The Mind Body Debate in Psychology

“Cogito, ergo sum.” Do you know who said this? You might be able to answer this if I tell you the English translation: “I think, therefore I am.” This phrase was made famous by René Descartes, a French philosopher who lived in the 1600s. Why am I bringing up his work today? Descartes is a major player in the world of the Mind Body Debate.

The mind body debate tries to answer the question: are the mind and body separate or one and the same?

This page will define the main types of dualism and monism, and how these ideas contribute to the Mind Body Debate. I’ll also briefly touch on why this debate is so important today, both in everyday life and when we look at larger ideas.

Let’s get started.

What Is Dualism?

I’m going to start by explaining dualism. Descartes was a dualist. He believed that the mind and body were separate entities. The mind and the body work together, but they remain separate.

Substance Dualism

Descartes’ ideas (or Cartesian dualism) is also known as substance dualism. Substance dualism completely separates the mental from the physical. Descartes also believed that humans were the only creatures with a physical and mental existence that worked together.

Property Dualism

Descartes existed in the 1600s – we’ve come a long way since then. Other forms of dualism have entered this overall debate. The most notable is property dualism. Property dualism somewhat blends the idea of monism and dualism. This theory states that there is just one type of substance: the physical substance. Physical substances, however, have physical and mental properties.

What Is Monism?

Dualism is not the only approach to the Mind Body Debate. Many believe that the mind and the body are not separate. Mental and physical worlds are not separate. They exist together. These ideas are called Monism. 

There are two approaches to monism. One is materialism. Materialism is the idea that all things are a part of the physical world. Our thoughts and cognitive processes are simply functions of the physical brain that exists in our heads. Without a working mind, these mental processes simply wouldn’t exist. This approach is very similar to the ideas of physicalism. 

But what if everything existed only in the mental world? That is the idea behind phenomenalism. Phenomenalism (or Subjective Idealism) states that everything, including the body we claim to inhabit, is a result of mental processes.

How Does This Fit Into Psychology?

If you have read many pages on this website, you know that I enjoy talking a lot about how the mind works. When I say “mind,” I mean the mental processes of thinking. The “brain” refers to the physical brain existing inside our heads.

What do behaviorists and social psychologists have to say about the Mind-Body debate? It’s not something that is up for too much debate. Behaviorists and similar experts are primarily concerned with observations, data, and studies. It’s not possible to get data and observe the mind separate from the body. The solution is either to ignore the mind entirely or lump it together with the body.

Why Is This Debate Important?

You might find yourself wondering why philosophers still think about the Mind Body Debate. Why do we care whether our minds and bodies are the same? There are a few reasons. As we do more research about the mind-body connection, we realize that we can treat our mental and physical health in different ways.

Philosophy is fun!

First of all, it is fun to think about. Let’s say your name is Jake. That is the name assigned to the physical body that you inhabit. But are you Jake?

On the one hand, if it’s true that you are Jake, you can’t not be Jake, right? That is something that dualists can agree on. Here’s where things get tricky. It could be possible for Jake to exist without your body existing. (Think of the movie Freaky Friday, or a situation in which you are placed into another body.)

So…it’s possible for “you” to exist without “Jake” existing. You can not be Jake.

That crumbles the statement that I made earlier: “If it’s true that you are Jake, you can’t not be Jake.” But you can not be Jake. In conclusion…you’re not Jake?

What?

If you want to see how philosophy can turn your head upside down, this is a great place to start.

Are we immortal?

When educators begin to explain deductive reasoning and other basic terms in psychology, they often start with a simple truth: all humans are mortal.

But are we?

Depending on the argument that you choose to believe about the mind and the body, your answer could vary. In the physicalist or materialist world, the answer is easy. You’re mortal. When your body expires, the mind expires with it.

If you believe the body and mind to be separate, or you believe that everything stems from the mind, the answer becomes more tricky…

Healthcare

Not all implications of the Mind Body Debate have to do with big topics. You can take religion and morality out of the picture and still have a reason for the Mind Body debate. One such reason is in the realm of mental health.

The Western world holds a reductive physicalist view. Western healthcare professionals believe that everything can be traced back to functions of our brain. Hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals can explain it all.

“It” includes mental illnesses or conditions, including depression or PTSD. By assessing and adjusting a person’s brain chemistry, the reductive physicalist approach implies it is possible to treat these conditions.

On the one hand, you may know someone who has been able to treat mental conditions using antidepressants or similar medications. On the other hand, you may know people who have treated similar symptoms without medication prescribed by modern scientists. You may know someone that swears by Acupuncture, Reiki, or other types of healing that cannot be explained by modern science.

Books like The Body Keeps the Score also address how trauma can affect the body. Even though our minds hold the memory of certain traumatic events, these memories “show up” in our physical health.

Great debates in philosophy, like the Mind Body debate, aren’t just ideas that can only be discussed and applied in a classroom. Clearly, these debates could explain many things in the world around us.

Other Debates in Psychology

The Mind Body debate is not the only debate that rages on in the worlds of psychology and philosophy. Psychologists and philosophers have also attempted to answer the following questions.

Nature vs. Nurture

What shapes our personality? Is it our genes or the environment around us? What made Jeffrey Dahmer the evil killer that he was? What about Ted Bundy? How do some people decide to choose good over evil? These are questions that the nature vs. nurture debate tries to answer.

Different schools of thought in psychology, including behaviorism or cognitive psychology, fall across the spectrum of answers. Some schools of thought even think that our personality is shaped by a mix of both nature and nurture.

Free Will vs. Determinism

How do we make decisions? Do we have free will, or is everything determined for us by fate? This is another huge debate: free will vs. determinism. Philosophers have gone back and forth on this for centuries. We are still trying to answer this question now!

Books About the Mind-Body Debate

Interested in learning more about dualism and monism? Check out the following books!

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  • The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David J. Chalmers
  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by António R. Damásio
  • Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
  • Contemporary Dualism: A Defense by Andrea Lavazza
  • Consciousness and the Mind of God by Charles Taliaferro
  • How the Self Controls its Brain by Sir John Eccles
  • Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing by Jeffrey Rediger

Quotes About the Mind-Body Debate

  • “The point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.” -Pema Chödrön
  • “Are you your body or your mind? How does one discover oneself? By first discovering one’s surroundings. How does one discover one’s surroundings? Through use of the senses. Without the body the mind ceases to exist. Perhaps then you are not your body, but a mere afterthought.” -Unknown
  • “Division and differentiation are the processes by which things are created. Since things are emerging and dissolving all the time, you cannot specify the point when this division will stop.” -Liezi
  • “If this sounds too mystical, refer again to the body. Every significant vital sign- body temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, hormone level, brain activity, and so on- alters the moment you decide to do anything… decisions are signals telling your body, mind, and environment to move in a certain direction.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Were we to meet a brigand on the road, we might manage to make him conscious of his own personal interest if not our plight. But to ask pity of our body is like talking to an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the sea, and with which we should be terrified to find ourselves condemned to live.” -Marcel Proust
  • Water and a bubble on it are one and the same. The bubble has its birth in the water, floats on it, and is ultimately resolved into it. Likewise, your consciousness is born in your brain, goes through various states in your lifetime and ultimately resolves into the brain.” –Abhijit Naskar

Quote from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

  • All too often, however, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. Of course, medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies.

    The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.”

Quote from Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing by Jeffrey Rediger

  • “The link between our minds and bodies holds a well of potential when it came to radical healing — even mainstream medicine accepts that our stress levels and thought patterns, for example, can impact our physical health.”

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.