Archive for May, 2014

The Mind/Brain or Mind/Body Dichotomy in Psychology



The purpose of this Blog is to review one of the longest standing issues in psychology— known as the mind/brain or mind/body dichotomy. It is a critical long-standing issue in psychology because various assumptions about the mind/brain connection affect so many different sub-fields within psychology. In turn, it’s important to be up front about this issue because of its significance in developing any kind of theory in psychology today.

The Mind/Brain Dichotomy

The following is an article by Saul McLeod published in 2007.

“The mind is about mental processes, thought and consciousness. The body is about the physical aspects of the brain-neurons and how the brain is structured. The mind-body problem is about how these two interact.

One of the central questions in psychology (and philosophy) concerns the mind/body problem: is the mind part of the body, or the body part of the mind? If they are distinct, then how do they interact? And which of the two is in charge?

Many theories have been put forward to explain the relationship between what we call your mind (defined as the conscious thinking ‘you’ which experiences your thoughts) and your brain (i.e. part of your body).

However, the most common explanation concerns the question of whether the mind and body are separate or the same thing.

Dualism vs Monism

Human beings are material objects. We have weight, solidity and consist of a variety of solids, liquids and gases. However, unlike other material objects (e.g. rocks) humans also have the ability to form judgments and reason their existence. In short we have ‘minds’.

Typically, humans are characterized as having both a mind and body.  This is known as dualism.  Dualism is the view that the mind and body both exist.

There are two basic types of dualism:

o Descartes dualism: The view that the mind and body function separately, without interchange.

o Cartesian dualism argues that there is a two-way interaction between mental and physical substances.

Dualism is in contrast to Monism that states the mind and body is the same thing.

There are two basic types of Monism:

o Materialism is the belief that nothing exists apart from the material world (i.e. physical matter like the brain); materialist psychologists generally agree that consciousness (the mind) is the function of the brain. Mental processes can be identified with purely physical processes in the central nervous system, and that human beings are just complicated physiological organisms, no more than that.

o Phenomenalism (also called Subjective Idealism) believes that physical objects and events are reducible to mental objects, properties, events. Ultimately, only mental objects (i.e. the mind) exist. Bishop Berkeley claimed that what we think of as our body is merely the perception of mind. Before you reject this too rapidly consider the results of a recent study.

Scientists asked three hemiplegic (i.e. loss of movement from one side of the body) stroke victims with damage to the right hemispheres of their brains about their abilities to move their arms. All three claimed, despite evidence to the contrary in the mirror in front of them, that they could move their right and left hands equally well. Further, two of the three stroke victims claimed that an experimental stooge who faked paralysis (i.e. lack of movement) of his left arm was able to move his arm satisfactorily.

Psychology & the Mind Body Debate

There are different approaches to psychology contrasting views as to whether the mind and body are separate or related. Thinking (having freedom of choice) is a mental event, yet can cause behavior to occur (muscles move in response to a thought).  Thinking can therefore be said to make things happen, ‘mind moves matter’.

Behaviorists believe that psychology should only be concerned with “observable actions,” namely stimulus and response.  They believe that thought processes such as the mind cannot be studied scientifically and objectively and should therefore be ignored. Radical behaviorists believe that the mind does not even exist.

The biologists who argue that the mind does not exist because there is no physical structure called the mind also follow this approach. Biologists argue that the brain will ultimately be found to be the mind. The brain with its structures, cells and neural connections will, with scientific research, eventually identify the mind.

Since both behaviorists and biologists believe that only one type of reality exists, those that we can see, feel and touch; their approach is known as Monism. Monism is the belief that ultimately the mind and the brain are the same thing. The behaviorist and biological approaches believe in materialism monism.

However biologists and behaviorists cannot account for the phenomenon hypnosis. Hilgard and Orne have studied this. They placed participants in a hypnotic trance and through unconscious hypnotic suggestion told the participants they would be touched with a “red hot” piece of metal when they were actually touched with a pencil.

The participants in a deep trance had a skin reaction (water blisters) just as if they had been touched with burning metal. This is an example of the mind controlling the body’s reaction. Similar results have been found on patients given hypnosis to control pain. This contradicts the monism approach, as the body should not react to unconscious suggestions in this way. This study supports the idea of dualism, the view that the mind and body function separately.

In the same way humanists like Carl Rogers would also dispute materialism monism. Humanists believe that subjective experiences are the only way to study human behavior. Humanists are not denying the real world exists, rather they believe it is each person’s unique subjective approach to defining reality that is important. In the area of mental illness a Schizophrenic might not define their actions as ill, rather they would believe they had insight into some occurrence that no one else had. This is why humanists believe the study of how each person views themselves is essential.

However, the problem of the relationship between consciousness and reality from a subjective view has problems. The paranoid schizophrenic who believes the postal service “are agents for the government and trying to kill him” is still mentally ill and needs treatment if they are not to be a danger to themselves or the public.

Recent research from cognitive psychologists has placed a new emphasis on this debate. They have taken the computer analogy of Artificial Intelligence and applied it to this debate. They argue that the brain can be compared to computer hardware that is “wired” or connected to the human body.

The mind is therefore like software, allowing a variety of different software programs to run. This can account for the different reactions people have to the same stimulus. This idea ties in with cognitive mediational (thinking) processes. In computer analogies we have a new version of dualism which allows us to incorporate modern terms such as computers and software instead of Descartes ‘I think therefore I am.’”

 The following was also written by Saul McLeod in 2007.

“The term cognitive psychology came into use with the publication of the book Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser in 1967.

Cognitive Psychology revolves around the notion that if we want to know what makes people tick then we need to understand the internal processes of their mind.

Cognition literally means “knowing.”  In other words, psychologists from this approach study cognition which is ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.’

Cognitive psychology focuses on the way humans process information, looking at how we treat information that comes in to the person (what behaviorists would call stimuli), and how this treatment leads to responses.  In other words, they are interested in the variables that mediate between stimulus/input and response/output.  Cognitive psychologists study internal processes including perception, attention, language, memory and thinking.”

My Evaluation of the Mind/Brain Dichotomy

     My own personal take on the Mind/Brain or Mind/Body dichotomy goes something like this: You destroy the body with its brain, and the mind goes away too. However, the concept of a subjective reality that can be studied separately as a social construct is correct.

This debate over the mind/brain has created a kind of “false dichotomy.” That is, it occurs to me that aspects of Dualism and Monism may be both right and wrong. Descartes’s Dualism is not correct because the mind and brain do interact.However, Cartesian dualism is more precise. It argues that there is a two-way interaction between mental and physical substances. I interpret this to mean that neurons and special parts of the physical brain communicate with one another. I do not interpret this to mean a separate mind/body dichotomy by introducing the term, “interaction.”

The problem of dualism is that it fails to see the mind as an invented useful social construct for understanding and describing human behavior. The mind is not a separate physical entity.

Monism, however, is correct for promoting the general idea that the brain and the mind are one and the same. Carl Rogers, although disputing material Monism, was correct in pointing out the subjective reality of the mind and that subjective insights can be studied in their own right.

Just consider Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, Carl Rogers own Client Centered Therapy, or the brilliant concepts of Sigmund Freud. All of these psychiatrists/psychologists built careers on the basis of the highly subjective nature of mental processes such as thoughts, feelings, and subjective perceptions.  Using a social construct, these scientists were simply studying how the mind works within the brain.

One needs to stand back and marvel at how the human brain works. Unlike a robot, the mind has such incredible capability to set the conditions for “freewill,” free thought and determination all within the fantastic realm of consciousness (and perhaps the subconscious and unconscious as well). It will take time, however, before scientists can grasp all the intricacies of the interactions of the various parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and prefrontal lobes are intimately involved in decision-making once all information sources within the brain create the need for mind-generated action in the external world.

Freud however didn’t necessarily concern himself with activities of the prefrontal cortex or lobes, or the belief that the unconscious mind might be located in a primitive brain stem. He didn’t have too. The subjective realm of human behavior and what causes it was all he needed where his powers of observation were concerned.

Just as Freud invented his own unique social constructs (Ego, Id, Super-ego), he readily made use (whether he realized it or not) of the social construct nature of the “mind.”  What I’m saying is, the mind is not some metaphysical reality that somehow transcends the physical brain. We simply don’t yet know enough to actually explain all “brain activity.”

I think the mind concept, rather than a separate entity within the brain, is really a primarily individualized social construct that should be useful to scientific inquiry. What is a construct? A construct in psychology is basically “a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’ through culture or social practice.” Likewise, the concept of mind is very much a social construct. Here is a definition of mind: “the element of a person that enables him/her to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.”

As a social construct, the mind relates to the concept of a subjective reality. This viewpoint is also nonetheless correct. That is, every mental thought, image, perception, sensation, beliefs or values, are important variables influencing human behavior.

Our consciousness allows all sorts of sensory input, as it relates to both objective reality and subjective interpretation of those sensations or perceptions. The internal interactive nature of thoughts, sensations, perceptions all interact and relate to memory, language, awareness and thinking. Computer circuitry operates at an exceptionally high speed; but it pales by comparison to the human brain that operates at “warp speed.”


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