How the Mind-Brain Problem Influences our View of Therapy and Psychiatry

Researchers describe neurodualism: the tendency to assume the brain affects the mind more than the mind affects the brain.

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A popular view held by laypeople and psychologists alike is that the mind and brain are separate, interacting entities. Researchers Jussi Valtonen, Woo-kyoung Ahn, and Andrei Cimpian investigated this philosophy—known as neurodualism—to find out how people reconcile internal logical contradictions and see how this view may influence misperceptions of mental health treatment and neuroscience. The authors explain:

“Mind-body dualism refers to the view that the mental and the physical both exist and that neither can be assimilated to the other. A common claim among cognitive theorists is that humans are intuitive dualists, perceiving the mind and the body as distinct from each other (e.g., Bloom, 2004). While philosophers discern among several different dualist positions, lay intuitions are typically thought to consist of a pair of simple tenets: that the brain is somehow different from the mind and that the two can interact with each other. Churchland (2013) refers to this view as popular dualism: This is the theory that a person is literally ‘a ghost in a machine’ … In particular, minds are commonly held to be inside the bodies they control: inside the head, on most views, in intimate contact with the brain.”

Surveys conducted in America, Belgium, Scotland, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu found participants that believed the mind and body to be disparate in some way. More specifically, in 1989, approximately 50% of Americans believed the mind to be a special form of energy that interacts with the brain. In 2009, over 60% of Belgian and Scottish participants said the mind was not fundamentally physical.

While these numbers do not necessarily indicate significant demographic differences, they show the prevalence of neurodualism as a philosophy. The idea that the mind exists and that it is a unique, perhaps mysterious thing disparate from the brain and body is a line of thinking held worldwide.

However, Valtonen and fellow researchers wondered: how do people see the mind and brain as distinct while accepting that mental processes and capacities are attributed to the brain? There is, as the authors put it, a tension between these beliefs. They hypothesize that people voluntarily add a caveat to the belief that the brain is the biological source of the mind—that caveat being that the brain is more likely, or more capable, of affecting the mind than the mind is capable of affecting the brain.

Five studies were conducted to find out how people employed neurodualism, if at all. There were two primary methods of questioning beliefs. In one form, the participants were asked abstract hypotheticals that explicitly asked about changes in the mind and brain. In the other type of question, participants were asked about their beliefs regarding the effects of ostensibly real-life scenarios such as taking psychiatric medications. Four of the five studies focused on laypeople, while the participants of the fifth study were licensed psychotherapists.

The researchers predicted that when presented with a hypothetical situation in which someone was medicated, participants would say that the brain was affected, while situations that strictly involved talk therapy would yield changes in the mind.

Their results for the lay participants in studies 1-4 were consistent with neurodualistic beliefs and their hypotheses. Participants consistently said that the result of psychotherapy would be a change “exclusively in the mind,” “exclusively in mental processes,” and “exclusively in mental states.” Different participants were exposed to different phrasings, different reasons for the hypothetical person attending therapy, and one of two durations for the treatment (3 months or 12 months).

“Consistent with neurodualism, participants reported, across three different tasks, that events in the mind and brain have asymmetric consequences depending on the direction of causation. On the new task introduced in this study, participants reported that mental events are accompanied by brain events less often than vice versa. In and of itself, the fact that people believe mental events are accompanied by brain events only about half the time shows that people do not use a strictly physicalist model for reasoning about the mind and brain.”

Finally, the researchers asked: do psychotherapists also believe that the brain is more powerful in changing the mind than the mind is in changing the brain?

In two out of three tasks, licensed psychologists believed in the intuitive neurodualism philosophy. Remarkably, several participants were even less likely than laypeople to say that medications would affect the mind in a significant way. This could be because of a bias, as psychotherapists essentially “compete” with psychiatric drugs as forms of treatment. However, it could also be because psychotherapists genuinely believe that talk therapy is more reliable and helpful than drugs. The authors quote an example:

“While medication may have an impact during its usage, it does not make permanent changes—that is a different question—whereas I believe therapy and experience DO have the ability to cause permanent changes.”

This line of thinking also explains the result in the opposite direction in that therapists reported a greater belief in the ability of psychotherapy to change both the mind and the brain than laypeople.

This study’s results help illuminate the allure of neuroscience as an explanatory factor for psychological issues, even when brain-related statements fail to speak to psychological context. Then there are the beliefs surrounding treatment choices. Individuals may be incorrectly or incompletely weighing the effects of different therapy methods because of expectations for how each treatment will play into changes in the brain or changes in the mind.

Worse still is that disbelief in treatment methods can make those treatment methods less successful. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy is created when someone thinks psychotherapy is guaranteed to fail because they need medication (or vice versa) to solve their problem.

 

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Valtonen, J., Ahn, W., & Cimpian, A. (2021). Neurodualism: People Assume that the Brain Affects the Mind more than the Mind Affects the Brain. Cognitive Science, 45(9), e13034. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.13034 (Link)

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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Liam G. Bach
Liam graduated from Bard College as a Biology/Psychology double major in 2021 and has a background in ecology and art. Liam brings an interest in attending to how dominant discourses operate to construct broader social issues, including climate change and social justice efforts, as individual problems in need of individual management. He intends to pursue doctoral studies in 2022—in the meantime, he will be reading, writing, drawing, and sleeping.

25 COMMENTS

  1. While I am reluctant to read the entire original paper, perhaps this report gives enough data to give us a place to start.

    The first point that strikes me is that the authors of the paper don’t seem to have an opinion on the subject, though it seems they consider mind-body dualism “illogical.”

    The second point that strikes me is that they consider mind-body dualism to be strictly a belief system with no legitimate research to support it. Considering that more than half of the population studied in the “1898” (actually 2012) paper were dualists, it seems that the reason for this might be worth investigating. Is it, perhaps, because the belief mirrors reality better?

    Per that paper “The Dualism Scale revealed that, to a surprising degree, a sample of American undergraduates held dualistic theories of mind that are at variance with contemporary neurophysiology, psychology, and philosophy.”

    I can imagine that the authors (as well as many of those they surveyed) are totally ignorant that any serious work has been done on the subject. Thus, they would also be ignorant of the fact that this work supports dualism but suggests a “higher” coordinating entity (which many call Spirit and some call The Soul). Though studies of NDEs (Near Death Experiences) are popularly known about, this is by far not the only work that has been done in this area.

    The quote from Churchland probably refers to Paul M. Churchland who is at UC San Diego: “popular dualism: This is the theory that a person is literally ‘a ghost in a machine’.” Well, that is what a person literally is! Except the placement of the ‘ghost’ is not entirely relevant, as it can be variously positioned, along with its mind, and is actually much more comfortable outside of the machine than inside it.

    I am happy to see such articles and papers, as this is where we need to look to accomplish something technically in this field. Though I can continue to accuse psychiatrists of being psychopaths, I know there are some who aren’t. But their medical training is totally insufficient to prepare them for their work, so I can imagine them getting discouraged and apathetic, or even going crazy. If we don’t find more workable methods for those who wish to be mind healers, we condemn them to lives of failure. While it is unethical for them to harm their patients in the name of help, as so many of them have done, they could use some hope amid the punishment they will ultimately inflict on themselves for destroying so many lives. And that hope lies in the direction of Spirit – Mind – Body.

    • I always appreciate what you have to say on this matter, and I am glad you are expressing a very cogent viewpoint. In my opinion, the fact that it (the mind/brain dualism) is a problem reflects more on them (the psychiatrists) than on us or anyone else. How can I put it, if anyone has a brain, then it won’t be a problem? Huh? The mind is there. The brain is there. They work in synchrony. Those who consider this a problem just shows how they do not want them to work in synchrony and do want anyone to heal or make their lives better. I don’t have anything else to say. Thank you.

      • I appreciate your comment.

        Insomuch as psychiatrists are supposed to be the experts in this area, the problem does reflect more on them.

        But my understanding of the situation is that we have all been persuaded (or forced) at various times in the past to give up our spirituality and our higher mental abilities (like telepathy). So though psychiatrists are among those who work hardest to keep us in ignorance, most of us have a built-in reluctance to look in this direction for answers.

        This helps explain for me why it has been so difficult for me to get my message across and why so many do NOT oppose psychiatry for its technical ignorance but only for its lack of humanity.

  2. Actually, I didn’t know it (the mind/brain) was a problem. The Mind is from Spirit. The Brain is the physical manifestation of the Mind. Yes, the Brain can be damaged from physical causes or from causes like psychiatric drugs, etc. And the Brain can be damaged prior to birth causing many disabling issues. I think if it’s problem, it’s all in the mind/brains of these psychiatrists, etc. There is no problem if one sincerely wants to help others. The fact that it is a problem for these psychiatrists and others only reflects how they sadly devalue their “patients” and their issues, which maybe where it all starts and continues to this very day. Thank you.

  3. Amusingly, there is a stage in child development when a child suddenly realises its body is not hollow. Its body instead contains red stuff that terrifyingly leaks from shins after falling over in a school yard. It is a body shock of profound distress because there is no telling whether the whole interior of the hollow body will also spill out. Our lifelong neurotic preoccupation with bodily mortality starts around about that age. It makes us peruse library books on organs and brains to ensure these never leak out. But the child’s blissful sense of having a hollow body seems calming to me. And what’s not to say it is in some sense true. Given that there is more space between our bodily atoms than there are atoms holding us together.

    Maybe my schizophrenia comes from the space inbetween.

  4. Liam, I would suggest that amongst your reading some of it is dedicated to radical enactivism, which is a Wittgensteinian approach to “mind”. The enactivists are more likely to say thinking goes on in the body, or that it is subtle shifts in body positions or postures as we consider something from this point of view or that. The mistaken neuroreductionism that assumes thinking is a process that goes on the head characterises the authors of the paper you refer to. Radical enactivism is, to quote Dan Hutto, no longer the barbarian at the gates of cognitive science, but occupies the cafes and wine bars. (Great quote don’t you think.) The conclusion of this research (Valtonen et al) is partially correct, the psychotherapists cancel out the medicating doctors, and vice versa; because neither of them have reached deep enough down to root out the misunderstanding that was fostered largely by Descartes. Both Freud and Wittgenstein said you have to reach deep down to root out the problem, and although Freud was largely mistaken as to what the problem is, this error (about the nature of mind) is partially fuelling the epidemic that we are all drawn to on this site.

      • In Freud’s time, what was the theory of money doing; credit and how was the profession monetizing the labor and the play? Sexually abused in the reference frame of Foucault’s discourse on the Panopticon? Or in the country where what was sovereign in monarchy clearly been transferred to the people? When was the power in part transferred into the machinery of the technologies, that is from a scale of inside the human versus say inside the built hospital? (Something seems to be happening into what might be considering improving the design, even if we get our hip displaced in wrestling.)

  5. I think what Bill Wells say is interesting. However, there are those who even consider an item such as a chair or bed to not truly be physical; but a figment of our mind or you could say our imagination. Will we ever know what is true? I do not know. Thank you.

  6. Some things that just flashed through my mind (har) as I read this piece.

    When asked about direction and which is predominant – brain affecting mind versus mind affecting brain – we sort of know that brain can affect mind (drugs that can cause changes in thinking or mood, injuries causing personality changes, etc), so that seems to be the the more common position because we can SEE that: so most people would say brain affects mind more.

    But when we ask about mind affecting brain, and people say not as much as the other direction, well, why wouldn’t most people say that? Have we ever checked? I mean, what would constitute enough of a change in the brain and how would we find it and quantify it? If I think X thought for long enough then I get rid of a brain lesion? I grow extra gray matter? As someone who has been in an MRI tube more times than I care to remember, I can attest to the limitations of that beast, for all that neurologists are in a unhealthy love affair with it, with researchers especially loving the fMRI (see the now classic “dead salmon study”).

    So IMO, (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong) thinking that mind doesn’t affect brain as much (I’m talking to you, drug-dealing psychiatry) is mostly unsupported, as is the idea that talk therapy leads to lasting changes in the brain (talking to you too, psychotherapists). Both are simply positions with little evidence to back them up. It would be far better for both sides to simply say we just don’t know, but “experts” have a real aversion to that statement.

    But then, I though of this: Then of course there is the constantly shifting rhetorical focus of psychiatrists assuring us out of one side of their mouths that our symptoms are psychosomatic, meaning mind IS affecting body, at least as long as they can’t explain the symptoms in 15 minutes and want to get the difficult patient out of the clinic. But when the body part in question is the brain, which they assume is generating the mind, well, they shift to the other side of their mouth and assure us that only drugs can touch that particular organ (unlike ALL the others) can only work in the direction of brain affecting mind, which is naturally right in their wheelhouse to make easy money prescribing drugs. It’s enough to drive one a little, well, crazy.

    Bottom line, psychiatrists and psychotherapist for all they are labeled “experts” for their supposed greater knowledge, are no more removed from the cultural stew they’ve grown up in or proof agains the difficulties of trying to wrap their thinking around a concept of mind – which is very much akin to trying to see one’s own eyeballs – than “laypeople”, they just like to think they are and tell the rest of us we should believe whatever they are telling us at that moment. In this piece, in fact, we are ALL of us, bricklayers, doctors, researchers, all, “laypeople”. There are no experts in this, just philosophers apparently, who are, according to Mel Brooks, BS artists

    • Mind definitely does affect brain. There was a great study out of the University of Chicago where they did brain imaging on a number of Buddhist monks who mediated many hours a day. The part of their brain associated with calm and focus was significantly larger than those of “control” subjects. WE also know that taxi drivers, for instance, have a bigger part of their brain committed to geographical and spatial reasoning. Also, the folks studying the brain in the “Decade of the Brain” research found that damage can be done to the brain by early trauma, but also that healthy relationships with caring adults can actually heal the physiological damage done by early abuse or neglect (for some reason, that second part of the research always seems to get buried. I wonder why?)

      What we think about and how we behave most definitely affect the brain. I don’t think it’s a “maybe.” There is solid evidence that it’s a “yes!”

      • I agree Steve. Seem to recall other studies on how trauma, presumably in part processed and assessed by the mind, affects the physical atoms of the brain. And there is that video link I sent on brainwaves. Brain waves can be mellowed by thinking and meditating. Two people can affect each other’s brain waves. Are waves mind or brain?

      • Under the heading of “seems reasonable to me” (which is worth what you paid for it) I certainly do lean in the direction of believing in the mind being able to effect physical changes in the organ of the brain. My point was, in the context of something so short term as say, 6 months or even a year, of talking with a social worker or psychologist once a week, for example, we just really don’t know that. Nor do we currently have adequate methods to determine if changes occur from psychotherapy, or to know what any changes we might see are caused by.

        To see the effects of a treatment, we would need to know where to look, what changes we expect to see (both of those are huge hurdles) get a baseline, and then track. This can’t and won’t happen any time soon, believe me. Why do I say that, and why should you believe me?

        Well, cost is a biggie as always. Then there is the fact that neurologists are all atwitter right now about brain atrophy in MS, and are pounding on it online to anyone who will listen: be afraid be very afraid, here take this drug (which may or may not have had info about brain atrophy while in clinical trials). Yet they aren’t actually able to track that yet. While certain MRI software is capable of extrapolating volume (yes, it is extrapolated by an algorithm. The issues that can arise from poorly written medical software are a HUGE issue too). for a myriad of practical reasons I won’t bore you with, this type of imaging is still not ready for prime time and is not being used in the clinical setting outside of more easily controlled studies. And that’s just trying to track something as simple (ha!) as brain volume over time, not subtle changes in specific spots.

        So since we’ve already seen how a bit of information about “brain chemicals” got blown completely out the realm of “gee that’s interesting, let’s find out more” science and into something almost as durable as religious belief, I can easily see that happening with a few brain studies on monks and cabbies. I suppose that’s me thinking that the psychotherapy side of the room would be better served by NOT trying to make scientific claims to support what they do. Meaning, if you’re going to be a counselor or a shaman or a spiritual advisor (what I call my social worker, and she said she loved that idea), then be that and embrace the mystery of what you do. Healing in a psychological context will never be able to be imaged, it can only be the subjective self-report of a person. So leave the brain talk to the more stolid types who assume they can quantify state of being with chemical levels or a graph. (And as an aside, if wishes were horses, this beggar would “mind away” the lesions in her head. Alas, I don’t think mind effecting brain works quite that well.)

        And just look at us, all of us here, talking about the mind as if we know what it is. We don’t. We don’t know if it is a phenomenon of brain processes, if it is an expression of something extra-corporeal that we still can’t apprehend, and merely expresses via the organ of our brains, we simply don’t know. So we’re back to religious/philosophical discussions.

        OK, I’m done musing. I don’t post here often Steve, but I always appreciate reading YOUR responses. You always add a lot to any discussion. So thank you! 🙂

        • Well, I completely agree with you, of course. The overwhelming problem with the whole idea of “what works” is that we’re not talking about something concrete and measurable here. “What works” can be defined in many different ways, and there is no way to determine who is “right” about the answer to that complex, highly philosophical question. And absent agreement on that point, there is really no sense it trying to “scientifically” determine anything about this whole area! “Mind” is a mysterious thing, and “science” hasn’t even begun to touch on the vaguest understanding of “Mind.” Of course, they want to CLAIM that mind=brain, because it feels more “scientific” and less “superstitious,” but that’s really just a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

          The first barrier to understanding anything is deciding that you already know all about it! Humility is in very short supply in the psychiatric “professions!”

          • “Works” is the operative term often used by the psychiatry/psychology to justify their “treatments.” They often say, “The drugs work” or “treatment works” without any real criteria for what that’s supposed to mean. If a foster parent says that stimulants are “working” for their foster child, do they mean that the child feels better, the child is being more compliant, the child is feeling more successful, the teacher SAYS the child is “doing better,” the child is less annoying than previously, the child is completing more busywork while not learning anything new, the child is more willing to do things that are boring without complaining… the list of possible definitions is almost limitless. If we don’t ask what “works” means and for whom the intervention is supposed to “work,” we get kids/adults who are nearly catatonic being identified as “treatment successes.”

            I can’t read my prior comment, but I’m guessing by “plays” I meant “participates in the agreed upon social processes/procedures.”

        • Well, you may speak for “us” if you want, but I for one believe I know something about the mind, about as much as I know about the Earth. Which is to say, there is a lot I don’t know about it, but I am quite certain of some basics which others have shown to be workable assumptions or have been demonstrated to me in other ways.

          If you want to pass off the mind as something ephemeral or not-quite-real, this would make some sense 150-200 years ago, but we could have said the same about radio frequency radiation. In modern times we developed instruments that can sense and measure radio frequency radiation. We have begun to do the same thing with the mind.

          However, with the mind we do have our own experiences of it to fall back on. Many people can think of times when they were in a dream state or restful state and saw vivid and very realistic pictures of one kind or another. They were looking at their own minds.

          Others have described the experience of telepathy, either with “higher” beings or with animals, and they describe it mainly as an exchange of ideas in picture form. Such pictures also come up in some types of spiritual therapy.

          So we can be fairly certain that the mind is some sort of energetic construct (invisible like radio waves) that contains pictures and other data of an emotional or conceptual nature.

          This mind has actually been studied quite extensively, but (oddly) not by psychologists. So while “we” remain uncertain about what the mind is or what to do about it, I don’t. And while my information about the minds is technically part of my religion, I see no reason why it couldn’t be tested and used in secular contexts, and it in fact has, at least in the case of animal communication.

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