The Menlo Roundtable

Descartes’ Fallacy: How linking mental and physical diagnosis can illuminate Southern Gothic themes

The Cartesian mind-body duality is one of modern medicine’s greatest fallacies.

The mind-body duality asserts that the nature of the mind is completely separate from the nature of the body. The separation of mind and body is not only a false but a dangerous assertion. Dissociating ourselves from the overlap between cognitive and corporeal capacities limits our ability to treat either illness and of course, mental and physical illness tend to cross over in unexpected ways. For instance, anxiety can present itself through trouble breathing, chest pains, chills, or overheating. Depression can manifest through decreased pain tolerance, muscle aches, eye problems, or digestive issues. Our body has a wonderful way of bringing these altered mental states to our attention before we might realize something is wrong, just as our subconscious is aware of physical issues before they manifest fully. Mental illness is incredibly complex and dynamic in this way.

This phenomenon of the overlap of physical and mental states is prominent in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe (1839) and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor (1965). Both short stories blend physical and mental overlap with inherently Southern Gothic themes such as the fixation on a false golden age and obsession with the stagnation of family lines.

Photo: Photo by Ashley Knedler / Unsplash