How and when did the mind-body split occur in medicine?

The ancients have always regarded the mind and body as a single inter-dependent entity. They understood that the mind influences the body, and that the body too influences the mind. For them, healing of diseases involves caring for the mind as well as the body. Their holistic approach to healing, therefore, incorporates both mind and body.

However, somewhere in the 17th century, this belief started to undergo a gradual and dramatic change. It was said that this began with Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) [1, 2, 3], a French mathematician, philosopher and physiologist. Considered a genius by many and also called the Father of Modern Philosophy, Descartes broke from the traditional Aristotelian philosophy to introduce his own method (hyperbolic doubt) of inquiry at arising at the truth. Discarding all previously held beliefs because of the possibility of doubt or error, he began his search for truth from scratch (ground zero). He finally concluded that what he cannot doubt is that he thinks, therefore he exists. “I think, therefore I am”. Further, he made a clear distinction between the immaterial mind and the material body, and argued that the body can best be understood by viewing and approaching it in a mechanistic way.

Nearly a century after Descartes, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) [1], a French physician and philosopher, introduced the concept of materialism in medicine in his L’homme machine, which holds that matter is the fundamental substance. Everything else that exists is dependent on matter. Therefore, thoughts or mental events are causally dependent on matter or bodily events. Thus, it was not surprising that modern science views thought processes as consequences of biological brain activities.

By the 19th century, more and more theories about the mind and the brain has surfaced. Despite the many new theories offered that supported the supremacy of the body over the mind, suggesting bodily activities as the cause of mental activities, the mind-brain issue did not come to a clear conclusion.

As science entered the 20th century, more and more scientific evidence began to surface showing the intimate relationship between the mind and the body. Today, the accumulated evidence in science seems to turn back time and bring us one whole circle back to the belief of the ancients with regards to mind-body link.

As we enter the 21st century, science is getting into an exciting phase where it explores not just the physical brain but also the immaterial mind. There is even a suggestion that quantum physics may help to explain consciousness and the working of the mind. Indeed, there is much to look forward to.

Mind and Quantum Mechanics:

  1. Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness: A Causal Correspondence Theory
  2. Discovery Magazine: Is Quantum Mechanics controlling your Thoughts?
  3. Quantum Approaches to Consciousness

 Quantum Mechanics Keywords:

  1. Observer’s Effect
  2. Entanglement
  3. Non-locality
  4. Quantum Tunneling