Formation and meaning of mental symptoms: history and epistemology Lecture presented at the Roman Circle of Psychopathology, Rome, Italy, 16th February 2012

Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences 6 (2):39-48 (2013)
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Historical evidence shows that mental symptoms were constructed in a particular historical and cultural context (19th Century alienism). According to the Cambridge model of symptom-formation, mental symptoms are mental acts whereby sufferers configure, by means of cultural templates, information invading their awareness. This information, which can be of biological or semantic origin, is pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic and to be understood and communicated requires formatting and linguistic collocation. Mental symptoms are hybrid objects, that is, blends of inchoate biological or symbolic signals and cultural configurators. "Culture" plays a very deep role in symptom-formation because templates can attenuate or abolish the specificity of the biological signals involved. This means that signals from different brain sites can be configured as the same symptom and signals from the same site as different symptoms. Although always present, the neurobiological substratum is not fundamental in the understanding and management of mental symptoms. These can only be comprehended in relation to the manner of their construction and the cognitive and emotional biographies of each patient. Direct interference with the brain sites involved may dull mental symptoms but is unlikely to offer long-term cure. If the configuratory style and needs of the patient are not understood and dealt with, he is likely to keep re-constituting or replicating his symptoms in relation to other biological signals. In summary, mental symptoms are not passive happenings but genuine mental acts. Hence, the manner and motivation of their construction may be more important than the signal of brain distress that might have provoked them in the first place.


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