2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Professor of Neurobiology and Psychiatry, UCSF; Author, Making Sense of People
Using Medications To Change Personality

Personality — the pattern of thoughts, feelings, and actions that is typical of each of us — is generally formed by early adulthood. But many people still want to change. Some, for example, consider themselves too gloomy and uptight and want to become more cheerful and flexible. Whatever their aims they often turn to therapists, self-help books, and religious practices.

In the past few decades certain psychiatric medications have become an additional tool for those seeking control of their lives. Initially designed to be used for a few months to treat episodic psychological disturbances such as severe depression, they are now being widely prescribed for indefinite use to produce sustained shifts in certain personality traits. Prozac is the best known of them, but many others are on the market or in development. By directly affecting brain circuits that control emotions, these medications can produce desirable effects that may be hard to replicate by sheer force of will or by behavioral exercises. Millions keep taking them continuously, year after year, to modulate personality.

Nevertheless, despite the testimonials and apparent successes, the sustained use of such drugs to change personality should still be considered dangerous. Not because manipulation of brain chemicals is intrinsically cowardly, immoral, or a threat to the social order. In the opinion of experienced clinicians medications such as Prozac may actually have the opposite effect, helping to build character and to increase personal responsibility. The real danger is that there are no controlled studies of the effects of these drugs on personality over the many years or even decades in which some people are taking them. So we are left with a reliance on opinion and belief. And this, as in all fields, we know to be dangerous.