I recently had cause to take a good hard look at my own behaviour, and the way in which I was reacting to other people.
It’s difficult to accept that you might be selfish or careless of other people’s feelings. It’s also far too easy to blame it on an illness – or the drugs used to treat that illness – especially if you are aware that this is a possibility.
Which it is…
In July 2015, a study was published that suggested levadopa (the most prevalent treatment for Parkinson’s, and the key ingredient in the Sinemet that I take) made healthy subjects more selfish. The same study also looked at an antidepressant drug that increased serotonin levels, and that drug was found to make people more caring.
To my mind, the study was based on a simplistic and fairly extreme premise, probably out of necessity – morality is difficult to measure. The study used the choice to deliver a painful but not intolerable electric shock to either oneself or another person (not present in the same room). In both cases, cash could be paid to prevent the shock. The amount that people were prepared to pay to avoid harming themself, and to avoid harming another, was monitored and compared. The findings can be summarised as follows:
- those whose serotonin levels were increased were willing to pay significantly more to avoid harm to another than to avoid harming themselves
- those whose brain chemistry was unchanged (because they took a placebo) would still pay more to avoid harm to others, but not as much as the increased-serotonin group
- those whose dopamine levels were increased paid equal amounts to avoid harm to others and to avoid harm to themselves
I would like to think that, even with levadopa, my judgement would err towards the altruistic avoidance of harm to another. And perhaps it would – the results were, after all, averages. However, I have never, to my recollection, found myself in that sort of situation.
But what if the situation was more subtle? If it were more a matter of insensitivity, not paying full attention to what others were doing, increased focus on the self? If it were a matter of taking opportunities without paying heed to the limited nature of the opportunities and to other’s desires to take the same opportunities? I think I have been guilty of these things. I’m not sure that it is entirely down to drugs, either; at least some of it is inherent in my personality (I know that I am quite good at some things, and I also know that I can come across as patronising or condescending as a result of the first knowing without meaning to; I try to guard against this tendency, but I do not always succeed). At least some of it must be due to Parkinson’s itself – the difficulties in doing things that didn’t ought to be difficult, that didn’t used to be difficult, and the self-awareness that comes with the process of constant adjustment (because the effects of Parkinson’s vary from day to day, from hour to hour, and gradually become more frustrating over weeks and months). And another part, again, is a result of the knowledge that, because I have Parkinson’s, my timescales are reduced.
Interestingly, I have recently started taking an antidepressant called mirtazapine. This is not the same drug that was used in the study (that was citalopram); it is described as “an atypical antidepressant” because it only targets one type of serotonin receptor in the brain. But it does still increase serotonin levels.
I take mirtazapine to counteract the excessive wakefulness that sinemet causes (that is, it helps me sleep). Might it also go some way to counteract the apparent selfishness that sinemet causes?