Is Biology Destiny?

Dr. Hurd: I am reading your new book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy,” and I have been wondering what you mean by the following sentence: “Feelings and emotions are deeply rooted in our physiology and can be notoriously slow to catch up with the logical mind.” Does your reference to physiology imply that our cells have a memory for our feelings and thoughts? By educating my mind to think better, am I also educating my entire body with the acquisition of new ideas, essentially? I have read about organ transplant recipients that develop new tastes for certain foods that turned out to be in common with the tastes of the organ donor. Perhaps every cell in our body has knowledge of our thoughts and preferences like a self-contained mini-universe. If this is true, it would explain a lot about the body-mind connection as related to disease, anger, depression and repressed emotions.

Dr. Hurd’s reply: The mind-body connection is not very well understood. Part of the reason for this is that

scientists, especially in psychology, have largely become biological determinists. By “biological determinism” I’m referring to the false view that physiology determines mental outlook, mood and even values and behaviors. People are falsely led to believe that the highly complex brain structure can develop literal “diseases” in thinking, emotion and action.

That’s a massive oversimplification of how the mind works, and it assumes we have knowledge we do not have.

For example, you don’t go to a psychiatrist who takes a blood test or an X-ray and then determines, “You have a chemical imbalance. This is the nature of the imbalance. We’ll move the chemicals around so that they are in proper balance, and then you’ll feel and act fine.”

Let’s go back to the facts we do know. We are physiological beings. We are physiological beings who think, or evade/deny, and who sometimes take action, rational or impulsive. The content of our minds consists of thoughts and feelings. Thoughts are consciously held convictions, while emotions are either in or out of conscious awareness. Emotions imply ideas, and they are responses to what we value. For example, fear represents a concern over losing something that one values. Happiness represents a recognition of obtaining something that one values.

Each of these emotions occur in a biological-psychological context. In other words, your body is undergoing physiological reactions which are simultaneous to the thoughts you are having, and/or the emotions you are experiencing. Everyone is a mind-body integrated sum. This is not to say that the thoughts, ideas and actions that everyone takes are always rational, consistent, and serving the interest of the individual thinking or feeling these things. But there are always physiological responses, rooted in the automatic biological processes of the body, which are simultaneous to the cognitive, emotional and psychological ones.

To recognize that physiological processes exist — in the brain, and elsewhere in the body — is not to prove that physiology is the CAUSE of all things psychological. That’s a leap which medical science, including even many in psychology, have made for which there is no basis. Just because I have a certain thought, idea or emotion does not prove that my brain made me think it or feel it. To some people, it’s convenient to believe this. In so doing, they can blame something external. Instead of saying, “God made me do this, ” or “The devil made me do it,” they can now say, “I did that because of my chemical imbalance.”

I haven’t heard of organ transplants that result in changed tastes for different kinds of food, and the like. That’s an interesting discovery, if that happened. But with tastes we’re talking about aspects of consciousness more on the sensory level. The more complicated emotions that people deal with in the context of psychology and psychotherapy arise in the conceptual context. Tastes are sensory reactions, while emotions such as joy, regret, hostility, anger, happiness and serenity are reflections of highly conceptual ideas people hold about themselves, life, reality and others.

I am all for discovering and learning as much about the brain and the body as possible. Knowledge is power. The more we know about the brain, the better able people can be to help themselves with complications involving their minds, emotions, behaviors and values. No matter how sophisticated our knowledge of the brain may become, there will never be pills, surgeries or any externalized “treatments” that make people feel completely different sets of emotions. This is because emotions ultimately reflect one’s deepest ideas, convictions and viewpoints about reality. While interventions in your physiological system could always influence or affect your overall emotional state, cells, tissues and organs will never emerge as the sole cause of your attitudes, beliefs and values. Perhaps there is a “physiological memory” or an altered chemical structure in your brain as a result of emotions you consistently have? That’s intriguing, but even if so — it’s your ideas and premises that caused the emotion, as well as the resulting physiological alterations.

Right now, medical science is in a race to prove that the brain alters everything. It’s a zeal not unlike the supernaturalist zeal of the Middle Ages. “Biology is destiny” is how I refer to the attitude that has replaced the idea that human beings have emotions that they’re responsible for, because in those emotions reside ways of thinking they are free to challenge, change and correct as necessary. One of the reasons human beings have not advanced to where they need to be is that they’re still looking outside themselves for explanations — and excuses — as to why they think and feel the way they sometimes do. Humans first need a revolution in philosophy, including ethics, before they can truly benefit from the knowledge that the science of physiology can bring them.