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Mental and Physical — We Need Non-Supernatural Language

If you think there’s no spiritual or supernatural world, and that consciousness/ emotions/ intention/ etc. are all products of the brain and the physical world… then what language to you use to distinguish between the mental aspects of your body, and the other aspects of your body?

I’ve been talking with JT Eberhard, good friend/ fellow atheist blogger/ Secular Student Alliance high school specialist/ total badass,  about mental health issues. JT has anorexia, which he’s been blogging about; I have a history of mental illness in my family (alcoholism, mostly) and something of a personal history with it myself (depression — it hasn’t been a serious issue in some time, but I always have to pay attention to it and take active steps to prevent it from recurring).

So JT and I been talking about this stuff. And I frequently find that I want to say things like, “You seem like you’re in really good physical health right now, it’s your mental health I’m more concerned about.” Or, “I’ve been ignoring my physical health lately, and it’s really having an effect on my mental health.” You get the picture.

And then I stop, and think, “Wait a minute. Mental health is physical health. Our brains are part of our body. Our thoughts and feelings and impulses and intentions are physical, biological processes. Why am I implying that it isn’t? What can I say instead that doesn’t have that implication?”

And I get stuck. I’ve been trying to think of different language… and I’m coming up short. I’m wondering if we need new language. Or — better yet, since it works so much better — if we can re-purpose existing language to get this idea across.

I don’t just want this new/ re-purposed language when I’m talking about mental illness and mental health. We talk about the differences and relationships between our brains and the rest of our bodies a lot. And I do think this is a useful distinction to make. Yes, I think our brains are part of our bodies… but the brain/ mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ etc. parts of our body have some important differences from the muscles/ guts/ bones/ lungs/ circulation/ etc. parts. And it’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between them, and talk about the ways that they’re different, and the ways they’re similar, and the ways they overlap and interact.

But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication. I want to talk about it in a way that acknowledges that the brain is part of the body.

And for those of us who are dealing with mental health issues, in ourselves and in people we care about, I have other reasons for wanting language that doesn’t separate the brain and the mind so radically from the rest of the body; for wanting language that acknowledges that the brain is a body part, and that mental health is physical health.

There’s a tremendous stigma and shame around mental illness — a stigma that’s not nearly as prevalent with non-mental illness. Yes, there’s some stigma around illness, some illnesses more than others… but we have much more compassion and acceptance of non-mental illness than we do with mental illness. Mental illness is still seen as a personal failure. Our society judges people who have depression or anorexia… in a way that we don’t judge people who have diabetes or cancer. I think if our language reflected that mental illness is a physical illness, it might mitigate that stigma and fear about it, and increase our empathy.

But I don’t know how to do that.

So I’m crowd-sourcing the problem. Thoughts? Is there a word we can use other than “physical” to mean “parts of the body that aren’t the brain and mind”?

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Comments

  1. Aliasalpha says

    How about hardware & software? My hardware is fairly crap but actually being maintained but my software is in dire need of a defrag, virus scan and OS upgrade

  2. valhar2000 says

    People with anorexia get judged negatively? I find that surprising. In my neck of the woods they get a different treatment, of a kind that other people with mental illness (such as Mark Chu-Carroll) consider just as bad: they are treated as invalids. By this I mean that they are treated as though they are completely incapable of doing anything for themselves and have to be taken care of at all times.

    About the actual subject of the post: perhaps we could simply redefine “mental” as a subset of “physical”? That way we could continue to use a lot of the expressions that we are used to. I’m not sure how to redefine “physical” to go along with that, though.

  3. MTiffany says

    When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication.

    I think that we’re currently afflicted with that implication because medical science has only recently progressed to the point where we can study the living brain without killing the subject. Cartesian dualism is a historical hangover, a symptom that we heretofore lacked the empricial evidence necessary to talk about mental health as a subest of physical health in precise, quantifiable terms.

    Thankfully, we’re reaching the point where the living brain is no longer a mysterious ‘black box.’

    For anyone that hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend Charlie Rose’s ‘The Brain Series,’ twelve hour-long conversations with experts from various field of neuroscience about the science of the brain.

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/collection/10702

    We’ll have the vocabulary you’re looking for when medical science reaches the point where we can talk about subjective mental states in objective, quantifiable terms. That day isn’t here yet, but it is getting closer.

  4. badjim says

    First, there is the blood-brain barrier, a distinction our bodies maintain. Also, it’s a lot easier to change your mind than to build a muscle. Your senses mainly connect to the brain and effect the body from there; there isn’t much local processing. Moreover, your sensors are concentrated around the head; apart from hands and genitals the body is sparsely enervated. Neurologically speaking, most of what happens is between your ears.

  5. says

    I think you’re making a few assumptions that aren’t quite true. I have schizophrenia and depression AND I have cancer. The idea that society judges those with “non-mental” disabilities with compassion and acceptance is simply not the case. I think that people sometimes assume that if they were to develop cancer or some other life-threatening condition, they’d be treated nicely. However, it can be a very rude awakening when you find out that, beyond the “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that” and “Oh, how have you been?” that you’ll receive from those you disclose it to, the world is a very harsh and excluding place.

    I think one of the issues that might be making this language issue difficult is that you’re not challenging the assumptions enough. It’s easy enough to explain to a friend that you are worried about their cognitive difficulties or their anxiety levels or their struggles with being neuro-atypical. Those are all terms that don’t imply any sort of supernatural elements.

    However, you’re attempting to define something by what it isn’t and that just doesn’t work well because the elements of what you’re describing have very different functions. What you’re asking for is the equivalent to seeking a single term for all of the parts of the body that aren’t fingers. I mean, at best, we could list all of the different systems in the body that aren’t related to what are considered the higher functions.

    Unfortunately, this still contributes to the very thing that you’re trying to avoid. To treat mental disabilities as if they can somehow be disconnected from what the rest of the body is doing and feeling and experiencing ignores the reality that mental disabilities are physical.

    Ultimately, I don’t think that changing the language will have the results that you’re hoping for. Just as stopping people from calling others “retards” won’t change the way they view people who have learning disabilities, getting people to acknowledge that mental disabilities are physical won’t change the way they view those who are perceived as having them.

    We can’t put the cart before the horse. First, you have to change the attitudes and then you will be more likely to see widespread changes in the language used to describe these kinds of disabilities. I am reminded of America’s history of treatment toward other marginalized communities (e.g. people of color). Using science to prove to whites that black people actually are human didn’t end discrimination.

    It’s not really a dearth of knowledge that makes people treat those who are different with such disdain. It’s a lack of empathy, a tendency towards opportunism, an inclination towards hierarchical categorizing, and hatefulness that causes individuals to engage in discrimination. Changing language won’t even make a dent in those factors.

  6. AnneS says

    I don’t have any bright ideas, but I’ll watch this post with interest. As someone who suffers from severe and recurrent depression, I wish I lived in a world where the stigma against mental illness didn’t exist. (I have had plenty of days where if one more person told me I just needed to get out of the house and get some sunshine, I was actually in danger of punching them.)

  7. Bruce Gorton says

    OT and all of that but – is it just me or is that “Date Christian Girls” picture basically ugly? Bleached blonde, make-up applied with a trowel and an expression which says “Boring trying to fake fun.”

    And it probably isn’t the woman but rather the photographer and the pose.

    Couldn’t the Christian dating crowd get some appealing pictures if they are going to try and sell their services to atheists?

  8. says

    I like the idea of hardware and software, but that opens a whole other can of worms, like implying that we are “programmed” just like my computer.

    I don’t think that the problem is that grave. After all, language changes, concepts change with our perception and our increase of knowledge. When the Greek came up with the word “atom”, they didn’t understand it to be what we now understand it to be, yet we can still use that word.
    I think it’s far more important to make people uderstand that our mind is a product of our brain and our brain is part of our bodies. If people understand that, they won’t assume that you’re talking about something supernatural when you’Re talking about mental health.

    Bruce Gorton
    Don’t you have a life?
    And btw, do you by any chance look like the younger brother of Antonio Banderas?
    No? So could you stop passing judgement on women by their looks?

  9. James Ewert says

    I think in this case, where you wish to refer to the health of various organs/organ systems -within- the body, you need to use the appropriate terminology. It exists already.

    Here we are presumably referring to CNS/Cognitive health. Obviously, CNS activity and regulation are influenced by external stimuli (chemical and sensory). The “mind” is an aspect of CNS health, which is influenced by activity in other parts of the CNS, which is in turn influenced by neural sensation/chemical stimulation from the body.

    Terms which could be used to refer to aspects of mental health:

    “Cognitive health” if referring to task-related thinking specifically.

    “Emotional health” if referring to emotional or behavioral health & regulation.

    “Sensory health” if referring to abnormalities such as synesthesia or traumatic/acquired changes to sensory health.

    Clearly both cognitive and behavioral health are aspects of “physical health”; whereas “mental health” seems to group the mind separately from the body, not as an aspect thereof.

    Obviously this would be difficult to use in conversation with non-dorks, but why would you be talking with non-dorks anyways? Best of luck!

  10. valhar2000 says

    Aliasalpha: I like that quite a lot. The only problem, if you want to call it that, that I see is that it could cause people to apply insights gained from working with modern computers that do not apply very well to the human brain.

    Many modern computers and other electronics have a clear separation between hardware and software: there is a processor that is programmable, and you program it in various ways to take inputs and give outputs. However, from what I have read about it, it seems that brains are far more dependent on the actual hardware. Thus, changing the hardware changes the result of running the software and, more importantly, the hardware itself can change in response to inputs (as observed when studying the way brains develop as children learn things, and adults too).

    This could still better than the current situation, since it would replace errors caused my mushy supernatural thinking with errors caused by lazy thinking based on what little programming someone has learned: a lesser evil, in my view.

  11. Roxane says

    As a Regitered Nurse I am well aware of a large amount of terminology to descibe various types of “things” that can be wrong with brains and the work brains do. The terminology is still latin based, which works well because it is often very easy to work out what someone means when they are describing a new problem. Unfortunately, unless you are familiar with these latin terms, the words themselves are compex and therefor difficult for the population generally to adopt. So generic terms are used and the status quo continues.
    I agree we need to move to a new language set away from the latin, except for the latin terms that are easier, if we want the public to adopt the brain as physical and it’s functions as chemicl and hormonal. The trouble is that lay terms used to describe issues with the body have been developed over time by the general population to try and communicate with each other, because health care professionals still use latin terminology (?to maintain elitism through language). For example cholelithiasis has become gall stones; hydrocephaly has become water on the brain. Other terms have entered general use, for example meningococcal infection – I would suggest the public wouldn’t be able to tell you that a cocci species of bacteria have infected the meningies (membranes) which cover the brain (cephaly) and line the skull (cranium).
    Maybe the lead needs to come from the health professions as they communicate matters of anotomy and physiology with the public. Using terminology that is part of a language now rarely used by the public and that is unable to expand to create new words to add to the vocabulary is limiting the ability of communicating new knowledge about the brain and how it works. Whether we can get the medical profession to give up this power they have, to keep their knowledge at arms length from the public, is a whole other conversation.

  12. says

    The short version: I find quite useful the words “emergent” and “non-reducible” to describe a mental life which I believe cannot be explained entirely in terms of brain functions.

    Consider the arguments of natural childbirth promoters. They believe a child’s brain will be affected, “wired” permanently, if the labor is started or augmented by artificial oxytocin. The baby will not grow up to love as one with a brain that is not exposed to the artificial hormone. This seems to imply that even if the baby one day self-reports strong emotions and love, they may be an illusion.

    Consider the way Patricia Churchland, an eliminativist, describes her mood after work in terms of brain chemistry and asks for a glass of chardonnay to tweak that chemistry.

    Now, do you think love is illusory if you self-report it? Do you think Ms. Churchland would give herself an injection of ethyl alcohol instead of wine in a nice glass? Of course, even seeing the glass changes your brain.

    I have also seen a person for whom mental illness was perfectly controlled by medication, yet she still seemed off. She needed something not found in her brain: books, friendship, fun, wisdom.

    I believe your brain deals you cards and there are many mechanisms which allow you to play those cards differently. Some are external- physical, social constraints; internalized societal demands. They are not material in a sense that we can relate them only to brain function, but they are not supernatural either.

    I like the way Daniel Dennett sums it up: there is a human soul, but it’s made of billions of tiny robots.

    Also, I plan to see how Raymond Tallis deals with this matter in Aping Mankind, as soon as it comes out in paperback.

    Also, check back on the story of Rebecca in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. She clearly had an abnormal brain, but managed to use it to connect to, let’s call it meme in a very general sense, of tradition and religion. She saw some ready-made mental life and she/her brain worked on it- or together with it.

    It’s like driving a small car with great skill, making it really go. Is it the car that makes the speed?

    I am currently studying the Philosophy of Cognition and Language and I can tell you this non-reductionist position is the most difficult for people to grasp. They are either Carthesian dualists or try on Patricia Churchland for size.

    So yes, you can be a materialist and still speak of mental life.You are not just your brain, but also other brains, books, culture, teh interwebs and much much more- all natural and physical. Don’t be embarrassed to speak of a mental life. I’ve found that speaking of a mental life can help you find more healing, in literature, even in religion, in ideas. Denying that, speaking of brain chemistry, does not give you the whole picture.

    What is a glass of wine? Where does its meaning lie, among your neurons, or does it come from culture?

    It’s like the Other Memory which Reverend Mothers share in Dune: the voices of all before you, ran by your own brain.

    But strangely, eliminativism may also turn out to be therapeutic…

  13. yb42 says

    Well, ultimately it’s an organ right? With all the rest of them, we just refer to the specific organ in question. Brain health. That seems to have appropriately physical implications.

  14. Cuttlefish says

    If it were not for three decades of misinformation from the “cognitive revolution”, then you’d have a simple answer: behavior. Not just what you physically are, but what you do. What you do that others can see–public behavior–and what you do that only you are privy to–private behavior. No implications of special qualitative difference are made between behaviors based on how many observers there are, but at the same time behaviors are not denied simply because only one observer can witness. Thinking is not somehow magically causal of other behaviors, but rather is itself a behavior (or rather, a class of behaviors) to analyze with regard to causes in the environment.

    There is a rich vocabulary, although a non-mentalistic one which can take some getting used to, that covers the phenomena our culture has typically termed “mental”, with the added advantage that treating such things as behaviors under the influence of environmental contingencies allows control (which sounds ominous, until you realize that this is the goal of any psychotherapy, or for that matter any education), and far more precise measurement and assessment of this control.

    I dislike the “hardware/software” metaphor; it helps to some extent as an explanation, but is functionally dualistic itself. The “software” has to be written somehow, or it appears by magic. The interface of an organism is far more complex than, say, a computer keyboard, and the behavior of a person (or any other animal) is going to be in part determined by that entire body interfacing with the environment. This is rather different from software, which may be installed on vastly different systems to similar effects.

    It is best to think of us as whole organisms, not as meat puppets, controlled by mind in substance dualism or by brain in functional dualism. No brain has ever controlled a body it was also not itself controlled by. No brain is the ultimate source of a thought or an action. The brain, and the gut, and the leg, and the rest, are parts of an organism that responds and acts to explore and exploit an environment. Ultimately, the success or failure of that organism’s behavior comes down to the same thing in the short (life span of organism) term as in the long (phylogenetic scale) term: the environment selects. Our vast rich private (nee “mental”) life is part of our behavioral tool kit we use to take on the world around us.

    So, yes, we have such a non-supernatural language. It is actively ignored by some of the scientists who allege to study precisely the phenomena where that language is most useful.

  15. Bruce Gorton says

    Giliell, connaiseuse des choses bonnes

    I am not a model posing for a dating service advert. What I am however is a semi-professional photographer.

    And 90% of what makes that shot ugly isn’t the model – it is the photographer telling the model to make a face and then taking a shot way too close to it. It is badly framed, and thus highlights every possible flaw.

  16. LadyBlack says

    One little correction – people don’t judge Type ONE diabetics. Type Two’s get the whole, “Yeah, well, you’re fat, you asked for diabetes” shebang. Even from doctors. Not everyone, and not all doctors. But enough.

    AnneS – oh, I so understand that! Put it with such gems as : “Stop feeling sorry for youself”, “You’re weird” and “When you come to work, you need to leave your depression at the door”. What makes anyone think I’d want to pick it up again, if I could put it down?

    AliasAlpha – yep, that sounds good! Although Brian health has a ring of authority.

  17. jose says

    Is there in modern medicine a clear distinction between a mental illness and a bad thought? Is being an alcoholic being sick, whereas being a fascist isn’t? We know about recent regimes where radical political dissent has been considered a mental disease that required treatment.

  18. Ramel says

    My experiences mean I’m not entirely convinced that the distinction between the mental and physical is real to begin with. I’ve seen seen who dramatically a serious head injury can change a persons way of thinking, how drugs can change the way I feel, view, and understand the world around me, and I’m currently dealing with a somatization disorder where psychological problems start to manifest as physical pain.

  19. ParticleMan says

    I was just thinking about this question yesterday, when I caught myself saying something very similar, e.g., ‘mind and body’, and wished there was a better way to say it without sounding dualistic.

    LOL…the ‘Date Christian Girls’ advert was immediately followed by an ad showing a very phallic-looking organic banana. Doesn’t someone screen these things?

  20. GJ says

    Well, it seems that “mental health” seems to break down into what I would call emotional health and perceptual health. So, depression and anxiety would be emotional health problems, schizophrenia would be a perceptual health problem, and anorexia with body dismorphic disorder would be both.

    Or you could be simple and say “brain problems” as suggested above :P

    (Btw, long time lurker, first time commenting – I love your writing!)

  21. ParticleMan says

    Jose:

    yes, there are diagnostic criteria that have been developed using statistical methods on large numbers of patients. Usually some combination of specific symptoms must persist for a minimum period of time before a diagnosis can be made. Of course, with the variability from individual to individual, it can be tricky to diagnose. But, yes, there are medical criteria that distinguish ‘bad’ thoughts from mental illness.

  22. Ramel says

    @Bruce Gorton
    A lot of dating sites these are choosing models that they feel are likely to appeal to there target audience. In this case it appears to be married, loudly moralistic, church going men over 50.

  23. ParticleMan says

    @Jose:

    thinking more about this…mental health medicine seems focused on patterns of behavior, i.e., addiction or obsessive behaviors, and presence of certain patterns of thought, such as hallucinations, as opposed to the specific content of your thoughts (politics, religion, etc.). Nevertheless, maybe there are certain aspects of a political, religious, social movement that would attract people predisposed to a certain mental illness?

  24. llewelly says

    Aliasalpha | September 16, 2011 at 3:33 am

    How about hardware & software?

    The human brain is not designed. Nor is the rest of the body.

    Hardware and software are designed, and this results in all manner of differences, large and small, subtle and obvious, at every scale.

    In a number of important ways, the modern (and entirely artificial) division between hardware and software actually matches the perceived separation between body and “soul” quite closely; note how software can be readily transferred to a new body (er, new hardware). Software and hardware problems are often wholly independent, in the way that many people (mis)perceive mental and physical problems to be. In many ways, the modern division between hardware and software is a reflection of Cartesian dualism.

  25. MisterJohnGalt says

    If the purpose of this project is to destigmatize mental illness by blaming it on the interaction of matter, chemistry and physics, it’s doomed to failure. All mental activity, all human conduct, can be attributed to the physical. A mere linguistic exercise is not going to help you distinguish between the mental states which lead to conduct we condemn as morally reprehensible and conduct we excused as somehow “compelled” by the person’s physical make-up.

  26. Jethro says

    I think yb42 is on the right track with “brain health”, but I’m not sure there’s a good way to talk about “the parts of me that aren’t my brain”. Maybe “body health”; sure we’re still emphasizing the separation between body and brain/mind, but at least we aren’t saying the mind is of the spirit realm. “Core health” might be another possibility, though that would seem to also exclude the limbs. But is this necessarily a problem? After all, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a word that means “the parts of the body that aren’t the legs” unless we count a term like “non-legs”. I don’t think there’s a way to say “my health is fine, but my knee health isn’t good.” Instead someone might say “my knee health isn’t good, but the rest of me is fine.” Someone might say “I haven’t been taking care of my health, and my back health in particular has suffered.” The fact that there’s no specific term for “not my back” isn’t a huge detriment.

  27. Bruce Gorton says

    Back on topic:

    I always liked the software analogy – but probably from a gamer’s point of view. You play games and you save them on the hard drive – this writes your progress down altering it in a way which, okay is minor compared the the drastic rewiring that goes on in our brains, but sort of fits.

    llewelly

    Too little vodka.

  28. says

    MisterJohnGalt #14:

    If the purpose of this project is to destigmatize mental illness by blaming it on the interaction of matter, chemistry and physics, it’s doomed to failure. All mental activity, all human conduct, can be attributed to the physical. A mere linguistic exercise is not going to help you distinguish between the mental states which lead to conduct we condemn as morally reprehensible and conduct we excused as somehow “compelled” by the person’s physical make-up.

    Because all mental illness is is an excuse used by people who want to get away with crimes…

  29. OverlappingMagisteria says

    How about using the term “brain” or some derivative of it instead of mental? It might sound a little clunky, but its already commonly understood and it stresses the physical nature of it.

    “You seem to be in good health, but I’m concerned about your brain’s health.”

    “I haven’t been exercising lately and it’s had a big effect on the health of my brain.”

    I also dropped the term “physical” from Greta’s examples since all health is physical anyway and the term is redundant.

  30. Pete M. says

    While the hardware/software analogy to the relation between the brain activity and mental activity is limited (as many point out above), I still think there is something to it. When a computer program crashes, there might be something wrong with the program, which is at any given moment being instantiated by some particular physical components in the hardware. In this case, there may be nothing at all wrong with that physical substrate – the problem is in the logical relations of the program. Or, there might be a problem with the hardware. The physical memory may be failing to hold an electric charge, or whatever.

    I think we can talk in similar ways about the brain and the mind. I might have a problem that can be traced to my beliefs. At any moment, anything I’m thinking or believing is of course instantiated in the physical substrate of my brain (there are no beliefs at all without the underlying brain), but it might be that my brain is functioning perfectly well, but that I believe some silly things. On the other hand, my brain might be producing too little serotonin, producing large impacts of mood and so on, and this may have little or no relation to my belief structures. It might be that right level of explanation for my problem is at the level of cognitive function, or it might be that the right level of explanation is brain function.

  31. Dhorvath, OM says

    MisterJohnGalt,
    But a linguistic exercise can help us lose the distinction between what our brains do and how they do it which allows for dualism to slip so easily into conversation.

  32. NewEnglandBob says

    Unfortunately, ‘neural/neurological’ doesn’t quite make it either since it covers more than the just the brain, but it is close. Maybe neuro-chemical?

  33. azkyroth says

    The mind is an abstraction of processes in the physical body.. Speaking of “mental health” isn’t enormously different from speaking of “digestive health” or “sexual health,” and the fact that digestion and sex are physical processes involving specific subsets of the body systems isn’t taken as an inconsistency with the labels.

    Now “spirituality,” on the other hand, is a word that needs to be killed dead and replaced. >.>

  34. Dhorvath, OM says

    Azkyroth,
    The problem lies not in what you think mind means, but in what others view it to mean. Mental, mind, self, even consciousness are used by dualists to distinguish between the physical system and the other substance or property which they think is separate from the physical. The language is used differently by dualists than it is by monists and it would be nice, although not essential, to be able to distinguish that solely from the language used. Soul is a direct tip off, mind is ambiguous, neurological is pretty concrete.

  35. azkyroth says

    I sincerely hope you didn’t mean that response to be nearly as condescending as it came off.

    There’s a tremendous stigma and shame around mental illness — a stigma that’s not nearly as prevalent with non-mental illness. Yes, there’s some stigma around illness, some illnesses more than others… but we have much more compassion and acceptance of non-mental illness than we do with mental illness. Mental illness is still seen as a personal failure. Our society judges people who have depression or anorexia… in a way that we don’t judge people who have diabetes or cancer. I think if our language reflected that mental illness is a physical illness, it might mitigate that stigma and fear about it, and increase our empathy.

    I have some issues with this construct. Mental illnesses should not generally be dismissed as simply “character flaws,” but how else would one characterize an untreated personality disorder? Where is the line to be drawn?

    More significantly, mental illnesses – personality disorders, alcoholism, and in some cases bipolar or delusional disorders – cause their victims to behave in ways that make victims of others. This is not true of diabetes or cancer and I find it troubling that this often gets quietly swept under the rug in terms of moral analysis.

  36. MisterJohnGalt says

    Because all mental illness is is an excuse used by people who want to get away with crimes…

    An unserious response to a serious question. Go away, silly person. You’re a bore.

    But back on topic, perhaps we should just recognize that the people who are unfairly stigmatizing mental illness are doing so merely because of the existing physical state of their brains.

  37. says

    We could simply use ‘somatic’ to refer to bodily issues that don’t concern the brain.
    The bonus is that if someone tries to play on the ‘soma/pneuma’ duality in the original Greek, ‘pneumatic’ is already taken!

  38. says

    Count me as another vote against using computer analogies to describe people. The software/hardware distinction is indeed very similar to dualism (see llewelly #13). Furthermore, there are many design and implementation details in computing which do not match up at all with the human brain. The media has misinformed people by using this metaphor so often. A few of the key differences:

    (1) The brain is only loosely and informally organized into sectors of different activity. Computer components are formally designed to perform a specific function, and indeed cannot do anything else. Further, the connections between components must be matched wire-for-wire and pin-for-pin exactly or the system typically does nothing useful. This lack of flexibility is considered a feature, not a bug.

    (2) Computers do not modify their circuits over time. Even self-modifying software doesn’t undergo the kind of massive overhauls the brain does.

    (3) The brain is largely analog. Computers are digital and completely reliant on the recognition and manipulation of discrete states.

    (4) Feedback from the body on brain chemistry has no clear counterpart in computing.

    (5) Brains are capable of emergent properties including self-awareness that no computer has yet achieved.

    As technology advances, some or all of these distinctions break down. Then we may be able to talk of how machines and grey matter are functionally similar. However, by that point we will also be talking about whether machines are people.

    [Setar]: And wasn’t that itself designed to prevent malicious code from altering the BIOS?

    No. The first BIOSes were stored on ROMs (read-only memory chips) which cannot be modified in any case. The BIOS (and similar firmware) didn’t become modifiable until the introduction of EEPROMs*.

    * Electrically Eraseable Programable Read Only Memory, itself an oxymoron.

    In fact, if you go back far enough, the first computers had nothing comparable to the flexible modern BIOS at all. All hardware functions operated through pre-assigned fixed registers and memory addresses. There was nothing like the dynamic mapping of hardware peripherals that occurs now.

  39. Emu Sam says

    But back on topic, perhaps we should just recognize that the people who are unfairly stigmatizing mental illness are doing so merely because of the existing physical state of their brains.

    Then they need treatment. Let’s see if linguistic adjustment is an effective prescription.

  40. azkyroth says

    An unserious response to a serious question. Go away, silly person. You’re a bore.

    But back on topic, perhaps we should just recognize that the people who are unfairly stigmatizing mental illness are doing so merely because of the existing physical state of their brains.

    Um…

  41. karla says

    Have you guys watched “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest”? Was he crazy? Was he just excentric? misunderstood? genius?
    The reason mental disease is so different from other diseases, is that when the brain malfunctions, the signs are not always neurologic (paralysis, loss of balance, etc) but behavioral. How does one know if the person is sick or just acting weird? How do we distinguish between sadness and depression? Between a bubbly personality and mania?
    I think we just need to keep talking about it until it becomes an obvious concept that mental disease IS physical disease, but that requires the same compassion, if not more, than any other bodily illnesses.

  42. Dhorvath, OM says

    azkyroth,

    I sincerely hope you didn’t mean that response to be nearly as condescending as it came off.

    Was this directed at me?

  43. Dhorvath, OM says

    JohnGalt,

    But back on topic, perhaps we should just recognize that the people who are unfairly stigmatizing mental illness are doing so merely because of the existing physical state of their brains.

    Sure, and the environment that they do so within is changeable to influence them away from doing so. Stigma doesn’t cease to have an effect just because we have physical brains instead of separate minds.

  44. Randomfactor says

    I’m not spiritual, I’m respiritual, and will be as long as I live and breathe.

    In fact, not being tied down I’m respiritual but not ligious.

  45. MisterJohnGalt says

    Sure, and the environment that they do so within is changeable to influence them away from doing so. Stigma doesn’t cease to have an effect just because we have physical brains instead of separate minds.

    Yes, and the environment the people who are stigmatized live in can change them too. By stigmatizing them. Which is what you are apparently suggesting be done to the stigmatizers. But none of this helps in distinguishing between the two classes of physically-based conduct in order to decide who should be stigmatized.

    For example: A person is running around in a circle babbling about space aliens. A second person calls the babbler “crazy.” In each case, you could say that the conduct was caused by the brain. But that would not help at all in deciding whose conduct to stigmatize.

  46. Cass Armstrong says

    I think the problem is that mental illness manifests behaviorally. So behavior that is outside the social “norms” is the manifestation of the condition. People are judged on that behavior without inquiry into the cause for it. The problem with mental illness is that it is not always apparent. Mental illnesses can most certainly have physical causes. There is a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and depression for example. DNA studies with autistic spectrum disorders http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100408123245.htm
    have determined not only a DNA tag specific to the condition, but are moving towards drugs that could reverse the process.

  47. Dhorvath, OM says

    JohnGalt,

    In each case, you could say that the conduct was caused by the brain. But that would not help at all in deciding whose conduct to stigmatize.

    I see. I am going to assume you mean that the person running in circles babbling about space aliens has no reason that others would accept for doing so and also that they are at least restricted in their ability to recognize this fact. As such their senses and/or processing system have become suspect, ill if you will, and we would try to assuage that whether through therapy, surgery, or pharmacology.

    In a similar vein, I would suggest that the person who is calling this behaviour crazy would need to be evaluated on doing so. In more specific terms, someone would likely ask them to stop because it’s not helpful and could be harmful. If they are not capable of recognizing that others see that behaviour as unfairly treating the first person some degree of influence would be exerted on them. Whether it is simply separating the two, social level education (mild therapy if you will) or something more in depth because a stronger problem is revealed by the mild behaviour is hard to say.

    In a more general sense, we look at how people behave and what trends that can indicate with respect to future behaviour and potential harm. Depressed people have a variety of trials that they will likely face in life that can often be mitigated or eliminated through treatment for example. So a depressed person will be encouraged to seek out such treatment so that they can live a life that is more enjoyable.

    An ass on the other hand will likely just be shunned by the majority of those they encounter, which may be unfortunate, but reflects limited resources to improve everyone’s life and the consequent focus on those who are either having a worse time or who are easily assisted.

    How do we know? We don’t really, but we do respect that science can give us clues as to who can be helped and who cannot and thereby focus our efforts on those who can.

  48. Greta Christina says

    I love this conversation! A few thoughts and clarifications:

    This question isn’t just about how we discuss mental illness. That’s certainly a big part of the question, and it’s how I got started thinking about it. But we talk about the distinction between our thoughts/ feelings/ intentions/ etc. and the rest of our bodies a *lot* — not just when we talk about mental illness.

    I see a lot of suggestions for new words for “thoughts/ feelings/ intentions/ other brain products.” Not as many for “the rest of the body.” That does seem to be the sticky part, doesn’t it? I actually don’t see a problem with the word “mental” — it’s the use of the word “physical” to mean “non-mental” that’s the problem.

    And yes, I see people’s point about, “Why do we need a special word for ‘not-brain’? We don’t have a special word for the ‘not-fingers’ or ‘not-heart’ parts of our bodies.” But I do think our brains and the products thereof are more unusual, more different from the rest of our bodies than our other body parts. (Of course, as the comedian said: Look at what’s telling me that…) And I think it would be useful to have language to draw that distinction.

    I don’t love “hardware/ software” either, for many of the reasons discussed here. But if that’s what our language settled on, I could live with it.

    I think that’s everything from me for now. Carry on.

  49. Greta Christina says

    Oh, a couple of bit of quick housekeeping:

    Am I allowed to comment on this blog?

    LadyBlack: Yes. First-time commenters get their comments held for moderation until I can approve them. Once you’ve had a comment approved — as yours now has — your comments will get posted without delay.

    Go away, silly person. You’re a bore.

    MisterJohnGalt: Please review my comment policy. Personal insults directed at other commenters are not permitted. Please keep your criticisms focused on ideas and behaviors, not personal insults of people. This is a warning. Continued violations of this policy will result in you being banned from this blog. Thank you.

  50. John the Drunkard says

    Even the ‘mind/brain–not mind/brain’ split is artificial and misleading. Everyone’s ‘software’ will change its functioning in the presence of alcohol/LSD/altered dopamine levels/cortisol etc. etc.

    Even clearly ‘behavioral’ or ‘emotional’ problems may depend on a biological substrata. Certainly alcoholism is a strong example. Not drinking can have vast unsuspected effects on the emotions, intellect, and ‘physical’ health; but these effects aren’t all that impressive if the person in question isn’t an alcoholic to start with.

    FM Alexander suggested, a bit clumsily, that all activity can be spoken of as ‘of the Self’ as a whole. This is much more useful than the standard woo-woo line about mind-body-unity, which is usually followed by divisive language that makes Descartes seem modern.

    I have sometimes put it to students that: ‘Thinking is a physical act; moving is a mental act.’

  51. Greta Christina says

    Even the ‘mind/brain–not mind/brain’ split is artificial and misleading. Everyone’s ‘software’ will change its functioning in the presence of alcohol/LSD/altered dopamine levels/cortisol etc. etc.

    I’m puzzled, John the Drunkard. Why does that make the distinction misleading? Drugs affect the mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ behavior/ etc. because drugs affect the brain. There’s still a difference between the brain and the rest of the body. Of course they interact and interconnect and it’s all complicated and stuff. There’s still a difference.

    And I keep typing “brian” instead of “brain.” What’s that about?

  52. MisterJohnGalt says

    MisterJohnGalt: Please review my comment policy. Personal insults directed at other commenters are not permitted. Please keep your criticisms focused on ideas and behaviors, not personal insults of people. This is a warning. Continued violations of this policy will result in you being banned from this blog. Thank you.

    Dear Greta,

    Those comments were not “directed at other commenters.” Their sole intended audience was you, to illustrate perfectly the political, content-based nature of your censorship policy. You use it selectively to attack people with whom you disagree, regardless of how reasoned their posts are. Those with whom you agree get free reign.

    Please carefully read the comment of the person who I called a “bore.” Did it add anything to the “conversation” except a bit of unexplained, insulting snark? If so, please why that bore (yes, he or she was a bore) was not reprimanded and threatened by you.

    Now please read comment 43, consisting of the word “um” linking to a picture presumably illustrating the cliche of the pot and the kettle. Does that in any way advance the conversation? Is it in any way original? Do you have the slightest idea of what the commenter’s precise point was? If not, please explain why the commenter was not reprimanded and threatened by you.

    I could also go back to that comment policy thread, and pick out half a dozen epithets directed toward me which you did not find worthy of a reprimand or threat. Because they are apparently acceptable, do I have your permission to direct them against others in future posts? Do I have your permission to use the exact same epithets that will be directed toward me as a result of this comment I am making now?

    Yes, these questions are rhetorical because I’m sure we’re both aware of the thoroughly dishonest game you’re playing. So let’s just get back to the conversation. Why is it that you believe that denominating mental illness as “physical” will be useful in distinguishing between the people who shouldn’t be stigmatized, and the people who should be, because they are not mentally ill, but just jerks? In either case, the mental activity involved can be attributed to the physical brain.

  53. Greta Christina says

    MisterJohnGalt: You are mistaken. The personally insulting language you used was in response to this comment by Setár, self-appointed Elf-lord of social justice.

    And I am not going to be drawn into an off-topic debate with you about my comment policy in this thread. (Or on any other topic, for that matter.) This blog is my space, and I have the right to moderate it any way I wish. You can respect my comment policy, or you can choose not to comment in my blog. Thank you.

  54. Dhorvath, OM says

    So we have brains, bones, stomachs, muscles, lungs, etc. Each of these things could exhibit problems, the trouble is that we have a specific word to group all of the body’s functions with the exception of the experiential brain functions, but that term is appropriate to describe the entire system. It’s not abandoning mental, but adopting a different term for what we now call physical.
    Should we just abandon that altogether? Is it necessary to make that distinction? Should a general checkup not include some mention of all aspects of health, would it not be appropriate to still call that a physical and the practioner a physician? I know my GP doesn’t stop at blood pressure and heart rate, she asks about moods and higher funtctions as well.
    ___

    I have a friend named Brian and seldom type his name correctly first try./aside

  55. says

    Ok, so I have NO GOOD IDEAS to remedy this situation, but I just wanted to say, on a related-but-kind-of-OT note that I think that this idea is really crucial; I was just in a conversation with a theist over at the Friendly Atheist where the commenter made the distinction between the “fatalistic” viewpoint regarding love.

    It was a messy and bang-up job on his/her part, but he was attempting to separate (and had, in his mind) the physical world and…well…other things? Saying that love is NOT something physical or demonstrable enabled him to make claims that I was experiencing the world in one way (in the physical realm) and that God/love/hope/peace lived in another (which is what we need to tap into to experience meaning and happiness).

    I had an awful time explaining what “love” is without seeming reductionist, and I think this blog post is spot-on in that regard.

    And as for commenter #2 – YES, eating disorders are often viewed negatively. My sister has struggled with anorexia and bulimia over the course of the past 3 years, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some iteration of “why doesn’t she just put food in her mouth and be done with it?” (which is ironic considering that she DOES put food in her mouth and her stomach…it just doesn’t stay there). The fact that it’s a mental disorder is really hard to explain and understand – there’s definitely a stigma.

  56. Parse says

    If we’re allowed to change the language by fiat, I would change the majority of uses of ‘physical health’ to just ‘health’, and restrict ‘physical health’ to broad-scale state-of-the-body type stuff – things like atrophy or obesity. Then ‘mental health’ would fall into the same sort of category as ‘cardiovascular’, ‘intestinal’, or ‘ocular health’ (healths?).

    In the real world, though, I do have firsthand experience with this. What got me to accept the fact that I needed medication for depression – to get over my own ‘mental health’ stigma – was in calling it a ‘brain-chemistry imbalance’. Granted, that term only helps with cases which can directly be identified with (or fixed by) brain chemistry.

  57. MisterJohnGalt says

    Greta,

    I was not mistaken. I think this must all be a misunderstanding due to a defect in your comment software. Part of my comment was evidently deleted automatically before you saw it — the part where I said “Please carefully read the comment of the person who I called a ‘bore.’ I was clearly referring to Setar’s nasty, content-free barb, which implied, baselessly and without explanation, that I was engaged in some sort of attack on the mentally ill that categorized them all as manipulative criminals. However, as I said, my intended audience was you — I was wondering if you’d call out Setar or me based on your political leanings. Also deleted, apparently, was my reference to the equally unhelpful comment 43 (“umm”).

    I will continue to respect your comment policy. Sorry for the misunderstanding. So let’s get back on topic. In the last part of my comment which your software also seemingly deleted, I said:

    Why is it that you believe that denominating mental illness as “physical” will be useful in distinguishing between the people who shouldn’t be stigmatized, and the people who should be, because they are not mentally ill, but just jerks? In either case, the mental activity involved can be attributed to the physical brain.

    Thoughts?

  58. Bob Makin says

    I think you’re overthinking this and, perhaps, being too rigid in your definitions. I see nothing wrong with using “mental” to delineate cognitive processes as opposed to “physical” to describe all non-cognitive processes.
    It would be nice if we had a word to separate the intricate bio-chemical processes of the brain from those of the muscles, but, on consideration, is the grand ballet of chemical reactions in any other part of the body really that much less awesome than that which occurs in the mind?
    Personally, I find the pancreas to be an astounding organ, as is the liver. I admit that the wonderful, transcendent thoughts which occur in the brain to be awesome, but I also like cooking breakfast and wonder at the hardware and software that work cooperatively to enable me to perform such a feat.

  59. says

    Could we simply say “How is your mental health?” “How is the rest of your physical health?”

    “Your mental health is concerning, whilst the rest of your body seems quite fit!”

    Neuro-health vs. Bodily Health is an interesting distinction.
    As with Mental vs. Physical Health, it holds an implication that Neuro-health is NOT Bodily Health. But at the same time, is that not what we are trying to do when we say such things? To distinguish between the body and the brain? Neurology also includes the rest of the nervous system as others have mentioned. It unfortunately still holds fundamentally to Cartesian dualistic ideas, which is why I like the “rest of” clause. But it is better than Physical vs. Mental — it seems plausible that we are trying to say the brain is different from the body more than we are trying to say the mental is different from the physical. Of course all of this is inter-related, the body, the brain, the brain being in the body, etc. but the distinctions we make ought search for accuracy.

  60. Aliasalpha says

    Ahh bugger, looks like my comment vanished when my net connection died last night.

    The hardware/software was never going to be a perfect analogy, discussions of design and programming were inevitable now that I think of it but the humans can nearly be programmed by repetition of bullshit and social pressure (look at religion after all).

    Perhaps you could make more of a case for the individual and might-as-well-be-unique image you get when people have been using their computer for a few months, I’ve never seen 2 systems exactly alike. Well okay there’s SOEs but then you get into discussions about cloning… Also it becomes more complicated to explain than the original idea so its even worse as an analogy

    How about splitting the health into 3 categories: Stiff Health for bones and possibly cartilage (as well as immature sniggering at the name), Squishy Health for the muscles, organs and other squishy parts and Thinky Health for the emergent property of experience shaped individual thought.

    And I keep typing “brian” instead of “brain.” What’s that about?

    Have you hit your head recently?Maybe you’ve suffered some brian damage

  61. azkyroth says

    Well, no analogy is ever perfect. If two things were exactly alike, they’d be the same thing, not an analogy.

  62. says

    This may seem a little simplistic, but wouldn’t it be enough just to use the word “health” for all the functions of the living human, and specify only when necessary? To me the very use of the word “body” is positing the distinction that then calls for another. Basically we’re resorting to categorization – as human nature will have us do – and “parts of the body that aren’t the brain and mind” would be a new category you’d like to introduce? However you look at it, it’s still an either/or proposition (dualism?), with the polarities inversed.

    Secondly, when necessary then, I vote for the use of the words cognitive, emotional and behavioral etc… as James Ewert suggested above. This would address the different facets in a similar manner to the terms used when discussing different categories of “bodily” functions.

    Funnily enough, just yesterday I was also wondering about the problem of how to discuss the impalpable on my own blog…

  63. John Welte says

    I like bint’s comment. It is hard to change these old language habits and harder to change the attitudes of people towards illnesses of many kinds. What we need is more empathy.

    On a side note, one of my pet peeves is sayings such as “from the heart” or heartfelt. I remind people that my heart is a muscle pump. My attitudes and decisions come from my brain.

  64. yb42 says

    Eliminating the “physical” from physical health is a good thought. That’s really the issue, isn’t it? Physical is only in that phrase to draw a distinction that isn’t there. Since all health is physical, adding the word is redundant, and only serves to draw distinctions that aren’t valid.

  65. MisterJohnGalt says

    One other problem is with trying to destigmatize language is that the new terminology quickly becomes restigmatized once people understand what had been renamed.

    For example, those suffering from physical illnesses were once called “cripples.” That evolved into terms such as “infirm”, “handicapped”, “disabled”, “physically challenged” and “differently abled” (with some of the terminology adopted for the mentally ill as well). It did little to change public perception. Even the most positive-sounding of these terms, “special,” became subject to derision. Who can forget President Obama on the Jay Leno show in 2009, laughingly denigrating his low bowling score by suggesting he should have tried out for the “Special Olympics?”

  66. LadyBlack says

    Sorry Greta, my comment has turned up before others that were posted when I last looked?! Very strange! Never mind, thanks for the clarification.

  67. Greta Christina says

    Sorry Greta, my comment has turned up before others that were posted when I last looked?! Very strange!

    That shouldn’t happen again. It happened because your first-time comment got put in the moderation queue… and then, when it got posted, it got posted in the order you wrote it in, not the order I approved it. It’s a bug of holding first-time comments for moderation. Now that your comments will automatically go up as soon as you post them, they should appear in order. Say it with me: We love technology, we love technology…

  68. says

    Yeah, noticing that bug now myself. Comments should definitely appear at approval time, not based on when they were first posted to the server. As this doesn’t happen, it’s necessary to re-read most of the thread in order to catch all the backlogged posts. Furthermore, referring to a post by its numerical index is essentially useless.

  69. hertfordshirechris says

    If someone asks me about my health I would never say I was physically or mentally ill – I would simply tell them what the problem was, if it was important enough to mention. Some days I might say may asthma was troubling me, or my back was playing up, or I hadn’t been sleeping well, or I am feeling rather stressed or depressed. (I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder but can usually control matters well and can head off any threatening panic attack.) In fact I might even comment that I was coughing because my stress levels were higher than I would like – as there is no doubt that my mental state can affect my asthma. I feel that the problem about the distinction between physical and mental health only arises if you are worried about taking openly about your “complaint”.

    P.S. if you want another social barrier to openly talking about some aspect of health, perhaps one should look at how honest people are if there illness is a venereal disease! Is obesity or anorexia physical or mental – and does it matter in conversation,

  70. Huw says

    My immediate thought is, mental health is not physical health. Mental health relates to the study of behaviour and mental process’, physical health to physiology and how our systems function.
    The two are not exclusive, our mental health can be affected by physiological problems. It is possible to have poor mental health with no physiological problems.
    I hope this isn’t too convoluted I’m a little tired.
    Anyhoo, my point is that many health professionals use these terms and understand what they mean, if we are unsure of the terms or distinctions rather than look to re-purpose language or create new language we might just need to educate ourselves on what is already there.

  71. says

    valhar2000:

    People with anorexia get judged negatively? I find that surprising. In my neck of the woods they get a different treatment, of a kind that other people with mental illness (such as Mark Chu-Carroll) consider just as bad: they are treated as invalids. By this I mean that they are treated as though they are completely incapable of doing anything for themselves and have to be taken care of at all times.

    That in itself seems a negative judgement.

    bint alshamsa:

    First, you have to change the attitudes and then you will be more likely to see widespread changes in the language used to describe these kinds of disabilities.

    I had a recent debate with Ochiudo about the use of language in regard to “humanism” vs “secular humanism,” and how he thinks we should drop the “secular.” One of the excellent points he made was that one tactic the LGBT movement made early on was to stop using “homosexual” (in general) because of its negative connotations at the time, and switch to a word with more positive connotations (“gay”). Obviously, it wasn’t the only thing done, and eventually, as MisterJohnGalt might point out, “gay” acquired the same negative connotations in certain people’s minds that “homosexual” had. But, it helped at least in the short term to alter perceptions and attitudes. Just as the non-brain parts of our bodies can influence our brains, causing changes in behavior, so too can our language and how it’s used influence our attitudes (and vice versa). My point, if it’s not clear, is that changing the language we use can have an effect on attitude. It might not do as much as we want, but even a little progress is better than none (sometimes there’s good reason to keep the language we have, and reclaim it for the use we desire, but I think Greta has a point on this issue).

    Unfortunately, I don’t have any fresh ideas about this at the moment.
    —-
    OT, it was awesome to meet you at the MN Atheists meeting Greta, even if I was being far more timid than I usually am (I’m not sure what was wrong with me . . . ). Thanks for coming, and great talk!

  72. atheist says

    But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication.

    There are no opposites; there are only relationships.

  73. Ramel says

    @Nathan
    I’d always thought the main reason the word gay gets a better response than homosexual is that it doesn’t have the ‘sex’ bit in the middle to draw out the “OMG icky butt sex!” response. The changes to language in regards to disabilities tend to follow a similar pattern in trying to avoid the negative connotations.

  74. hf says

    I see a lot of suggestions for new words for “thoughts/ feelings/ intentions/ other brain products.” Not as many for “the rest of the body.”

    Schiavo health.

    Failing that, I like “hardware”. It doesn’t seem that dualistic to this layman. (I installed Linux on an old computer and ran into what seems like a hardware problem that the OS reports as a problem with the software “init”.)

  75. says

    Ramel @79:

    I’d always thought the main reason the word gay gets a better response than homosexual is that it doesn’t have the ‘sex’ bit in the middle to draw out the “OMG icky butt sex!” response.

    Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. It does seem plausible.

  76. says

    When I’m working with massage clients, my first question tends to be: “How are you feeling?” followed by “And how’s your body?”

    My client will be barely able to stand and walk without groaning, and they’ll answer the first question, “Fine, good.” They’ll appear surprised at the second question, and that’s when I get useful information: “I’ve had pain in my low back for a week…”

    This appears to be partially social. We’re so often asked how things are going, that we automatically respond with, “Good, and you?” But the surprise at the second question suggests to me that people draw a distinction between “me” and “my body.”

    My guess is that rubbing out this distinction might not be possible with semantics. Maybe there’s another culture with a different language where native speakers wouldn’t be able to understand a mind/body distinction. I’d be willing to bet there is, somewhere. But the existence of such people wouldn’t change my guess for modern English speakers: we’re already caught up in this basic assumption.

    Another note: In “The Moral Landscape,” Sam Harris wrote about how people appear to have two selves: the in-the-moment self taking in sensory data, and the long-term self accessing memory and such. A given person can experience intense pain in the moment, and later have long-term memories that don’t accord with the level of pain actually experienced. Harris asks something like, “Which of these two selves is the more important one?”

    If this is true, and if it’s true that we make decisions on impulse then followup with articulated rationalizations, we’ve got even more selves to contend with. How disconcerting is the idea that “I” am a mere figurehead? A puppet-on-a-throne directed by a host of shadowy selves I can, thanks to scientific research, just barely glimpse?

    Does finding better language for mind/brain, brain/body health entail finding more precise language for coping with the society-of-mind stuff?

    – emc

  77. says

    Sorry, I was going to write this a couple of days ago…

    We talk about the differences and relationships between our brains and the rest of our bodies a lot. And I do think this is a useful distinction to make. Yes, I think our brains are part of our bodies… but the brain/ mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ etc. parts of our body have some important differences from the muscles/ guts/ bones/ lungs/ circulation/ etc. parts. And it’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between them, and talk about the ways that they’re different, and the ways they’re similar, and the ways they overlap and interact.

    I don’t really see the need to differentiate. While the brain is obviously a particularly important and very different part of the body, it is still just another part of the body. Both from the perspective of a mental health advocate and as an atheist, I don’t see anything to be gained by using anything but the same language we use for health in general. We refer to every other part of teh body that might be affected by illness or illnesses themselves as discrete conditions, why talk about the brain any differently?

  78. Craig says

    I’m on the last semester of my computer science degree.

    I feel that hardware/software dualism makes exactly as much sense as mind/body dualism. Yes, it can be made, but is an inexact simplification.

    The behavior of both minds and programs are limited by their respective physical properties. Both minds and programs actually exist physically as clumps and waves of electrons interacting with dielectric substrates, and one could, in theory, physically see a mind in the same way we could see a wave. Once, transistors were large enough, you actually could have seen the computer’s ‘mind’. (http://www.inquisition.ca/en/info/artic/ordineau.htm)

    Once you get down to brass tacks, the distinction starts falling apart:
    * Hardware and software cannot be defined except in terms of one another. Their shared interface dictates all aspects of both.
    * Hardware description languages: Do you think someone drew out the billions of transistors in your computer by hand? Computers do almost all of the reasoning about gates and transistor layout and circuit board routing. The humans are only involved on a very abstract and empirical level. Is it hardware writing hardware or software writing software?
    * Microcodes: What you think of a CPU instructions are actually implemented as software.
    * Artificial neural networks: These puppies can’t be used for insurance adjusting because no human knows how it is making its decisions. If it was being racist nobody would know. They are software masquerading as (human) hardware.
    * Hardware can change itself on the fly in order to manifest different software (PLD, EEPROM, etc) .
    * As a robot explores it’s environment, it discovers it’s own functions to model it’s environment, a very large part of which is the hardware.
    * Self-modifying code: Software can change itself on the fly.
    * Cloud computing: On this scale, individual processor cores may join or leave a computational task. The software is in effect altering its physical manifestation.
    * Visualization: Boring, but there is a lot of work on software as hardware.

  79. Tyle Stelzig says

    Mind/body dualism is quite prevalent among users of the word “mental”, and while of course this doesn’t mean that the word “mental” *has* to presuppose dualism, using it certainly doesn’t help dispel the notion either.

    “Cognitive” might be the alternate language Greta is looking for – it is basically a synonym for “mental”, but it’s used primarily by those who acknowledge the existence of brains and hence is almost entirely lacking any dualistic connotations. For example, when one talks about “cognitive processes”, it is clear that one is talking about actual things happening in an actual brain, rather than something spooky involving the pineal gland.

    Hope that helps!

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