Mental Health I: Physical Factors
After weeks spent on the Herculean task of traveling in times of government-mandated lockdown, it's time to get this page working again! Throughout this week, I will talk about mental illness - its nature, its causes, and its relationship to free will.
Mental illness is the partial or complete loss of one or more mental faculties. The first thing to keep in mind is that mental illnesses are not diseases, like AIDS or COVID, which are caused by a specific pathogen - or one specific factor - but syndromes. A mental faculty is the result of complex interactions between multiple factors, and any imbalance in these interactions can hinder or extinguish the resulting faculty. These factors are of four types: physical, environmental, structural, and volitional.
The first type is that of innate physical factors. Every mental process is mediated by physical processes, from the chemical reactions inside a single cell, to the complex workings of one's neurological and endocrine systems. Although nurture marginally influences the nature of these processes, they are essentially determined by our genes. They do not define mental actions or mental content, as materialists claim, but the mind is not independent of them, as idealists believe. Mind and body are aspects of the same existent - the act of thinking IS the act of directing these physical processes.
Let's take schizophrenia - the loss of the faculty of coordinating mental processes - as an example. There are several physical factors linked with schizophrenia, from the high sensitivity of one's serotonin and dopamine neuroreceptors, to the low density of one's upper cortex. Although these factors correlate with the illness, none of them are definitive. In other words, some are born with every single risk factor, and live completely healthy lives, while others are born with none of them, yet develop severe schizophrenia.
Why is that?
Because every single person has the potential to lose that faculty, under certain circumstances. If you take a completely healthy person and deprive it of sleep for a few days, it will start to hallucinate, and lose track of its individuality. Every faculty is subject to stress - we are able to maintain it, to varying degrees, despite sub-optimal interactions between the factors that give rise to it. Our physical structure defines what level of stress we can endure before losing these faculties, and the rate at which we lose it - but not the amount of stress we will be subject to in the first place.
A good analogy is thinking of our physical makeup as our car - the means we use to get from point A to point B. A person born with the neuro-endocrine equivalent of a Humvee can be subject to all sorts of rough roads, and does not need to be a particularly skillful driver - the car is so resilient that it will only break down under very extreme circumstances. On the other hand, someone born with the equivalent of a 3-wheeled VW Bug needs to be a very skilled driver, and avoid troublesome roads, or his car will give out. Someone born without wheels, or an engine, will not be able to drive anywhere, regardless of what they do.
- July 7th, 2020