Our Serotonin, Our Selves?
Can the Brains of the Dead Give Hope to the Living?
By Charles Barber
"My mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday," says Victoria Arango. She's a tall, lean, handsome woman, who happens to be one of the world's most productive neuroscientists. She's just quoted (accurately, I discover later) the first line of The Stranger by Albert Camus.
I hadn't expected to be talking about Camus on this dreary Monday morning in our present setting—Arango's orderly but welcoming office in the New York State Psychiatric Institute in northern Manhattan. PI, as everyone calls it, is a gleaming monument to science, situated in a curved, $80-million building sheathed with green-turquoise glass that resembles nothing so much as a large ocean liner. The water motif is fitting—PI is a stone's throw from the Hudson, and I can see that stately river, and the George Washington Bridge that spans it, behind Arango as we talk.
"I don't know why I remember that line from Camus 35 years after I read it in high school!" she says to me, laughing. She speaks in a soothing Latin accent that sounds almost British in its precision.
Then again, it's entirely appropriate that we're talking about Albert Camus. The question of suicide was at the heart of his writing and philosophy—and so it is in the work of Victoria Arango. For Camus, the central question of philosophy was whether one lives or dies, given the pain and absurdity of life. Only once that question has been settled (and Camus was personally emphatic that "suicide was not an option") can one entertain other philosophical questions of being, like free will, the existence of God, and the nature of evil.
What was a philosophical issue for Camus is a physiological and biochemical one for Arango. For the last two decades, she's been studying the brains of people who committed suicide, and has discovered, along with her research partners, John Mann, Chief of Neuroscience at PI and Columbia University, and Mark Underwood, her husband and close collaborator, that the biochemistry of their brains differs significantly from that of people who don't commit suicide.
I've read a lot about Arango's work, and I know that it has significant implications. Not least are the treatment implications: she and her team hope some day to be able to use physiological evidence to detect people who are at risk of suicide, and then get them into better, earlier treatment and supervision. But there are aspects of their work that trouble me. Can the eternal questions that for centuries have been in the capable hands of Camus, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, and endless other philosophers, poets, novelists, and spiritual thinkers, all come down to, or be dismissed by, a few errant and unruly neurotransmitters? There but for the grace of God, and an untenable level of serotonin, go I? Could our brains be so sick that they'll kill us? How much do our brain chemicals control our lives, and what control is left to us?
It seems to me that Arango's work puts the basic questions of neuroscience—who's really running the show; ourselves, our soul, our free will, whatever you want to call it, or our brain chemicals?—into the most dramatic relief. So of all the neuroscience labs in the world, hers is the one I want to visit, and of all the neuroscientists in America, whose numbers are increasing daily, she's the one I want to talk to.