Science today functions in a very physical environment. The vast majority of scientists rule out any supernatural or spiritual explanations for phenomena (mainly by saying “we don’t accept these explanations”, not by really sound scientific criteria). For the most part, this emphasis on the physical works well. If I want to look at how hemoglobin transports oxygen in the circulation, I am quite happy with an explanation that includes sequential binding of oxygen molecules to specific sites on the hemoglobin molecule, resulting in changes in the three-dimensional conformation of the protein. This explanation works, it fits the data, and we don’t need to pursue matters further.
However, when we come to explanations of behavior, the simple appeal to the physical does not work any more. Oh, some scientists try. They appeal to complex neurochemical processes that supposedly produce the behavior, even though we don’t really understand either the neurochemistry or how the chemical changes are supposed to cause behavior. Others argue from an evolutionary psychology perspective, making assumptions about our prehistoric ancestors and extrapolating these supposed behaviors to modern day. All of these explanations are rather simplistic and fall short of the mark.
Increasingly, we are recognizing the complex interplay of environment, social, cultural, psychological, and genetic factors that influence human behavior. However, I think we still want to find that “magic bullet” cause that will allow us to propose a “magic bullet” cure for behavioral issues. We have tried for decades with pharmacological treatments for unipolar depression, but have not been overwhelming successful. Similar attempts to deal with schizophrenia, bipolar depression, and other serious mental disorders have also been shown to be inadequate.
Several recent publications have described gene alterations in the brains of people who commit suicide. While the interpretations have been cautious (as they should be in this complicated situation), there seems to be some consensus that the alterations in gene structure predispose these individuals to suicidal behavior. In the next several blogs, I want to look at the research and ask some hard questions about what it all means.