What causes mental illness and why did the chicken cross the road?

According to Humberto Maturana:

An every day explanation is always an answer to the question about the origin of the phenomenon to be explained, and is accepted or rejected by the listener depending on whether or not it satisfies certain criteria of acceptability that the listener specifies.

For example: Q: “Where do babies come from?” A: “The stork brings them”


A scientific explanation, however, is the criterion of validation of a scientific statement. It specifies the phenomenon to be explained. It provides a generative mechanism (the hypothesis), that if it is allowed to operate, gives rise to the phenomenon to be explained, and tells you what to do so that if you do it you will be able to observe the phenomenon that it was explaining in the first place.

For example: Storks are tuned in to the electromagnetic field that is produced when 2 human beings are having sex. The stork appears 9 months later creating a blip in the time space continuum …. ahhh maybe not.

Lets walk down memory lane past a few signposts of everyday explanations:

Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain! Well, not so much, but drug companies made a lot of money while we thought so.

Severe mental ill health is biological and only responds to medication! Hmmmm, it turns out not to be that simple, and again, drug companies are doing better than patients.

Mental illness has a genetic cause. Well, there might be a small part to play, but its hard to distinguish from the environmental influence of being raised by a mentally ill parent.

CBT is best practice for treating mental illness. Not so. Just ask the Swedes.

Mental illness is created by storks!

What is more interesting to me is not what caused it, but how can we get better at assisting recovery. I am still shaking my head after reading that the NIMH spent 11 million US dollars on 8 studies between 1992 and 2009 that pitted one therapy model against another and found again what we have known since Rosenzweig in 1936 described the dodo bird effect. We need to start asking different questions so that money for research can be used more wisely.

Consider the question: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

A scientist would provide a generative mechanism, that if it were allowed to operate would result in the chicken crossing the road, and would be reproducible. Anything else is just philosophical speculation. A more interesting question, however, might be “was the chicken’s wellbeing improved by crossing the road?” and if so, how can we assist more chickens to cross more roads?

I dream of a day where a chicken can cross the road without having it’s motives questioned, and where the next $11 million the NIMH spends is to discover something useful that we don’t know, that improves outcomes for people with mental illness.

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