There are many professionals in the field of psychology and psychiatry that proclaim depression and many other psychological problems are caused by “chemical imbalances” in the brain. The concept “chemical imbalance” is a vague concept, and it normally refers to having the wrong amount (too much or too little) of particular brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) in the brain, which is believed to adversely affect one’s mood and behavior. For example, the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are thought to play a major role in people’s moods, such that if there is not the right balance of these chemicals in our brains, then we are susceptible to problems like depression and bipolar disorder. Researchers say they can show this is true by comparing brain scans of healthy people with scans of depressed (or schizophrenic, etc.) people and see they are different.
The problem is that these brain scans only show there’s a difference in brain chemistry between healthy brains and depressed ones; they do not show what CAUSED the difference. In my view, it is one’s thinking and resulting actions that cause many of these so-called “chemical imbalances”. For example, if you think depressing thoughts all day, you will eventually feel depressed. If this becomes a habitual way of thinking, you will eventually become a depressed person. How could you not? It’s difficult to stay happy and upbeat if all day long you are thinking, “I hate life,” “I am a loser, “No one will love me,” “I have no chance at success,” etc. The result of this negative thinking will have a major effect on your body. The reason you feel depressed is that your body responds physiologically to your thoughts and evaluations, and if those thoughts and evaluations are mostly negative, your body will respond in kind. You will have less energy, your breathing will slow down, your heart rate will slow, you will probably sleep more or less than you normally do, your appetite will diminish, etc. These are all physiological responses to the depressed mood created by your thoughts, and all physiological changes in the body have a chemical component. Therefore, our thoughts can and do change our body chemistry, including our brain chemistry. Thus, our thoughts can be the CAUSE of a change in our brain chemistry, which can result in depression.
Here’s another example. If you break your arm, you will feel pain. The pain is a symptom of your broken arm, just as a “chemical imbalance” may be a symptom of depression. But, although the broken arm is the direct source of my pain, it was not the primary cause of it. The primary cause was that I fell on it, and the action of falling caused the break. The same goes for depression. Just because chemicals in the brain may be “imbalanced” does not mean that the imbalance is the primary cause of depression. The imbalance itself could have a cause (i.e., your thoughts and beliefs).
Now, if for some reason a person’s brain is damaged by a tumor or lesion and this causes irrational thinking and erratic behavior, then this is NOT a psychological problem, but an organic one, and should be treated by a neurologist, not a psychologist. But, as long as the person has the capacity to think and has control over his actions, he can learn how to think and behave differently, however difficult that might be, and eventually overcome the depression.
(Originally appeared on Examiner.com)