If you’re a regular Science of Us reader, you probably know that people believe a lot of things about human behavior and psychology that just aren’t true. Because human beings and brains are so complicated, and because there are so many ideas that feel intuitively correct, but either haven’t passed scientific muster or haven’t been rigorously tested in the first place, it’s easy for false beliefs to set in and spread.
That’s why a post on BPS Research Digest by friend of Science of Us Christian Jarrett is so useful. Jarrett helpfully runs down “10 of the Most Widely Believed Myths in Psychology.”
This, to me, is arguably the most interesting one:
Mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain
One survey in the US from a few years ago found that over 80 per cent of people believed that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, ask any psychiatrist or neurologist and if they’re honest they’ll tell you that no one knows what the “correct” balance of chemicals in the brain should be. Part of the support for the imbalance idea comes from the fact that anti-depressant medication alters levels of neurochemicals in the brain, but of course that doesn’t mean that a chemical imbalance causes the problems in the first place (any more than a headache is caused by a lack of paracetamol [that is, Tylenol]). The myth is actually endorsed by many people with mental health problems and by some mental health campaigners, partly because they believe it lends a medical legitimacy to conditions like depression and anxiety. However, research has shown that biological accounts of mental illness (including the chemical imbalance theory) can increase stigma, for example — by encouraging the idea that mental health problems are permanent.
It’s a good example of how these false beliefs aren’t just propagated because folks don’t know about science, or have any sort of malicious intent. Rather, there are oftentimes logical and understandable reasons why they arise and stick around in the first place. They’re still wrong, though, and worth debunking whenever they pop up. Head on over to Jarrett’s post for nine more.