Thursday, November 13, 2008

Co$ and the Chemical Brain

The Church of Scientology, as any fule kno, thinks that all psychiatric drugs are bad. Quite where they draw the line on things like "what is a drug?" and "what is a psychiatric drug" is anyone's guess, but in the broad brushstrokes of their anti-psych rhetoric, they're all bad. As Juliette Lewis said recently, schizophrenics would be much better off forgoing their meds and getting themselves down to a petting zoo.

What amuses me is the reasons given. Invariably two simultaneous but contradictory positions are maintained. Firstly, they claim that psych drugs are based on "brain chemistry" and that this theory is flawed, that there is no evidence for it [sic]. Secondly, and here's the fun part, they claim that psych drugs have a detrimental effect on people. Drugs that operate on a person's brain chemistry can lead them to kill themselves, or shoot up their highschool. So in the first instance, brain chemistry does not exist, but in the second instance it does. Whenever you find yourself in a discussion about this with a Scientologist (flunk! You've let them derail the conversation!) ask them the all important question of how psych drugs effect behaviour.

Now I'm no fan of Big Pharma myself. It is true that mistakes happen, with varying degrees of culpability and intent - trials resulting in negative findings fail to get published, adverse reactions aren't picked up on, and so on. But Big Pharma is slowly getting better. Big Pharma creates self-regulatory bodies with real power to monitor the way that drugs are developed and marketed. There is an increasing momentum behind the ideas that are looking to address flaws in the clinical trial process (such as the trials that are registered but never published). Put simply, it is an evidence-based field, so anything that generates evidence will come out sooner or later, and there is a wealth of patients and practitioners out there who want the straight dope, pun intended, on their lotions and potions.

Big Pharma may not get it right all the time, but they stand a far better chance than the vitamin and dietary quacks who cling to their unmonitored products and wave massively flawed studies and even more flawed reasoning at media whorish enough to lend anyone with the remotest air of scientific authority fifteen minutes in which to flog their snake oil. One weak and yet to be repeated study into the effects of Omega 3 fish oils on kids suffering from ADHD becomes the foundation of sand on which is built an industry safe in the delusion that fish oil turns kids into placid brainiacs. One weak and yet to be repeated study into Narconon suggests that the rehab treatment aint that great, and so is buried away, far from the prying eyes of a public that have a genuine need to know.

But I digress. The cognitive dissonance at the heart of the Church's anti-psych stance stands as a crystalisation at the level of cognitive dissonance that exists throughout the organisation as a whole - the Orwellian double think that allows people to believe they are free, yet unquestioningly follow orders, write cheques, and fill out credit applications. And on the subject of the chemical brain, who says there's no evidence for it? It remains the strongest model we have of the way mood functions, and certainly a stronger model than the suggestion that we are controlled by memories lodged in each and every cell of our body. There is an excellent and balanced blog post on the subject here.


  1. Hey - cheers for the link. I was going to link to that post myself but you got there first! :)

    You're right that there is something very odd about many people's attitude to psych drugs - and actually this odd idea is not limited to the CoS. Although the CoS take it further than most. In fact I think LRH is on record as saying that aspirin is a mind-altering drug!

  2. Thanks. I was once told that a cactus-derivative that switches off the part of the brain that registers low sugar levels was "not a drug". I suspect that's a confusion arising from the drugs and poisons list, though.

    Also, as someone pointed out on ARS, I'm not using the term "cognitive dissonance" correctly. It refers to the discomfort and rationalisation of contradictions, rather than the contradictions themselves.


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