Hello everyone –
I am sorry that some time has passed since my latest informative posts here. I hope to take up the blog on a regular basis very soon now, read: days. The emphasis will be on the biological side of the disorder. I think for some it will require quite a bit of courage to accept the idea that OCD comes with ‘abnormal’ structures in our brains. If you have been brought up with, and educated in the view that our mental life, our mind, our soul if you will, is non-material, then it may seem odd to couple disorders of the mind, of our thinking, feeling and acting, with visible, almost ‘tangible’ alterations in brain structures.
Yet it is impossible to avoid neurobiological findings in connection with psychiatric disorders. We will see ample evidence of aberrations in certain brain areas that occur in people with OCD. These changes are structural (the areas and brain tracks look different), and functional (they operate differently, and their inner chemistry is altered).
Does all of this destroy the concept of a ‘soul’, the idea of a wholistic ‘mind’ that constitutes our personality? Does it reduce us to robots, in which here and there a piece of wiring, and/or a couple of transistors are dysfunctional?
No. Neither a healthy person, nor someone with OCD (or, for that matter, schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other psychiatric afflictions), is a combination of pieces of machinery and electronic devices; no one experiences him- or herself this way, and that is what counts. Call it a basic mystery of life: we feel to be a unity. We even, in the case of OCD, can perceive that there is something wrong, and we can eloquently phrase what exactly is wrong. But that does not alter that experience of one-ness. Our identity is intact. (I must make a preliminary exception here for multiple-personality disorder, although the nature of this illness is a matter of heated debate, as you may know.)
Technical, scientific descriptions are not the same as a personal experience, perhaps this inequality (‘incommensurability’) helps to understand the above. Imagine a rose. A shiny red rose. A scientist can make a photograph of it. He can measure the flow of water and nutrients in its parts. He can very precisely measure the frequency of the light that that rose reflects. He can fill whole books with the physical properties of the rose. Details galore, and the rose has virtually become a machine, if you will.
But: the scientist can’t explain the feeling we undergo, the wonder and amazement, the thrill in our senses, the poetry of the rose. Explanation and description are one side of the story, sensation and feeling are another, and never the twain shall meet. It’s scientific reductionism versus experiential wholism.
This being out of the way, I want to add that accepting the idea that certain brain parts are affected in OCD, and knowing which parts, offers two enormous advantages:
- the stigma that adhered to psychiatric disorders for centuries can be done away with by patients and scientists alike. Once one has become familiar with the concept of ‘abnormalities in the brain’, the ghastly myth of ‘being possessed by an evil spirit’, or: ‘being barking mad, irreparably so’, is no longer valid. It is, directly put, a junk myth. OCD can thus be seen in a new light: as a physical difference, not unlike a broken arm, or a rib with a concussion;
- there are new and identifiable targets to construct new therapies for OCD and other mental disorders. If we know what area is altered, we can investigate that area further. How does its structure look like? What cells are in there? How do these cells connect with one another? What exactly in that area is different from the situation in a healthy person? What substances (neurotransmitters, stuff connected to metabolism, to energy supply, to the production of proteins programmed by the genetic code, and many other molecules implicated) are changed in quality and/or quality? In brief: with modern techniques, we’re blessed to obtain a wealth of inroads to investigate possible methods to heal. Yes, the exorcist is someone from the distant past.