2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 12

Reductionism and Mental Health: Looking beyond explanation

By Aisling McGee

In a world where we seek clear answers and solutions to all things, in which precision and reduction seems to move our modern world, mental health fails to fit into this neat and reducible construction. Sanitation and vaccination initiatives remain the success stories of the reducible scientific precision that has characterised the modern world, giving us the quality of life and low mortality rates that we now enjoy. However, in a world that emphasises answer and explanation, rates of mental illness continue to grow exponentially. In ten years’ time, depression is projected to be the world’s leading cause of disease burden – a measure related to how disease affects quality of life, life expectancy and the economy. 

Our present relationship with mental health is indeed complex and exhibits a problematic relationship with this relentless culture of clear and rational explanation. As a complex and intricate web of biological, chemical and environmental factors, attempts to place this discourse into the language of scientific precision leaves a trail of frustration, blame and taboo surrounding mental health. Within recent years, we have started to see a more compassionate narrative come to the forefront in which this harsh reliance on reducible answers has subsided somewhat. However, mental health continues to lie under the shadow of the reducibility of physical illness, a part of the great inequity between mental and physical health. Neuroscience as a discipline still in its infancy has barely cracked beneath the surface of the complexities of the human brain, an organ which baffles and will likely continue to baffle the most advanced neuroscientist for years to come. This is not to say that we will never possess a reductionist explanation of the struggles of mental illness, but attempts to place this reductionist mindset onto an issue without the adequate explanation only leaves sufferers of mental illness to feel the added pain of self-blame.

In turning back the clock to the Early Modern period in Europe, mindsets towards mental health, much like towards all phenomenon within that period, lacked an emphasis upon rational and reducible answers, thus freed from the shackles of creating explanation without answers. With that being said, this is not to paint this period with ‘rose-tinted’ nostalgia – I do appreciate having a life expectancy beyond forty, freedom of expression and some sort of welfare system! However, for the purposes of exploring mental health, the Early Modern period offers an interesting insight into a less judgemental, isolating and reducible understanding of mental health struggles. As a period without sophisticated scientific theories, spiritual and religious ideas remained the basis of much knowledge. In this society, experiences were normalised and reconciled within this religio-spiritual framework. Around the period of the English Reformation, uncomfortable experiences such as anxious thoughts, melancholy and compulsions were understood as an invasion of the mind by devilish outside forces. Rather than being conceived as an issue of religious failing, this experience was seen instead as a mark of great piety, as a transient test by the devil that could be overcome through prayer and faith. 

Although far-removed from modern ideas, this narrative offers something profoundly consoling and compassionate at its core, drawing parallels to many of the approaches we are currently attempting to integrate into mental health narratives today. The image of spiritual possession within this outlook evokes a sense of transience of the experience and the external nature of such removes the sense of personal blame that often arises from experiences of mental ill-health. Although not in the form of devilish spirits, we see this transient and more detached conception of thoughts from ourselves as individuals at the centre of CBT and Mindfulness – key tools in managing anxiety and depression. The quote familiar to many Headspace users, ‘Remember the blue sky’ reminds us of the transience of thoughts, like clouds across a blue sky, much like the transience of Early Modern spiritual possession. 

In a world that is dominated by reductionist ideas, the clear and concise answers that we lack in the area of mental health can leave us in the damaging position of trying to create explanations without explanation. In trying to expand on the more compassionate narrative that has developed in recent years, we need to, at least for the moment, move away from the desire for clear and concise answers. In looking back and borrowing some wisdom from our forebearers, it is possible to create a positive and non-judgemental narrative around mental health without necessarily having all the answers.  


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