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Just chemicals in the brain?

A patient said to me the other day that her GP had told her that the feelings of anxiety and panic she was suffering from were just due to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. In some ways, I suppose, that is an attractive idea, since it may suggest that there is nothing wrong with us really, the anxiety is not ‘our fault’, any more than it is our fault if we catch a cold. Also it may suggest that it can be easily fixed – just take the right pills to sort out those chemicals.

I wonder, however, where such an essentially materialist view of what it is to be a human being leads to. If our anxiety is just chemicals in the brain, what about the rest of what we experience? Love, for example, or compassion? Is that to be reduced to just some kind of chemical shift? It seems to me that the question of what it is to be a human being is a question which is being asked of anyone who suffers, like my patient, from anxiety, or other mental problems such as depression. And it is being asked, for that matter, of anyone who tries to help such patients. Its clear that something is wrong – and with such patients it is certainly clear that it is not just something they have imagined or made up – but what is it that is wrong? Is it just that there is a chemical imbalance in the brain? To me that seems like a desperately impoverished view of humanity. (One can also question how true it is – check out the article “The Myth of the Chemical Cure” by Dr. Joanna Moncrieff at

I am not, by the way, saying that pharmaceutical drugs such as anti-depressants are bad. I know some people who feel that they have been helped by these drugs. But I don’t think they can be anything other than a help along the way, something which gives us the breathing space to address our life and the questions we face. And I wonder if sometimes they don’t just defer having to deal with the basic issues that need dealing with.

When I see patients who come to The Sean Barkes Clinic because they are suffering from their mental state – anxiety, depression etc – I often find myself thinking that their problem is also (and I know this sounds like a cliché!) an opportunity. I am reminded of a story told about the psychologist C G Jung, that when a patient came in to see him saying something like, “I feel terrible, my wife has just left me!”, or “I’m ruined! They’ve given me the sack!”, Jung would respond by opening a bottle of champagne, to celebrate the glorious opportunity which had presented itself. One wonders whether any of his patients were tempted to throw the champagne in his face, but nevertheless the story illustrates an important point.

Jung thought that human life was about a process of ‘individuation’, a journey to wholeness if you will. Moments of crisis, when our usual way of being have broken down, are also opportunities to move closer to our true self, to become more whole, to become less of a fragmented person. In Chinese Medicine we sometimes talk about ‘destiny’, by which is not meant a fixed fate to which we are inexorably driven, but something more like the path we need to follow through life in order to realise our unique and individual potential most fully. From this perspective, patients suffering from their mental states have gotten a bit stuck on this path, have lost touch with their destiny, and what we need to do to help them is not just to make their anxiety or depression ‘go away’ so that they can ‘get back to normal’, but to help them to see their way forward, to help them to fulfill their destiny. Far from being just an imbalance in brain chemistry, their suffering is telling them something crucial about their life. (I think also here of art – quite often great art seems to come from suffering, and is perhaps a way the artist has of making sense of, and moving on from, his or her pain; what would have happened, I wonder, if all the great poets had been prescribed anti-depressants!)

Of course this is often no easy matter. One of the advantages of acupuncture, however, is that it is rooted in a way of thinking which has such a rich and profound, even poetic, understanding of the human condition. Without such an understanding, how can one hope to make progress? Furthermore, in this understanding the distinction we tend to make in the west between the psychological and the physical, or even the spiritual and the material, does not obtain. Thus we find that certain areas of the body, or points on the surface of the body, have relation to the psyche or spirit. For example, there are a number of points on the upper body which in the ancient Chinese medical tradition are known as ‘Window of Heaven’ points. Acupuncture treatment of these points, correctly applied, can help open our eyes to the way forward, can help us to look out and see ‘Heaven’ – which is not some fancy place in the sky but the state of being utterly ourselves, totally fulfilled. The human being lives his or her life, in this view, midway between heaven and earth; to be healthy we need the stability and rootedness of contact with the earth, and we need to be able to look up to the sky, to the heavens. In our world we often lose both of these, so it is no wonder we get ill.

To me, anyway, such a conception of what it is to be a human being is so much more satisfying than a materialist one. If problems are just chemical imbalances, I don’t know if I can be bothered to do anything about them! Whereas if they are a disorientation of heaven and earth, an alienation from destiny, something in me will stir to respond.

Written by Vimalaprabha


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