Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams' death really bothered me

I am not suicidal. I am not feeling like I've lost direction in life. I am not pleading for the world to make sense. I just think it's interesting to reflect on how we make life decisions.

This post isn't about how I lost a childhood idol, or how saddened I am by the death of someone who brought joy to others. I could care less about Robin Williams himself. Nothing against the man but he never stuck out to me as one of my favorite actors. Instead, this post is about introspection, and how his suicide made me question my worldviews.

Let me give some background.

I am currently in a university under a healthcare major. Two years ago, I took a class called Introduction to Research in which we some of our laboratory based professors volunteered to come in and talk about their research projects and life experiences. One professor gave a presentation about his research on aggression. It was a strange topic -- how do you do research on aggression? How do you take data on aggression, quantify it, and publish an article in a reputable scientific journal?

The basic premise behind the project used mice. Place a single mouse into a safe environment, feed it, clean it, and after a few weeks it will be very content with its surroundings. The researcher then introduces a second mouse into the system. The host mouse will inspect the intruder, sniff it, circle it, and amazingly, without fail, they will begin to fight after a short period of time. Repeat this experiment over and over again with wild type mice and the fights will always happen. Aggression is then "measured" by several factors: how long it from introduction of the mouse to the system for the first fight to happen, how long the fights go on for, how many fights they have within a certain timeframe, etc.

But... if you repeat this experiment with a certain gene knockout mice line, the fights never happen. Feed it, clean it, and introduce an intruder weeks later and somehow this gene KO mouse will never attack the intruder. All of the control group (wild type) fought, and none of the experimental group (gene KO) fought. This is a huge difference.

So what are the implications of these results? Why am I telling you this?

These results suggest that there is something in a mouse genome that codes for aggression. And on a biochemical level, it suggests there is something in DNA that codes for aggression. Something in our genome produces something... a protein? A change in cell communication? SOME biomarker that causes us to change our behavior.

I might’ve gotten some details about the research project wrong, but this summary is roughly right. It really made me think. I had been going through a tough breakup at the time and this presentation put me into what I like to call a mini existential crisis. How much of what we do is controlled by our own thoughts and decisions? Versus how much of what we do is controlled by a balance (or imbalance) of neurotransmitters and hormones?

Our professor went on to give some more bioethics questions for us to think about. Suppose a man who has provided for his family and has always been an overall good person suddenly changes his behavior. One day, he sexually assaults a child. His family leaves him, he's never allowed to see his kids again, and he goes to prison. On the first day of prison, he gets a massive headache and gets rushed to the hospital to find he has a large tumor on his pituitary gland causing a massive imbalance of hormones. After removal, he reverts to his old self. He gradually begins to understand his criminal actions, how he has lost his family, how his life is ruined. For the first time, he shows remorse. What do you do with this individual? Do you keep him in prison? Do you release him only to risk something similar happening again?

Now let's apply this to Robin Williams.

He has been one of the faces of comedy for a long time. On screen, he brings joy to so many people. I understand he likely had some mental illness that messed up his balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, causing him to feel deeply deeply depressed. Three days ago he hung himself with a belt.

What's stopping like this from happening to my family, my friends, me, or even you? I want to think I am self aware. I want to think my family and friends are self aware (at least the ones I like). When my actions are decided not by my values and philosophies that I have learned and refined over my lifetime, but rather by my genome or current balance of neurotransmitters, how can I say that I am self aware?

How can I become a role model for a younger brother when, for all I know, he has extra repeats of a gene that makes him more predisposed to rape, murder, or suicide?

If I get into a car accident and get a concussion and my biochemical balance in my brain is skewed, am I really myself anymore?

Again: I am not suicidal. I am not feeling like I've lost direction in life. I am not pleading for the world to make sense. I just think it's interesting to reflect on how we make life decisions. There is no purpose to this post other than to open a part of my values and philosophies to the world.

Thanks for reading.