Laura Laine Kelley: Mind-body interactionism and epiphenomenalism

Contrast the main features of ‘interactionist’ and ‘epiphenomenalist’ versions of mind-body dualism.

The film ‘Awakenings’ might be used as a way of explaining the differences in the philosophical concepts of interactionism and ephiphenomenalism.

‘Awakenings’ (released in 1997, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) is based on an actual event that occurred in a psychiatric hospital in the summer of 1969. A number of catatonic seeming patients were recognized as having unusual reflexes (in the movie they are all portrayed as being virtual ‘vegetables’ except for the remarkable coincidence that they are all able to catch a ball). An enterprising doctor searches their files, finds a common thread about their illness and finally experiments with a drug that he hypothesizes may bring them back in to awareness (‘wake them up’). He succeeds in doing so, though eventually something occurs to where the symptoms reverse and they, sadly, revert to the catatonic states in which they are found at the opening of the film.

The experience, however, affects all concerned. Prior to the Awakening, most of the hospital staff assumed ‘no one was home’ in the bodies of these patients. They had been the ‘living dead’ for twenty-five or so years, and there was little hope in reviving them. They were treated as mere ‘bodies.’ Loved ones treated them as bodies within which contained versions of persons they knew twenty-five years earlier… frozen in time. When remarkable and unique personalities briefly awaken from these life-like corpses, the result is a change in everyone’s perceptions of what they had presumed to be true about WHO each of those bodies was as a person.

While the doctors do not know what caused the catatonic state, they learn that a certain drug succeeded in being influential in waking the patients up from it. What emerged were fully functioning human beings… mind and body fully interacting. But not right away! The details of the situation are murky, but music is portrayed as the initial stimulus that jolts them into awakening action. One of the nurses is directed to find the specific music that communicates to each individual (thus, one type of music activates one patient but not another…).

From the interactionist theory (and a lay person perception of music as ‘communicating to the soul’) one might say that the drug activated the brain, but the music activated the soul. Until the soul was in ‘the driver seat’ the body was inactive. Again, the details are murky, but as it’s portrayed, while the drug woke the individuals up — so that they were functioning beings — they acted like zombies until the music began to stimulate their personalities into place. On this view, the vibrant living beings that emerged had their SOUL awakened, and that is what led to a fully integrated mind and body.

From the epiphenomenalist perspective, however, the music would’ve been an inconsequential relation — just one in a series of events that contributed to a fully mental being re-emerging. The consciousness, albeit the SELF-consciousness, that the patients ultimately displayed, make for a fine story… the real success, however, is that a drug altered the brain chemistry in such a way to wake these beings up at all.

Thus from the perspective of mind-body dualism, the important features of the events portrayed in this film are that underneath a zombie looking being there appeared to be a self that maintained its essential characteristics in tact over a twenty-five year comatose- like state. The self was revived and seemed to be the same self that had existed before the illness set in… and in some portrayals, had actually evolved during those years of ‘sleep’ (in other words, the mind, the self, did not deteriorate as it would’ve in a coma). The relevant question is about this self that the patients exhibited — and what ‘turned them on’ and then ‘turned them off’ again? Their bodies are alive, their minds are alive and some sort of interaction was stimulated in order to activate their consciousness. The epiphenomenalist would see the consciousness as a by-product of a mind-body dualism, and the interactionist would see the consciousness as essentially a non-physical phenomenon that was trapped in the lack of an efficient mind-body interaction.

© Laura Laine Kelley 2014