The Life Scientific: Robin Murray

Psychiatrist Robin Murray tells why he has changed his mind about the cause of schizophrenia.

The Life Scientific is a 1/2 hour show on BBC Radio four that aims at getting inside the minds of scientists. This episode seeks to get inside the mind of a man who studies the mind. Dr Robin Murray Psychiatrist and researcher tells of how he came to completely change his own ideas of schizophrenia and psychosis. Dr Murray talks of how he shifted from his purely biological undersnding, adding ideas about development as we began to understand more about how brain development is affected by early experiences and now how we are begining to understand about neuroplasticity. He suggests that in future we will be arguing less and working together more, combining understanding.

  • living in a city significantly increases the chances of schizophrenia, or psychosis – the bigger the city, the more likely is psychosis in the long term
  • immigrants are six times more likely than residents of any town or city to be diagnosed

“This indicates that the condition is as much social as it is biological .

“There’s something about being a migrant that pushes up the risk: anyone living in a society not of their  birth or upbringing increases the risk of psychosis.

“….we could likely abolish 20 to 30% of psychosis if no one lived in cities or towns.

sometimes we must realise that our ideas are wrong

Robin Murray talks about how embarking on his career he was as predjudiced and scared as anyone else but wanted to approach studying the brain and in particular schizophrenia from a real scientific basis: asking real scientific questions and gathering real scientific data.

“One of the interesting things for a psychiatrist is to think: ‘what is the difference between a delusional belief and a belief in a scientific idea that no one else believes in?”

Murray talks of his early research years studying urine of people who had  a diagnosis of schizophrenia “whatever that is”, trying to   detect whether chemicals in their brains were different – until he realised how daft that was , as it was pointed out to him  akin to collecting sewer discharge from the Kremlin to discern what the Soviet Politburo was up to.

“If you do a study and you expect to find something it’s nice to have your pet theory confirmed but it is more useful if it isn’t confirmed. As a scientists you need a  balance between having an idea and testing it and then sticking to it if you have the evidence but you also have to realise that sometmes your ideas aree wrong.”


Some think that pscychosis would be better named saliency syndrome – where saliency is the ability to sort between  what  is important or salient and what is not

“in acute psychosis the brain’s ability to decide what is important is interfered with, impairing the ability to filter out what is not important. Being bombarded with so many sensations and experiences, all important, can lead to confusion : why on earth are all these important things happening to me?

And dopamine plays a role in that as the neurotransmitter that gets us to pay attention. If we are flooded with dopamine we might have difficulty figuring out what is important as all our senses might be bombarding us with important data.

    • leading us to when everything  important and positive – diagnosed as having “grandiose delusions”
    • or when everything is important, significant and negative – diagnosed with”paranoid delusions”

Includes a brief segment with Peter Chadwick who shares some of his own experience of what it can be like to experience psychosis

“everything is important: “it can be torment – absolue torment”

And with Rufus May

“we can’t understand the plot of Eastenders (a daily TV soap opera) by taking apart the televisions set. “

“We can’t understand everything that is going on inside a person’s mind, and emotions and soul by knowing  how the brain works biologically. What we experience is a product of  everything we have lived through and we need to undrstand in those terms.

For instance if a person is hearing voices we know that is likely telling us about split-off emotions and the person experiencing that can learn how to reconnect with those emotions and live with what they experience. But it takes patience and time. Its a lot harder than just prescribing a pill..

Meanwhile we have patients waiting around in medical facilities waiting on the latest promise of magical scientific cures.

 You might want to listen this excellent 30 minutes a few times – it covers a lot of ground enough to challenge your own salience abilities [mine to] ….including links to development, canabis and RD Laing …

Dr Robin Murray is a scientist and a Psychiatrist – perhaps an all too rare kind  – who does not mind admitting that his ideas have been wrong before.

Listen yourself at this link, on the BBC iplayer

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