How Was the Chemical Imbalance Theory Developed?


How was the chemical imbalance theory developed? I didn’t answer this question directly in the previous post: What is the Chemical Imbalance Theory. I want to understand its origins – maybe you do too – so decided to do a little online sleuthing and get the basics of how it came to be.

How Was the Chemical Imbalance Theory Developed?
Have They Proven That Mental Illness is an Imbalance of Chemicals in the Brain?

We understand now that it does not ‘prove’ anything with regards to chemicals in your brain that are “being problematic and causing mood symptoms i.e. imbalanced levels” and that therefore you need to take a specific medication (or many medications as is the norm these days) to correct this ‘proven’ imbalance.

Important note: That is not saying that medications cannot be helpful to some or that you should stop taking any medication. For example, even though they do not know how lithium works in actuality – it is still the primary treatment for bipolar as it has been shown (empirical data) to help those with severe mood swings.

Psychiatrist Ronald Pies, M.D. Calls the Chemical Imbalance Theory Urban Legend. Click To Tweet

That hypothesis and purported reality is false we now understand. Taking lithium for bipolar is not the same thing as being prescribed insulin to treat a diagnosed condition of diabetes. But that does not mean that lithium may not help you if you are suffering from Manic Depression – now called BP-1.

Or that other medications may help a person suffering with some form of mental illness. I don’t want to be unclear here. This article is just to help me – and any reader who is interested – understand how the Chemical Imbalance Theory came to be.

How Was the Chemical Imbalance Theory Developed?

If you are thinking, like I used to about this, that those smart scientist types did some heavy duty tinkering in a lab somewhere (most likely at a university, right?) and analyzed something about mentally ill persons brains (using mice of course) and found the difference in some (from normal brains) was attributable to chemical levels in the brain being altered i.e. too much or too little of something.

They were able to prove there was an imbalance of identifiable chemicals and that was therefore hypothesized to cause mental illness. Fixing this imbalance, would therefore treat the problem.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened or what they did. It’s more a ‘cart before the pony’ scenario, where they manipulated cause and effect (and in actuality proved nothing scientifically).

A Drug Was Developed For Depression Then the Chemical Imbalance Theory Was Developed

The whole theory – or hypothesis – was developed after a medication was created (that was real science, done in a lab, patents granted and voila… something to prescribe for patients) to try and help those suffering from depression.

Here is a quote from a 2007 psychology research paper published by the American Psychological Association (APA): The “Chemical Imbalance” Explanation for Depression: Origins, Lay Endorsement, and Clinical Implications.

How Was the Chemical Imbalance Theory Developed?

You can read the full article here: APA article.

Psychiatrist Ronald Pies, M.D. Calls Chemical Imbalance Theory an “Urban Legend”

So now we understand that it is not a proven theory, but something that was developed to understand effects of why drugs that had been developed seemed to be helping those with serious mood disorders, psychosis or other symptomatology.

And that’s all great and good, as long as it is clearly understood it didn’t prove anything – but the researchers get 5 gold stars for trying.

Here is a quote from eminent psychiatrist Dr. Ronald Pies – former Editor in Chief of Psychiatric Times. He wrote on July 11th, 2011:

“I am not one who easily loses his temper, but I confess to experiencing markedly increased limbic activity whenever I hear someone proclaim, ‘Psychiatrists think all mental disorders are due to a chemical imbalance!’ In the past 30 years, I don’t believe I have ever heard a knowledgeable, well-trained psychiatrist make such a preposterous claim, except perhaps to mock it.”

And he wrote this too!

“In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend- – never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.”

Source: Psychiatry’s New Brain-Mind and the Legend of the “Chemical Imbalance”

I now get how it came to be, and also understand clearly that it has been debunked, however well-intentioned in theory it was at the start. Nothing wrong there, that’s what scientists do… try to figure things out.

But – I hope you get this clearly now – the huge problem is that this debunked theory is still being used to manipulate psychiatric patients (regular docs prescribe psychotropic meds too and say the same lie to their patients) into taking medications that they are being told are ‘correcting an identifiable imbalance of chemicals in their brain’.

Nope. Psych drugs do affect chemicals in the brain and alter levels of them… that is true. But everyone needs to understand it’s a crapshoot-style of treatment and nothing that was developed from verifiable science.

This is why the new focus on the gut and its affects on neurotransmitters i.e. “Your Second Brain” is so exciting – it has yet to be proven false!

Related post: You Have a Second Brain – Your Gut!

Your brain is messed up if suffering from bipolar disorder (BP) or have Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – but the why of it has yet to be clearly understood. Medications may help some, but they have serious side effects and may be unecessary.

Everyone wants to understand the brain better and why some folks brains function in ways that make them very ill.

Let’s keep trying.

Photograph of colorful solutions in test tubes is a free use image on Wikipedia.


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