Biology Invades Psychology

July 8, 1988

Report Outline
Special Focus


In recent years, scientists have found that many mental illnesses have a biological basis. The discoveries have lifted a burden of guilt from the mentally ill and their relatives, but they also have raised scientific and philosophical questions. If some psychological phenomena have biological causes, does this mean that all of them do? If so, what does this mean for traditional psychotherapy? And what does it say about the nature of man?

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Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychiatry, began his career as a neurologist. In the late 1800s, seeking to discover how the mind worked, he took bits of brain tisue from corpses and studied them under his microscope. But 19th century microscopes were too crude to reveal the minute circuitry of the brain as we know it today. Unable to detect the electrical and chemical movements within the brain that are the key to mental activity. Freud turned away from a biological approach to the mind in favor of what was to become psychoanalysis.

That, essentially, is the way things stood for decades. Competing theories and techniques came and went, with Freud's falling in and out of favor from time to time, but the basic concept remained: Treat diseases of the body with medicine; treat diseases of the mind with talk.

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