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X proved real

One of our favorite rants concerns the currently common science news headline of the form “Scientists show X is real”, where X could be a disorder such as:

  • Dyslexia,
  • Fibromyalgia,
  • Depression,
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity, etc.

Or a subjective experience such as:

  • The pain of rejection, or
  • The taste of expensive wine.

On reading, we find that a brain scan such as FMRI or PET, or EEG brain waves or a neurochemical test has shown that the disorder or experience commonly considered to be psychological or subjective is in fact measurably neuro-electro-chemically different.

Clearly this interpretation is based on the belief that anything psychological is “not real”. Anything that is measurable is real, and therefore not psychological. This can only make sense if speaker believes in Mind/Body Dualism. The belief that mind is a primarily nonphysical process that takes place in the soul is an intuitively appealing idea. Descartes famously attempted to reconcile this with the manifest importance of the physical brain by postulating some sort of connection between soul and brain.

If we acknowledge that mind is a behavior that emerges directly from the brain's architecture and electro-chemical processes, then all psychological phenomena are in principle measurable. Whether it is measurable or not has only to do with how good our instruments are, and says nothing about whether the phenomenon is “real” or not. Clearly the science of psychology is doomed to waste away to nothing if any measurable phenomenon is out of bounds. See also Stephen Pinker on how Experience Changes the Brain.

As well as exhibiting the pervasiveness of Level Confusion, this interpretation leads to an entirely incorrect conclusion about what to do about these disorders. Since problem is “real” and not psychological, then clearly a “body” intervention such as a drug is the only therapy that has a hope of success, and quite likely the flaw is intrinsic in the brain and nothing can be done to help. Demonstrating a correlation between mind and brain says nothing about the direction of causation. All experience changes the brain, so it is quite possible that the brain organization has been caused by the person's experience, rather than the other way around. Like all other experiences, psychotherapy changes the brain, and might be exactly what is needed here.

In the case of global disorders of mood or arousal, it is likely the the causation runs both ways, creating a circular feedback, so it is productive to intervene though both the mind and the body simultaneously. In order to function properly, mood and arousal must stay within narrow ranges, so there must be a homeostatic feedback mechanism to push things to the desired setpoint.

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analysis/mind/x_proved_real.txt · Last modified: 2013/10/12 19:14 by ram