The Disordered Mind | Eric R. Kandel

Summary of: The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us about Ourselves
By: Eric R. Kandel


Step into the realm of The Disordered Mind and uncover the fascinating world of unusual brains and what they reveal about ourselves. In this book summary of Eric R. Kandel’s captivating work, you will delve into the secrets of mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and dementia, and learn how these conditions teach us about the intricacies of the human brain. Discover how modern neuroscience leverages cutting-edge technology to study the genetic basis of such disorders and examine brain activity patterns. From Autism’s incredible insights into the social wiring of our brains to the powerful impact of addiction on the brain’s reward system, this book summary will take you on an enlightening journey into the depths of the human mind.

Understanding Mental Disorders

Mental disorders are physical changes in the brain that affect our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Modern neuroscience has helped us learn about how the brain works through studying mental disorders.

Everyone feels sad or anxious at times, but when these feelings interfere with daily activities, they may indicate a mental disorder. Mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and dementia have physical bases in the brain and can result from genetic defects, environmental factors, or injury.

Through studying mental disorders, we gain insights into how our brain processes information. The brain is composed of specialized nerve cells called neurons that communicate with each other through electrical signals and chemical neurotransmitters. In many mental disorders, certain networks of neurons become dysfunctional or hyperactive, which can lead to altered behavior.

Modern neuroscience has developed tools for studying brain activity, such as brain imaging techniques like fMRI. By understanding the mechanisms behind mental disorders, neuroscience is shedding light on how the healthy brain functions and how we can treat mental illnesses.

The Social Nature of Autism

Our brain’s social wiring allows us to predict and understand others’ behavior. Autism, however, reveals the specifics of how parts of the brain don’t develop well, primarily in emotion, language, communication, visual perception, and movement, leading to difficulties developing a theory of mind, communicating with others, and recognizing human faces and movement. The condition affects a person’s social and communication skills, leading to difficulties in reading other people’s thoughts and emotions, responding appropriately, and picking up language early in life. Autistic children also have a strong preference for being alone and repetitive behavior, which often leads them to acquire savant-like skills. Using autistic children, we’ve managed to investigate the social brains’ specialized part that helps us process information about other humans.

Understanding the Link between Emotions and Mental Disorders

Our emotions play a significant role in how we experience the world. They allow us to connect with others, recognize our desires, and make judgments beyond reason. However, when our emotional system goes through trouble, it can cause mood disorders like depression, PTSD, and anxiety. The key takeaway in this summary is that mood disorders are linked to brain chemical imbalances in the emotional system, which influences our primal emotional responses. The limbic system regulates these emotional responses, and people with mental disorders tend to have overactive amygdalas and hypothalamuses, causing a chemical imbalance in the limbic system. The high cortisol levels in people with mental illness are linked to a change in sleep, energy, and appetite. Additionally, people with depression and anxiety have lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in their brain.

Schizophrenia: Understanding the Brain Disorder

Schizophrenia is a widely stigmatized mental disorder that affects various brain regions, causing dramatic effects on an individual’s thinking and behavior. Apart from visual and auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions, it also causes social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and memory problems. Genetic factors such as the overexpression of the C4 gene and excess dopamine in the brain play a crucial role in the disorder. Schizophrenia causes excess synaptic pruning during adolescence, which triggers dramatic structural changes in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, leading to improper development. The disorder also has an intriguing connection with creativity, and it is speculated that mental disorders may fuel creativity by lifting constraints and inhibitions on our thinking and granting us broader access to our unconscious.

The Story of H.M. and the Two Memory Systems

Henry Molaison’s case has provided valuable insights into the two memory systems of the brain. In a bid to cure his epilepsy, doctors removed the scarred parts of his brain, which included the hippocampus, a crucial component of the explicit memory system. While H.M. could recall events from his past, he could not form new memories. Researchers discovered that the brain has two memory systems – explicit and implicit – with the latter responsible for retaining learned motor tasks. Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the explicit memory system, causing a slow but steady erosion of memories. Proteins are the culprits, with abnormal folding leading to the formation of clumps known as prions. These misfolded proteins lead to a loss of neuronal connectivity and eventually, cell death. However, the discovery of prions offers hope for the treatment of memory disorders.

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