Can neuroscience explain the causes of mental illness? Erm, maybe not.


counsellor in exeterResearchers from Monash University have discovered that patients with depression may have different sorts of brains to the rest of the population. Jerome Maller and others looked through thousands of brain scans and found that it was more likely that a patient with depression had occipital lobes which were wrapped around each other. The occipital lobes sit at the rear of the brain and are responsible for processing visual information. It seems that people with depression may have different kinds of brains.

Does this help to explain depression and, if it does, will it help people get better?

In a wide-ranging article for Therapy Today in July, Kenneth J Gergen questions the faith that practitioners have in neuroscience to help explain the causes of mental illness. One of the things he argues is that if we say that a particular brain state is the cause of a given problem, then any work on alleviating that problem should be focused on altering that particular brain state.

He uses the analogy of a faulty engine in a car. “If one’s automobile fails to function properly, engine repair may be required.” It doesn’t seem unreasonable that if you take your car to the garage that the mechanic should look under the bonnet and identify the broken piston and replace it. The fact that you’ve been in ten times that month with the same problem, and that when you drive off you are bumping along the same potholed, poorly surfaced roads has not featured in the mechanic’s diagnosis or remedy.

Gergen would argue that the cause of broken down car is the state of the roads and manner in which it had been driven over them. The piston is a symptom rather than a cause of the distress. Is the funny brain scan the cause of a person’s depression, or a symptom? Is the real cause of distress the society or system in which you find yourself?

How you answer these questions probably influence which side of the neuroscience debate you are on and how you see the nature of mental illness.