The Mind-Brain Problem, Epistemology, and Psychiatric Education

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  • Special Article

    The Mind-Brain Problem, Epistemology,and Psychiatric Education

    Phillip R. Slavney, M.D.

    The mind-brain problem is thefundamental mystery in psychiatry andthechiefobstacletoacoherent curriculum for its students. Rather than acknowledge theproblem as asource ofambiguity anddiscord, some educators have attempted toabolish, finesse, orignore it. An alternative to these tactics is found in theepistemological approach taken byKarl Jaspers andothers, which seeks todetermine what weknow andhow we know it.Educational programs based onsuch anapproach seem more likely than others toproducestudents who are broad-minded, tough-minded,andfair-minded.

    "'"J""1he mind-brain problem is the funda-l mental mystery in psychiatry and the

    chief obstacle to a coherent curriculum for itsstudents. We know that mind and brain arerelated, but we cannot account for one interms of the other. Synthetic explanationsfrom the neuron up and reductionistic anal-yses from the thought down do not meet.Instead, they leave a gap so wide that themost meaningful characteristic of mental life,its subjective sense of self, appears discon-nected from the objectively demonstrated de-pendence of that self on the brain. We cansometimes correlate the occurrence of men-tal events with neural processes, but thetransformation of the latter into the former isunexplained. Thoughts and moods as experi-enced by thesubject remain isolated from ourknowledge of synapses and transmitters.

    Mind and brain can neither be fully in-tegrated nor completely separated-a factthat has had important consequences for ed-ucational programs in psychiatry (1) .


    The major academic challenge presented bythe mind-brain problem is how to ground a

    curriculum in a discipline that is inherentlyambiguous. Which sources of knowledge,which methods of reasoning, should be fun-damental to our teaching? A traditional wayof responding to this challenge has been toend the ambiguity by fiat: to declare that theproper focus of psychiatric education is thebrain and its diseases or the mind and itsdisquiets. The first of these stances ("brain"psychiatry) emphasizes scientific explana-tion and approaches the patient as an ob-ject/organism; the second ("mind"psychiatry), emphasizes meaningful under-standing and approaches the patient as asubject/agent. Both positions have beenchampioned over the last century, but inrecent decades brain psychiatry hassupplanted mind psychiatry as an educa-tional premise for many academic leaders inthe United States (2). Thus, Michael Tayloraccepts as axiomatic the proposition "that all

    Dr.Slavney isprofessorand directorfor education,Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr.Slavney is also deputy editor of Aaulemic Psychilltry .Address reprint requests to Dr. Slavney, Meyer 4-181,The Johns Hopkins Hospital, 600 North Wolfe Street,Baltimore, MD 21287-7481.

    Copyright e 1993 AauIemic Psychilltry .

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    mental events (dreams, desires, hopes,thoughts, loves, and hates) and all behaviors(interpersonal or otherwise) are expressionsof neurobiologic processes" (3,p. 2).He pro-poses, in consequence, that the essential cur-riculum in psychiatry ought to be "primarilybiological" and that students who wish tolearn about psychodynamic theory andpractice should do so in a postresidency fel-lowship (4). Indeed, because Taylor believesthat "the brain is the organ of the mind, andthat mental illness is as biological as illnessin any other organ system," he calls for a"true rapprochement between psychiatryand neurology (joint residency training andfellowships, joint subspecialty board certifi-cation, and combined clinical and researchprogramming)" (5, p. 238).

    The abolition of ambiguity by fiat(whether in favor of mind or brain) makesteachers and students more confident, ifonly because they have less to worry about.Educators who would restrict discourse inpsychiatry to the scientific explanation ofbrain diseases, for example, might employthe following syllogism as a basis for teach-ing:

    Major Premise:Physicians treatdiseases.MinorPremise: Psychiatrists are physicians.Conclusion: If thepatient'scomplaints arenot due toa disease of thebrain,or whatlooks as if it will turn out to be a disease ofthebrain,then the treatment of thosecom-plaintsis not a matter forpsychiatrists, butforpsychologists, social workers, andnurses.

    An equally confidence-building (if cur-rently unfashionable) proposal could bemade by psychiatrists who would limit dis-course to the meaningful understanding ofmental distress: "Ifthere issomethingwrongwith the patient's brain, he needs to see aneurologist-they are the people who lookafter the nervous system." Both argumentsare inadequate for grounding a curriculumin psychiatry because they are based on themistaken notion that patients can be re-

    garded as object/organisms or subject/agents, that scientific explanation or mean-ingful understanding is sufficient for ourwork.


    Another traditional way of dealing withpsychiatry's inherent ambiguity avoidsthese errors. It recognizes that patients areobject/organisms and subject/agents andtherefore regards scientific explanation andmeaningful understanding as essential tothe education of psychiatrists. This ap-proach began with Adolf Meyer's concept of"psychobiology" (6,7) and is most widelyknown today through George Engel's advo-cacy of a biopsychosocial curriculum (8).

    Engel argues that the dominant philoso-phy in contemporary medicine is dualistic,reductionistic, and materialistic, and that ithas proven unsatisfactory because it "leavesno room within its framework for the social,psychological, and behavioral dimensionsof illness" (7,p. 130).He believes that generalsystems theory should serve as the basis fora new medical curriculum; this curriculumwould include sources of information aboutillness and treatment that are neglected,even by psychiatrists.The theory proposes ahierarchical continuum of natural systems,each of which must be studied both for itsown properties and for the contribution itmakes to other levels of organization.Engel's biopsychosocial model designatesthe following systems for study: subatomicparticles, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells,tissues, organs/organ systems, nervous sys-tem, person, two-person, family, commu-nity, culture-subculture, society-nation,biosphere (9). Psychiatrists concentrate onthe person level of this continuum, butshould remember that, in systems theory,"allievels of organization are linked to eachother in a hierarchical relationship so thatchange in one affects change in the others"(7, p. 134).

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  • This approach has many appealing fea-tures, but it also has several disadvantageswhen taken as the basis for a curriculum.Although it acknowledges psychiatry's am-biguity, the biopsychosocial approach fin-esses the mind-brain problem. In thehierarchy described above, the transitionbe-tween nervous system and person is repre-sented as similar to that between atoms andmolecules or two-person and family, yet incrossing the boundary between nervous sys-tem (brain) and person (mind) there is a kindofdiscontinuity not present in the other tran-sitions.When moving from brain to mind wemove from the realm of matter to the realmof meaning, from the world of bodies to theworld of selves. Engel does not identify thisdiscontinuity as a major impediment to thetype of integration promised by systems the-ory, and he gives it only implicit recognitionwhen he says: "In no way can the methodsand rules appropriate for the study and un-derstanding of the cell as cell be applied tothe study of the person as person or thefamily as family" (9, p. 536).

    A related problem with the biopsycho-social approach as presented by Engel is thatit does not illuminate the shortcomings ofmeaningful understanding as clearly as itdoes those of scientific explanation. This isimportant because meaningful understand-ing informs much of our knowledge at andabove the level of person in the system hier-archy. The "discovery" of an unconsciousconflictdoes not have the sameepistemolog-ical status as the discovery of a mutant gene.Scientific explanation and meaningful un-derstanding are both formal ways of know-ing, and each must be appreciated for itsweaknesses as well as its strengths (l0,11).

    Although an advantage of the bio-psychosocial approach over brain psychia-try and mind psychiatry is that it considersmany sources of information, the extent andapparent equivalence of those sources mayincrease ambiguity rather than lessen it. Be-cause "allleveIs of organization are linked toeach other. . .so that change in one affects

    change in the others," how can a student besure that he or she is taking the right direc-tion up or down the hierarchy for the task athand? As Michael Schwartz and OsborneWiggins put it:

    The model is sufficiently vague so that, inprinciple, any and every aspect of humanlife might be incorporated. With any partic-ular patient, of course, only a limited num-ber of factors will playa role.. .but thebiopsychosocial model offers no help in de-limiting and circumscribing them. . . . Thebiopsychosocial model provides no guid-ance in locating and sPecifying the relevantvariables. The physician who adopts it thusincurs the obligation to takethe broad viewand consider multiple possibilities, but thepossibilities remain undefined and endless.(12, p. 335-336)


    Anotherapproach to psychiatry's ambiguityhas been to ignore it-to leave the mind-brain problem unacknowledged. (Behavior-ism could be said to ignore the mind-brainproblem, but it will not be examined herebecause it has rarely served as the basis fororganizing a curriculum in psychiatry.) It isnot difficult to find contemporary textbooks,even those which set out to be comprehen-sive, that have no index entries for mindorthat list the term only in reference to psycho-analytic theory or psychosomatic disorder.Such textbooks, which may discuss mean-ingful issues at length, do not representbrain psychiatry as described above; but nei-ther do they consider the mind-brain prob-lem important enough to mention, let aloneregard it as the fundamental mystery in ourfield.

    Avoiding the issue may have becomeeasier for teachersand students in the UnitedStates since publication of the third editionof the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ofMental Disorders (lJSM-ill). The authors ofIJSM-ill proposed a classification that is clin-

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    ical in nature because in most psychiatricillness "the etiology is unknown" (13/ p. 6).This modest admission of ignorance afteryears of contentious, and sometimes whollymistaken, claims about etiology by certainbrain psychiatrists and mind psychiatrists isnot without its critics (14/15)/ but the manualhas had a major impact on educational pro-grams in North America (16/17). AlthoughDSM-ill/s agnosticism about cause has hada desired effect in muting sectarian con-troversy/ it may also have produced anunintended consequence: neglect of themind-brain problem. Because this neglectdoes not constitute an educational philoso-phy/ I cannot cite academic leaders who en-dorse itt but Ibelieve that/ in some programs/the stance taken by DSM-IDhasbecome thestance of the curriculum. If learning psychi-atry is equated with mastering DSM-ill, stu-dents may never understand why themanual took the form it did. The denomina-tional conflicts DSM-ill hoped to avoid arederived, in large part/ from the mind-brainproblem.

    It is quite appropriate to organize text-books around a classification of clinical phe-nomena/ but DSM-ID,for all its utility/ is notthe best way to ground a curriculum andprovide confidence in the face of ambiguity.On the one hand, having a large number ofgenerally accepted diagnostic categoriesmay give the impression that much is certain(at least until the next edition of the manual).Even terms such as atypical and nototherwisespecified contribute to the sense that everyillness hasits place in a coherent system. Onthe other hand, thoughtful students willsoon have their confidence shaken as theywonder how all these "disorders" are relatedto one another, especially when they dis-cover that/ in DSM-ill, "there is no assump-tion that each mental disorder is a discreteentity with sharp boundaries.. .between itand other mental disorders, as well as be-tween it and No Mental Disorder" (13/p. 6).What seemed so clear at first may now ap-pear more uncertain-and arbitrary-than

    ever. When psychiatric education is discon-nected from an understanding of the mind-brain problem, students in search ofconfidence may become partisans of eitherbrain psychiatry or mind psychiatry/or theymay, when confronted with the complexityof the biopsychosocial model, doubt thatpsychiatrists can ever be sure of what theyknow and how they know it.


    Determining what we know and how weknow it may be the best way to ground acurriculum in a discipline that ought not toabolish, finesse/ or ignore the mind-brainproblem. Scientific explanation and mean-ingful understanding are both essentialmethods of reasoning in psychiatry, yet theyhave different assumptions, observations,and outcomes. Although the tension be-tween these two ways of knowing has longbeen recognized (11)/it acquired special rel-evance for our field around the turn of thecentury, when both brain psychiatry andmind psychiatry were being enthusiasticallydefended. As E. E. Southard put it in 1912:"Tangles and twists in the mind appealed tosome: blots and spots in the brain appealedto others" (18/p. 233).

    Karl Jaspers recognized the dangers ofexcessive reliance on a single method of rea-soning. He believed that many theorists donot appreciate the limits of their approach,with the result that exaggerated claims aremade. Thus, although he credited KarlWernicke and Sigmund Freud with import-ant contributions to psychiatry/ Jaspers alsocriticized their methodological naivete:

    Wernicke started with his theory from the"outside," with the brain. Freud on theother hand started with his theory from the"inside," with what is psychically under-standable. Both review a whole field offacts and both generalize what has only acircumscribed validity and apply it overthe whole realm of psychopathology andpsychology; both end in abstract construe-

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  • tions. They are complete opposites as re-gards the content of their study and inter-ests; Wernicke looked for an absolutewithout meaning, a product of brain pro-cesses, while Freud tried to understand al-most all psychic disturbances entirely fromwithin; yet their two modes of thought arestructurally related. They are indeed oppo-sites but on the same plane and with thesame limitations and restrictions on theirthinking. (10, p. 546)