Jeffrey Schwartz and the effectiveness of “mental effort”

Here’s a summary of the research of UCLA professor Jeffrey Schwartz which appeared in First Things.


Schwartz provides a nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience and argues that this interpretation is more compelling than the standard materialist interpretation. He arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers recognize obsessive-compulsive thoughts and urges as separate from their intrinsic selves. For instance, after a few washings, the compulsive hand-washer realizes that his hands are clean and yet feels driven to keep washing them. It was reflection on this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that prompted Schwartz to reassess the philosophical underpinnings of neuroscience.

From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, the brain enables the mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this involved a patient acknowledging that his hands were in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about his hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing his thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).

Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms, but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, “mindful attention”-conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.

So mind-brain interaction is not a one-way street. Everyone knows that you can alter your consciousness, beliefs, moods, sensations, etc. by changing your brain. But it turns out that you can also will to focus your thoughts on certain things in order to change your brain chemistry. So the causation is not just bottom-up, but top-down. This research falsifies materialism and argues for substance dualism.

3 thoughts on “Jeffrey Schwartz and the effectiveness of “mental effort””

  1. This research does not falsify materialism. Materialists don’t deny that people have a will and that people can use their will to change their mental states. I don’t see how you draw your conclusion.

  2. Indeed, I am not sure how you are drawing this conclusion. Unless one is committed to epiphenominalism, materialism doesn’t claim mental states cannot effect brain states, in fact mental states ARE brain states. This isn’t really surprising for materialism, who was denying that mental stimulus can have neurological results?

  3. So, the “will” is now a material thing?

    Is there anything more inconsistent with materialism than that a an immaterial thing – an idea, a decision, a will – causes the movement of a material thing? A person chooses to drink his coffee and so raises his arm to bring his cup to his mouth.

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