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Are We All Mere Products of Experience?

A brief examination of this view applied to psychopathology.

Key points

  • Some theorists contend that mental disorders are the direct result of experience.
  • This view fails to incorporate biological and genetic contributions and negates the existence of intrapsychic mental forces.
  • In particular, the function of integrative activity is denied.

The nature-nurture debate represents one of human psychology's most classic dilemmas, and despite attempts to understand abnormal mental functioning through a comprehensive biopsychosocial framework, some continue to insist that experience (or trauma) underlies all forms of psychopathology. I wish here to provide a brief refutation of this perspective, which I believe fails to incorporate potentially etiological biological and genetic factors and negates the existence of intrapsychic mental forces.

Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay
The human mind.
Source: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

To some radical relational-intersubjectivists, intrapsychic processes (the internal workings of the mind) cannot be separated from interpersonal processes (the experiences that occur between persons), and the intrapsychic is seen merely as a product of internalized relational experience. From this perspective, all of a person's mental life can be explained as a direct result of one's experiences: underlying all mental illness is some overt or hidden trauma, or at the very least a set of harmful, idiosyncratic experiences that have led to the disorder.

Implicit in this perspective is the idea that individuals are passive recipients of experience; they soak up, like a sponge, everything in their environment and these experiences become, directly and immutably, a part of the self. Thus, the person is completely molded by these external forces. Their illness is a direct consequence of abuse, neglect, poor parenting, or other environmental problems. These ideas have become quite popular amongst followers of Bessel van der Kolk, a leading researcher on trauma.

I can find at least two problems with this view. The first is that it completely ignores the large and growing body of literature demonstrating the etiological significance of biological and genetic factors in mental illness. Since I am not a psychiatrist or neuroscientist, I will not address this issue here, though it is of great importance. The second problem, which is one I will attempt to address as a psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapist, is this view's neglect of what has been termed "integrative activity" (Konorski, 1967).

It is undoubtedly true that every human being is strongly influenced by his environment, a fact that I believe is now underappreciated by many conventional scientists and theorists of psychopathology. Human beings are comprised fundamentally by a state of receptivity, yet we are not defined solely by this receptivity. Instead, we possess another basic function, integrative activity, which transforms one's interactions with the environment and, in turn, leads to a transformation of the individual (Arieti, 1977). The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico summarized this concept:

The being of man cannot be enclosed within a determinate structure of possibilities…but it moves, rather, along indeterminable alternatives, and even further, but its own movement generates these alternatives [emphasis added].

Thus, the patient makes his own contributions and adds an element of his own creativity to his pathology. In any given mental disorder—indeed in any behavior or mental experience in general—multiple processes involving the interpersonal and intrapsychic go back and forth. The patient is not merely a passive recipient of experience.

What are the practical ramifications of this conceptualization? Perhaps the most apparent clinical example is the schizophrenia patient's transformation of the negative aspects of his development into grotesquely inaccurate portrayals of his family members and significant others. The psychotherapy of this type of problem seeks to understand not only the influence of the early environmental factors (the interpersonal) but, more importantly, the psychodynamic mechanisms by which the patient has come to distort his vision of himself and the world (the intrapsychic).

To summarize, attempts to explain mental disorder as resulting directly from experience fall short because they fail to take into account intrapsychic processes, namely one's own integrative capacities, and also the existence of biologically- and genetically-relevant etiological factors.


Arieti, S. (1977). Parents of the schizophrenic patient: A reconsideration. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 5(3), 347-358.

Caponigri, A. R. (1953). Time and idea: The theory of history in Giambattista Vico. Regnery.

Konorski, J. (1967). Integrative activity of the brain. Chicago University Press.