12 thoughts on “Mental Software vs Brain Hardware

  • May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    As a mother of an ADHD boy, this is helpful to my concerns of how much ‘discipline’ can play a role in raising him correctly & helping him later in life. I have always believed strongly in discipline, yet have had many professionals tell me that it will not help my child & not to do it too much – in fear of harming his self-esteem. This makes me think otherwise.

    • May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm


      Loving discipline is vital for all of us. The recent cultural idea that children should be given free reign may explain the rather troubling rate of kids who grow up unmotivated and unwilling to make their own way in the world. Plus, we learn self-discipline from being guided to delay gratification, consider the needs of others, and work toward worthy goals. I suspect a child with ADHD tendencies (and I’m not calling this a disease), needs more guidance than average, not less.

      Easy for me to say all this, since I’m not a parent. So take my sage advice with some grains of salt! But it sounds like you’ve reached the same conclusion on the basis of your own experience as a mother of a spirited boy.


  • May 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t know about discipline. To me, the word tastes a little too much of punishment, telling off, etc. Those definitely can harm a person’s self-esteem. Also, it’s what I’ve observed often is going on in families where “ADHD” is an issue. The “don’t do this, don’t do that, stop it, stop it, stop it!”s, shouted at the kid with increasing volume, and also often leading to physical force towards him, won’t take an end. Frankly, if I were the kid, I’d protest this kind of bullying too — by keeping on doing what I’m asked not to do.

    What I’ve also noticed often is going on in “ADHD” families is a lack of consistency, not discipline. Not only do certain behaviors go uncriticized as long as they don’t exceed a certain threshold, the threshold also varies. If I want my kid to understand that A is A, and B is B, A always has to be A, and can’t be A one day/hour/minute, and B the next. That is utterly confusing to the kid, he will continue to test, whether A right now is A, or whether it maybe is B, and he won’t learn which is which.

    As the kid’s “teacher”, I have to make up my mind what I want him to learn, I have to make up my mind in advance, which behaviors are acceptable to me, and I have to be consistent about it. — This often is a challenge for people, who themselves are uncertain whether A is A, or whether it may be B; “ADHD” does run in families… — And also I have to be very aware of the signals I send in regard to this. Especially when confusion first has become an issue, and I need my kid to unlearn certain behaviors. I don’t need to make use of discipline in the sense of punishment to achieve this. Reward is just as efficient, if not more. Actually, reward furthers learning, punishment inhibits it.

    Self-examination on part of the “teacher”, the parent, is the first step in the right direction out of the vicious circle of confusion.

  • May 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm


    Discipline the way you describe it above is not the kind of discipline I meant. The key word was “loving.” If not applied with affection, it’s just punishment. Consistency is important too, as you point out. But to raise a child without loving guidance is a form of neglect. Kids need mentoring, which is the whole point of the prolonged human childhood. We didn’t evolve this way just to have fun; a long upbringing gives us time to learn how to be effective as adults. And how do we learn? Through kindly and thoughtfully applied discipline.


  • May 20, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Will, I think we mean about the same, although we use different words. I tend to react to the word “discipline” — especially when it appears in an American context, which maybe is a bit prejudiced and stereotyping — because I know that American culture — which, on the other hand is many different cultures, not necessarily one homogenous thing — punishment is somewhat more accepted than in many European cultures. And I’m with Alice Miller here: battering your child (physically, or even with words alone), punishing him, is abuse.

    • May 20, 2011 at 7:23 pm


      I do understand your reaction to the concept of “discipline.” It often carries a Puritanical connotation, but I think that’s a perversion of its meaning. Since I mention it often enough, you probably know I suffered pretty severe child abuse as a kid. But in my case it wasn’t truly discipline, it was just deliberate cruelty without much pattern. And while my stepmother attacked me every time she felt annoyed, in the guise of punishment for wrongdoing, my father never disciplined me at all. My friends and I would do mean things and get caught; they’d get disciplined, my dad would laugh. You can see how I might be biased toward wishing for more consistent, loving, guiding discipline in childhood. And I imagine you have good reasons from your own experience for disliking the word. And I of course agree, any kind of violent speech, humiliation, or battery constitutes abuse. Thanks for the comment.


  • May 21, 2011 at 1:19 am

    “In fact, the difference between neurological and psychiatric conditions is that the former are organic and structural, while the latter have never been shown to be.”

    This statement is completely inaccurate, and I would think that anybody with an intermediate understanding of mental illness — let alone someone with an MD — should know better than to make such a statement. Consider the following studies on structural abnormalities in schizophrenia:





    The studies that I linked to above make it clear that structural abnormalities of the brain have indeed been found in schizophrenia. In fact, any one of those studies is enough to refute your claim that psychiatric conditions have *never* been found to be organic or structural in nature. As I said, anybody with at least an intermediate understanding of mental illness knows that there are studies to support the idea that some psychiatric illnesses have an organic basis, and it is well known that structural abnormalities of the brain have been found in schizophrenic patients. Why you would make the kind of false claim that you did in this blog entry is beyond me, but in my opinion, it shows a reckless disregard for the truth. Making the kind of false claim that you made as an authority figure on a prominent mental-health Web site is sensationalistic at best, and it only serves to further the ignorance that runs rampant in society when it comes to mental illness.

    I think that you ought to be ashamed of yourself for making the factually inaccurate statement that I quoted here, and I think that those who operate this Web site should likewise be ashamed of themselves for publishing it.

    • May 21, 2011 at 8:16 am


      Brain imaging and other studies on chronic schizophrenics, such as the abstracts you cite, can’t separate drug effect from whatever changes may occur in untreated patients. In any event, statistical demonstrations of differences in size of brain regions does not constitute proof of organic etiology. These are non-specific findings that can be caused by a number of insults, including childhood deprivation, nutritional insult, or trauma, which could by themselves predispose to coping difficulties and cognitive problems later in life. They do not in any way suggest a specific organic abnormality causative of schizophrenia. Please send me a link to an article demonstrating unambiguous and consistently identifiable microstructural changes in untreated schizophrenics. If you can do that, I’ll retract my statement with regard to schizophrenia.

      In any event, as the essay clearly states, I’m not denying that brains differ from person to person, or that such changes may increase tendencies toward one sort of psychoemotional problem or another. The question is, do these differences constitute disease, or variation? For the disease hypothesis to be tenable, it would be expected that the behavioral tendencies would lead to difficulties regardless of cultural setting. But it seems pretty clear that under the right circumstances (e.g., a traditional culture that valued altered mind states) a person we might consider “schizophrenic” would be treated with respect. This undermines the “brain disease” concept; few if any medical diseases are so culturally determined.

      So although I hear that you’re very upset, and I’m sure you feel strongly about this for good reasons, I am not ashamed of stating my opinion or calling attention to the weaknesses in the conventional psychiatric dogma.


  • May 21, 2011 at 7:19 am

    I certainly agree with what you are saying here. To draw a clear line between mental illness and normal variance. In my opinion a person which believe that he acts normally he might be believed by others as a crazy person. Basically the society is the one that decides on this particular aspect.

    • May 21, 2011 at 8:43 am


      Yes. There is a huge amount of cultural overlay determining what gets called “mental illness.” It’s hazardous to make extreme statements like I have been lately, and I’m aware that there are some behavioral problems that would cause trouble in almost any setting. But if society were more tolerant, loving, supportive, and flexible, a lot of what gets diagnosed as illness would be seen differently. And some of what currently gets applauded as strong, competitive, individualistic behavior might be criticized as selfish and antisocial.


  • May 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I’m new to your blog and appreciate very much your perspective and thoughtfulness.

    The notion of behaviors being brain “processing errors” is helpful, but perhaps not all encompassing. Some behaviors might also be viewed as manifestations of adaptation distress. For example, reactions to environmental stressors resulting in unabated sadness and anhedonia or life catastrophes that without remedy ultimately result in incompatibility with life, such as losses of job, housing and source of income for food, clothing, safe shelter, etc. On top of that, the US culture of self responsibility and frontiersmanship (everybody for himself and by himself) promotes isolation, intolerance and a more predatory atmosphere, none of which is helpful to vulnerable individuals and communities.

    Narrowly viewing the person as a set of pathological symptoms and throwing medications and other invasive treatments at non-specific symptoms being wrongly treated as diseases is in itself, pathological! (grin)

    • May 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm


      You make a good point about the effects of life stress on mental life and health. Using the model proposed in this post (which I don’t claim to be the final word), I would view what you call “adaptation distress” as another type of processing error. The great spiritual traditions guide us in how to accept and grow in the face of life’s setbacks, wounds, and horrors. It can often be a tall order, but it is possible to take even the most dreadful life experience and transform it into mental health. Usually this takes time, as the mind figures out how to process the disappointment, grief, or injury. The intermediate, adaptation stages, can then be seen as software rewrites, as we reframe and reevaluate life until health is achieved. Difficult at best, elusive at worst. Suicide in the aftermath of extreme trauma is a tragic example of failure to process reality in a survivable way.

      No one has perfect processing at all times, and only the determined few achieve it even briefly. Usually the best we can hope for in life is to asymptotically approach final wisdom, understanding we are unlikely to reach it. There are many obstacles in the way of this quest, not least being the modern cultural value system, with its deification of greed and denial of responsibility for humanity at large.

      One difference between ordinary, culturally sanctioned insanity as expressed by many, and individual “mental illness” as expressed by the (ever-growing) minority, is that the former group considers itself healthy, whereas most of the latter do not. True, the highly delusional “mentally ill” may deny having any problems at all; this is usually considered further evidence of their illness and gets called “lack of insight.” We might ask why the same lack of insight in the case of greed, destruction, and selfishness is applauded as self-confidence rather than pegged as a sign of sickness. Just another example of how “mental illness” is socially and not medically based.

      Thanks so much for the comment. You brought up some great issues.



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