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Agency, embodiment and enactment in psychosomatic theory and practice
  1. Laurence J Kirmayer,
  2. Ana Gómez-Carrillo
  1. Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Laurence J Kirmayer, Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3A 1A1, Canada; laurence.kirmayer{at}mcgill.ca

Abstract

In this paper, we examine some of the conceptual, pragmatic and moral dilemmas intrinsic to psychosomatic explanation in medicine, psychiatry and psychology. Psychosomatic explanation invokes a social grey zone in which ambiguities and conflicts about agency, causality and moral responsibility abound. This conflict reflects the deep-seated dualism in Western ontology and concepts of personhood that plays out in psychosomatic research, theory and practice. Illnesses that are seen as psychologically mediated tend also to be viewed as less real or legitimate. New forms of this dualism are evident in philosophical attacks on Engel’s biopsychosocial approach, which was a mainstay of earlier psychosomatic theory, and in the recent Research Domain Criteria research programme of the US National institute of Mental Health which opts for exclusively biological modes of explanation of illness. We use the example of resignation syndrome among refugee children in Sweden to show how efforts to account for such medically unexplained symptoms raise problems of the ascription of agency. We argue for an integrative multilevel approach that builds on recent work in embodied and enactive cognitive science. On this view, agency can have many fine gradations that emerge through looping effects that link neurophenomenology, narrative practices and cultural affordances in particular social contexts. This multilevel ecosocial view points the way towards a renewed biopsychosocial approach in training and clinical practice that can advance person-centred medicine and psychiatry.

  • psychosomatic medicine
  • mind-body dualism
  • agency
  • subjectivity
  • predictive processing
  • biopsychosocial approach
  • resignation syndrome

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Footnotes

  • Contributors Both authors conceived the paper, reviewed the literature, wrote drafts and agreed on the final version.

  • Funding This study was funded by Government of Canada, Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship (201709BPF-393951-294377).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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