Some Views On Mind And Brain Through The Ages


The title of this post may confound you. You were probably raised with the idea that mental and physical disorders were beasts of a completely different nature. Perhaps you thought that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are separated things, that cannot be compared. You could pretty well describe what a broken leg is, maybe you had one yourself once, but what a mental disorder is, that was alien to you, something only accessible to, and to be explained by, the wizards of the human mind: psychologists and psychiatrists.

Well, knowledge of our minds has always been a tricky business. Philosophers throughout the ages grappled with the concept of ‘mind’, and that of ‘soul’. Plato, one of the greatest thinkers ever, thought that humans do possess an immortal soul, and that our bodies are some sort of physical ‘container’ of the soul. He coined the famous metaphor of the cave, to clarify his conviction that what we experience in this mortal existence is merely a shadowy depiction of a superior Reality (note: Plato wrote his works in the form of dialogues, carried out by Socrates with intellectual friends, opponents, and sparring partners). So Plato believed in an immortal soul; and the last days of Socrates on Earth are, in Plato’s version, a beautiful description of how someone (Socrates) assigns more importance to the purity of the soul, than to the further existence of the body.

Socrates (+/- 470 b.C. – 399 b.C.)

Still, it is hard to conceive how Plato thought of mental disorders, or rather: if and how there was something wrong with the soul, in people affected this way.

Plato (+/- 427 b.C. – 347 b.C.):

Much later, René Descartes (Cartesius, in modern Latin), pondered the so-called ‘mind-body problem’. He tried to find a way to prove that he was not misguided in assuming that he really existed, and thus was not the victim of some deceiving demon. Finally, he could reduce his mental exercises to the question: what is the ultimate proof that I do really exist? He came up with the immortal phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am’ (Cogito, Ergo Sum).  So merely by sensing that he was at least aware of the fact that he was thinking, he had proved for himself that he actually existed.

Descartes (1596 – 1650):

I am very aware that these are highly simplified representations of the ideas of Socrates/Plato, and René Descartes. And with the knowledge we have today, we can safely say that some of the propositions of these great minds cannot be maintained anymore. Descartes located the human soul in a tiny gland in the brain, named the ‘pineal gland’. Nowadays there isn’t any scientist who would adhere to this statement, or even try to locate our mind or soul anywhere else in a spatial sense.

You will have thought, by now: what is all this, then? What is the mind, what is the soul, what is consciousness? Well, my personal opinion is that we will never be able to give a satisfactory answer to these essential questions. They will have to remain unanswerable. The ball is always tossed around between philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology, and the natural sciences. But, to follow the metaphor through: a goal is never scored.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eminent neurologist Sigmund Freud made a fresh start regarding a description of the functioning of the human mind, especially of its feelings. He was deeply interested in people with mental disorders, and tried to find a rational method to work out the mechanisms our minds are subject to; these mechanisms then could potentially explain why life experiences past and present exert such an impact on our minds that abnormal functioning and disorders are the result. Freud thought that he was on the trail of a scientific revolution, that he was about to discover a ‘science of the human mind’. Later, critics of his claims asserted that by definition Freud could not claim to use a scientific method, with all the rigours mandatory for it; there would always be the chance for a falsification of a theory of his, because Freud could never state under what conditions one of his ideas would turn out to be wrong (‘false’). There was always a way out.

Nevertheless, Freud must be given enormous credit for having taken his patients seriously, not as ‘madmen’, or ‘possessed by a demon’, but as respectable people with a serious problem.

Sigmund Freud used classic (religious) literature as a template to construct his theories, for instance the Bible, and classic Greek drama (Oedipus Rex, by playwright Sophocles), to name a few. He conjectured three entities in our minds: the id, that what contains primitive drives, such as lust and aggression; the id is related to our procreative powers, our sexuality, but also to our most destructive urges, the annihilation of others. Then there is the superego, our ‘conscience’, which is shaped and controlled by our upbringing and the rules of civilization. The ego is then the personality itself in which a more or less successful integration of the demands of id and superego have been reached. Early life experiences, such as trauma, envy towards the father figure  and forbidden lust for the mother (in a boy), separation from a loved one, and many other emotional conditions were seen by Freud as essential for the development of mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or phobias.

Freud (1856 – 1939):

Freud’s work was later unjustly ridiculed for two reasons. The first, as I already noted, was that his claims about his hypotheses being scientifically valid could not be substantiated: they failed in the light of the acceptance of the concepts of conjectures and refutations in hard science, as developed by eminent philosopher of science Sir Karl R. Popper (incidentally, Popper also criticized the scientific claims of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, about their historical materialism). The second reason was the fact that Freud probably became the saddest victim of the popularization of serious medical-neurological-psychological concepts. Popular psychology is rather easy, and everybody can join in. You’ll find the poster with Freuds profile or a naked girl (depending on your perception) in every second student’s room (that other student has a Che Guevara poster, of course). This popularization made Freud an easy target for jestering.

(Note: the group of people Freud interviewed and treated in Vienna was very selective, not exactly due to Freud’s wishes. But as it turned out, he had an overrepresentation of rich Viennese middle-aged women of Jewish origin in his practice, and that did little in the way of objectivity in the experimental group – if you can call it an experimental group, that is. See: even if Freud had formed a group of subjects that could act as a control group, to pitch symptoms of those with disorders against, his way of investigation did not live up to the rigid demands of hard science. He worked with a very heterogeneous group of mood disorders, proper definitions were lacking, and furthermore he used long narratives as the building blocks for his theories. On the other side: this very personal approach is still in use today, in a ‘pure’ form, as well as in modified versions.)


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