Mental illness: the collision of meaning with mechanism

Steven E. Hyman, Doug McConnell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


‘Mental illness: the collision of meaning with mechanism’ is based on the views of psychiatry that Steven Hyman articulated in his Loebel Lectures—mental illness results from the disordered functioning of the human brain and effective treatment repairs or mitigates those malfunctions. This view is not intended as reductionist as causes of mental illness and contributions to their repair may come from any source that affects the structure and function of the brain. These might include social interactions and other sources of lived experience, ideas (such as those learned in cognitive therapy), gene sequences and gene regulation, metabolic factors, drugs, electrodes, and so on. This, however, is not the whole story for psychiatry on Hyman’s view; interpersonal interactions between clinicians and patients, intuitively understood in such folk psychological terms as selfhood, intention, and agency are also critical for successful practice. As human beings who are suffering, patients seek to make sense of their lives and benefit from the empathy, respect, and a sense of being understood not only as the objects of a clinical encounter, but also as subjects. Hyman’s argument, however, is that the mechanisms by which human brains function and malfunction to produce the symptoms and impairments of mental illness are opaque to introspection and that the mechanistic understandings necessary for diagnosis and treatment are incommensurate with intuitive (folk psychological) human self-understanding. Thus, psychiatry does best when skillful clinicians switch between an objectifying medical and neurobiological stance and the interpersonal stance in which the clinician engages the patients as a subject. Attempts to integrate these incommensurate views of patients and their predicaments have historically produced incoherent explanations of psychopathology and have often led treatment astray. For example, privileging of folk psychological testimony, even when filtered through sophisticated theories has historically led psychiatry into intellectually blind and clinically ineffective cul-de-sacs such as psychoanalysis.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPsychiatry reborn
Subtitle of host publicationbiopsychosocial psychiatry in modern medicine
EditorsJulian Savulescu, Rebecca Roache, Will Davies, J. Pierre Loebel
Place of PublicationOxford, UK
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9780198789697
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameInternational Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry
PublisherOxford University Press


Dive into the research topics of 'Mental illness: the collision of meaning with mechanism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this