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Brain disorders? Not really: Why network structures block reductionism in psychopathology research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 January 2018

Denny Borsboom
Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, 1018 WT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. d.borsboom@uva.nl
Angélique O. J. Cramer
Department of Methodology and Statistics, Tilburg University, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands. aoj.cramer@gmail.com
Annemarie Kalis
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University, 3512 BL Utrecht, The Netherlands. A.Kalis@uu.nl


In the past decades, reductionism has dominated both research directions and funding policies in clinical psychology and psychiatry. The intense search for the biological basis of mental disorders, however, has not resulted in conclusive reductionist explanations of psychopathology. Recently, network models have been proposed as an alternative framework for the analysis of mental disorders, in which mental disorders arise from the causal interplay between symptoms. In this target article, we show that this conceptualization can help explain why reductionist approaches in psychiatry and clinical psychology are on the wrong track. First, symptom networks preclude the identification of a common cause of symptomatology with a neurobiological condition; in symptom networks, there is no such common cause. Second, symptom network relations depend on the content of mental states and, as such, feature intentionality. Third, the strength of network relations is highly likely to depend partially on cultural and historical contexts as well as external mechanisms in the environment. Taken together, these properties suggest that, if mental disorders are indeed networks of causally related symptoms, reductionist accounts cannot achieve the level of success associated with reductionist disease models in modern medicine. As an alternative strategy, we propose to interpret network structures in terms of D. C. Dennett's (1987) notion of real patterns, and suggest that, instead of being reducible to a biological basis, mental disorders feature biological and psychological factors that are deeply intertwined in feedback loops. This suggests that neither psychological nor biological levels can claim causal or explanatory priority, and that a holistic research strategy is necessary for progress in the study of mental disorders.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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