What Is Dualism Psychology? Understanding The Body And Mind

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Dualism psychology has been hotly debated for many years, with philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and other scientists weighing in on the subject.  

The discussion revolves around the question of whether the mind and brain are two separate entities or the same. In proponents of dualism, there is a philosophical understanding that the brain and mind are distinct from each other, being neural and mental in nature.

For dualists, the brain can be seen as a physical object, while the mind is seen as a non-physical concept. To understand dualism, looking at current and past research on this topic can be helpful. 

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Mind-brain dualism explained

Mind-body dualism psychology refers to the idea that the mind and body are separate elements. To understand this concept better, knowing what the concepts of "mind" and "brain" mean may be helpful. 

Dualism and the mind

The mind includes everything in your consciousness - thoughts, reasoning, judgment, and emotions. Dualism in the mind has long been debated in consciousness psychology, with some arguing that the mind and body are separate entities. In contrast, others believe they're deeply interconnected and cannot be considered separate. 

As you experience any event, your mind processes the new information, helping you form conclusions. Your ego, or your subjective conception of yourself, is at the center of your consciousness. These concepts are mental, meaning they occur as brain processes but are not necessarily the brain itself. 

Dualism and the brain

The brain is a physical, biological object. It is a part of your body, whether you are conscious or not. It is a mass of soft nerve tissue inside the skull. Although science has proven that mental processes are coordinated in the brain, the debate on dualism and monism questions whether there is a mind that is separate from the physical output of the brain.

Monism vs. dualism psychology

The monism vs. dualism debate has been considered since Aristotle and Plato disagreed on whether the soul continued after the death of the physical body. Since Rene Descartes wrote about the relationship between the mind and body during the 1600s, the focus of the debate has shifted to dualism during life. Several types of dualism and monism have been theorized by many philosophers and scientists interested in this subject. 

Types of monism

There are two main types of monism, including the following. 

Materialism 

The first is materialism. In the materialistic view, nothing exists unless it is a part of the material, physical world. In the materialistic view, the brain exists, and the mind is a set of processes that happen in the nervous system.

Subjective idealism 

The second type of monism is subjective idealism, also called phenomenalism. Subjective idealism is the opposite of materialism. Instead of believing that only the physical world exists, subjective idealism says the only stimulus that truly exist are the mind's perceptions.

This idea that perception shapes physical reality has been tested in several studies. In one study, people with multiple sclerosis who were depressed behaved as if their disability was more severe than what was shown through medical testing. 

Types of dualism

The different types of dualism in the mind-body debate recognize both the physical object of the brain and the mental processes that make up the mind as two different entities. However, different types of dualism offer distinct perspectives, including the following. 

Substance dualism 

The substance dualism view assumes that the mind and the physical world are fundamentally different. Rene Descartes was a substance dualist. In Descartes' view, the mind could exist without the body. The body could exist without the mind, but it could not think.

For Descartes, the mind and body were distinct entities but connected through the pineal gland, an endocrine gland located deep inside the brain's center. While the pineal gland does exist and has several identified functions, the idea that it connects the mind and body is questionable.

Predicate dualism 

The second type of dualism is predicate dualism. This view is based on the language used to describe phenomena. It states that descriptions of the world cannot be reduced to physical formulas. For example, no formula may describe a storm in physical terms like the common words tornado, thunderstorm, or hurricane do.

Property dualism 

Property dualism assumes that the quality of consciousness is more than a description of brain states. Decades ago, property dualism was commonly used to explain the difference between the biological reality of life and the life force that started life and allowed it to continue. However, in recent years, this term has been used more often to distinguish between physical phenomena like brain states and behaviors and mental phenomena like thoughts and emotions.

Questions in the monism vs. dualism debate

The debate about whether the mind and body are the same raises several related questions. As research continues to investigate the physical and non-physical origins of the mind and brain, these questions may come closer to being answered definitively.

Are mental phenomena different from sensory phenomena?

The sensory centers, including the eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and skin, bring in information and enrich the human experience. These sensations may stimulate thoughts. For example, smell and memory are often connected. If you smell chocolate chip biscuit and think of your mother's kindness, it may be argued that you are not having a physical reaction on its own but separate mental and physical processes. 

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Does the mind control the body, or does the body control the mind?

If you believe dualism is the correct view, you may be faced with the question of whether the mind or body is in control. Three main answers have been proposed. The interactionist view is that the mind affects the body, and the body also affects the mind.

A second view is called epiphenomenalism. This theory states that physical stimuli or events cause mental phenomena but that mental events do not cause a change in the physical state. However, some studies discredit this view, as they show that emotional and mental phenomena can cause physical pain and distress. 

The third view of dualism in this circumstance is parallelism. In this dualistic view, the mind and body both exist but do not cause one another. 

Is knowing the same as experiencing?

You may gather facts until you have a clear idea of what a situation or object is. If factual knowledge is the same as experience, you may have nothing new to learn from experiences. However, if factual knowledge is different, researching a subject doesn't necessarily open up every avenue of learning on that subject. For example, someone who has studied love all their life may understand it differently than someone who has fallen in love. 

Someone who studied love may know all the details about how love affects the body and mind, but until they experience it themselves, they don't know what it feels like to be in love and how the emotions change their mindset or physical reactions. This example can show the difference between experiencing and researching a situation. 

Does observation explain everything?

Unless they are doing a thought experiment, scientists often study observable behavior. Monism assumes that all mental processes are a part of the physical realm. If so, it may be argued that all mental processes should be observable on some level. The concept that thoughts could be observed was not considered in the past but may be possible in the future. However, scientists have yet to find a way to read minds. 

What is the difference between a "zombie" and a conscious being?

One common argument for dualism in psychology is the zombie argument. Zombies have no conscious thoughts or experiences at all. However, their body still exists and can perform basic functions. The argument states that if you can imagine a state without consciousness while the body continues functioning, consciousness (or mind) must be separate from the physical.

Can thoughts be reduced to physics?

Although mental activity can be observed, researchers still question whether thought might be more than an observable physical phenomenon. Physics can describe any physical object or event. What has yet to be determined is whether physics can explain how thoughts come up, the subject of the thoughts, and what people do about them.

Is a physically identical twin also psychologically identical?

Identical twins may have identical physical brains but are not identical in the mind. Their environment can significantly impact their personality, even if they are predisposed to a specific temperament or mental health condition. If twins were psychologically identical, they may have the same emotional and physical responses to events. 

Why can brain damage cause mental changes?

Some theorists suggest that the fact that brain damage often leads to some form of mental change proves that the mind is the same as the brain. This question is unsolved. Some people believe this occurrence may be because the physical brain can no longer interact with the non-physical mind in the same way as it did before the damage.

What does freedom of choice show about the mind-brain debate?

If you believe that your mind is the same as your brain, it may suggest that everything that happens to you would produce a specific reaction. You might have no freedom of choice because every behavior would happen automatically. However, if your mind is distinct from your body, as dualists see it, you can use introspection psychology to consider what happened, consult your moral judgment, and choose between several options. 

Are mental health conditions physical or psychological?

Some researchers look at the practical implications of monism and dualism for mental health, as these conditions may be treated using physical and psychological methods. Physically, individuals may manage mental illness using coping mechanisms and treatments like the following:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Exercising
  • Avoiding substances
  • Taking prescribed medications for brain chemistry 

Mentally, individuals may work on behavior and the mind with a therapist. For the strict proponent of monism, behavioral therapy may make the most sense. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you change your behavior, starting with your mental processes, whether they are physical or mental. 

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It can be hard to navigate the path toward improved mental health

Counseling for the mind 

If you have struggled to cope with mental health challenges independently, a therapist may help you work toward change by teaching you new ways of coping, behaving, or understanding your challenges. They may also help you understand psychosomatic conditions and how your mind can impact your body. For example, anxiety might incite psoriasis, heart disease, high blood pressure, or eczema, among other conditions. 

If you struggle to find professional support in your area or are looking for a flexible and cost-effective therapy option, you might also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Online counseling is often more affordable than in-person therapy and can be done from home. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, giving you free will over how you get care. 

Additionally, cognitive-behavioral therapy has become more available with the advent of online counseling. A review of scientific literature published in 2017 found that remotely administered CBT was effective and significantly more affordable than traditional therapy. 

Takeaway

Monism and dualism look at how the brain and mind may be connected or whether they are the same. Although there is no one answer to this debate, asking questions and looking at current research may help you form your own opinion on the topic. If you'd like to learn more about the mind or find mental health support, you can also reach out to a licensed therapist anytime for further guidance.
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