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“Mental Illness” and “Mental Imagery”. Guided Research. Report

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

Introduction

The two terms chosen for this guided research are “mental illness” and “mental imagery”. Both terms are very different but somewhat related as will be explained in the research findings.

Mental Illness

Philosophy is interested in mental illness because it raises special questions that society as a whole must deal with. Questions like the following are often asked:

  • Are people with mental illness responsible for their behavior?
  • Are people with mental illness responsible for symptomatic behavior?
  • Can mentally ill people be held responsible for crimes they might commit?
  • Is society responsible for caring for the mentally ill?

These are just some of the questions that may be asked. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asks whether or not there is an objective way to classify mental illnesses. Psychiatrists do use a guide called the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 1994). This handbook lists the different mental disorders and their diagnostic criteria. There are many different mental illnesses and different criterion for each.

For example, to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder a patient must meet the following criteria:

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
  • A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  • Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
  • Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging.
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
  • Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.
  • Transient, stress–related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

The term “mental illness” encompasses many disorders of the brain or mind. Mental illness can be very mild or very severe. Dysthymia is a mild form of depression and is easily treated while schizophrenia can be a severe mental illness and is often a devastating diagnosis. Generally speaking, a person does not choose to be mentally ill. But, a mentally ill person can choose whether or not to take medications or consent to treatment that will make their condition better (not cured).

Mental illness is a chronic mental malfunction (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Online Premium Edition). This is not to be confused with temporary mental malfunctions that occur with other illnesses such as delusions with a high fever. Although according to this reference (Oxford) the question of causation of mental illness is that it may be a byproduct of physical or bodily illness. On the other hand this reference points out that mental illness may be “a self contained locus of illness”. Certainly many of those hospitalized with mental illness often have no symptoms of any other illness. In fact, many mentally ill become ill with other illnesses because of their inability to care for themselves. The Oxford reference points out that if mental illness is caused by another illness then perhaps if the other illness is cured with pharmaceuticals then the mental illness will be cured as well. The counter argument is that mental illness cannot be cured with pharmaceuticals but rather by mental means with a therapist (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Online Premium Edition).

Mental Imagery

Mental illness is something that a person cannot control on their own. Mental imagery is something that an individual can control most of the time.

Mental imagery can be best understood as ones imagination. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy the imagination plays a big part in learning. Mental imagery can be best understood as visualizing, “seeing with the mind’s eye” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) or hearing in your head. People can imagine how things feel, sound, look, etc.

Visual imagery is the best understood form of mental imagery. The imagination is best described as:

“The capacity to consider sensible objects without actually perceiving them or supposing that they really exist. Philosophers have disagreed over whether or not acts of imagination necessarily involve mental images or ideas.” (Philosophy Pages)

The imagination is a way for us to process and learn from information we encounter everyday. Imagination allows us to think outside what our current situation or perceptual reality is. For example, we use our imagination to visualize a story when we read a book. Another example would be of a prisoner in his cell visualizing that he is outside on a sunny day. He can use mental imagery to feel the sun, see the brightness of the sun, and hear the insects around him. In effect he can leave the cell in his mind.

A good way to explore mental imagery is to ask someone, or a few people, whether they think in pictures or words (Lowe, p169). Some people insist that when they think they can “see” vividly what they are thinking about while others “hear” themselves thinking. Their thinking is accompanied by mental imagery. “Mental imagery, whether visual or auditory, manifestly accompanies much or all of our conscious thinking” (Lowe, p169).

Philosophy is concerned with mental imagery because mental images play a part in memory and thinking (Paivio). Our mental images are actually copies of what we see in reality. For example, if you give someone something to imagine that they are familiar with then they can imagine it. But, if you ask someone to imagine something they know nothing about then they can’t imagine it.

Mental imaging can be used to treat mental illness. For example, Belleruth Naparstek has quite a few tapes recorded that use guided imagery to help with different disorders. These recordings help with sleep, stress, weight loss, wellness and relaxation, trauma and panic attacks. There too many to be listed here. These tapes are a form of meditation but use images to promote wellness. This type of healing is called “imagining yourself well”, a type of holistic healing (Shafer, p1). This type of imagery is often associated with meditation and hypnosis. In hypnosis one is guided to retrieve images, sounds, feelings and other sensations from the past. Again, one cannot imagine something they have never seen. Like a baby who sees an elephant for the first time. that baby will be able to recall what an elephant looks like and be able to imitate what an elephant does. The baby will not be able to imitate an elephant without seeing one first.

Conclusion

Two seemingly unrelated terms have much in common. Mental illness is a disorder of the mind or brain. Mental imaging is the ability to visualize, hear, or feel something by focusing and imagining it. This “seeing it in your mind” is used to treat mental disorders. Guided imagery helps a patient visualize things related to their illness such as trauma, process it, and hopefully get better.

Works Cited

“depiction” Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. OPLIN WebFeat. Web.

DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition, text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

Stephen M. Kosslyn, Giorgio Ganis, William L. Thompson “mental imagery: depictive accounts” Richard L. Gregory. Oxford University Press 1987. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. OPLIN WebFeat. Web.

Lowe, E.J. (2000). An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK

“mental illness” Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Boston Public Library. Web.

“mental illness” John Scott and Gordon Marshall. Oxford University Press 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Boston Public Library. Web.

“Mental Illness” and “Mental Imagery” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Online. Web.

Philosophy Pages. Web.

Paivio, Allan. (1986). Mental Representation: A Duel Coding Approach. New York Oxford University Press.

Shafer, Kathryn. (2008). Imagine Yourself Well. Web.

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