Mind versus brain?

Alongside recent dialogues between neuro-skeptics and neuro-enthusiasts, Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel advocates an alternate perspective on the mind-brain split: namely, that there is none.

This is not a new point of view, and yet it can be easily overlooked amid fierce arguments between the neurological and psychological. For decades “nature vs. nurture” was a fundamental debate in theories of human development, until enough evidence accrued on both sides that it became impossible to ignore the simple truth that what matters is nature and nurture, not one over the other. Similarly, “mind vs. brain” is a philosophical Möbius strip, more reflective of the dominant cultural and political climate than anything approximating how things really are. Health or disorder of the mind is also health or disorder of the brain, and vice versa, and treatment of disorder may target mind (psychotherapy), brain (medication), or both — regardless, the entire system is treated.

One driving force behind the sense that we must choose sides between mind and brain might be attributed to our unease with the etiological ambiguities of mental illness. (By “our” I mean both the mental health field and the general public.) Victories in research and treatment lead to erroneous claims of cause — i.e., medications alter brain chemistry (true) and medications help treat schizophrenia (true), therefore schizophrenia is caused by altered brain chemistry (false). This is an example of the ubiquitous mistake of confusing correlation with causation. The fact of the matter is that most mental illness emerges out of a complex intersection between genes and the biopsychosocial environment. Even if we are able to identify biological markers of mental illness (as is the goal of the National Institute of Mental Health’s new Research Domain Criteria initiative), there would be no scientific logic to the conclusion that the illness is purely biological; that we need only consider the brain, not the mind.

There has to be place for the objective and subjective, the quantitative and the qualitative. Physical data is no more real or empirical than phenomenological data, and vice versa. The notion that we must choose to be neuro-skeptics or neuro-enthusiasts is an exercise in naive reductionism. Wouldn’t it be nice if we only needed to worry about unlocking the mysteries of neurotransmitters or human subjectivity, rather than both? Things are not so simple — it’s mind and brain, not mind or brain — which in any case strikes me as the more interesting option.

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