Brain/mind: a false divide

Every so often I’m reminded of a conversation I had some time ago with a researcher (who shall remain nameless) who wasn’t too keen on psychiatry. I want to reflect on that discussion to examine the fallacy of the brain-mind divide and how it’s just not possible to partition away emotions as something the medical model shouldn’t be dealing with.

Doctors are quite within their rights to treat brain diseases, this man said. Problems with moving your arms and legs, physical sensation or balance are all perfectly suitable ailments to see a neurologist with. But emotions and the mind are different things entirely. For a doctor to go interfering with those would be quackery.

So I asked him – what did he make of the fact that people with Parkinson’s disease suffer more frequently with depression than the background population? This sadness was understandable psychologically, he said, as a result of being ill. And he seemed quite satisfied with that. The emotions were not brain symptoms but something separate.

But people with Parkinson’s disease, I replied, get depressed more often than people with equally distressing and disabling diseases which don’t involve the brain tissue, like rheumatoid arthritis. Surely the brain being affected by disease must be changing the emotions of the patients? Where on earth are emotions from if not the brain?

Eventually he retreated at this point, conceding pretty reluctantly that brain diseases could affect emotions and therefore these emotions could be treated by doctors. But never, he was firm, should they be conceptualised using the medical model when there is no sign of brain disease. If there’s no organic disease for the neurologists to treat, then no one should go treating emotions – a seemingly convenient divide.

But is that really so simple a segregation? Let’s take an example – epilepsy. People with epilepsy are three times more likely than the background population to have a psychotic episode. So by the rule of treating emotions when there’s a brain disease present, we can go ahead and treat. But hold on – using simple maths, a third of those people would have had a psychotic episode anyway, just like the background population do. And there’s no way of telling which third they are. So what do we do, treat them all or treat none of them as medical symptoms? Or guess?

The same argument can be applied countless times to other scenarios. People who use cannabis are about twice likely to become psychotic than the background population, but that means around a third to a half of people who smoke cannabis who become psychotic would have become psychotic anyway. Who do we treat as genuine organic drug-induced reactions and who do we say are just having ‘non-medical emotions’? Should we draw a line at one spliff a day, one spliff a week, maybe one spliff a year…?

People given steroids for tumours or inflammation can become manic. I’ve seen it many times. But by simple probabilities we know some of them would have become manic anyway, because of the stress of the illness. There’s just no way of telling which are which.

People with multiple sclerosis have a 50-50 chance of being depressed at some point, compared to a variable but lower number for people without the disease. Should we call it disease-related depression if there are only one or two tiny plaques on the brain scan, or not? Where is that divide now?

This all boils down to a simple point. If something is a symptom in the presence of an obvious brain disease, it’s still a symptom if there is no obvious brain disease. It is valid to conceptualise depression, mania, and psychosis in medical terms because there is no convenient dividing line between “brain disease-caused” and “non-brain disease-caused”. In the end, all emotion comes from the brain whether something worrying shows up on a scan or not. Furthermore, the thought of denying people effective medical help for their highly distressing emotions unless they have evidence of a coarse brain disease is actually pretty perverse.

But this is not to say that emotions should be treated like cold, hard neurological signs like loss of sensation or power in your limbs. Every medical discipline has their tools of treatment – surgeons their scalpels, dermatologists their creams, public health doctors their policies, medics their tablets – each catered to their relevant illnesses. We can still use social and psychological treatments to relieve and limit symptoms whilst calling them just that.

Likewise, just because something is a symptom doesn’t mean it has to be treated. Not every cough is a chest infection, not every knee twinge needs a joint replacement. So not every low spell needs a tablet and not every bizarre thought needs a section.

As for the man who I was talking to, I’m not sure he agreed with me. He told me frustratedly that “fine, you can believe in the brain, and I’ll believe in the hand”, and strode off. He never did explain what he meant.

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