pharmaceutical drugs treat would be cured.

Ultimately, the brain is the tool of the spirit. Whatever we strive to become, the brain will re-wire itself to support us. If we practice love, our brains become better at loving. If we cultivate free-will and practice making educated decisions, our brains will become better at that. The active-brain is a reminder that all of our thoughts and actions matter in this huge task of forming our identities as liberated human beings.

The Slow Mood Movement

It is not enough to merely reject the brain-self. New ideas of the self must develop to take its place. The Slow Mood Movement is all about re-thinking the way we think of ourselves. Inspired by the Slow Food Movement’s rejection of fast food, Slow Mood aims to resist the buying and selling of “fast moods.”

Here’s an excerpt of their manifesto: “We are taking it slow. Slowly learning to feel our inner states. Slowly developing the cognitive tools needed to make healthy decisions for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Slowly learning to expand our emotions to connect with other people as people, not functions. We know these things can’t be given to us instantly. We have to build these things ourselves, over time.”

To get involved, see their website: http://slowmoodmovement.wordpress.com