What's Dualism Psychology?

Updated September 29, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

Dualism psychology has been hotly debated for many years, with philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and other scientists weighing in on the subject. The entire discussion revolves around the question of whether the mind and brain are two separate things or the same.

The most common dualism psychology definition is the view that the mind and the brain are two separate things. In dualism, the brain is seen as a physical object only, while the mind is seen as something beyond the strictly physical.

What Is Mind-Body Dualism In Psychology?

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Mind-body dualism psychology is a more descriptive term for dualism in psychology. The phrase refers to the idea that the mind and body are two different things that can be separated. To understand this concept better, it is helpful to know at the outset what the concepts “mind” and “body” actually mean.

What Is The Mind?

The mind includes everything in your consciousness. It includes thoughts, reasoning, judgment, and emotions. As you experience something, your mind processes the new information, which ultimately helps you to form conclusions. At the center of your consciousness is your ego, or your subjective conception of yourself.

What Is The Brain?

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

Monism Vs. Dualism Psychology

In a sense, the monism vs. dualism psychology debate has been going on since Aristotle and Plato disagreed on whether the soul continued after the death of the physical body. Since Rene Descartes wrote about the relationship of the mind and body during the 1600s, the focus of the debate has shifted to dualism during life. With so many philosophers and scientists interested in this subject, several different types of dualism and monism have developed.

Types Of Monism

There are two main types of monism. The first is materialism. In the materialistic view, nothing exists at all unless it’s a part of the material, physical world. In the materialistic view, the brain exists, and the mind is just a set of processes that happen in the nervous system.

The second type of monism is subjective idealism, also called phenomenalism. Subjective idealism is the opposite of materialism. Instead of saying that there is only the physical world, it says that the only things that truly exist are the perceptions of the mind.

This idea that perception shapes physical reality has been tested in many research studies. In one study, people with multiple sclerosis who were depressed behaved as if their disability was greater than what was shown on the tests.

Types Of Dualism

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

One is substance dualism. This 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 they were connected through the pineal gland, an endocrine gland located deep inside the center of the brain. While the pineal gland does exist and has several identified functions, the idea that it connects the mind and body is still questionable.

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 can’t be reduced to physical formulas. For example, no simple formula describes what a storm is in physical terms in the same way as the common words: tornado, thunderstorm, or hurricane do.

Another type is property dualism. Property dualism assumes that the quality of consciousness is more than a description of brain states. Many 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 mind and body are the same or not brings up several related questions. If all these questions could be answered conclusively, the debate would likely be settled. As research continues on many subjects and conditions, these questions may come closer to being answered definitively.

Are Mental Phenomena Different From Sensory Phenomena?

The sense organs, including the eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and skin, bring information and enrich the experience. These sensations may bring up many different thoughts. If you smell chocolate chip cookies and think of your mother’s kindness, is that merely a physical reaction to the smell? Or, is there a thought that is more than a simple physiological response?

Does The Mind Control The Body Or The Body Control The Mind?

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If you believe dualism is the correct view, you’re 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. However, mental events don’t affect the physical at all. To most people, this view makes no sense. After all, when you feel sadness, your body responds to that sadness, and you find yourself crying. When you see a car speeding towards you in the crosswalk, you move away as fast as you can. In each case, the thoughts and emotions of your mind have a physical impact.

The third view is parallelism. In this dualistic view, mind and body both exist, but they aren’t connected in any way.

Is Knowing The Same As Experiencing?

You can gather facts and data until you have a very clear idea of what something is. If factual knowledge is the same as experiencing something, you have nothing new to learn. Yet, someone who has studied love all their life may have a very different understanding of it if they fall in love for the first time.

They 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’s like to be in love. They may have known the physical facts before, but now they have a different kind of understanding of the quality of being in love.

Does Observation Explain Everything?

Unless they’re doing a thought experiment, scientists typically study observable behavior. Monism assumes that all mental processes are a part of the physical realm. If so, they should all be observable on some level. The concept that thoughts could be observed was an outlandish idea years ago, but it’s gaining credibility.

What’s The Difference Between A Zombie And A Conscious Being?

One common argument for dualism in psychology is the zombie argument. Here’s how it goes. You imagine being a zombie. You have no conscious thought or experiences at all. Yet, your body still exists and can perform basic functions. The argument states that if you can imagine a state in which there is no consciousness at all while the body continues to function, consciousness (or mind) must be separate from the purely physical.

Can Thoughts Be Reduced To Physics?

Although it’s becoming clearer that at least many if not all of the mental activity can be observed, there’s still the question of whether the thought might be more than the observable physical phenomenon. Physics can describe any physical object or event. What has yet to be determined is whether physics can explain the way thoughts come up and what people do about them.

Is A Physically Identical Twin Also Psychologically Identical?

In reality, even identical twins aren’t identical. Their environment changes them from the time they’re in the womb. What if identical twins were psychologically identical, though? Would they share all the same mental activities? If this question could be tested, it could potentially help scientists understand the relationship between mind and body.

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 thing as the brain. Is this true? Perhaps. Or, maybe it’s that the physical brain can no longer interact with the nonphysical mind in the same way as it did before the damage.

What About Freedom Of Choice?

If you believe that your mind is the same thing as your brain, it may suggest that everything that happens to you would produce a specific reaction. You would have no choice because every behavior would simply happen automatically. However, if your mind is distinct from your body, as dualists see it, you can think about what happened, use your moral judgment, and choose between several alternatives.

Which Schools Of Psychology Do And Don’t Assume Dualism Psychology?

Some schools of psychology favor the view of the mind as nothing more than the physical events that happen in the brain. Other schools of thought view the mind and brain as distinct entities, one physical and one nonphysical.

Behaviorism – Monism

Behaviorism is based on a monism view that behavior is rooted in the biology of the brain. The most famous early behaviorist experiments were those conducted by Pavlov. Pavlov was able to cause dogs to salivate by creating a connection between the ringing of a bell and the arrival of food. Even when the food didn’t arrive, the dogs salivated as if it had. For a behaviorist, there is no such thing as mind. There’s only the body, including the brain, and the behaviors that they produce.

Evolutionary Psychology – Monism

Evolutionary psychology views psychological events in terms of how they promote the survival of the individual and the species. If a mental activity consistently helps someone or their tribe survive, that mental activity would end up being coded into the genes and passed on to later generations.

Humanism – Monism

Humanism has changed much since it started. However, the basic idea of humanism is that everything is a part of an ongoing process of nature. It recognizes the realities discovered through scientific inquiry. These include biology, physics, and neurobiology. Thus, humanism has come to embrace the idea that the mind and brain are one.

Cognitive Psychology – Dualism

Cognitive psychology deals with mental processes such as perception, memory, thinking, and learning. Recently, cognitive psychology has been criticized because, despite much evidence to the contrary, it clings to a dualistic view of mind and body.

Why Do People Prefer Dualistic Psychology?

Some scientists suggest that the reason people choose to believe that mind and body are distinct is merely for self-preservation. The idea of dualism is at the heart of myth, legend, and religion. It may be that these types of thoughts and stories are essential to human survival because they keep people motivated and doing whatever it takes to survive and thrive.

Are Mental Health Problems Physical Or Psychological?

So, what are the practical implications of monism and dualism for mental health? No matter how you look at the debate, there are two different types of treatments you can pursue if you have mental health issues.

First, you can work on improving your physical condition. You can do this in several ways:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Exercise
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Take prescribed medications to improve your brain chemistry

Second, you can work on your behavior through psychotherapy. For the strict proponent of monism, behavioral therapy makes the most sense. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you change your behavior starting with your mental processes, whether they’re a part of your brain or not.

If you haven’t been able to overcome mental health challenges on your own, a therapist can help you work towards overcoming them by teaching you new ways of coping, behaving, or understanding yourself, your problems, and the world around you.

In the realm of psychology, much work has been done on psychosomatic disorders. The term psychosomatic means relating to both the body and mind. A range of physical symptoms might derive from mental health issues. For example, anxiety can trigger psoriasis, heart disease, high blood pressure, or eczema, among others.

In these instances, psychological counseling using methods like cognitive behavioral therapy has shown high rates of success. What’s more, CBT is becoming more and more accessible with the advent of online counseling. A review of scientific literature published in 2017 found that remotely administered CBT was not only effective, it was also far more affordable than traditional therapy. Plenty of online resources are also available to help you learn more about dualism—for example, the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

If you believe you experience anxiety-induced psychosomatic symptoms or live with other mind-body disconnects, online therapy can help. With remote counseling from BetterHelp, you can access licensed professionals conveniently from the comfort of your own home. If you are dealing with a psychosomatic symptom, another issue relating to dualism, or other psychological problems, they will be able to help. Read what others have to say about their experiences below.

“Menzo is a kind, thoughtful man. He is a surprising (refreshing) mix of good listener and direct with questions. I’ve appreciated his insight into my mind, and no punches pulled when he sees an area of unhealthiness or weakness I don’t. I sincerely recommend him to bring your life and mind wisdom, balance, and health.”


“Aly is amazing. She has helped me understand the depth of growth that consoling can bring. She is an excellent listener, and great at helping lead you to discoveries and self growth without obviously pointing them out. She also gives me activities and literature to help my continued reflection in between our sessions. Focus on mind/body/spirit connection. Would absolutely recommend her!”

You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for help with many different types of mental problems. In the end, what matters most is not whether your mind and body are distinct but rather, what you can do to improve your mental condition.

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