Mind Body Problem Psychology

Mind Body ArgumentMind Body Influence

How often are we consciously aware of what our mind communicates to create the responses from our bodies? A seemingly logical argument would be that the mind is like the “puppeteer” of the body, sending signals to create physical responses. But is this strictly a one-way street of interaction or could the body actually play a role in determining what type of signal the mind is going to send out to it and how communication between the two is going to be relayed? These sorts of questions led to a proposal by Rene Descartes, which he called “the mind-body problem.”

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Throughout recorded history of most cultures, there have always been representations of a separation between the body and the spiritual mind. These views are held in not only religious aspects, but also philosophy, folklore and myths. In 1641 with the publishing of the Meditations, Descartes took a radical stance and challenged the old concepts by theorizing that the body and mind interact with each other and that it is the body, not the mind that is responsible for many of the life functions (Ludwig, 2003).

This was a considerably skewed look compared to the conventional agreement where the mind is the central force behind our bodily reactions. By presenting the idea of the dual relationship between the mind and body, Descartes created the on-going debate which we call “the mind-body problem.”

According to Descartes, the mind was responsible for thinking processes, and everything else was a function of the body including movements (Burnham & Fieser, 2001). Suppose you had a desire for a slice of pizza. Descartes idea of dualism would explain that the person’s desire will cause that person to move their body in certain ways that will direct them to obtain what they want. This idea of mind-body dualism was definitely profoundly influential through Descartes’s works, but has been around since the early Greek times.

In the earliest discussions of dualism, mind-body dualism ideas appeared in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle stated that humans’ “intelligence” could not be explained in terms of their physical body (Brinkmann, 2005). Although the mind-body problem can be traced back to before Descartes’s time, he was the first to clearly identify the mind with a consciousness distinguished this characteristic from the brain. He was therefore the first to propose the mind-body problem in the form in which it still exists today.

Proponents of Descartes’s explanations of mind-body dualism argue that most of all, it is very intuitive in regards to the belief that our conscious experiences are completely separate from physical and non living things. For example, the average person would usually relate the mind with the “soul” or their own personality or another entity that does not directly correspond to the physiology of the physical brain. Churchland (1988) points out that a dualist view of mind and brain seems to make logical sense because feelings of love or an appreciation of art could not arise from a purely physical system. This means that the saying “the mind is the brain” is too simplistic and relies only on mechanical terms.

Other arguments that support the mind-body dualism include the belief that our mental and physical experiences have completely different properties, such as being subjective and objective (Ludwig, 2003). For example, when you ask someone how they feel when they cut themselves or what sensations they experience when hearing a pleasant sound, they are able to describe those experiences from a personal viewpoint. But when you ask someone what it feels like when certain neurotransmitters are firing signals to their legs or arms, you will most likely just end up with an odd glance from them.

One other important thing to note about the significance of the mind-body dualistic approach is that it is conceivable to imagine your body without a conscious state of mind, like a zombie (Chalmers, 1988). Whether you believe in this or not, this is a logical argument about the possibility of dualistic existence within us.

For Descartes, mind and matter are the leading substances that affect human nature. In the case of mind, the defining attribute is thought while in the case of matter, the defining attribute is spatial extension (Rozemond, 1998). The mind-body problem arises out of this view of the substances, because if mind and body have nothing in common, then in what way can they be said to interact? An important point that Descartes introduced into the philosophy of the mind and body was the concept of interactionism, which deals with the interaction between our physical state and our beliefs or emotions (Rozemond, 1998).

It was this interaction of the mind and the body that was most influential for what happened next in the development of psychology. Descartes believed that the mind and body interaction took place inside the pineal glad, a single and unitary structure of the brain (Burnham and Fieser, 2001). Therefore the influence of the mind and body was a two-way street according to this interactionism perspective. This belief made the brain the point of the mind’s function due to the interaction that occurs between them.

This greatly affected the study of physiology, which focused specifically on brain structure. Psychologists like Broca, Fritsch, Hitzig, and entire fields of study would later concern themselves with the brain, extensively studying and mapping the numerous structures and linking them to corresponding functions.

With all the support in favor of Descartes’s mind-body dualism approach, why would anyone challenge this? Opposition to the idea of dualism starts out with the argument that it conflicts with the law of conservation of mass. Opponents say that if the mind does not take up physical space (because it is separate than the brain), how can it create a physical behavior that does take up space?

Another argument against dualism from past psychologists is that when practicing experimental methods, psychology usually involves the application of physical methods of study to the mind. Therefore, according to the dualistic approach, mental processing is separate from the physical behaviors, so the methods used by psychologists would not work when studying the brain (Fodor, 1981). In order to not conflict with their field of study, psychologists could not favor dualism.

To illustrate an important point made by opponents of the dualistic viewpoint, think about all the people you have seen or know that have abused drugs or alcohol or have gotten into serious accidents. How many of those people have come out of the situation free and clear of mental illnesses or some sort of mind destruction? Most likely, very few.

The argument proposed by Churchland (1988) and others, makes the claim that if the mind were a completely separate entity from the brain, how could it be possible that every single time the brain is injured, the mind is also injured? A famous case that can help illustrate such an example is that of Phineas Gage, who was struck in the face with an iron pole, carving a hole into his frontal lobe. Gage survived the accident, but was left with a severe deterioration of his personality and social life.

Therefore, a conclusion can be drawn that the accident caused the change to his mental state (Macmillan, 2000). Churchland says, it is the physical events such, as the destruction of parts of the brain that cause a change in the mind, which shows a correlation between brain states and mental states.

Moreover, in more modern experiments, it can be easily demonstrated that the relation is much more than simple correlation. By damaging, or manipulating, specific areas of the brain repeatedly under controlled conditions, for example on monkeys, and obtaining the same results in terms of changes in mental state each time, neuroscientists have shown that the relation between damage to the brain and mental deterioration is irrefutably causal.

Although Renee Descartes has many strong arguments in support of the mind-body dualistic approach, critics of this viewpoint have come a long way and have altered the way modern neuroscientists view their work. Today, scientists assume that only the physical is measurable and mental states stem from biological states (Humphrey, 2000). Although this holds true for physical sciences, areas of social and biological sciences still persists with the dualistic approaches. One may ask how an idea that has been disputed since Descartes’s time still prevails in modern biological sciences.

A simple answer is that society generally assumes a distinction between the mind and the body, looking toward brain surgeons and physiological biologists for support. If this assumption is held to be the truth then any relations we find between our psychological senses and physical behavior is taken as an interaction between the brain and the body.

In recent years, however, dualism has faded in the face of scientific developments in neuropsychology and evolutionary theory. The majority of scientists and philosophers now reject a dualist theory of mind. Materialism, the theory that everything in the universe is composed of physical matter that can be systematically studied through scientific methods, is more popular (Warner, 1994).

The principle of dualism has immediate applications in Physiology, explaining some mental phenomena. One such phenomenon asks the question: How is it possible to maintain memory and personality through a lifetime even though neurons are lost daily along with thousands of neuronal connections (Pribram, 1993)?

By dividing the mind and brain into separate substances, this question can be answered to a certain extent. Another conundrum proposed to the medical community that only the dualistic approach seems to have possible explanations for is the intriguing phenomenon related to organ transplants, where the organ shows that a brain is not required as a memory storing organ and may be stored in an alternative “mind” (Eccles, 1994).

One more important application of dualism has been in research regarding the amazing cognitive abilities of savants with autism who are able to solve complex mathematical equations but yet, are not even able to dress themselves. Is there a certain part of the brain that is inhibited and others that are overactive (Eccles, 1994)? These are just some of the important questions being asked by researchers today, with solutions only arising from a mind-body dualistic viewpoint.

Although it may seem that we have come a long way in the debate about the relationship between the mind and body, new insights and research is creating even more elusive solutions to the mind-body problem (Brinkmann, 2005). Even though there is no clear solution to the mind-body problem and both sides have arguments to back up their viewpoints, the philosophy of Descartes had a profound impact on the philosophers and theologians of his day and is still an influential aspect in the field of psychology today.

Furthermore, he developed a dualistic system in which he distinguished between mind and body, causing uproar in the intellectual world which is said to have paved the way for modern science (Ludwig, 2003). Most importantly, he opened the gateway of free thought and thereby earned the title as the father of modern philosophy.

Descartes influence on modern psychology can be through the many areas of his studies that have helped advance and originate contemporary psychology. Descartes interest in the mind and body and his study of physiology led to some views that were used for quite some time, one being that of mechanization. This is the idea that a body with no soul was mechanical in nature and incapable of feeling (Chalmers, 1997).

Descartes’ theory that the brain is the most important organ in the control of behavior certainly became a contributing factor to the theories of people like Sigmund Freud. Studies done on brain-body functioning by Descartes have also played a role in the development of the field of neuropsychology, which is extremely prevalent today.

Brinkmann, K. (2005). Consciousness, self-consciousness, and the modern self. History of the Human Sciences, 18. 27-48.
Burnham, D. & Fieser, J. (2001). Rene Descartes, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/d/descarte.htm
Chalmers, D. (1997). The conscious mind. Oxford University Press.
Churchland, P. (1988). Matter and consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Eccles, J. (1994). How the self controls its brain. Berlin: Springer-Verlag
Fodor, A. J. (1981). The mind-body problem. Scientific American, 24.124-132.
Humphrey, N. (2000). How to solve the mind-body problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, 5-20.
Ludwig, K. (2003). “The mind-body problem: An overview,” in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind, pp. 1-46.
Macmillan, M. (2000). Restoring phineas gage: A 150th retrospective. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 9, 42-62.
Pribram, K. (1993). Rethinking neural networks: Quantum fields and biological data. Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum
Rozemond, M. (1998). Descartes’s dualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Warner, R (1994). Introduction: The mind-body debate. The Mind-Body Problem, pp. 1-13. Cambridge: Blackwell

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