Personal blog of Dr Alex Mendelsohn

Author: Alex Mendelsohn (Page 4 of 5)

I had a severe reaction to an antidepressant which, overnight, turned me from someone who had no anxiety symptoms whatsoever, to someone who had all of them. I then spent 8 months learning psychological methods (a lot of which I came up with myself) to 'reanimate my Frankenstein brain'. I then returned to my physics PhD where I finished the last 3 years of my PhD in 20 minute intervals, meditating in between to keep myself functional. After I finished, I collapsed from exhaustion, due to the slow progression of my physiological illness. I spent a harrowing couple of years in an indescribable hell, before we eventually got to medications that finally started to work. I am still recovering, but the closest to remission since that awful night in November 2015.

Why has no one taken any measurements of my brain?

This is the original draft of the Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental health system (which then lead to the 24th February podcast)

I sent this draft to the editor around August 2021, when I was quite a lot sicker than I am now. I am proud of what I wrote given I could barely make breakfast at the time. So bear this in mind if some of it doesn’t make sense!

The article is a personal account of a physicist’s experience with mental illness and the mental health system. Alex describes their experiences in experimental physics and how it taught them the importance of accurate, precise, and direct scientific measurements to derive meaningful understanding. They then go on to talk about their experiences with the mental health system and how they have not received any concrete measurements or tests to diagnose and treat their mental illness, which has led to a lack of progress in their treatment. Alex questions why mental health treatment is based on generalizations and guesswork instead of direct measurements, similar to how their work in physics evolved from guesswork to accurate measurements.


I entered my experimental physics PhD way out of my depth. I, like many others, was taken aback by just how much rigour goes into the experiments. “Did you check this?” my supervisor would say “Or that?” he would continue, as I stood there with a feeling of dread knowing that my answer was going to be an inevitable, “No”. “Well, we will have to redo the experiment then” he would say, knowing full well that by “we” he meant “me”.

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Spring 2022 blog previews

Spring is coming, flowers are blooming and the days are getting longer. What better way to celebrate than a critical analysis of the mental health system! My original draft of the Physics World article (I will shut up about it eventually, I swear!) joins a list of weird and wonderful blog posts I have planned for the next few months. Here are their previews.


Why has no one taken any measurements of my brain?

The original draft of the Physics World article that I sent to the editor. In it, I compare my experience as a PhD physicist and my treatment from psychiatrists. I shine a light on the unscientific nature of the psychiatric system and how it affected me personally. I posit a way in which it could be made more scientific.

Physics World article context #3 – the problem with rating scales

I am quite critical of rating scales in the article. To back up these criticisms I tell the story of when I had to fill them in, and why they are completely inadequate as a measurement tool

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Physics World article context #2 – BRAIN and the future direction of neurological measuring devices

This is the second of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.

The author, Alex, discusses their frustration with the lack of advanced brain measurement machines available for use in their treatment. They searched for non-invasive and direct methods to record action potentials in the brain, but the techniques they found were either poorly funded, invasive, or indirect. The BRAIN initiative was also found to be lacking in progress. Alex quotes a 2015 paper by a working group on the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons, which highlights the need for development in this area and the potential for revolutionary advances. As someone who is mentally ill, Alex was disappointed that progress had been slow and felt that a lot of hope had been taken away.


When things were pretty bad and no treatment had had a significant effect, I could not understand why no one was looking at my head. Where were all these magnificent brain measurement machines I had seen in the news and media growing up? My condition was so severe I was certain something would show up. I even asked one of the clinicians this (they did research as well as treatment and had an MRI machine on site), they replied: “we wouldn’t be able to interpret the images”. Which infuriated me as an experimentalist. Non-interpretable data is literally the start of any experimental investigation!

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Physics World article context #1 – the benefits of therapy

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.

This blog post discusses the benefits of therapy and the Alex’s views on it. The post is part of a series of articles on the context behind the Physics World article, “A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system.” Alex begins by noting that therapy helped them become a confident, emotionally aware individual. However, they felt that during the process, they were not receiving treatment, but rather an education to learn a skillset. They believe that listening is not a passive activity, but an active one, and that counsellors are trained to be the best listeners on the planet. The safe environment provided by therapy allows individuals to process their emotions and understand how they build and lead to the person they are. Alex believes that therapy is not a treatment but an education, and that it helps a large proportion of people with mental health problems. The post ends with the Alex’s view that an education can still work as a treatment, but it is much easier to do when used as a preventative measure.


The Physics World article is focused almost entirely on the psychiatric system. In the original draft, I sent two articles – the second was focused more on the psychotherapeutic system, but was only loosely tied to physics. This blog post summarises my views of psychotherapy.

I don’t think therapy was bad at all. Through it, I became a confident, emotionally aware individual. The problem was that during the process it was abundantly obvious that I was not receiving treatment. I was receiving an education (as someone who has been in education my entire life).

In my view, treatments require the person receiving it to do very little work (usually to lift their arm from the pill box to their mouth), whereas education requires the person receiving it to do a lot of work, in order to learn a skillset.

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Welcome

Hello to everyone who happened upon this blog. My name is Alex Mendelsohn*. There isn’t much here in the form of sunshine and flowers (unfortunately, I couldn’t find those emoji’s – all I could find were these red flags: 🚩🚩🚩). Instead, you are free to feast on a collection of thoughts from a physicist going through severe mental illness. Yippee!**

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The one neuron model

The article discusses the bottom-up approach of physics and how it can be applied to mental health conditions. Alex presents a model of the brain as a single neuron to explain anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. According to the model, anxiety is an increase in the firing frequency of the neuron, depression is a slowing of the ticking clock, and bipolar disorder is a quickening of the clock followed by a decrease to normal, then speeding back up again. Alex believes that this model may be a fundamental first step in understanding mental health conditions. He also criticizes the insufficient models used to describe mental health conditions in generalizations.


As I will likely parrot in most of the things I write, physicists think ‘bottom up’. That is, to find some fundamental equation that underlies the whole of whatever it is describing, even if it itself does not give a very accurate portrayal of reality. Think of those classical problems in school physics lessons of a 2D ball being launched by some force at a specific angle. I’m sure some of you have nightmares after the mere mention of SUVAT equations (apologies).

But these Newtonian equations describe the fundamental physics of classical objects travelling along a trajectory really well. To then accurately describe the forces (wind resistance, spin, friction etc.) acting on a 3D real-life ball flying through the air, terms and perturbations are added to the fundamental equations. Importantly, however, terms are never taken away.

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Why don’t we teach how to tell a bad source from a good one?

There are many guides out there on how to cite sources in your writing (e.g. scribbr, citethisforme and OCR) but relatively few on how to actually find these sources. I write about how this underutilised skill could be taught and how it could help society sort through the chaos that is internet literature.   

This is an interesting article about the lack of guidance on how to find reliable sources and distinguish them from bad ones, particularly in the context of academic writing. Alex shares their personal experience of struggling to find and cite sources for their physics dissertation and how they eventually learned the necessary skills during their PhD. He wonders why this critical skill is not taught more widely and proposes that it should be taught from the very beginning of a degree program.


Finally. After years of waiting, I would be heading to university to study physics. I was going to consume knowledge and understanding (pretty poorly at first) from realms of physics most fear 1. Subjects like quantum mechanics, astrophysics, magnetism, thermodynamics and special relativity. My only previous encounter of these topics was from watching Brian Cox waffle on T.V. while staring into the middle distance and ‘reading’2 books deemed a bit too much for the school curriculum3.

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Confessions of a passionate researcher

Alex recounts his disappointment and confusion at the lack of passion and engagement he witnessed during talks at his first scientific conference as a PhD student. He questions why researchers feel the need to make their presentations so clear and devoid of emotion that they become boring and unengaging. He suggests that including a complex narrative could make scientific communication more interesting and suspenseful without sacrificing clarity, particularly when presenting to a general audience. Alex also notes that the culture of obsessive clarity in scientific communication distances researchers from the public and reinforces negative stereotypes about scientists. He argues that passion and character are essential to good science and that researchers should not be afraid to include them in their presentations.


I was just about to attend my first conference as a 1st year PhD student. Finally, after years of waiting, I would get to see the hum of activity of a scientific conference. I was excited to be a part of the deep conversations about each other’s work, the exchanging of ideas, maybe even possible future collaborations. But most of all, I was looking forward to the talks. The life’s work of eminent scientists on a stage, the platform for scientists to show the fruits of their gruelling labour. I was expecting passion, engagement, life. I was expecting to get everything science had meant to me since I was a wee nipper.

I got fear. I got dull, monotone dregs of character. There were a couple of sparks amidst the darkness, but they remained unnoticed to most – without even a nugatory raise of an eyebrow.

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The depressed honey bee

This blog post discusses how the emotions of desire and avoidance dictate the world of a honey bee. Flowers and predators are the only things that stand out to a honey bee, and their world is mostly in greyscale. A depressed honey bee would lose the ability to see colour and would remain in the hive because there would be nothing to fly away to. An anxious honey bee, on the other hand, would see the entire world as red, including flowers, and would be paralyzed by the overwhelming redness. Alex suggests that human emotions are similar to those of a honey bee, with depression and anxiety being complicated conditions that can make the world seem gray or filled with dark red


I imagine the honey bee’s world is dictated by two emotions: desire and avoidance. When a honey bee sees a flower off in the distance, it has a strong desire to fly towards it, to rid it of its nectar. A small reward circuit lights up in its little mind whenever it comes across a flower. Similarly, whenever a honey bee sees a predator, like a bear, spider or bird an avoidance circuit lights up (or in dire situations an attack circuit).

To a honey bee, it is like their world is in greyscale, with only the flowers in green and predators in red standing proudly out against the background. A honey bee does not care about the bright blue sky, or a trickling waterfall, or a lush field of grass. Neither does it care about the mundane, like roads, bricks or trees. To a honey bee, it is as if these things don’t exist. While it sees them, knows they are there, it pays these phenomena absolutely no attention. The honey bee’s world is almost entirely determined by the green flowers and red predators.

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