Problems with the dualistic view of a mind-body split

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

The body is an instrument, the mind its function, the witness and reward of its operation.” - George Santayana (1863–1952), U.S. philosopher, poe
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Dualism is “the philosophical theory which supposes that the mind is essentially independent of the brain, though mental events run parallel with physical brain events” (Gregory, 1987, p. 204). Descartes, the seventeenth century philosopher and scientist, posited a dualistic theory of human existence whereby the body, including the brain and entire nervous system, and the mind, including all thoughts, desires and volitions, existed as autonomous, separate entities. Cartesian dualism maintained that the body belonged to the category of physical substance, which was composed of properties such as length, breadth and depth and could thus be measured and divided, while the mind belonged to the category of thinking substances, characterized as unexpended and indivisible. As such, the mind and body were postulated to operate according to completely separate and disjunctive governing principles (Gregory, 1987).

A dualistic view separates the component parts of an integrated system, addressing only their independent and therefore limited roles. It is an analytic and reductionist approach with a narrow focus concentrating on one aspect, such as the physical, and inevitably pushing mental, emotional, environmental and spiritual factors to the periphery. A dualistic approach to a problem attempts to reduce intervention to the lowest common denominator by treating only the malfunctioning part, after which the human mechanism is expected to return to normal functioning, giving little or no consideration to associated or collective effects or changes manifested by the treatment process itself. The effectiveness of such an approach is at best adequate for one isolated dimension of functioning and at worst actually deleterious to the integrated functioning of the overall system.

Alternatively, the holistic approach is an orientation toward the understanding, interaction and treatment of a whole person, whereby the individual is perceived as being more than the sum of discrete and separately functioning parts, and where problems are considered in terms of a broader context rather than as specific independent symptoms. One who maintains a holistic philosophy attempts to integrate the social, cultural, psychological and physical influences of an individual into a comprehensive understanding of the total human being (Barker, 1988).

Through the contributions of prominent research there has been an increasing realization that health cannot be maintained through solely a physicalistic approach. Among the precursors to this research was the work of Hans Seyle who, in 1956, with his conceptualization of a general stress response, emphasized the interaction of the individual and the environment (Seyle, 1956). Subsequently, Rene’ Dubos theorized about the contribution of socioeconomic factors to the development of and recovery from disease, insisting that attention to these extraneous circumstances could often contribute more to an individual’s personal health than prescribed antibiotics (Corsini, 1994). Stensrud (1979) identified elements, termed life-style factors, which “pertain to the psycho-educational experiences from which people develop long-term behavioral patterns which contribute to health and illness” (p. 3).

In 1978 the National Academy of Science defined the term behavioral medicine as “the interdisciplinary field concerned with the development and integration of behavioral and biomedical science knowledge and techniques relevant to health and illness and the application of this knowledge and these techniques to prevention, diagnosis and rehabilitation” (p.143). Similarly, in 1991, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report demonstrating the direct link between mental state and disease (Corsini, 1994).

Holism emphasizes this unity of and interaction between the mind and the body. Holistic health is concerned with the physical, interpersonal, psychological, vocational and spiritual dimensions of each service recipient. Hastings, Fadiman and Gordon (1980) provide a comprehensive theoretical clarification of three aspects of the holistic orientation:

First, such an approach involves expanding the focus to include the many personal, familial, social and environmental factors that promote health, prevent illness and encourage healing. Second, a holistic approach views the patient as an individual person, not as a symptom-bearing organism. Third, the holistic approach tries to make wise use of the many diagnostic, treatment and health modalities that are available in addition to the standard materia medica - including alternative medical and healing systems as well as psychological techniques and physical modalities (p. xi)

The role or nature of the reciprocal relationship between the diverse aspects of human functioning may be in the initiation, progression, aggravation, sustenance or exacerbation of a condition. Therefore, from an intervention perspective, this relationship can be utilized in the prevention, diagnosis and rehabilitation processes.

The field of human relations involves the process of acquisition and application of interdisciplinary data in the understanding, prevention, management and resolution or reduction of intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup and intergroup tensions and problems (personal communication, C. E. Butler, graduate class HR5012-223 lecture, 10 September 1997, Rhein Main Air Base Germany). As such, the human relations practitioner can be found in a wide range of human service activities and environments interfacing with numerous other practitioners in associated fields. This broad and comprehensive mission necessitates the consideration of the various aspects of multifaceted human beings and the complex manner in which these aspects interact.

Human interaction is synergistic, whereby cooperative effort by discrete subsystems produces results of a more profound magnitude and effect than could be produced by independent performance. The human relations practitioner attempts to facilitate the best possible and most effective interaction of all relevant complexes using an interdisciplinary systems approach which emphasizes the reciprocal relationships which constitute the whole. This systems approach is a conceptual orientation that attempts to explain holistically the behavior of people and societies by identifying the interacting components of the system and the controls that keep these components stable and in a state of equilibrium.
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The philosophy that emphasizes the interrelation of mind and body in the genesis, sustenance, progression and rehabilitation of situations calls for a greatly expanded sharing of responsibilities among professionals and for a broadened interdisciplinary philosophy within each discipline. Viewing problems or adjustment difficulties from a multi-causal point of view naturally demands a multimodal approach to the resolution of the involved issues. Conversely, addressing only one aspect of a situation, as would follow the adherence to a dualistic perspective, neglects significant contingent issues which, without proper attention, can themselves develop into serious difficulties. The human relations practitioner is often in the position of integrating the relevant resources which together most fully serve the client. In this way, a dualistic approach would limit the consideration of certain avenues of assistance, deeming them irrelevant given the narrow scope, and thus eliminate a potential source of support and service.

Intervention approaches utilized by human relations practitioners naturally adopt holistic orientations as they assess problems, procure resources and implement integrated assistance plans. An example of an effective multimodal strategy is the Life Model approach which incorporates multifaceted situational aspects (i.e. life transitions, interpersonal circumstances, environmental obstacles, etc.) as well as integrated attributes of the individual (i.e. physical, psychological, social, etc.) in the process of problem resolution. According to practitioners Germain and Gitterman (1980) the life model approach uses an integrated method of practice with individuals and collectivities to release potential capacities, reduce environmental stressors and restore growth promoting transactions.

Division of an issue into separate, compartmentalized aspects often focuses attention on the singular aspect of a problem with the most externally visible symptoms, which may not necessarily represent the core of the problem or its most serious effect. Human beings are biopsychosocial entities whose adequate functioning, from an individual position to the level of species survival, is imminently reliant upon the interdependence and cooperative operation of the reciprocal relationship between one’s biological and psychological nature.

Without our biological inheritance of flexible, redundant neural circuitry, we would not be able to benefit from experience, especially social experience. Equally, without our social or cultural milieu, our biological inheritance would be inadequate to create a fully functioning human being. Last, the use of our biological inheritance, coupled with social information, would still be very limited without an active cognitive process that not only passively takes in information but analyzes and synthesizes it, rejecting or accepting various hypotheses or conclusions (Shobris, 1994, p. 378).

Failure to consider the whole human being as the dynamic, synergistic entity that each individual truly is renders a depiction that represents one as far less than the sum of the individual parts and does disservice to the remarkable, complex system of mind and body in constant union.


Barker, R, L. (1988). The social work dictionary. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.

Corsini, R. J. (Ed.). (1994). Encyclopedia of psychology, 2e. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Germain, C. B. & Gitterman, A. (1980). The life model of social work practice. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gregory, R. L. (Ed.). (1987). The Oxford companion to the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hastings, A. C., Fadiman, J. & Gordon, J. S. (1980). Health for the whole person. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kaplan, H. I. & Sadock, B. J. (1991). Synopsis of psychiatry: Behavioral sciences, clinical psychiatry, 6e. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

National Academy of Science. (1978). Annual report. Washington D. C.: National Academy of Science.

Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shobris, J. G. (1994, November). The dualism of psychology. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs,120, 373 - 389.

Stensrud, R. L. (1979). New initiatives for promoting health. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Health Education. London, England.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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