Crossing the Mind-Body Divide: When Philosophy Meets Psychiatry

By Guttenplan, D D | International Herald Tribune, August 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

Crossing the Mind-Body Divide: When Philosophy Meets Psychiatry


Guttenplan, D D, International Herald Tribune


The Maudsley Philosophy Group in Britain holds talks dedicated to exploring questions like whether a mental illness has a physical cause.

With its battered desks, fluorescent lights and interactive whiteboard showing an odd creature that, depending on how you look at it, could be either a duck or a rabbit, this could be a class in any university philosophy department.

But this is a class with a difference. It is the Maudsley Philosophy Group, a seminar that meets regularly on the grounds of the Maudsley Hospital, Britain's largest mental health teaching hospital, which is affiliated with the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. Participants at the last session included psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers and an actor who had just finished working as a chaplain in a locked men's ward at the hospital and who was about to organize a storytelling group there.

"We started out as a reading group for trainee psychiatrists," said Gareth S. Owen, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry who co-founded the group in 2002. "Then, gradually, we developed and started inviting philosophers -- at first it was quite low key. We would talk about our clinical experiences and then they would relate those experiences to their way of thinking."

Robert Harland, another co-founder of the group, said he had known Dr. Owen since they "cut up a corpse together at medical school."

"The analytic philosophers brought a real clarity to our discussions," Dr. Harland said. "We were looking at various models to help us understand what we were doing as psychiatrists.

"There is lots of applied science now in psychiatry: neuroimaging, genetics, epidemiology. But they don't have much to say about sitting with a patient and trying to understand that person's experiences."

Tania L. Gergel, a philosopher whose work stretches from Ancient Greek ideas about ethics to dilemmas in contemporary medicine, was drawn to the Maudsley seminar out of intellectual curiosity. She also relished the chance to "come into contact with people who have actual clinical experience."

"You can only learn so much from reading journal articles," Ms. Gergel said. "The problem is that, as you move towards abstraction, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that people are dealing with real suffering and real dysfunctions. We need to remember that those dysfunctions -- whether of the brain or of the mind -- are linked to a real individual who is going through a devastating crisis."

The question of whether a mental illness has a bodily, physical cause is one aspect of what philosophers call the mind-body problem. For Plato, the mental world was the real world, while Descartes argued that mind and matter were distinct.

More recently, some scientists have tried to locate consciousness in different parts of the brain. But the dispute over its location and origins is not just confined to philosophy or neurology departments.

A longtime member of the Maudsley seminar, Richard Sykes, a social worker who has studied both the physical and mental sides of chronic fatigue syndrome, or C.F.S., said there was a "terrific animosity between psychiatrists and patient groups."

"There is an immense hostility to psychiatrists because they have got C.F.S. wrong for such a long time," he said. "At first they thought it was hysteria. Then they said it was depression. But the absence of a medical explanation is not a good reason for saying it's a psychiatric illness."

For Mr. Sykes, the Maudsley group "is a chance to make use of my own philosophical background."

The mind-body problem also preoccupied Jacqueline P. …

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