Agent Hormone

I’m a sucker for hormones. They get me every time. Cut back my estrogen levels and pound me with the progesterone and I’m gone. The world is suddenly ending, I’m the worst person in it, I’m hugely fat, I can’t sleep enough and my bowels, well, they go skeewampus. I have tracked my feelings and behavior for a solid 6 years and I am still powerless against them. Fully aware that I am in the midst of a temporary hormone shift, I still sigh, cry, want to die, and eat an extraordinary amount of carbohydrates.

In our theology, we believe that agency is as fundamental as Jesus is in our attempts to return to God. We are “free, knowing good from evil, to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon.” Indeed (wo?)”men are free according to the flesh (2 Ne 2:26-27).” We are agents unto ourselves (Moses 6:56) and if we do iniquity, we do it unto ourselves because we are free; we are permitted to act for ourselves because God has given us knowledge and he has made us free. (Hel 14:30). I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the throes of a hormone shift, sudden or serial, I do not feel like a free agent.

Now, I do not believe that the two are mutually exclusive, but hormones make it difficult for me to make decisions other than what they are urging me to do. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong and sometimes it has no moral significance whatsoever. Hormones cannot dictate behavior, but they can change the probability that a very specific behavior will be emitted in a specific situation, much like mafia bosses.

This is not my field, if I have one of those, and most of my information came from here and here, introductory textbooks to behavioral endocrinology. If I happen to assert that a glucocorticoid does something it can’t or insert a u into our DNA, please let me know. Hormones are “chemical messengers that are released from endocrine glands and travel through the blood stream to target cells where they induce changes in the rate of cellular function (Nelson 9).” Hormones often get out in a predictable fashion, like during a woman’s reproductive cycle, or they make special appearances in response to stressful situations which could vary from someone wanting to beat the crap out of you, to a pesky blog administrator hounding you for a post, to the promise of good (or bad) sex or winning the lottery. In the presence of hormones, here are some very interesting things that occur:

  • There is a testosterone threshold in males (human and otherwise) that once crossed sends a monogamous man or species into polygamy.
  • The higher the testosterone the thicker and more quickly-growing the beard. He-llo Brigham Young.
  • It is commonly known that we have a hormonal “fight-or-flight” mechanism as a stress-response. It turns out that women usually don’t fight or fly but instead “tend and befriend” (Shelley Taylor, UCLA) due to heightened levels of oxytocin.
  • Estrogen and progesterone dramatically increase during pregnancy and then both drop drastically at parturition. This drop causes the maternal instincts to love, care for and protect the baby.
  • Increased levels of epinephrine make humans remember emotional experiences, images or feelings for much longer and more powerfully than otherwise.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder is marked by very low levels of serotonin.

Now, some of these examples are neither here nor there but they bring up some good questions in terms of agency and the influence of the gift of the Holy Ghost. The other problem is that not all bodies are created equal. Some people have more or less hormone than they should. So… what if Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy was partially related to high levels of testosterone, over which he had absolutely no control?

What if Franklin-Covey effective planning principles came about because Franklins, Smiths, Coveys, whomever, had really low levels of serotonin?

Due to some misbehaving hormones, I cannot have children. (Don’t cry for me Argentina, I got over that a long time ago). But is my responsibility, when I marry that non-Mormon, to try in-vitro or hormone therapies in attempts to keep the multiply and replenish the earth commandment? Or is this God’s special plan for me so I should do nothing? I’m not asking for advice, just your take on your understood doctrine.

My father was a diabetic manic-depressive. Should he have taken insulin to make up for his body not making it? (He did). Should he have taken lithium to balance out his brain chemistry? (He did not.) Again no advice, he’s proselytizing to your dead ancestors.

What if a woman’s hormones do not respond exactly right during pregnancy and birth and she has little maternal instinct? What if you don’t have the sufficient mood-stabilizing hormones in your body? Do you take SSRIs?

I do not believe that we are completely subject to hormones. I see a good-lookin’ man, hormones go into my bloodstream and still I keep my hands to myself. I don’t kill myself even though I have devastating feelings during PMS all because of hormones. I do believe however that some spiritual things are hormonal and that other things that we are supposed to control by our God-given knowledge and agency are ruled by our hormones. And I feel stuck, crediting one seems to discredit the other and I don’t quite buy that either.


  1. Eric Russell says:

    Nice post, Amri. Those are some good questions that don’t have easy answers. I would take a middle line. Just like any illness, if there are serious problems that can easily and safely be solved with the addition of proper chemicals and medications, then I’m all for it.

    But I think that dealing with the struggles our body confronts us with is part of this life. We all have impulses in various forms and degrees, and we’ve come to this earth to learn how to deal with them, to make the best of things in spite of them. If we numb our brains away, we may be avoiding some problems and pain, but it seems to me that we’d be also be cheating ourselves out of our lives.

  2. You post on the same day as a discussion on porn and expect to get comments?

    Actually, DKL wrote something on the other thread that I think is applicable here.

    “This “self control” issue bears on the topic of free will and the way that people talk about it. The basic problem is that we say that something is done freely when (and only when) there is no obvious external cause. Inversely. we say that otherwise willful acts are performed outside of one’s self-control whenever there is an obvious cause. It’s silly to begin talking as though the identification of an external cause suddenly converts what was once understood as an act of volition into something outside of one’s control.

    We run into this problem every time we try to view free agency as anything other than a mere framework for attributing blame and credit for actions.”

  3. This is an interesting question that I have thought a lot about. I kind of think of our bodies as ‘cars’ and the part of us that has agency as the driver. Lets say a car breaks down. If the breakdown is completely unexpected, then it’s not the driver’s fault. If the ‘check engine’ light has been on for weeks, then it is the driver’s fault. If the driver literally cannot afford repairs (or repairs don’t exist), again it’s not her fault. It is silly to think that a broken won’t break down just by driving responsibly. At the same time driving responsibly will often prevent it breaking down. Some cars just can’t handle some roads, and a responsible driver stays off of them.

    Cars have limitations which circumscribe, but do not remove the agency of the driver, and our bodies and minds have limitations that circumscribe but do not remove the agency of the person.

    And I agree with DKL’s sentiment that agency is mostly just a framework for assigning and weighing blame and credit.

  4. I refused to take anti-depressants with my first two bouts with post partum depression.
    By my third child my attitude changed? Why? Because I have another disease that I take medication for everyday. I will dye without that medication. There is no cure for my disease. I can only treat the symptoms. And there are several aproaches to treating those symptoms. None of them are perfect.
    So, after having an experience with treating a disease, imperfectly of course since there is no cure, I realize that you just make the best decision you can based on the available information and the available medications.
    So, a few months after my third child I went ahead and asked for medication for depression.
    It was, in fact, a great decision.
    And, what did I find out? It helped. But it didn’t cure it. It became less effective over time. And just like my other disease, I had to re-evaluate as time went on, and make new decisions along the way.
    I feel a lot wiser now.
    My suggestion to you, Amri, is to look at how PMS is really affecting your life. Check into what your options are. You can try to treat the symptoms. Choosing to use a medication doesn’t mean you will do so forever. You have to re-evaluate every so often. Maybe you’ll find something that will significantly improve your situation for a period of time.
    If there is no cure, you just try to make the best decision based on your circumstances.

  5. LOL, DYE should be DIE.

  6. good questions all, Amri.

    Years ago I heard about a chromosomal disorder that predisposes to violent behavior. A really astonishing percentage (75% +) of people with this condition wind up in prison. I haven’t thought of agency in the same way since I learned that.

    As I understand our doctrine, each of us is blessed by God with unique gifts and talents. Although I’ve never heard it taught, I guess that we also come to mortality with a few “anti-talents”. I believe this is why Jesus tells us to refrain from judging – we don’t have enough information to judge wisely. I fall off my own little hobby horse enough to know that the other poor schlubs around me deserve a little patience, encouragement, and time as they figure out their challenges.

    I also think we have a responsibility to know ourselves and take measures that help us avoid the worse parts of our nature. I already know the conditions that foster anger in me, so I need to learn to either avoid those conditions or learn how to manage them better.

  7. No matter what else we say about this post, Amri, you get double points on a triple word score for “skeewampus.” Bravissimo!

  8. I think many people think, binarily, we are agents or we are not. Really, if we believe in agency of any sort, one has to accept as well that it is emergent. Moreover, this emergent vector of agency is dynamic and some may never experience something like true agency in this life. The question then becomes how we maximize our agency…and besides the “follow God’s commandments” line, I’m not sure what we have. There are definitive physiological hurdles that have to be transcended…and perhaps, they won’t be untill the resurection.

  9. Jared,
    I’m new to this posting thing and I forget how hot and bothered Mormons get over porn. Bad choice on my part or could it have been hormones?

  10. Me, too, Amri, and I’m almost 54! I have a fan on my desk and by my bed. I’m trying to quit, but I’m afraid I’ll get mental.

    J., huh? Translation: ?

  11. One of my favorite quotes from Joseph Smith seems relevant here:

    “But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard….He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow contracted notions of men, but ‘according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil’ or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. He will judge them, ‘not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,’ those who have lived without law will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will be judged by that law. We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment and mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutible designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.” TPJS, p. 218

    I believe that, just as the Great Parent will take into account our opportunities for obtaining correct information when judgment day comes, he will make allowances for the biological advantages or disadvantages we end up with by chance of biology/genetics.

    It’s not unlike the degree of difficulty in diving. In my mind, only one of the judges has any way of knowing how hard your dive really is. Each of us should do the best we can, whether we’re doing a swan dive or a triple lindy and we should all acknowledge that we have no idea which of the two anyone else is doing.

  12. Travis, great quote, thank you. I like that JS.

    Our body chemistry is complicated to me. I’ve come to accept/believe/beg for the idea that God understands the ins and outs of what we can/not do based on our chemistry that even we don’t understand. Sometimes it’s been valuable in my life to choose to pull myself up by the bootstraps and sometimes it was mandatory that I take some sort of drugs SSRIs or hormones in order to deal with what was going on. Deciding between those two will be a decision that has to be made over and over I think.

    The other issue with hormones is the idea of inspiration and revelation. Meaning hormones make us think feel certain things. Can the Spirit transcend that or does it work within our body chemistry? Does each particular prophet have the revelations he does based on his particular chemistry? And my own personal revelation–is that based on the amount of progesterone I had in my blood?

    I’ve found I have to just trust myself even when I’m wrong otherwise I just get paralyzed with the thought was that my hormones? The Spirit? God? Buddha? Indigestion?

  13. professor says:

    CS Lewis talked about something like this in Mere Christianity. I apologize in advance for making it sound simplistic and stupid – you have to read the book for the good version. But anyway, he compares the parable of the rich man to being “rich” in personality. He says that you can never really judge a person’s likeability based on another person. You can only compare if that person is being better/more likeable than they usually are or could be. Then he talks about how those who are just naturally nice and likeable, are like the rich people and it’s really a disadvantage for them because it might lead them to not try to become better people or become closer to God.
    I guess my point in all this, is that I think he’s right. God is only comparing you with you. Are you being the best you that you can be (insert army jokes here). But he does expect you to follow his commandments. If you know some situation will be too tempting – it really is your job to avoid it. If you know you have sinned – it is your job to repent. He will support you and help you through anything if you ask him to, but when it comes down to it, you are expected to do the best you can. It’s true that you can’t judge others, but you can’t judge yourself either. God knows how difficult your challenges are – you can’t just say, “I couldn’t help it because of hormones” and assume that you don’t have to repent – or that it’s ok to do it while you’re in the midst of the temptation. Try not to do it, if you do, repent and move on. As long as you believe you are really doing your best, all you can do is trust that His judgement will be just and merciful and all those good things He has promised us He is.

  14. cchrissyy says:

    about childbearing, I am a firm believer that only you can receive the revelation for yourself about what needs to happen next. I wish it were unheard of that people tell others how to plan their families- in or out of the church. As for msyelf, I know I have right to revelation on the matter and the only outside opinion I care to wheigh is His.

  15. Cchrissyy–I imagine child-bearing will be more of an issue when I’m married but it is funny how we’ve connected righteousness to the number of children we have. I think GBH has made several comments about how it’s supposed to be between the couple and the Lord.
    If righteousness is connected to child-bearing and God made it so I can’t have kids I’m convinced that means I’m going straight to the top (of heaven). Like a pre-8 year old who died in innocence.

  16. Amri (#16), I’d appreciate some postcards or fetal portrait ultrasounds when you get to heaven. I hear postage is cheap when the delivery is to a lower glory.

    re: hormones, this is in large part why I see the atonement as the great relativizer. as best I understand it, the atonement suggests (whether it’s penal, divine cosubstance, or some other model) that our best is good enough, however awful our best is.
    I see a lot of pretty severely mentally ill people in my line of work, and as much as some of us would like to believe otherwise, there are a lot who really don’t have much control over their own minds. I suspect that a fair number of them, no matter how syphilitic or tobaccoed or inebriated will be embraced by the atonement for the exercise of their will of which they were capable.

    This is a large part of why we’re not to judge other individuals. We have no idea what their starting constraints are. We may end up having to wag our finger UP at them rather than DOWN at them when the final judgment is complete.

    NB this does not mean that truth is relative or that the church ought to actively preach that whatever one does is fine. this just means that an individual’s ability to measure up to external standards, however righteously and truthfully established, is not, in the final analysis, what determine their heavenly lot. that seems to stand at the core of the atonement, which is why it’s been so hard over the years for christians and mormons to figure out what to do with the atonement, how to avoid it being used for “licentiousness.”

  17. professor (#14)

    God is definitely comparing you with you. However, LDS culture trends toward immense shame/guilt when we don’t do our “best,” where best tends to be defined by external expectations/cultural norms. The trouble is how do we know what our best was. I suffer from depression. Did I do my best today because I was able to get out of bed and go to work? In my previous job (which was rough), was I not doing my best because I didn’t make it out of bed (even though prior to rough job this wasn’t a problem)? So in worsening am I not doing my best?

    Granted, these are not sinful things, but there seem to be correlations with sins of omission. With mental illness or hormones, what do you attribute to agency (I acted in a way that didn’t measure up to the “my best” bar) and what do you attribute to the illness/hormones (I measured up, but only because the “my best” bar was lowered)?

    Unfortunately, when the brain is impacted by the physical, separation of identity/agency from environment feels impossible.

    Unfortunately, “do your best” doesn’t end up being useful advice, because determining what my best is feels impossible.

    In the face of this type of question, I tend to feel a bit fatalistic (as if that weren’t obvious).

  18. hmb,
    I often feel quite fatalistic as well. Lately, however, I’ve also felt very universalist. Which means I think I’m buying progression between kingdoms as being very possible- and thus everyone is bound to get there eventually.

  19. 8: Good comment.

    See my link, and for me it’s “try my best” although I can’t say that EVERY single SECOND of every day I’m completely or even partially focused on that, the overall of my life, and I’m not talking the past, here, but the overall of my living, or my (I feel, at present) very pathetic attempts at tiny, tiny aspects of trying to live, fits that, in intent and sometimes action.

    I intend SO much more than I am able. But I have to believe that my life is not a road to hell, paved with good intentions. Course, some days I feel my life IS hell, but then again, if it is, then all I can go is up (I surely hope . . . .).

    And trying to learn to not beat myself up, and even kill myself for, not being capable of acting on so much of what I deeply, earnestly, whole-heartedly, with my entire being, desire and intend to do.

    The best I can do, is the best I can do. It happens in fits and starts, and I picture it as a line graph, with sometimes sharp peaks and valleys, and sometimes much less steeply-sloped peaks, but the general trend is upwards; I need not flagellate myself for the seeming inconsistency, seeming inconstancy, in effort; those two (or one) problems right there, are part of the very NATURE of what I am dealing with.

    Wow. I’m going to have to read this through, this thinking out loud by typing is helping me, actually. I’ll have to print a copy for therapy this week.

    And “the best I can do” is NOT to be measured against others; I SO NEED TO LEARN THIS. I am SO glad I read this thread, today, and am replying, because I am struggling so hard. Whether it be hormones of PMS (add that to a manically swinging week, and you’d better get the heck outta my way, hee hee, I can joke about that, and accept responses to my joking, but don’t ever come out with it to me first, yourselves), or menopause, mental illness, or other, this has so many applications and aspects and things.

    I feel this issue very strongly and hope no one is tired of hearing from me . . . perhaps a renewal of my feeling of purpose in conveying something useful from my experience, is one of the good things that has been missing from my life of late, and thus I’ve been left untethered and fighting for my life for months.

    Well, J., I wandered quite alot, there, lol! See my link, if you haven’t read it before, if you like!

    12 and 14 – Well I guess I just addressed alot of my thoughts that your comments evoked in me, in the above! And in my link.

    17 – I address alot of my thoughts re: your comment in the above and in my link, but I particularly like your last paragraph, and I quote:

    NB this does not mean that truth is relative or that the church ought to actively preach that whatever one does is fine. this just means that an individual’s ability to measure up to external standards, however righteously and truthfully established, is not, in the final analysis, what determine their heavenly lot. that seems to stand at the core of the atonement, which is why it’s been so hard over the years for christians and mormons to figure out what to do with the atonement, how to avoid it being used for “licentiousness”.

    18 – A VERY good comment. In particular, I found particularly descriptive of things I’ve struggled to put into words, the following:

    God is definitely comparing you with you. However, LDS culture trends toward immense shame/guilt when we don’t do our “best,” where best tends to be defined by external expectations/cultural norms.


    Granted, these are not sinful things, but there seem to be correlations with sins of omission. With mental illness or hormones, what do you attribute to agency (I acted in a way that didn’t measure up to the “my best” bar) and what do you attribute to the illness/hormones (I measured up, but only because the “my best” bar was lowered)?


    Unfortunately, “do your best” doesn’t end up being useful advice, because determining what my best is feels impossible.

    hmb, I guess I just quoted 90% of your comment, which made me almost delete the quotes and say hey, see the whole comment, I agree. Still, I think they are such EXCELLENT points, and they SO SO SO resonate with me; they really explicate (I hope I’m using that word correctly; my mind is fuzzy) things that I feel really cause a whole HOST of problems for those struggling with various issues affecting ability to restrain impulses, to what degree, and other decision-making capabilities or degrees of, or lack of, thereof. (Is that enough of’s for you? hee)

    Anyway, please see my link, if you like.

    Some of you may have seen this before, some may have not. I’ve posted at various times on my blog about the subject, but the one I will like to now is Hey, Where’s My Shoelaces?

    If you’ve read this far, I give you a free Peach. I like to monkey around, and when doing so, I tend to steal people’s peaches . . . or, at least, I lust after them. (Having a major giggling fit now . . . ha!)

  20. Okay, now I’m feeling really LAME about my attempts at humor. Trying really hard to keep my mental whips and flagellas (okay, so that’s not a word? but it’s the multi-stranded whip with barbed pieces of metal and nails and such along the strips) put away.

  21. Er, it’s a word in biology. No wonder my brain feels fuzzy, my flagellas are hanging out.


  1. […] It was Starfoxy’s comment on Anamarie’s post over at BCC where Starfoxy compares people’s physical bodies to cars with different capabilities and limits all of which influence both the abilites and the agency an individual has. This of course reminded me of the Targa and that it is only a couple days away. (less than two days actually) […]

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