Tom Cruise and Metaphors as Explanations in Psychology

Posted by on November 26, 2012 in 2 - Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking | 0 comments

When I cover the Abnormal Psychology chapter in my Introductory Psychology Course I start out by showing the class a clip of the Matt Lauer (from the Today Show) interview of Tom Cruise. You can find a clip here.

This interview took place several years ago about the time that “The War of the Worlds” was in  theaters.  Tom Cruise speaks out against psychiatry and the use of psychoactive drugs for the treatment of psychological disorders.  He presents himself as very knowledgeable about how psychiatry and drugs work.  He does make some points that some scientists and even some psychiatrists would agree with, but also makes some statements showing that he really does not understand what he thinks he understands.  But some of his errors are not completely his fault, and may be a result of how complex problems are presented to the public by scientists and psychiatrists.

For example, one of the statements he makes is that “There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the brain  that causes depression” and therefore psychiatrists are conspiring to deceive people into thinking that antidepressants fix a broken brain.  Cruise gives his reason for not believing that there is such a thing as a chemical imbalance.  If there was, he argues, there would be a blood test that measures the levels of the relevant chemical so that the proper drug dose can be administered to bring up (or lower) the level to where it needs to be (I guess like insulin can be used to control blood glucose levels).  There is no such blood test for depression, therefore depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance.  In a way he is right that a “chemical imbalance” probably does not cause depression, but not for the reason he thinks.

The “chemical imbalance” explanation for depression is a metaphor, not a literal explanation or even a useful theory of biological causes of depression.  At one time the “chemical imbalance” idea was a legitimate hypothesis in science, but neuroscientists now know that the brain is much more complicated than levels of a chemical in the brain (or blood).  Yet the “explanation” persists  despite being a poor metaphor of the presumed biological underpinnings of depression. It probably persists because it is simple – depression has something to do with chemicals in the brain.   Any behavior (normal or abnormal)  is not just about amounts of chemicals circulating in the blood, but about complex interactions in neural circuits that involve more than one kind of chemical (neurotransmitter).  Nevertheless, medical literature for the public, basic articles found on the web, and even some introductory psychology textbooks use the “chemical imbalance” metaphor without pointing out that it is just that – a poor metaphor.

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