Blue Dreams is a new book by Lauren Slater – its describes the drugs that have been invented to treat mental illness. Lauren is a science journalist who has needed some of those drugs. Its a very well written book, with both fascinating history and science in it. But lets concentrate here on the science.
The question we will ask is, can character flaws be created by a simple neurotransmitter imbalance?
I think the answer is yes, because of this paragraph in her book (warning: she includes some explicit terms):
Because Prozac dampens the sex drive, psychiatrists often use it to treat compulsive masturbators and others with heightened libido or sexual-addiction disorders that leave their lives in shreds. Martin Kafka, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts,…, has an entire practice comprising men who are addicted to sex. These are largely married men who nevertheless seek out prostitutes and pornography, not once a day, not twice day, but twenty or thirty times in a twenty-four-hour period. Men haunted and ravaged by their own internal fires, men eaten alive by uncontrollable desire, men whose brains are likely damp with dopamine coursing down dendrites and being sucked up by axons in a never-ending obsessive circuit. Kafka is not the only psycho-pharmacologist who uses Prozac and its chemical cousins in this manner. The literature is rife with cases […], all trained and tamed by serotonin-boosting drugs. Kafka has seen these drugs turn men around, has seen his patients go from the far fringes of fantasy, pornography, and prostitution to surprisingly conventional existences, picket fence and all.
Sex addicts for whom Prozac allows a normal life, most of whom are men, generally tend to be grateful…
So here we have a drug giving people the willpower to lead decent lives. I think this is remarkable.
Conversely, the author says this about Zyprexa, a drug that she takes because the alternative is worse:
…the problem with Zyprexa was that it so intensified my appetite that it was beyond satiation, so that the mere mention of food caused my mouth to water….As the Zyprexa toyed first with my metabolism and then with my body, my weight went up, up, up, with the end result that I am now an overweight diabetic. High blood sugar is destroying my eyesight, so that without glasses everything looks fuzzy….My high sugar has also caused my kidneys to malfunction…
To sum up: we have a drug (Zyprexa) that reduces willpower, or drowns it out with a strong urge to eat. You could say it causes a character flaw.
Prozac increases the levels of serotonin at synapses. Zyprexa blocks or lessens the effects of dopamine and serotonin. It is not known if these are the only effects, or why those effects have curative properties.
We like to believe we are in charge – but if a chemical can make us a slave to our impulses – or conversely free us from impulses, what does this say for human responsibility, guilt, and shame?
Serotonin, the neurotransmitter directly affected by Zyprexa, also occurs in wasps, earthworms, and lobsters. The author of “12 Rules For Life”, Jordan Peterson, studied lobsters, and noted that they had a social hierarchy, and if you were a lucky respected lobster, you had high serotonin.
Lauren Slater points out that serotonin interacts with many other neurotransmitter systems, and so why drugs such as Zyprexa or Prozac work at all is not known.
I’m not trying here to make excuses for every out-of-control rascal, (“I was made that way, I can’t help it), but it is interesting that one of our presidents, JFK, when asked why he pursued so many ‘affairs’, replied “I can’t help it”. Maybe that wasn’t just an excuse!
(note: Lauren Slater says there is no proof that these drugs address a simple ‘neurotransmitter imbalance’. Nonetheless, whatever is going on is being alleviated by a single chemical taken in pill form.)