Cartesian Dualism and Mental Health

Wow. I realized the title of this post sounds quite hoity-toity. I'm falling victim to my own vocabulary!!!!

Basically, the point of this is an exploration of the lovely old dead French dude by the name of Rene Descartes. My most striking memory of his name is when I got beaned with a plastic bust of him by my ninth grade geometry teacher (accidentally). Thus my memories of him started off on a bad note. He revolutionized geometry by the "Cartesian plane"- the X and Y axes. His most famous phrase was "Cogito, ergo sum." I think therefore I am.

That little phrase has created a LOT of controversy and trouble over the years. Why? It set off the mind-body split that has affects so many different things. Such as mental health. Insurance benefits are quite different for mental and physical health, as if the brain and the body were two different things. But you can't have the body without the brain running it, and the brain without the body is pointless as well.

Mental illnesses are brain diseases. The brain is an organ of the body. So is the heart. Why is it that psychiatric illnesses are so different, so apart from everything else about the body? Your brain affects your behavior so intimately, and that's quite powerful. When you suffer from a mental illness, as I do (three of 'em!), your life is just as critically affected as when you have diabetes. Or cancer.

People have traditionally been blamed for mental illness. It was the result of a weak character. A bad mother. An inability to potty train correctly. But what goes on in the brain is also a lot of neurotransmitters and chemicals zipping around. They're going nuts right now as I write and you read. They help to create emotion. A chemical imbalance is the cause of diabetes (lack of insulin). A similar chemical imbalance is the cause of depression (lack of serotonin, at least in part). So why isn't depression a medical condition? It can be a medical condition that affects the brain, but still a medical condition.

Which brings us back to Rene Descartes. He said, essentially, that the mind and body were separate. Yet we now know that this really isn't true. If it were, all those other French dudes who were guillotined during the French Revolution would still be somewhat alive. Their heads were intact. But they died when their heads were chopped off.

Mental illness is a type of physical illness, pure and simple. It affects us differently than other illnesses, but so does every different class of illness.

Take that, Mssr. Decartes.

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1 comment:

marcella said...

Great science, great philosophy and great writing. I'm very glad to have found your site (via Laura Collins') Please give my regards to your mother.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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