Lady discovers she can’t blame her brain anymore

By Matt Perryman

Yesterday I read an article in the Guardian about a woman who found herself shocked to learn that her OCD wasn’t due to a brain defect.

She’d built her whole identity around having a “mental illness”, confident that her brain was simply built different.

Then she discovered that her brain scan meant squat.

Her brain had some xyz features which she believed caused her to suffer. As it turns out, lots of people have the exact same xyz in their brains, and they aren’t OCD.

This surprises some people. The power of “medical mental health” is so strong that most of us assume it is not only true, but common sense.

Philosophers have known for decades that the stuff going on in the brain does not directly cause mental disorders in any obvious way.

To list but one example, back in the 1970s Donald Davidson wrote many papers arguing that events in the mind cannot be connected to events in the brain by a system of laws.

Everything that happens in your mind has an equivalent in the brain, there’s no doubt of that. But it is not possible to plug into a brain-scan and predict your mental states from the condition of your brain. What happens in the brain has no logical connection to what happens in your mind.

Why do we fall for the brain-based idea of mental illness? Or mental health, for that matter?

For one thing, it “feels right”. If you grow up with a decent knowledge of science, you “know” what the brain does, and you probably don’t have much time for religious, spiritual, and other woo-woo explanations.

For another, it’s an easy way to write off responsibility. It’s not MY fault, my brain did it. And since it’s my brain, we can treat it with drugs and therapy, just like the mechanic fixes my broken-down car.

Wittgenstein once said this all comes from the bewitchment of language.

We know how to answer the question, “what is a rock?” That’s easy. You pick up a rock and point at it. That’s a rock. Simple.

So why not do the same thing to the questions “what is a feeling” or “what is a thought”?

Go looking for a thing to point at.

Here’s something else Wittgenstein said:

A main cause of philosophical disease—a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.

Whatever the mind is, it’s not like a rock that you can pick it up and point at it and measure it.

As long as we start from the belief that there is a something to find, we’re going to keep misunderstanding ourselves.

Matt Perryman 

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