On the Phrase “It’s Not Psychological, It’s Neurological”

Crews and Adler believe that most cases of the yips probably have a psychological basis of some kind, but that in some percentage the ultimate cause will turn out to be neurological.[The New Yorker]

All philosophers of mind and most philosophers generally will recognize the error in this sentence, or should recognize it. Basically, the psychological cause of the yips (flinches in your golf swing, spasms in piano playing, or Knoblauch-like screw ups in baseball) is itself a neurological state or event. Because every psychological event is identical to or is also itself a neurological event.

In other words, there is nothing psychological that does not take place neurologically in the brain. So, saying that the yips are “not psychological but rather neurological” will not work because whatever is describable as psychological is at least in principle describable neurologically, since every psychological event is a neurological event somewhere in the central nervous system.

Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

I am not talking about the debate between mind-body dualists and mind-body monistic physicalists. I am just talking about the naturalist position on the mind and the brain (on psychological events and neurological events and therefore on psychology and neuroscience as disciplines about those types of events, respectively). The naturalist position says the mind is the brain, psychological events are neurological events — we will return to the question of whether psychology as a science is identical to or reducible to neuroscience. (The latter is an epistemological question about our knowledge of things. I am talking about things-in-themselves like states of affairs or events, which is a metaphysical question.) Most philosophers assume or would like to assume that most if not all scientists were naturalists. So, the scientists who work on events in the brain at the level of psychology recognize and affirm that the mental processes which they describe qua mental process are in fact neurological processes.

Again: Philosophers who have thought carefully about the implications for nature and about the implications for the most perspicacious way for us to speak about nature, see that saying, “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological” seems to elide the fact that the psychological is neurological.

This is something I think Dan Dennett and others have taken scientists to task for.

But now consider the following quotations:

One of Adler’s hopes for the new study is that it will help define the division between psychological and neurological causes….

What could that mean? It seems straightforward, but if it is meant metaphysically (meant to be about things-as-they-are-in-themselves) then it perpetuates the mistake of thinking that some psychological events (or causes, i.e., causal-events) are not, at another level of description, neurological events. But of course they are, if we are to remain naturalistic. If, on the other hand, the statement is meant epistemologically (in the sense of being about what we can know and at the level of what interests us in the various goings-on in the mosaic of things and events in the world), then it’s not saying that we’ll learn the difference or division between psychological and neurological events-in-themselves, instead we will differentiate those times that it’s convenient or pragmatic for us to describe an event as psychological and not neurological and when it’s convenient or pragmatic (shall I say “explanatory”) to describe an event as neurological and not psychological.

Here’s another one:

At that time, ‘neurosis’ was merely a standard term for disorders whose origin was neurological rather than, say muscular….

This statement is better. It makes a conceptually non-confused distinction between a neurosis, like thinking everyone is out to get you (a mental event qua mental), which is understandable as “based” in the neurological, and maybe a twitch, that is based in the muscular system and not the neurological.

Now this:

Beginning with the rise of psychoanalysis and continuing into the nineteen-seventies, he said, dystonias, including [this special sort of] writer’s cramp, were often treated as forms of mental illness….

“Treated as” implies a sense of “conceived as” it seems to me, as well as “medically treated”. Because of the rise of psychoanalysis and, one assumes, a proliferation of pop-psychology, dystonias were conceived as being mental and were intervened upon (treated) with mental interventions, like talk therapy.

What’s interesting to me is that some “problems” roughly thought of as “mental” will be amenable to talk therapy and others won’t. Any “mental” problem is, as we naturalists have it, neurological as well as psychological. It’s just that some are going to respond to “psychological” interventions like “here, think this new way,” or “isn’t that interesting, your nail-biting means this and that to you in your self-understanding,” while other “mental” problems can only be intervened upon neurologically at the level of medicines based on neurotransmitters or even at the level of brain surgery. It seems like no amount of talk therapy will rid someone of, I don’t know, face-blindness, which is understood primarily neurologically as damage to a brain area or at least a mis-functioning or malfunctioning system in the brain.

So are the yips a mental problem that can be dealt with only neurologically or can they be intervened upon with cognitive/talk therapy? The article goes on to list a number of psychological interventions: “A ball that isn’t a ball can’t miss the hole. Similarly, a putter that doesn’t feel like a putter may not jerk.”

What the author of the article is talking about is getting the golfer to think that they are not hitting a ball but just swinging at a marshmallow or something. This, it seems to me, is a an attempt, at the psychological level, to change to brain chemistry of the golfer while he or she swings. This way the brain chemistry behind the yips is circumvented and a non-yip swing can happen.

Indeed, any psychological intervention is metaphysically also a neurological intervention. It’s just that it’s easier to get a handle on the psychological description of what’s going on and perhaps at the present impossible to get a handle on what’s actually happening with the neurological events in themselves.