Does My Body Make Me Do It?

The New Zealand Herald recently featured the tragic story of a nanny accused of stabbing to death the children under her care. Whether she is guilty or not is yet to be known, but this hasn't stopped the speculations over motive and cause. Assuming the nanny did this terrible act, what would cause her to do such a thing? Here is one person's opinion (quoted from the Herald article):

Sharon Weatley, a writer and actress who is a former nanny herself and now relies on baby sitters to take care of her daughters, ages 4 and 14, said that if Ortega did indeed kill the children, "she is obviously crazy and this is a chemical imbalance going on in a horrifically tragic situation."

Now this lady is no doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist. She has no access to the inner workings of the nanny's brain. She hasn't performed any tests from which she draws her conclusions. How does she know that this is the result of a chemical imbalance? What we have here is a person trying to interpret 'crazy' behaviour according to the categories she has been taught. This story illustrates the current popular level acceptance of 'chemical imbalances' as the fundamental explanation for the cause of many behavioural problems.

As part of my studies towards a Masters in Biblical Counselling, I have been working my way through Essentials of Abnormal Psychology: Sixth Edition. Updated in 2012, this book represents the cutting edge in the field of Psychology. In reading through it, I have been taking a special interest in what it says regarding biology as a causal factor in psychological problems. Do psychologists agree that chemical imbalances are to blame for 'crazy'? Let me summarise what I have read in three points.

Biology Has An Influence In Psychological Problems

'Scientists have identified, in a preliminary way, the genetic contribution to psychological disorders and related behaviour patterns. The best estimates attribute about half of our enduring personality traits and cognitive abilities to genetic influence.' (35)
'For psychological disorders, the evidence indicates that genetic factors contribute to all disorders but account for less than half of the explanation. If one of a pair of identical twins has schizophrenia, there is a less than 50% likelihood that the other twin will also have the illness... Similar or lower rates exist for other psychological disorders.' (36)

This should not surprise us as Biblical Counsellors. The Bible presents us as embodied souls. We recognise that the state of our body influences how we think, feel and behave. For instance, consider situations of tiredness, PMS or intoxication.

Biology Is Not A Determinative Cause Of Psychological Problems

The above quotes, while highlighting the influential effect of genetic factors, also clearly show that such factors do not effectually cause psychological problems. If genes were determinative, we would expect figures around 100% from the identical twin studies since they share the exact same genetic make-up.

This is important. Biology doesn't bypass the will. Even if we are influenced by our body, we remain responsible for our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Biology Is Effected By Behaviour, Cognition and The Environment

'Most of us assume that the brain, like other parts of the body, may be influenced by environmental changes during development. But we also assume that once maturity is reached, the structure and function of most of our physiology are set or, in the case of the brain, hardwired. The competing idea is that the brain and its functions are subject to continual change in response to the environment, even at a genetic level. Now there is evidence supporting that view.' (Page 36)
Several experiments illustrate the interaction of psychosocial factors and brain function. Some even indicate that psychosocial factors directly affect levels of neurotransmitters. (Page 52)
The brain circuits involved in psychological disorders are complex systems identified by pathways of neurotransmitters traversing the brain. The existence of these circuits suggests that the structure and function of the nervous system play major roles in psychopathology. But other research suggests that the circuits are influenced, perhaps even created, by psychological and social factors. Furthermore, both biological interventions, such as drugs, and psychological interventions or experience seem capable of altering the circuits. (page 53)
'It is also now clear based on brain-imaging work that these treatments change brain functioning by modifying neural circuitry - that is, these treatments "rewire" the brain.' (Page 141)

Comments like these were frequent throughout the book. What they show is that brain chemistry is not ultimate. Chemical imbalances are the result of how we respond to the (stressful) circumstances of life. And just as they are formed through 'wrong' patterns of thinking and behaving, so they can be reformed by 'right' patterns of thinking and behaving. This is exactly what Biblical Counsellors are able to do.


For a fuller discussion by a Biblical Counsellor with a lot of experience in this area, check out Blame it on the Brain? by Edward Welch.

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