From Psychology Today: “One of the most powerful constructs I know is called supervenience. It helps us understand why knowledge at one level of analysis can be irrelevant at another.
For example: When you watch a movie on a screen, you are seeing arrangements of pixels. The movie is 100 percent dependent on pixels and cannot exist apart from them. But knowledge of pixels is irrelevant to understanding movie. We could know everything there is to know about pixeIs and have no concept of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, or the battle for the empire.
Movie supervenes on pixels.
Likewise, mind supervenes on brain. Mind depends on brain and cannot exist apart from it. But knowledge of brain is not knowledge of mental life. They are different levels of analysis requiring different concepts and methods.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), under the direction of Tom Insel, made the assumption that mental health problems are ‘brain disease’ and neurobiology would unlock the cure for all manner of mental and emotional suffering. NIMH bet the farm and failed spectacularly.
Now Insel says, ‘I spent 13 years at NIMH really pushing on neuroscience… and when I look back on that I realize that while I think I succeeded in getting lots of cool papers published by cool scientists at fairly large costs—I think $20 billion—I don’t think we moved the needle in reducing suicide, reducing hospitalizations, improving recovery for the tens of millions of people who have mental illness. I hold myself accountable for that.’
No, they did not move the needle. That $20 billion gamble with taxpayer money did not improve the mental health of one single person. Not one. Despite endless promises, there is no biological test for any mental health condition. There are no new or better treatments. But, hey, what’s $20 billion among friends?
Neurobiology is one level of analysis, mental life is another. Thoughts and feelings must be studied at their own level of analysis. The brain is the subject matter of neurobiology and mental life is the subject matter of psychology. There are, of course, areas of intersection and overlap, but neither can supplant the other.”