First published on 1/10/2008

The medical study of the mind long ago went a cosmic split between psychiatry and neurology, between higher function and the unknown and lower function and relatively understood.

Psychiatry and study of the mind has traditionally taken in the “whole person” and more abstract theories of thought, mood, behavior. Neurology, OTOH, is very mechanistic, rooted in basic science, medicine, and physiology. It clearly focuses on the Brain and its function, normal versus pathology. Today there is a strong tendency to wipe this distinction away and rejoin the disciplines, and for some good reasons.

After all conditions like Schizophrenia and Alzheimer dementia, for example, are clearly organic syndromes and it would seem the scientific, bench research, mechanistic approach will lend itself well to finding treatment for them, vastly improving the lives of those suffering from them.

It seems to me that the medical model definitely has its limits.   I find a chasm between the thought between theory of mind and theory of brain. People who want to be able to explain everything are trying desperately to bridge this cliff and are in danger of falling off.

The mechanistic, science wing of the argument desperately wants to believe we can understand everything about the brain and come to a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, behavior and humanity.

The Mind camp thinks this simply isn’t possible or even desirable. What happens to our vision of life and consciousness when we become a machine, with predictable function. Are we our brain?

One of my all time favorite movies was Phenomenon with John Travolta. This argument is delineated well within. Travolta is afflicted with a brain tumor which cause incredible augmentation in brain function, with new ideas, thoughts, and solutions springing forward with frenetic pace.

Once diagnosed a neurosurgeon asks to perform open surgery not to extend his life but to understand the mechanism or what has happened. He states that in a sense he would become Travolta’s biographer. Travolta responds “but that’s not me it’s just my brain.” Travolta responds by wanting to share all his ideas, leaving his own mark on all of us stating “that’s the journey, that’s the challenge.”

As a Scientologist, I am sure Travolta would reject psychiatry quite strongly. I disagree with this POV as well. Medicine and the mind clearly have a place. I have seen medical treatment of these conditions make a huge difference in other’s lives.

Perhaps psychiatry and psychology are more where the mind/brain split occurs, pitting medicine against social science. Psychiatry and medicine in my experience only works when used in tandem with the psychology and mind part of the equation. In the end, I believe the split is artificial, not because our brain is our consciousness but because our brain is only part of ourselves, call me holistic.

While my professional interest tends to the brain camp, seeking the “how” of the most fascinating organ in the human body, I have to say I am firmly rooted in the mind camp. I do not believe we will ever understand ourselves by knowing cellular mechanisms and circuitry.

Science has always been poor with the “why” part of the equation and I believe will continue to be. I think there is value in see people as people, individuals, in understanding drives and desires, in short I think there is much more to being human than the brain. How do we build a relationship with or connect with a brain. I feel most patients, most people do not want to be seen this way.

I also think that a tendency to see people as a brain could have some frightening dehumanizing consequences but that is a subject for another day.

Advertisements