Tag Archives: Chris Summerville

The Brain, Cognition and Illness

By Dr David Laing Dawson

The aware, receiving, perceiving, organizing, planning brain.

Two recent writings got me thinking about this. The first was a comment from Mr. Summerville, in support of the absolute discharge of Mr. Vince Li, that Mr. Li showed “no signs of cognitive impairment”. The second was the raw honesty of Mr. Bowers when he writes that when he took a shotgun upstairs with the intention of killing his grandmother he was “bat shit crazy”.

I suffered one of those nasty strains of flu this winter. At the time it seemed to affect every organ in my body. Including my brain. That is my brain was aware this state of body sickness was impairing some of its functions as well.

I guess it’s tricky. We are aware when our stomachs aren’t working as we would wish them, when our prostates and kidneys are not quite right, when perhaps our livers are acting up, our eyes, our inner and middle ears, our calf muscles are balking. Well, really, it is our brain noticing these things. But when the brain is acting up, not quite functioning smoothly in one of its functions, there is no one left to tell us. That is, no other organ in the body is prepared to tell us that the brain is a little off. “Liver here. Brain, your thinking is off.” or “Brain, your medulla oblongata is a little sluggish this morning. Your perceptions are clouded.”

I have also suffered, by my own count, three depressions of clinical severity so far in my life. Perhaps the cause of these can be traced to my circumstances each time, perhaps my genetics, perhaps to my childhood, probably a combination of genetics and circumstances. But each time it happened I know my brain was impaired, not functioning well, not scanning, perceiving, reviewing, interpreting as it normally does.

You can find a list of the symptoms of “depression” in the DSM and on many a website not to mention TV advertisements for the latest antidepressant. But of course the organ experiencing these symptoms is the same one reading and hearing about them.

It is often family members and close friends who notice first. You are not yourself, they say. Or “the spark has gone from your eyes.” And always when I treat someone for depression and they improve, it is family members who notice the improvement first. The patient tells me they don’t notice any change, though I see his or her eyes are livelier, his face a little less strained, and the corners of his mouth more agile. And the mother or wife points out he came down for dinner, engaged in conversation, laughed at a joke. The brain of the patient hasn’t noticed these changes yet, because… well because its perceptual, interpreting, responding, scanning apparatus is still partially impaired.

Liver illness impairs the functioning of the liver. Mental illness impairs the functioning of the brain, and that can be some or many of its functions. Mental illness is a brain illness.

So let’s go back to Vince Li. His brain was absolutely definitely impaired at the time of his crime. And at this point if he is not terrified of relapsing, and thus wanting help for the rest of his life to keep himself from relapsing, if he does not himself (his brain) understand and want all safeguards in place to keep himself from relapsing, if he thinks he can just change his name and move on, then his brain is still impaired in some of its functions. If this is the case then his perceptual, cognitive, judgmental processes are still impaired.

Contrast that with the Blog written by Mr. Bowers. He has fully recovered from being “bat shit crazy” and he is fully aware he never wants to go there again, and he is fully aware (the perceptual, organizing, planning, monitoring, cognitive processes of his brain are functioning well) that he needs help and vigilance to never go back to that place again.

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