Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind

Article excerpt

John Searles, a modern philosopher of mind, asks, "Why do we think of ourselves as mindful, rational, conscious, free agents in a world which science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles being influenced by forces in a determined way"(1) This is the mind/brain dilemma that we, as psychotherapists, face in our clinical work every day. Do we inform our patients that they are suffering from "chemical imbalances" or from "unresolved developmental traumas?" There is a conflict between these two approaches, and psychiatry, in the process of switching its "basic science" allegiance from psychoanalysis to neuroscience, is jumping from one side of the conflict to the other.(2)

Current philosophy of mind, both stimulated and rejuvenated by neuroscience research, is in fast pursuit of a comprehensive mind/brain theory. But as of now, no existing theory of mind is complete.(3) Neuroscience has a conceptual foundation that is based on an incomplete theory of mind and brain: identity theory. This theory fails to capture essential human features and leaves psychotherapy a mysterious process. Consequently, psychiatry cannot rely solely on neuroscience as its basic science without creating a conception of people devoid of essential human features and without eviscerating its psychotherapeutic capacity.


Identity theory was inspired by Wilder Penfield's dramatic neurosurgical research.(4-6) In the late 1950s, Penfield directly stimulated the cortex of conscious patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy.(7) His findings, based on the verbal reports of patients, demonstrated the exact location in the brain of certain mental functions. The highly publicized motor homunculus that came out of his research pointed to an isomorphism between mental states and brain neuroprocesses.(8) Identity theorists, then, advanced the straightforward proposal that mental terms and physical terms actually have the same referent--namely, a particular physical configuration of the brain.

Identity theory is modeled after other successful reduction theories in science. Consider the example of genes and chromosomes. Genes came from Mendel's research on inheritance, while chromosomes were discovered by cytological research. Chromosomes and genes were only later discovered to be identical, allowing gene theory to be reduced to chromosome theory. Other identity examples frequently cited include lightening to electricity, temperature to kinetic energy, and sound to the compression of air molecules.(9) In each case, the original theory (lightening, temperature, sound) has been reduced to a physical theory (electricity, kinetic energy, compression of air molecules). Identity theorists reduce the original theory of mind to the physical theory of brain.

Identity theorists state their thesis strongly, eliminating the possibility of it being construed as a parallel description theory. In the words of J. J. Smart, "When I say that a sensation is a brain event, or that lightening is an electrical discharge, I am using the sense of strict identity ... there are not two things: a flash of light and an electrical discharge. There is only one thing, a flash of lightening, which is described scientifically as an electrical discharge to earth from a cloud of ionized water molecules."(6) There is not a mind and a brain, there is only a brain, which is described scientifically in the language of neurophysiology. Once we have a sufficient understanding of the neurophysiology of mental events, we will no longer need a mental language to understand humans.


Although neuroscientists rarely expound upon their conceptual theories, there are clear parallels between identity theory and the foundations of research described in neuroscience texts. To quote from Eric Kandel's Principles of Neuroscience: "The key philosophic theme of modern neural science is that all behavior is a reflection of brain function . …

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