The mind/body problem is not news. It’s not even new. I wrote about it extensively in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst, so I will not rehash my own views here.
The notions of mind over matter, of mind directing and commanding our actions, of mind expressing itself in words or in symptoms … these are endemic to psychoanalysis and to the culture of psychotherapy. Effectively, we owe them to Descartes, but, in modern times we owe them to Freud.
Once we become persuaded that the mind is in control of everything we imagine that if we therapy our minds everything will be well. Thus, Freudian psychoanalysis avoids any and all advice about changing behavior, in favor of isolating the mind and trying to access its unconscious component.
Tanya Luhrmann summarizes the views of one George Makari, views which, as I mentioned, are anything but original. Of course, however often these views have been critiqued, they continue to prevail in many precincts of the therapy culture.
In Luhrmann’s words:
From this, Mr. Makari writes, was developed the psychological mind and psychoanalysis and an expectation that personal thoughts and feelings are the central drivers of human action — not roles, not values, not personal sensation, not God. In the United States, the enormous psychotherapeutic and self-help industry teaches us that we must pay scrupulous attention to inner experience. To succeed and be happy, we are taught, we need to know what we feel.
It is based on a particular model of the mind that we take for granted, but that is in fact as culturally idiosyncratic as the way we dress. I’m not suggesting that the basic science of emotion depicted in the movie is wrong. Emotions do seem to be crucial in organizing human thinking. I’m suggesting that there is something deeply cultural about the way this mind is imagined, and that it has consequences for the way we experience thoughts and feelings.
Of course, the model of the mind is a philosopher’s fiction. It has been seriously critiqued by the most distinguished of British philosophers, from David Hume to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is currently being critiqued by cognitive therapists, whose work does not, for the most part depend on the mind over matter and mind over behavior paradigm.
And yet, once you have learned how to think in a mind-centered way, it is devilishly difficult to think otherwise.
Yesterday, for example a friend posted this passage from Wittgenstein on Facebook:
The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear. The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life's mould. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit into the mould, what is problematic will disappear.
It’s not about changing the way you think or feel. It’s not about exploring your mind to discover the infantile traumas that caused you to behave the way you behave. Wittgenstein is recommending that you change the way you live your life, that you modify your conduct… perhaps by developing and practicing good habits.
It beats retreating into your mind. When you retreat into your mind you are acting as though you are powerless to change the way you live your life.
For a clinical example, take another look at my recent post, Up From Off Of the Couch.
Luhrmann explains that the mind over behavior fiction consigns people to needless anxiety:
Yet what is inherited is the potential for anxiety, not anxiety itself. Life events obviously play a role. Another, less obvious factor may be the way we think about the mind: as an interior place that demands careful, constant attention.
What happens to your life while you are hard at work getting lost in your mind? Effectively, you cannot devote your mental energy to dealing with real people or real dilemmas in the real world. Thus, you will become more anxious. The world will be stranger and stranger and you will have a greater sense of being buffeted by events outside of your control.