The Mind-Body Disconnect

A tragic disconnect. A friend of a friend of mine had a tragic thing happen to her. It had to do with what I’m calling the mind-body disconnect. She had had an extensive battery of tests (CAT scans? MRIs?) done. She had had cancer, but it looked like she was in remission. Unfortunately, the doctors had not bothered to run any of the same tests on her head. After some unusual symptoms she had some more tests, this time on her head, and it turned out she had a large inoperable tumor. The doctors said she had 3 to 6 months to live. She died within that time frame. I may have some of the details of this story wrong, but the gist of it is true. This tragic story might well have been averted if the doctors had just bothered to considered her head as part of her body.

Brain or psyche? This usual suspect trotted out is the French philosopher, Renee Descartes, who famously declared: “I think therefore I am.” Yet the mind-body disconnect persists despite hundreds of years of medical science. It persists in psychology. The split is between those who want to consider psychology as a science, primarily of the processes of the brain (anatomy). And there are others who wish to consider psychology as something of an examination of the psyche (mind). Some of these would like psychology to be considered as one of the humanities, a social science. After all, the Latin root of “psychology” is the logic of the psyche or soul.

Neuroscience. There’s no denying the astounding strides of the branch of psychology concerned with the mechanics of the brain. Usually this is known as neuroscience, but it has sprouted a number of fields: Neurophilosophy, neuroecomics, even neuromarketing. But what neuroscience deals with is the physical workings of the brain. It can tell us an amazing range of information — what part of the brain becomes active when we access longterm memory, use higher cognitive functions, when we become stressed or emotional. And as the science progresses the precision of what can be detected becomes more and more granular. We are now able to observe actions in the brain at the molecular level. The field is growing by leaps and bounds and is likely to continue to do so. Neuroscientists would like to classify their discipline as a hard science and abandon the aspects of psychology which deal with the psyche altogether. What is sometimes somewhat derisively known as “soft science”.

The mind. Despite the impressive gains of neuroscience, the hard science simply cannot touch the mind. The mind being the subjective experiences which go on within the brain. What it feels like to smell a rose, or appreciate a beautiful painting. What it is like to feel conflicted about the annoying actions of a close friend. The mind is the human experience. We may observe many neural networks firing and interacting in dazzling displays of complexity, but we cannot observe what they mean. The subject can explain her experience to the researcher, but it cannot be analyzed at a physical level.

Temperament: The split between mind and brain, therapist and scientist reminds me of something Bessel Van der Kolk said:

It’s an issue of temperament: Therapists seem to enjoy living with the uncertainty, unpredictability, and complexity that comes with the intimacy of the relationship, whereas most laboratory scientists are most committed to establishing ‘facts,’ which, by virtue of the dictates of the scientific method, can only encompass a small slice of the total complexity of human beings.

And then there’s methodology. But it’s more than just temperament. It’s a matter of methodology. Science invokes Occam’s Razor, the idea that you start with the simplest possible explanation and work from there. This method favors linear explanations, if A then B. On the other hand, psychoanalytic psychotherapists invoke the principle of “overdetermination” — the idea that human beings are complex, and behaviors and feelings often have multiple sources that are intricately interwoven in complicated systems. This method does not favor linear explanations at all. It might be mapped as A + B + C + D contribute to E, as well as influence one another in ways which do not fully understand, and subsequently influence the outcome. E also influences A, B, C, and D, too, further altering the process.

And again, temperament. But clearly that’s where temperament comes into play. Those that like certainty and clarity of logic. Those that are more tolerant of ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox.


Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.

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