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Philosophy And Mental Illness

Jun 29, 2008
"I think therefore I am" - Renee Descartes (1640)

It is a beautiful summers day and you are walking in the countryside. In a clearing to your right you see a cherry tree, the red fruit peeping from under the lush green foliage. You walk up to it. You touch it, feeling the rough bark under your fingertips. You can hear the breeze rustling the leaves, and smell the odour of the fruit. You take a cherry and pop it in your mouth, savouring the sweet juice as it floods over your tongue.

But does the cherry tree exist? You can see it, hear it, feel it, smell and taste it's fruit - but this is not enough. You may be hallucinating, or asleep and having a particularly vivid dream. How would you know?

You wouldn't. All our experience of the world and "reality" is governed by our five senses (I leave aside any discussion of a "sixth sense"). These senses are our only connection with the world outside our selves. A blind person has no visual contact with the outside world; somebody with a severe cold has little taste or olfactory contact with the outside world. And these senses are basically biochemical machines designed to send information to our brain. For example, the eyes collect and focus reflected light onto the retina (at the back of the eye). Receptors in the retina convert this light into electrical impulses (this electricity is produced by chemicals in the receptors). These electrical impulses are then fired along a network of nerve cells to the brain. The brain, another very complex mass of interconnected nerve cells, analyses these impulses - their strength, their rate, their pattern and frequency - and generates an internal picture based upon them. It is this brain-generated picture that we "see". It is a similar case with the sensation of touch. Receptors in our skin are stimulated by physical contact and produce electrical impulses that are sent to the brain - what we "feel" is the result of the brain's analysis of these impulses. And so on for taste, smell and hearing.

So the tree that we saw, felt, heard, smelled and tasted isn't actually "out there" in the world - it is in our brains. More accurately, it is the brains image or impression of the tree constructed from the impulses it receives from our senses. Whenever our brain received this particular pattern of impulses from the senses, it would construct an image of a tree - colour, shape, smell, taste, touch and sound - whether or not a tree was actually there.

There is little controversy in stating that our brains can be deceived. We can block the path of the electrical impulses as they pass from the sense receptors to the brain - this is the case with local anaesthesia, where a patient can watch as his appendix is removed without pain. Or we can interfere directly with the brains analysis of the sense impulses - a drunken person is aware that he has fallen over, but it doesn't hurt (until the next day!). And we don't need alcohol or drugs for this deception to occur - at some point, most of us have believed, albeit briefly, that we've seen or heard or felt something that has turned out to not be there.

It was this sort of reasoning that led Descartes to question the very existence of a world outside our selves. In light of modern science, Descartes is questioning the existence of a world outside our brains (our bodily sensations such as feeling hungry or having an aching leg are also mediated by our senses). In these terms, our own bodies are considered as part of the outside world. If all we see, hear, touch, feel and taste in the outside world is but a representation in our brains, and this representation is based on information from our senses, and these senses can be deceived, then we can never be sure that the outside world exists. Descartes talked of the possibility of us being hypnotised by a demon who is tricking us into believing we are moving around in a world with trees, houses, other people etc when in fact we're locked in a dungeon somewhere. The film "The Matrix" provides a technological alternative.

So we can't know if the outside world exists - it could all be in our brains. But in that case can we know that anything exists? Thankfully, yes. We can be sure our thoughts exist. How? Because we think them. There seems no way that we can be deceived about our thoughts existing - in the very act of having a thought, that thought exists. The thoughts may be based on deceptive information from the senses, but they are still real, they still exist. It is difficult to conceive of deceiving someone into believing they have thoughts when, in fact, they don't. You need to have thoughts to be deceived.

So we can safely say that our thoughts definitely exist! Descartes moved on from this "rock of certainty" and went on to "prove" the existence of the outside world. Unfortunately, this further "proof" is highly suspect and relies on the notion of a beneficent and all-powerful God - but then Descartes was writing on behalf of the Catholic Church! Most modern philosophers discount this extension of his theory, but they do still accept his earlier reasoning - "I think therefore I am" has stood the test of time. If we are being pedantic, Descartes quote is better rendered as "There are thoughts" - just because I experience thoughts doesn't mean they are mine! But this isn't as memorable as the original.

So what has all this got to do with mental health? Well, if the outside world doesn't exist as such and all we have is thoughts, then (potentially) the world is what we think it to be. I'm not saying we can change things dramatically. It would take a lot of effort to "create" a thought-world where trees can talk and people fly by flapping their arms - for this to be "real" one would have to interact constantly and consistently with trees and people as though they could do these things. Rather, I am talking about how our thoughts and feelings can "colour" our experience of the outside world (I am using the terms "thoughts" and emotional "feelings" interchangeably here). Depressed people (i.e. people with depressed or depressing thoughts!) experience the world differently to others. They see colours less vividly, food can seem tasteless and unpleasant, and harmless everyday situations can appear threatening. They predict bad consequences from actions and events where others see only benefit. A depressed persons world is very different to a happy person's, but to an observer they will seem one and the same.

A person with depressive thoughts who is looking to "get better" has three courses of action open to him.

Firstly, he can accept the "medical model" of mental illness and depression. This model sees the brain (rightly) as a complex neurochemical structure, and postulates that depression and other psychological illnesses are due to defects or malfunctioning in this system. The brain, when examined anatomically, consists of millions of various cells, each of which is in turn composed of smaller structures. When these structures are examined in turn, they are found to consist of chemicals (as does all physical matter). The medical model thus presumes that it is a defect or malfunctioning of these chemicals that adversely affect the brains cells, leading in turn to the malfunctioning of the brain and finally a "malfunctioning" of thinking - depression or whatever.

On this model, the course of action is clear - correct the malfunctioning of the brain. This is done using drugs that enter the brain and interfere with the cells chemical structure and functioning. This all makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, there is a vast gulf between the theory and the practise. Medical science just does not know enough about the brain at present. There are numerous different cell types, numerous different chemicals in and around these cells, and numerous different interactions and connections between each cell and the others. No test has been developed that shows which chemicals/cells/connections are malfunctioning. The best that the scientists can do is make an educated guess as to those chemicals/cells/connections seem likely to be defective, and choose drugs that act on these. The initial guesses (based on drugs that were found in the 1950's - by accident!) are still the main focus of research today. The result is predictable - a large number of different drugs that work seem to work sometimes and not at others and have side effects (because they are also affecting perfectly healthy cells). This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

A second course of action for the depressed person is to change the outside world i.e. their circumstances. This makes perfectly good sense. If you are feeling depressed because you hate your job or your relationship, then change it. If you feel depressed because you're overweight, then diet. Of course, this is rather flippant. If it were that easy to do, people would just do it. And it must be acknowledged that depression often saps the will and motivation to change just these sorts of situations. Further, many situations cannot be changed by our own actions - the loss of a loved one, poverty, ill health, war, famine etc. The outside world can be very resistant to change.

The third course of action takes a leaf out of Descartes book. We are what we think - a depressed person is no more and no less than someone with depressed thoughts. If they stopped having depressed thoughts, then the depression disappears. It is possible for people to be happy, or at least content, even in the direst of circumstances. Most of us have known people face up to unpleasant and distressing events with resilience and even cheerfulness. We say they are "naturally happy" or are "positive people." One can also say that they think "happy thoughts" or think "positive thoughts."

Perhaps they were born like that. Or perhaps they learnt to think like that as they grew up (I believe this is more likely). Either way, though, they enjoy life a lot more than many of us. But this needn't be the case - if we can learn to think a little more like them, learn to think in a more pleasant, positive way. It seems unlikely that depressed people are "born like that", just as it is unlikely that happy people are "born like that." Even the wackiest psychiatrist will hesitate to diagnose a baby as depressed! Young babies can't think as we do - and they can't have depressed thoughts. As they grow, their thinking abilities develop under the influence of their parents, siblings and peers. Patterns of thought are developed, ways of thinking, with each person having their own particular patterns, unique to them. By the time adulthood is reached, these patterns are likely to be "ingrained" in us, to the point where we're not even aware of them - we automatically process situations, events, and interactions with others in terms of these thought patterns. The thoughts we actually think (and are aware of) are the results of this processing. Therefore, if this processing is "set wrong" (e.g. if it constantly produces thoughts that are depressive), then psychological problems are likely to follow.

This is the basic theory on which are based the cognitive therapies for psychological problems. With the prompting and guidance of the therapist, an individual is taught to examine his or her thinking patterns, searching for maladaptive and detrimental ways of thinking. This is not an easy task - the patterns are usually "automatic" (like a habit) and the individual is likely to be unaware of them initially. An important task for the therapist is to elucidate these "faulty" patterns. These can then made explicit to the individual, and the first steps taken towards challenging these ways of thinking. The aim of the cognitive therapies is to minimise or remove entirely the identified faulty patterns, and for the individual to learn more adaptive and helpful ways of thinking in their place. A successful therapy can change a persons life forever - when a person no longer automatically thinks depressive thoughts, they are insulated and protected from becoming depressed in the future. Karen practices Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Edinburgh and NLP Edinburgh.
About the Author
Karen has a degree in Psychology and is also a qualified mental-health occupational therapist, with NHS experience. Karen is registered with the HPC. Karen practices privately and offers Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Edinburgh and NLP, Edinburgh. Visit http://www.karenhastings.co.uk
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