Andrew Miller


Made queasy by science (or just the radio)

10 March , 2017

After hearing news report on the radio about (some) people with Parkinson's being turned into secret and fanatical gamblers by their medication I spent a morning puzzling over brain chemistry. Most of us are half-familiar with ideas around Dopamine and chemical 'rewards'. Most of us also familiar with the effects of two glasses of red wine in the evening (OK, three). Some of us may have played around with hallucinogens in our salad days. And pretty much all of us know someone on antidepressants and may be taking them ourselves. Change the chemistry, change the man or woman. Does that seem to trivialize us? Make us small? It certainly might tempt us to identify ourselves with our brains and consider the constant shifting of our emotions no more that the turning on and off of chemical taps. Hence my queasiness, my morning of puzzling. When I write fiction one of the things I'm trying to do is answer the question 'What are people like?' Not present a theory - the worst thing any fictioneer can do - but carry out a kind of extended pondering, the material for which must always come out of what I have seen and experienced, however incoherent, however strange. What place in that pondering for a vision of us as the dupes of chemistry? Needless to say my morning ended with no conclusions, just a scatter of thoughts and observations such as - How would a perfect knowledge of brain chemistry/function change our experience of being? A little? A lot? Not at all? And - If brains and brain chemistry work in relation to the wider world is there a danger in pretending they don't? And lastly - though it's not an either/or - what might be more important, an understanding of our neurochemistry or a knowledge of how to create a fair and meaningful environment, a culture in which people can thrive?

None of this, of course, solves the problem of the Parkinson's medication. Could they, perhaps, be shown to a room where they always bet on black and always win?

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