Monday, April 12, 2010

Primitive Minds

I was doing some reading yesterday on the science of emotions, and at one point in the course of discussing certain 18th century views on the subject, the author noted a division traceable to the controversy over whether the brain and mind were united or split. This debate, he said, still had some salience today. And I snickered a bit at that -- oh, the West and its preoccupation with the classics. Of course the mind and brain are united -- where else would the mind come from? The inability to abandon the idea that the mind floats free of the brain was, I thought, just a symptom of Western thoughts propensity to assign validity to a concept for no more reason than Descartes said it.

Then later in that same reading, the author mentioned a patient that was referred to him (a neurologist) from a group of psychologists, and observed that the very fact that we distinguish between neurology and psychology is itself a relic of this brain/mind divide mentioned above. And that gave me pause -- because I do find that split very intuitive, but I have trouble characterizing it in ways that don't resort to parceling out the mind from the brain. The closest I could come is saying that neurology deals with physical trauma, scarring, lobotomies, and the like, while psychology deals with chemical imbalances (such as in some forms of depression). But this doesn't seem to leave much room for psychotherapy regarding, for example, traumatic experiences and things like that -- ideas which I would characterize as firmly psychological but do not feel particularly neurological.

So -- egg on my face. Guess I'm one of the Luddites.


Anonymous said...

It's all physics anyway! I don't understand the Luddite reference. You want to liberate us from technology?

Peter Hildebrand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Hildebrand said...

I'm a cognitive neuroscience major (soon to be a cognitive neuroscience graduate), so I'd like to take a whack at this.

Psychology is the study of human behavior. Different theories in psychology inform the way we deal with or categorize that behavior. For example, psychoanalysis (which has been all but completely disavowed by modern science) views most or all of our actions as being motivated by deep, latent desires. Behaviorists think that the mind doesn't even exist (an equally refuted standpoint), and that all behavior happens because we associate it with the outcome we're trying to achieve.

Neurology, on the other hand, is the study of the nervous system (I promise I'm not patronizing you, just stick with me!). It's concerned with behavior only to the extent that behavior is related to the brain, spine and peripheral nervous system.

As it turns out, behavior is 100% dependent on nervous tissue, but when you start to study the interrelation between the two, you get my field of cognitive neuroscience.

I love psychology, and I think a lot of good has come from it, but in this age of neuroscience, I feel like only studying psychology (that is, only studying one half of the artificial mind/brain split) is like insisting on looking at the world with one eye closed.

So the idea that psychology is concerned with chemical imbalances would be somewhat misleading. Even clinical psychology, which might have been more what you were referring to, is primarily interested in helping people add or remove a particular or a set of behaviors.

I hoped that helped, and I hope it wasn't too long.

Esquiver said...

Er..sort of what Peter said, but, as a former experimental psychologist, couching the problem like this seems odd and artificially complex to me. There's no mind/body problem here; just the very reasonable division of a large field into manageable levels of analysis centered on proximate and distal causes.

Look, let me put it this way: I'm doing a lot of gardening right now. My focus is on plant "behavior": what sorts of results are yielded by changes in light, moisture, and primitive hybridization? Obviously, I could turn to the genetic-level biological substrate in which to couch all of my experimentation, and would be 100 percent correct to do so -- but why would I?