Our Serotonin, Our Selves?


Can the Brains of the Dead Give Hope to the Living?

September/October 2008


"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")…

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