The Brain Isn’t Mindless

Awhile back, I read an article at about a study for antidepressant drug research. The main thrust of the article was how some participants who were given placebos (instead of the genuine drugs) actually improved and felt better. While the study’s findings were interesting, of far greater interest to me was the following quote from Tor Wager, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University:

‘An emerging idea right now is that belief in a placebo taps into processes in your brain that produce physical results that really shape how your body responds to things. The brain has much more control over the body than we can voluntarily exert.’ [Emphasis added.]

What this really means is that the physical processes taking place in the brain are determining the ‘response.’

But what is the ‘response’? The response refers to the conclusions of an individual mind. The premise of Professor Wager’s statement is that the mind is determined by the neurochemical processes in the brain or that the mind, in effect, is ‘forced’ to reach certain conclusions based on the way the physiological processes of the brain operate.

Am I reading too much into the researcher’s thinking here? Consider his own words:

‘The brain has much more control over the body than we can voluntarily exert.’ He really means it. The brain, he asserts, determines what we do and think. There is no voluntary cognition or free will involved.

When I use the term ‘biological determinism,’ this is exactly what I’m talking about. More and more, this assistant professor of psychology represents the mainstream of thinking in today’s medical, psychological and psychotherapeutic fields. Brain is destiny. But what about the mind? What about the choices an individual makes? What about the errors in fact, logic and reasoning that a person lets into his mind? Are they of no relevance at all? Apparently not, in what passes for ‘science’ in today’s psychology field.

It used to be that parental influences were thought to be all determining in an individual’s personality. Freud, and his successors, focused on such factors as the mother-child relationship and alleged infantile sexuality as the determining factor in human nature. Next, the strict behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, took over and asserted that there were no causes of personality and behavior, that there was simply behavior.

Then, starting in the 1960s and ’70s, there was the dawning of the sociological point of view that cultural and political influences were all-determining.

Starting in the 1980s, the cognitive school of thought came into its own. The cognitive school asserted that an individual’s thoughts, premises, assumptions and ideas were what determined individual personality.

As the century turned from the 20th to the 21st, however, the paradigm shifted. The cognitive school was not rejected. It was simply ignored.

The remnants of Freudian, behaviorist and sociological theories also came to be ignored for a single, common reason:

The brain was in, and the mind was out.

The point here is that there isn’t only a brain. There is also a mind. The mind operates in conjunction with the brain.

Their processes are simultaneous. The discovery of neurochemical brain functions, for which modern research methods and technology increasingly allow, is fascinating and worthwhile, but cannot explain away the existence of a mind. When I say ‘mind,’ I specifically mean: The ideas and premises that a person holds; the values to which a person subscribes (consciously or subconsciously); the choices a person makes in daily life, both in the ordinary events of daily living as well as the more extraordinary, dramatic situations that occur from time to time.

My objection to the trend in today’s psychological field doesn’t stem from a denial that the brain exists, nor from a suggestion that humans shouldn’t learn everything we possibly can about the physiological workings of the brain. My objection is that the mind is being ignored altogether; wished away by psychological researchers whose very job is to master understanding of the mind.

This trend in research has practical, everyday consequences for the consumer of mental health services. Nowadays, the typical psychotherapy client increasingly encounters therapists and psychologists who refer patients for medication before even giving psychotherapy a try. For me personally, this means a lot more business, because there are fewer and fewer mental health professionals willing to provide therapy for people who either don’t want, or cannot benefit from, the available medications for depression and anxiety. Yet, it still angers me that ‘doctors of the mind” are increasingly advocating the view that the brain, not the mind, is the only thing that exists, and that medication, therefore, is the only solution.

The people who currently research and practice in the field of psychology must take a look at a deeper premise: Is the brain all there is? Clearly not. And by refusing to take a look at the role of ideas, emotions and behaviors, they’re doing the people who are supposed to benefit from their research and practice a profound disservice.

A few years back, I wrote about the case of Andrea Yates, who systematically drowned her five children and was ultimately excused for it in court. Like many of you, I marveled at how such a thing could happen. Following my comments printed in ‘The Boston Globe,’ I was further astounded by the venomous, irrational hate mail I received in defense of Yates. These poor misguided creatures, in some dark, twisted way, identified with this murderer of children.

Now I think I have a better understanding of how this happened. You see, people in a society are, in a sense, only as good as their intellectual leaders.

I don’t mean to imply that the average person doesn’t have free will, and is incapable of challenging his intellectual ‘superiors.’ On the contrary, the widespread willingness to challenge the insipid ideas of stupid philosophical and political leaders has probably been THE reason our (more or less) civilized world has managed to sustain itself as much as it has.

Still, having said all that, it’s little wonder that there are individuals who defend people like Andrea Yates, in an age where an esteemed professor of psychology can say, ‘The brain has much more control over the body than we can voluntarily exert.’ If Yates’ brain had more control over her body than she could ever have voluntarily exerted (including the hands that methodically and sequentially drowned her kids), then why on earth was she ever even charged with a crime in the first place? She was simply having a bad mental health day.

According to this insane premise, she should never have been accused of murder! Yet, this insane premise is becoming the dominant view of psychological research today.

I will always love the field of psychology, and recognize its importance even as it degenerates into a torpid state, as it clearly is doing. Optimistically, I live for the day when the profession comes back from the dead, and psychologists themselves rediscover that the mind—with all its intricate ideas, logic, reasoning and choices—actually does exist.


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Special Note:

Re: Questions following Daily Dose of Reason at

The ability to comment has been removed from The primary reason for this are the repeated insults, cursing and inane postings from those who resent some of my opinions and/or writings — for no other reason than that they are there. As the saying goes, those who “know the least know it the loudest.” And those who know nothing at all do so with unfounded personal attacks and hostility, to fill the void where rational thinking and logic might have been.

Because so many of my clients and other well-meaning individuals use my website to communicate with me, I chose to remove the comment feature. Unfortunately, the good comments from many thoughtful readers (certainly in the majority) also disappeared with the negative ones.

I am more than happy to interact with readers and other interested people (as time permits) via Facebook.

Michael J. Hurd Ph.D.