Mental disorders are not brain disorders

J Eval Clin Pract. 2013 Jun;19(3):509-13. doi: 10.1111/jep.12048.


As advances in neuroscience and genetics reveal complex associations between brain structures, functions and symptoms of mental disorders, there have been calls for psychiatric classifications to be reconfigured, to conceptualize mental disorders as disorders of the brain. In this paper, I argue that this view is mistaken, and that the level at which we identify mental disorders is, and should be, the person, not the brain. This is not to deny physicalism or argue that the mental realm is somehow distinct from the physical, but rather to suggest the things that are going 'wrong' in mental disorder are picked out at the person-level: they are characterized by breaches in epistemic, rational, evaluative, emotional, social and moral norms. However, as our scientific understanding of the brain becomes advanced, what makes an identified neurobiological difference in brain structure or functioning indicative of pathology is its association with these behaviours at the person-level. Instead of collapsing psychiatry into biomedicine, biomedicine may benefit from drawing closer to the expertise of psychiatry, as it is able to accommodate social, psychological and biological explanations while focusing on the person, within their environment.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Diseases / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / pathology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Neurosciences
  • Psychiatry