It only exists if I can see colours on a brain scan

Bad Science has an excellent piece on the recent hot air from a researcher who claimed that brain activity differences between people with high and low sex drive proved that ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ was ‘a genuine physiological disorder and not made up.’

This strikes me as an unusual world view. All mental states have physical correlates, if you believe that the physical activity of the brain is what underlies our sensations, beliefs and experiences: so while different mental states will be associated with different physical states, that doesn’t tell you which caused which. If I do not have the horn, you may well fail to see any increased activity in the part of my brain that lights up when I do have the horn. That doesn’t tell you why I don’t have the horn: maybe I’ve got a lot on my plate, maybe I have a physical problem in my brain, maybe I was raped last year. There could be any number of reasons.

But far stranger is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real, even for matters that are plainly experiential. If someone is complaining of persistent low sex drive, then they have persistent low sex drive, and even if you could find no physical correlate in the brain whatsoever, that wouldn’t matter, they do still have low sex drive.

One of the reasons why attempts to make problems of behaviour or experience seem ‘biological’ is that the concept is strongly linked to the idea that if something is a ‘biological disorder’ we are less to blame because we have less control over the symptoms.

This is daft, of course, because although biology uses less talk of free will and agency, it is really just another level of explanation.

The beauty of a captivating picture doesn’t somehow disappear if we discuss the molecules of the paint and, in a similar way, discussing the interactions of neurons won’t mean that the problem of free will no longer applies.

But the drive to try and eliminate free will is, in part, because of the stigma still attached to many types of problems. Instead of trying to tackle stigma we often try to misguidedly reclassify the object of the stigma.

It’s like trying to fight racism by classifying a wider range of skin colours as white – it really misses the point and actually maintains the prejudice. In the same way, we should be working towards accepting all human difficulties, however they are most appropriately described by scientific theories, as valid and worthy of concern.

This does not mean all necessarily need to be classified and treated as medical disorders, but it does mean that we should respect the difficulties people face and think about constructive ways of helping ourselves and other people to tackle them.

Link to Bad Science on ‘Neuro-realism’.

6 thoughts on “It only exists if I can see colours on a brain scan”

  1. I like your brief analysis here. Real suffering is real suffering because it is suffering not because it is medical. The rhetoric, law, and politics around “medical” vs. “psychological” families of causes tends to hide the underlying fact that these families of causal models are not also distinct domains of phenomena.

    It’s about the interaction of intuitive mind/body cartesianism with the different families of causal explanations (medical/psychological).

    “Medical” means serious and expensive and speciallized and difficult to treat, requiring invasive physical devices or powerful agents and with effects that show up dramatically in visual form on tests.

    “Psychological” means relatively less serious, more ephemeral, requiring less speciallized and more generic types of treatment, easier, less expensive, and not traceable by visual means, being “all in our head.”

    These obviously play into our Cartesian categories of mind and body. We can observe various areas of overlap that show these are not really entirely distinct domains, but when we do our intuition tends to push it away. We have a long tradition of skepticism of physiological effects of hypnosis and meditation and other “psychological” practices, of conditioned immunosupression, of the volatility of physiological skin conditions, of the biological component of “psychological” disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and anorexia.

    The overlap goes against our intuition, but there it is there nontheless.

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