There are No Mental Illnesses

I have been writing this blog for the past three years.  The primary concepts are scattered throughout the blog, and I thought it might be helpful to draw together the essential underlying concepts in one post.  Some of this repeats material covered under the individual “diagnoses,” and for this I apologize to my regular readers, but the notion that there are no mental illnesses (which I repeat regularly) is unorthodox and warrants clarification.

Until relatively recent times, man’s understanding of biology was minimal to zero.  Even as science began to unravel the secrets of nature in the inanimate sphere, the biological arena remained largely a closed book

Now, as we know, the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine.  It craves explanations in the same way that an empty stomach craves food.  So when a person is confronted with a situation or phenomenon that he doesn’t understand, there is a strong temptation to invent an explanation, and then – unfortunately – to cling to that theory even as better explanations become available.

So, with regard to biology, to the ancients just about everything concerning life was a mystery.  But they were particularly baffled by cognitive phenomena.  How can a person carry inside himself a picture of another person?  How can a person sleeping in his bed somehow “visit” other places in his dreams and “see” people who are far away or even dead?  And so on.

The state of science at this time was rudimentary in the extreme, and even the best thinkers had not the slightest inkling as to how these kinds of activities are possible.  So in the best human tradition, they invented explanations.  Man can see, hear, etc., because he has the faculty of sensation.  Man can think because he has a mind. Man can make decisions because he has a will.  And so on.

Now as an explanatory system, this kind of faculty psychology is useless.  Imagine the following conversation between one of the ancient Greek teachers and a student.

Student:  Why can man think?
Teacher:  Because he has a mind.
Student:  How do you know he has a mind?
Teacher:  Because he can think!

The concept of mind is a spurious artifact created to allay man’s anxiety with regards to his ignorance, but providing nothing in the way of genuine explanation.  There are no minds!  What we think of as our minds are actually activities, such as thinking, deciding, hoping, perceiving, analyzing, etc..  When we introspect, what we encounter is the content of these activities.  If, for instance, I’m thinking about a triangle – I “see” a triangle.  If I’m thinking about the house I grew up in, what I “see” is a “picture” or “pictures” of that house.  One of the mental abilities that we’ve got is the ability to generate “pictures” in our heads, and most of our thinking involves examining and manipulating these pictures,  usually with the help of silent speech.

But even though there are no minds, the concept persists.  Some of this is due to language.  Expressions like “changing one’s mind,” “speaking one’s mind,” etc., are deeply ingrained, and create the impression in growing children that the mind is an entity within us, ontologically equivalent to the heart or liver.

There are numerous examples in history of spurious explanatory concepts that have been supplanted by valid science.  Many of these ideas persisted even after better explanations had been developed.  Perhaps the most celebrated example is phlogiston.  From earliest times man has wondered about the nature of fire, and various speculative notions were developed.  The ancient Greeks regarded fire as one of the basic “elements.”  In the 1600’s, however, a concerted effort was made by a number of scientists to develop a coherent, scientifically validated theory of combustion, the result of which was the phlogiston theory.  The hypothesis here was that combustible material contained a substance called phlogiston.  When the object was heated, the phlogiston began to be released.  This created more heat which in turn released more phlogiston, and so on, until all the phlogiston in the object was consumed.   Objects that contained no phlogiston were non-flammable.

The theory had some superficial plausibility, but there were numerous problems.  Initially scientists tried to prop up the phlogiston theory in ways reminiscent of Ptolemy’s epicycles.  But eventually the modern theory of combustion (by oxidation) was developed, and the phlogiston theory was discarded.  Many older scientists, however, (including the eminent Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen!) clung stubbornly to the older theory.

Witchcraft is another example of a spurious explanatory concept.  The presenting issue here was the fact that bad things happen.  People get sick; babies die; crops fail, etc..  Today most of these occurrences can be explained satisfactorily as the result of invasion by germs, fungi, etc.., but in former times these concepts were unknown. The “hungry” brains, however, obligingly invented an explanation:  Witchcraft!  The idea was that certain individuals in the area (usually unpopular women) had established a pact with the devil and were able to effect the various mischiefs in question by channeling the latter gentleman’s power more or less at will.  The notion is nonsense, of course.  There are no witches, and there are no devils – but the concept was used for hundreds of years as an excuse for murdering women.  Incredible as it seems, remnants of witchcraft thinking can be found even today!

In the same way, the spurious concept of mind persists to this day, enshrined in speech and routinely adduced to explain people’s behavior.  One can readily recognize conversations like the following:

Q.  Why did he do it?
A:  His mind just snapped.
Q:  Why didn’t he get married?
A:  He just changed his mind.

The spurious nature of these answers can be readily unmasked by applying the circularity acid test – how do you know his mind snapped? And how do you know he just changed his mind?

The concept of mind adds nothing to our understanding of human existence.  There are no minds.  Mind is an outdated concept invented by primitive pre-scientific people in an attempt to explain cognitive phenomena.

In medieval times, little distinction was drawn between people who today would be called retarded and those who today would be called crazy or psychotic.  Also, little distinction was made between those who are born with intellectual deficits and those who acquire cognitive/behavioral problems as a result of post-developmental brain injury.  All of these individuals were considered to be “out of their minds” or demented.

In primitive agrarian societies these individuals, if they survived infancy, were cared for by family and neighbors, but as the Industrial Revolution lured increasing numbers of people into the growing towns and cities, this simple kind of family/village care became more problematic.  The practice of housing these individuals in jails and institutions became common, and the conditions were often truly appalling.

The various reform movements of the 1800’s resulted in the construction of large asylums.  The idea was to provide care for these people in clean, well-designed buildings under medical supervision, in the hope that this would help the inmates develop their potential, or at the very least provide a more humane environment in which they could live.

As the decades passed, however, it became clear that the dreams of the reformers were not being realized, and in particular the notion that medical supervision would significantly “humanize” treatment became increasingly tenuous.

In the 50’s and 60’s there arose a great push to discharge people from the asylums and help them integrate into mainstream society.

Meanwhile concepts were being developed, the most notable of which was the idea of “mental illness.”  It was recognized that broadly speaking there were two distinct groups of inmates:  those whose intelligence was clearly restricted (whom today are called retarded) and the rest.  Because the asylums had been placed under medical supervision, the latter group came to be thought of as “mentally ill.”  Of course there are no minds and there are no sicknesses of the mind, but the term caught on and in practice it meant:  a person who is in a mental asylum and who isn’t retarded.

Just as the witchcraft business spawned “research” into the causes, varieties, and indicators of this phenomenon, so the “mental illness” enterprise attracted its share of students.  At first the findings were rudimentary and global.  It was noticed, for instance, that there were three kinds of “mental illness:” depression, mania, and craziness, but as the twentieth century advanced, these categorizations became increasingly complex and detailed.

And today we have DSM-IV, with the promise of DSM 5 just around the corner.  The proliferation of these so-called illnesses and the avid promotion of these “diagnoses” by pharmaceutical companies and by the psychiatric profession have led us to the point where it is widely claimed that 46% of the population has or has had a mental illness, and mood-altering drugs are being routinely prescribed to more and more people for an ever-increasing range of ordinary human problems.

The fact is that there are no mental illnesses.  The notion is as senseless as the concept of witchcraft, and yet through the miracles of modern marketing, it has become the foundation of a multi-billion dollar world-wide business.  Now when I say there are no mental illnesses, I’m not saying that people don’t have behavioral/emotional problems.  It’s obvious that many people do, and that these are sometimes very serious.  But they are best conceptualized – not as some kind of poorly-defined illness – but simply as dysfunctional, counter-productive habits.

Genuine understanding of human behavior requires so much more than assigning a spurious label.  I have developed this concept at length in the posts on the individual “diagnoses.”

The use of the DSM “diagnoses” is not only logically spurious, it is also destructive, in that the application of the label provides subtle encouragement for people to act in accordance with the “requirements” of the label.  (“What more can you expect of me; I have schizophrenia.”).  The labels also discourage attempts to find genuine explanations for dysfunctional behavior.

  • Francisco

    Yeah, obviously there are behavioral problems out there, and I get what you mean Mr. Hickey. I think that if people just went to a psychologist just to solve the problem or try it out by themselves things would be better. By going to the psychologist I mean going for help but without getting a label.
    I want to ask something to you, Do you think Aspergers is any different from Genius? I dont really see the difference. thanks

  • Phil_Hickey

    Francisco,

    It’s nice to hear from you again.  Thanks for coming in.

    A person who met the DSM criteria for Asperger’s disorder could also be a genius (in the sense of being extremely intelligent), but no necessarily so.  Additionally, I believe that the people who meet the criteria for this “diagnosis” are nowhere near as homogeneous a group as the APA seem to imply.  The fundamental features of this condition are: social disconnectedness from other people; single-mindedness with regards to interests and occupations; and repetitive stereotyped movements.  The reality is that these attributes are not present in society in an all or nothing way (as the APA’s “diagnostic” system would suggest), but rather are spread throughout the population in varying degrees.  Some people are very socially disconnected, others hardly at all.  Most of us are scattered somewhere in between.  Similarly for single-mindedness and repetitive actions.

    So it’s misleading, in my view to talk about “people with Asperger’s” as if they were a uniform group with a single condition.  (This criticism of course applies to virtually every “diagnosis” in the DSM.)

    Once again, thanks for coming back, and best wishes.

  • Pete

    Great blog, I’ve read a lot of interesting points of view, I was diagnosed with aspergers ( or autistic spectrum disorder) about a year ago. I was wondering though Phil, I see how you can come to believe all mental illnesses may just be normal ( or not so normal) human behaviours because there is no actual ‘proof’ there is anything wrong with that person. But then where do you stand on things like dyslexia? For hundreds of years people just thought they were ‘stupid’ because there was no proof otherwise, yet surely people with dyslexia must have a slightly different brain structure or something because it’s more than obvious they see some letters backwards or they wouldn’t draw the letters from memory like that. I mean to say surely by now dyslexia has been proven? So with that in mind how can you write with such conviction that mental illness is not an illness at all? You say yourself that little is still known about the human brain and biology, how do you know we will not find that alot of these problems aren’t caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ or whatever? Perhaps some people may need ‘tranquilizers’ or ‘medication’ to fix how they’re feeling enough to then see reason through other means?

  • Phil_Hickey

    Pete,

    Thanks for coming in. I think dyslexia probably is a function of neurological anomaly. In my view there is no such thing as a mental illness. It’s a spurious archaic concept similar to witch, leprechaun, etc.. I’ve developed this theme in detail in this post and elsewhere. Most of the conditions identified in DSM are learned behaviors. Others (a few) are probably largely determined by neuro-anomalies.

    With regards to future research – of course you are right. I don’t know what the future holds. Of course all behavior is ultimately caused by brain activity. But this does not mean that it should be considered an illness. The pharmaceutical companies have invested very large sums of money over the past two or three decades trying to prove that depression, for instance, is a brain illness. So far this effort has been unsuccessful (despite their routine claims to the contrary).

    For me the behavioral explanations of these conditions are more parsimonious and more compelling.

    Once again, thanks for coming. Best wishes.

  • herk

    Well… You are so cruel for people in ancient times, but I think, when in society the idea of shaman existed, people didn’t have illness of mind. When my brother was thirty years old, he started to see objects, which was far away, like hawk. His “mind” wanted to understand it, so he started to think he became a cybrog. Doctor said: you are ill”. When I saw strange things, I said to myself: “Well, I see strange things” that’s all. And I’m healthy…

  • Kinderling

    Hi Phil,

    And so, you have finally deduced life is down to the deed, and not to be labelled and confused with the person who is indulged with their mindedness.

  • Phil_Hickey

    Herk,

    Thanks for coming in. You’re right, there’s always a different way to look at things.

    Best wishes.

  • all too easy

    The human machine seeks love and a sense of well-being. The human machine seeks authentic, genuine experiences that establish and reinforce its sense of self-worth. The human machine begins such pursuits before he can speak or think rational thoughts.

    Humans are made of flesh and blood, real, living tissue. Any part of a human can malfunction. Any cell can fail to perform for a multitude of reasons; only in the very recent past that we have begun to understand the enormous complexities of the human brain, which is as prone to failure as any other body part.

    Some believe that any time a brain malfunctions, those malfunctions are excuses, never organic issues. They are simply wrong.

  • all too easy

    “Just as the witchcraft business spawned “research” into the causes, varieties, and indicators of this phenomenon, so the “mental illness” enterprise attracted its share of students.”

    (Witchcraft isn’t a business. Some try to profit from it, but by itself witchcraft is not a business in any traditional sense.)

    Some are persuaded we never traveled to the moon. Some believe the world is flat. An enterprise pushes the notion that the trilateral commission controls the world. Some believe aliens populate our planet-some even insist they’ve been kidnapped on their spacecraft returned to earth only after extensive medical testing was completed.

    Most of the students attracted to the mental health enterprise have been and are by-and-large the brightest and the best educated young adults in the world. The vast majority, the vast, vast majority of them have studied diligently and have worked extremely hard to earn the privilege of becoming degreed medical doctors. The overwhelming majority of them believe mental illness is the result of organic brain dysfunction which frequently responds favorably to modern medical treatments. Most of them are good, ethical and highly trained professionals who do their utmost to relieve the suffering of the patients entrusted into their care.

    A money making enterprise has surfaced recently which denies the best science and ignores common sense. This enterprise seeks to exploit the very ones who are most vulnerable. The real tragedy is that these people are persuaded not to trust the solid core of accomplished health care professionals who are best suited to apply the widest array of medical tools to assist them towards health.

  • all too easy

    You have no proof that devils don’t exist.

  • all too easy

    “Now, as we know, the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine. It craves explanations in the same way that an empty stomach craves food. So when a person is confronted with a situation or phenomenon that he doesn’t understand, there is a strong temptation to invent an explanation…” Dr. Hickey

    That’s a leap. When a person is confronted with a situation or phenomenon he doesn’t understand, he craves a real, an accurate, a provable explanation-a.k.a. the foundation for science. Some settle for less. Depending on the person’s hunger and need for nourishment, he discovers vaccines, the cure for polio, small pox, cancer, mental disorders, the laws of space flight and rocketry, the printing press, computers, AI, telephones, etc. Through oversimplification and what may best be described as brainwashing, someone who should know better is bound by chains of outlandish, preposterous, and, quite simply, silly ideas.

  • all too easy

    The Mayo Clinic post supporting the chemical imbalance position didn’t survive. Suffice to say, they wholeheartedly embrace this view as do most major universities and medical schools throughout the world.

  • all too easy

    What happens when the brain malfunctions? How can we tell when it isn’t healthy and running properly? Could the brain “misfire” significantly without manifesting corresponding failures obvious to a trained observer of human behavior?

    Antis, of course.

    Rational people, of course not.

    You decide.

  • all too easy

    “Now, as we know, the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine. It craves explanations in the same way that an empty stomach craves food. So when a person is confronted with a situation or phenomenon that he doesn’t understand, there is a strong temptation to invent an explanation, and then – unfortunately – to cling to that theory even as better explanations become available.” phil

    so, you admit you have been creating arguments to try to explain that which you cannot grasp.

  • all too easy

    Since there are no minds, the humanoid that typed in the data above was not forming his own thoughts. They, his thoughts, felleth from heaven upon a flesh and blood blob ensconced in skin, and something, not a mind, mind you, decided to copy those ideas for the benefit of other mindless boobs through typing on a keypad, even though no mind ever conceived of a keyboard. It too felleth into our laps from heaven. Hey Phil, I think I’m catching on. Well, not me, really. A brain inside of a skull inside of a humanoid, a very handsome one I might add. So, no one is. Everyone is nothing except for a receiver that traps information floating by in space-time, and through bio-chemical/electrical hokus pokus, some brain tissue automatically rebroadcasts said data through various pathways! Is that the gist of it, Phil? By Jove, I think I’ve got it.

    See, minds are not. Nothing really is, except what enters into neural circuitry and is barfed back, so to speak, by the spontaneous, unpremeditated compulsion to regurgitate? Now I’m confused again. I get the part where you admit you have no mind, but I’m pretty sure most of the rest of us do.

  • doppelganger

    Keep barfing into the wind. it’s only going to keep hitting you square in the face. Dumb ape.

  • doppelganger

    Boring. Get a life.

  • Rob Bishop

    What is the difference between mind and brain? Estimates are we have over 40,000 thoughts a day, and 70% are negative and 90% we thought of the day before. Is that due to mind or brain?