Friday, April 01, 2016

What does it mean to say that psychotherapy is a biological treatment?

BJPsych editorial this month argues that the target of psychotherapy, like pharmacotherapy, is diseased neural functioning. It does recognise that the method of delivery of these said neurobiological changes is different, with pharmacotherapy seemingly working through chemical changes and psychotherapy through the patient-therapist relationship. It starts from the assumption that the brain disease model of mental illness is valid and therefore tries to justify psychotherapy as a treatment by viewing it as biological like pharmacotherapy.

I've commented before on such neuromania (see previous post). Raymond Tallis uses this term 'neuromania', which he critiques, in his book Aping mankind. People do seem to be taken in by such nonsense which is neo-phrenological phantasy (see another previous post).

The problem is that the disease model of mental illness is not valid. Mental phenomena are meaningful. Of course this doesn't mean that mental phenomena don't have a biological substrate. But neuroscience can't tell us anything about the meaning of that biological substrate. If there has been any advance in neurobiology over recent years, it is in recognising the dynamic nature of the brain. Brain cytoarchitecture is fashioned by the social environment but this should lead to an integrated understanding of mind and brain, not promotion of the brain disease model of mental illness.

To suggest that psychotherapy might correct neural functioning presumes that we know what the abnormality was in the first place. However, we don't know the neurobiological basis of mental illness because the abnormality is functional rather than structural. Mental function is not well localised in the brain. In the nineteenth century phrenology attempted to map mental functions onto the outside of the head. This may seem ridiculous now but neuroimaging provides no better explanations. We knew about the limbic system, prefrontal cortex and reticular activating system, for example, before neuroimaging. To suggest that psychotherapy is a biological treatment is counterintuitively stupid not clever. The mind-body problem can't be solved by calling it a myth.

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