Using biology to explain mental health disorders is alluring but risky. It isn’t that biology lacks usefulness in understanding the mind. It also isn’t that the mind is free from biological control or influence. In reality, everything is biological, including your thoughts, your speech, and the way your speech impacts my brain activity. Technically, there are even likely genetic components to our conversation. I think we could even look at how my genes impact your brain activity and how I’ve inherited power over your brain activity on some level. Perhaps this essay is even predetermined.
This line of thought was brought about by someone insisting that biological causes ought to be the focus of diagnosis. From a philosophical lens, understanding causes is superior. But we simply cannot do that because of our limitations at the moment. This essay pertains to the current state of things and people’s tendency to seek biological answers too early, when we don’t understand the biology of thinking or how it results in problems or suffering.
My worry about biological definitions of disorders is my fear for the day when we create “asymptomatic autism” or something weird like that, rather than admit that our biological definitions have strayed away from “autism” and now include people without symptoms. So, for now, there is a need to maintain a symptom-focused diagnosis to mental health problems, at least while we struggle to understand the connections between mind and body.
In response to this idea, an individual brought up Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as a counterargument. Parkinson’s is much clearer because the dopaminergic neurons get destroyed. Notice that we tend to view PD as a physiological condition that results in mental health symptoms. Even diabetes results in psychological symptoms. Even your car breaking down on the side of the road will change your brain chemistry, experience, emotions, and behavior, resulting in “psychological symptoms”. Genetic predispositions will factor into determining your reaction to your car breaking down.
The main concern with focusing on biological explanations for mental health symptoms isn’t that it’s inherently wrong to do so, but more that we will slip into accidentally believing we understand mental health too early in our exploration of the mind. Even Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research has been controversial. Recently, this has made headlines. With something like schizophrenia (SCZ), people can experience apparently analogous symptoms through external modulation. It’s tempting to relate SCZ to AD as being a biological failure, but then sleep deprivation for days or certain drugs can emulate SCZ symptoms to some degree. Occasionally, individuals with SCZ enter remission, suggesting the symptoms can be transient. One of my focuses in study is SCZ so I have some ideas on what the causes are, biologically. I think SCZ involves inheriting a sensitivity to environmental contexts such as sleep deprivation or stress. I don’t think it’s a single disorder. The world isn’t so pretty and categorical like that, unfortunately. Only our deluded proneness to beliefs in identity tell us to think that way.
It is true that studying the biology of mental health is hugely useful, but we will make a lot of mistakes by jumping to conclusions about the connections between mind and biology too early. We just aren’t there in our capacity to bridge the mind and body yet. We are so especially not there more than any other possible topic of study in the world, I would wager. We understand biology of thinking and the mind less than we understand psychology. Though, psychology is flimsy and exists as a soft science.
Psychology is at least soft enough for our squishy brains.
Let’s avoid falling for the illusions of mind-body connections while we seek a clearer picture of “real” mind-body connections. Perhaps we will not have the capacity to understand such connections.
Check out the book I just finished, The Psychonet. It explores many ideas from this blog and is designed to make you feel alive, emotional, and maybe terrified. It uses AI art and depicts a story about AI.
Joining the Patreon will help advance this project and help maintain these efforts!