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By Sheldon Drobny

computerI was at a dedication for my Uncle in 1988. He had passed away the previous October.  It was a beautiful June day with a number of friends and relatives gathered around the graveside.  My father, who had died the previous year, was buried next to his brother.  Years earlier they had decided to be together when their days on Earth had ended.  It was a day not to mourn their departure, but to celebrate their lives.  Each had lived a full, rich life of over eight decades.  I was filled with great spiritual feelings about both of them because my father and uncle left me with great memories.

The Rabbi called all of us together to listen to and recite the traditional graveside dedication prayers.   The Rabbi was particularly fond of my uncle, since he had been a dedicated member of the Rabbi’s congregation.  After the prayers, the Rabbi began to speak about my uncle from a personal perspective.  He talked about his great accomplishments while living, and reiterated that “our number of years on earth are controlled by God, but the quality of those years are controlled by us.”  This was not the first time I had heard this quote.  As a matter of fact, it is a standard by which most of us have been taught.  It is a variation of the most fundamental religious concept; that God gave us the power of free will, and our life and what was to follow death was to be measured by the choices we made during our life. 

I never questioned that concept, and as a matter of course, most civilized people try to follow its standard.  Yet while standing at the graveside, I began to question that quotation.  Do we really have free will?  Is the quality of a person’s life really his choice?  Did he choose to be born?  Did he have the choice of parents?  Did he have the choice of genes, chromosomes, cells, size, intelligence, race, color, creed, nationality, and so on and so on?  As I was standing there, the questions seemed endless.  Indeed, a person born in Ethiopia from poor parents certainly did not have free will in the same sense as we in the United States.

After the service ended, as I was driving home, the thoughts became more intense.  I was fascinated with the Rabbi’s words all day.  I began to think of his words from a personal standpoint.

I am the youngest of three brothers.  My parents emigrated from Poland, and raised us to be responsible members of our community.  Although my parents had their share of fears and neuroses, they provided me with a fairly normal environment.  Unlike my brothers, at the age of 22 I joined the U.S. Army.  By the time I returned home, my life had changed considerably.  I contracted several illnesses in the Army, and several months after I came home was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a dangerous inflammation of the brain. 

At the time, I had no control of my thoughts.  I certainly was rational, but my outlook on life was different than it had been.  Terrible thoughts, depression, fatigue and a general feeling of desperation overwhelmed me.  I could not escape these feelings.  I was unable to function.  I thought I had done some things very wrong, otherwise I would not be suffering this much.  After all, I was brought up with the concept that “a person is measured by the quality of his years.”  It was a compelling and persuasive argument.

Fifteen years of psychotherapy and failed medications did not make much of a difference.  During those years, I still had severe problems while trying to uphold my responsibilities at work and with my wife and children.  The psychiatrist treated me in the classical psychoanalytic way.  According to him, my emotional problems were primarily caused by internal rages resulting from unfortunate experiences with my parents.  The problems supposedly could not be alleviated until I had worked out my conflicts. 

I had been taught that it was my responsibility to work out these problems so that I could lead a fulfilling life.  The psychiatrists, using the scientific approach, were reinforcing that concept.   A person is measured by the quality of his years.  If I worked hard my life would improve.  Psychoanalysis became my standard, and the results were only partially effective. 

Fifteen years of psychoanalysis and limited success caused me to think about another possibility.  Was it possible that my brain as an organ had been physically impaired by my illness?  If my brain was physically impaired, no amount of psychotherapy could solve my problem.  We treated diseases of other organs as physical illnesses.  What was so different about the brain?  After all, the brain is made up of cells just the same as other organs, but in an altogether different arrangement.

Why then do we consider the brain in such a different way from the heart, liver, or kidney?  The answer became obvious.  We do not think with those other organs.  The single distinguishing factor of the brain as an organ is that all our thoughts emanate from it.  If the brain, with all its physical complexities was not functioning well, then certainly the thinking process would be impaired.  I began looking in another direction.

My search for physical reasons for brain impairment began by reading several books on the subject.  Soon I began to understand the physical processes that caused brain dysfunction.  I learned back in 1988 that neurotransmitters such as serotonin had a major impact on fatigue and depression.  I was one of the first in this country to be given Prozac, what is commonly called today a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI.  Within one week I had become a new person.  It was like a miracle.  I obviously was deficient in a brain chemical (in this case serotonin) and the restoration of that chemical changed everything.

One could argue that my persistence over the years led me to this solution.  In many respects I felt that I had, in fact, made the difference.  My “free will” had changed the quality of my life.  I should be congratulated because my long journey had finally come to an end.  But then I thought deeper about the experience. 

Humankind has inhabited the Earth for a comparatively short time.  And it was only 500 years ago that we believed the Earth was the center of the universe.  Now we know the Earth is just an ordinary planet circling an ordinary star among billions of other stars, but that does not diminish our importance.  Just as we were wrong when we believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, we can be wrong about our perceptions of the brain and how it really functions.  What seems logical may not be correct.

Throughout the ages, mankind has striven to reach perfection.  From the Greek philosophers or theologians to the current day, the goal has been the same.  But is it possible merely to think through a problem without having objective evidence?  Time and again we have learned that dependence on thought without basing conclusions on facts is extremely dangerous.  Some fanatic rituals of religion, and even science, can ultimately cause the destruction of mankind.  Without realizing it, our attitudes about the brain can be the real danger to our survival.

What is our salvation?  What will bring us to that ultimate perfection for which we as humans are constantly searching?  Simply, it is the study of the brain that will lead us in that direction. 

The study of the brain and its amazing complexities will ultimately lead to the betterment of mankind.  For it is the thought process, a physical process, that leads us down the paths we take.  Study of the brain and it processes will show that we can no longer afford to view people in outdated ritualistic ways.  That people are neither inherently good nor inherently evil.  Is a schizophrenic possessed by the devil?  Is a manic depressive person somehow deserving of his fate?

Before we judge other people, we must realize that the brain is the source of all actions.

Many of the very rich and intelligent people who run our society are blessed with brains that function well.  Yet our most renowned leaders, politicians, scientists, theologians, and others, embrace the outdated feeling that somehow they may be better people than others because they have accomplished so much.  They try to impart their knowledge to others by “showing them the light.”  They make billions of dollars writing books or recording videos and audios that attempt to show us the way.  Yet their success in passing on their knowledge is limited.

There are no quick or easy answers.  Executing a psychopathic killer will not prevent other psychopaths from killing.  Diseased brains cannot be cured by example.  They can only be cured by physically altering the brain processes themselves.  Man’s greatest frustrations result from his failure to recognize the real source of his problems, the physical organ between his ears.  We must consciously alter our own subjective thoughts and embrace the understanding that the greatest danger to mankind is brain disease, not AIDS or cancer. 

There is no line between sanity and insanity, making the terms themselves meaningless. Where does one cross such a line?  Even our legal and religious teachings have not given us clear cut definitions, but many of us actually believe there is a barrier one crosses that makes a sane person insane.   

A thousand years ago, seemingly civilized societies burned people at the stake because they believed schizophrenics were possessed by the devil.   Although the perceptions were wrong then, today’s society casts similar judgments.  Mental illness is seen as a spiritual problem, one we are embarrassed about, or a lack of character.  Yet people who suffer from kidney disease are never thought to have a spiritual problem.

Until we understand the complexities of the brain, we will have an obsession about free will.  But the evidence shows that “a man can only be measured by the quality of his years” is an outdated and unfair statement.  A professional tennis player is blessed with physical skills that make it unfair to compare him to an average player.  It is not that he is smarter or more deserving.  The same is true for those with differing brain functions and different levels of cognitive thought.

We must embrace this understanding for the human species to reach its full potential.


Sheldon Drobny is co-founder of Air America Radio, providing talk radio for the majority of Americans.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009