Mentalism in Psychology, Belief in the Soul and Why It’s a Problem

Allan Paivio coined the concept of mentalism in the 1970s to refer to the use of the introspective method as a basic technique in scientific psychology. Subsequently, the term would be applied to any stream of this discipline that focuses on the analysis of objectively unobservable mental processes, such as traditional cognitivism.

In this article we will talk about the origins and historical development of mentalistic psychology, Including its most recent manifestations. As we will see, in this sense, it is essential to understand the central role that the behavioral paradigm has played throughout the twentieth century.

    Define the concept of mentalism

    The term “mentalism” is used in psychology to designate the branches of this science which they focus their efforts on the analysis of mental processes like thought, sensation, perception or emotion. In this sense, mentalism is opposed to currents that mainly study the relationships between observable behaviors.

    In this way, we could include very diverse theoretical orientations in mentalism. Most commonly associated with the term are the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, the functionalism of William James, and contemporary cognitivism, but psychoanalysis or humanism can also be considered mentalism.

    The word was popularized by cognitive psychologist Allan Paivio, best known for his contributions to the field of information coding. This author used the concept “Classical mentalism” to designate structuralist and functionalist psychology, Who studied consciousness through the introspective method and subjectivity.

    One of the most characteristic aspects of propositions qualified as mentalists is that they are opposed to the understanding of psychological phenomena as a pure by-product of physiological processesConsidering that this vision has a reductionist character and obvious and relevant aspects of reality.

    For most mentalists, thought, emotions, sensations and other mental contents are somehow tangible. In this way, we could understand mentalist perspectives as the successors of Cartesian philosophical dualism, Which in turn relates to the concept of the soul and has key influences in Western thought.

      The introspective method of cognitivism

      In its beginnings as a scientific discipline (late 19th and early 20th centuries), psychology oscillated between the mentalist pole and the behaviorist. Most of the proposals of the time were at one or the other of the extremes, whether or not their authors were identified with the aforementioned perspectives; in this way the hegemony of the introspective method was the key.

      The birth of behaviorism as we understand it today is attributed to the publication of the book “Psychology as seen by the behaviorist”, by John B. Watson, which took place in 1913. Behavioral guidance advocated the need for study exclusively the observable and objective aspects of human behavior.

      In this way, Watson and other classical authors like Iván Pávlov, Burrhus F. Skinner and Jacob R. Kantor they were opposed to those who conceptualized psychology as the study of consciousness. In this category we find both structuralists and functionalists as well as followers of psychoanalysis, who have dominated psychology for decades.

      The rise of behaviorism has led to a decrease in interest in psychological processes, and in particular in consciousness. However, from around the 1960s what we now call the “cognitive revolution” began to occur, and it was simply a return to the study of the mind through more objective techniques. .

      In the second half of the twentieth century, cognitivism coexisted with Radical Skinnerian behaviorism, the most successful variant of this perspective; however, it is clear that the “new mentalism” cared much more than the classic about objectivity. This trend of integration with scientific evidence as a basis has been maintained to this day.

      Mentalism today

      Despite the apparent opposition between the mentalist and behavioral perspectives, combinations of the two types of approach are now found very commonly. As they have developed and obtained a solid empirical basis, the two theoretical currents approached more or less spontaneously.

      Perhaps the most characteristic manifestation of modern mentalism is cognitive neuroscience. The object of study of this discipline is mental processes (including, of course, one’s own consciousness); however, it is based on much more advanced and reliable techniques than introspection, such as brain mapping and computer modeling.

      In any case, it is a debate that it will not be solved in the near future as it responds to a nuclear dichotomy: That given among psychologists who believe that this science should be devoted mainly to the study of observable behaviors and those who emphasize the role of mental processes as entities capable of being analyzed in themselves.

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