By Michael J. Reznicek M.D.
The history of psychology is littered with fads and fallacies: the four humors of Hippocrates, phrenology, Freudianism and behaviorism to name a few. More recently we’ve seen the “biochemical imbalance” theory of emotional problems, which has led to a robust pharmaceutical industry to “treat” imbalances.
These seemingly disparate movements share a similar perspective on mental life, namely, that the mind is controlled by mechanistic forces. Whether the forces are hormones, genes, unconscious dynamics, reflexes or neurotransmitters, human consciousness has always been viewed as a byproduct. According to the theory, you may think you’ve been making independent decisions in life, but in reality you’ve been a marionette, performing a scripted dance.
In college I remember thinking that many psychological theories bore an uncanny resemblance to Marxism: reductionistic explanations of human behavior followed by grand prescriptions that seemed to benefit the theorists more than they helped the stated beneficiaries. Centrally-planned economies fail because they misjudge human nature. Creativity and productivity flourish only when there is political and economic freedom. When people feel they can control their destiny, they begin to create it.
Modern psychology is on the cusp of a scientific revolution, and it’s long overdue. Neuroscience has recently shown that the brain is highly plastic and constantly changes to meet the demands that individuals place on themselves. Challenge yourself mentally or physically and your brain will adapt to improve your efficiency and accuracy.
The field of genetics is also undergoing a revolution. Both thoughts and behaviors can open access to genes, which then send instructions throughout the body to reinforce whatever it is we are doing. This heretofore unknown function—what we call “epigenetics”—appears to mediate the plasticity we find in the brain. It’s now more accurate to say that the mind controls biology, rather than vice versa.
In my book, Blowing Smoke: Rethinking the War on Drugs without Prohibition and Rehab, I address one area of old-school psychology—the disease model of addictions—and argue that it neither fits nor helps the problem of drug abuse. Neuroscience and the Berlin Wall teach us something important about the human condition: people thrive when they are not held back. After working with many substance abusers, I’m convinced most of them would move toward moderation if we quit telling them they are diseased, and instead give them their freedom.
Michael J. Reznicek , M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist in Washington state with over 20 years of experience. He has practiced in the military, in hospital-based community settings, in prisons and in state hospitals. He has been a guest on numerous talk-radio shows at the local, national, and international levels to discuss drug abuse.