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Neurobiology and Behavior, Week 14: Reflections

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. Leave whatever thoughts in progress you think might be useful to others, see what other people are thinking, and add thoughts that that in turn generates in you.

This week, please think back our semester together and our shared task of helping each other and others make sense of existing and anticipated implications of research on the brain.  Along these lines:

  • Where were you on the Descartian/Dickinsonian spectrum when the semester started and where are you now?
  • What ideas/conversations/understandings/issues/contentions from this semester do you think will most stick in your mind?  are most important for others to be aware of?
  • What three questions related to brain and behavior would you most like to see pursued in the next few years? 


Vicky Tu's picture

My Reflection

 At the beginning of the semester, I was actually skeptical about both Descartian/Dicksonian sides, though I was leaning toward Descartes just because dying without soul is a extremely scary idea for me. That would be the complete end of my being in the world. After taking this course, I decide I would not take any side because we really don't know the truth. And probably we will never know. Both Descartian and Dicksonian theories have certain level of true to them. The mind does decide what kind of person we are. But maybe there is a soul somewhere that is controlling the mind. And we just can't find it. We will never know. And this class does teach me that there is no absolute truth, only truer fact. Therefore I will not take either Descartian or Dicksonian side because maybe neither one is the truth. We should keep evaluating them to make them "truer". If we only stick Dicksonian side, then maybe we will never find our souls even if we actually have them. It is good to remain skeptical about things so there will be more possibilities for us to explore.

I consider the topic of "picture in the mind" to be very very interesting because it is very shocking and disturbing to know. I always knew that people have different understandings of the world around them. But I never knew (or I have heard about but am never willing to believe)  that our brain will actually make up things to fill blind spots or accommodate our pre-existed misconceptions. This will definitely stick to my mind also because my the book I am doing the review on ("The Inevitable Illusions") also contain similar messages. The understanding of this human weakness will make me think twice about things I see and I do and help me make more rational decisions in the future ( it is not possible to make complete rational decisions because our brains won't let us) I think this idea will be good for others to learn too because of what it teach us.

1)I want to explore more about soul. Some studies say that most parts of human brain are actually not used. Maybe our soul is hiding in there.

2)I want to learn about the details of brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. I want to help figure out a way to cure these diseases in the future.

3)I want learn more about dreams. What exactly is going on when we dream? 



cschoonover's picture


 In the beginning of the semester I was not quite sure where I stood on the spectrum, but now I am on the Dickinsonian side. While I still acknowledge the possibility of something bigger than us, that there is a mind within everyone. However, I do agree that the brain does equal behavior and I think the course definitely helped me expand my understanding of how much of behavior can be accounted for by the brain.

I think the most novel idea from class that will stick with me is the I-function. I probably had some idea of what it stands for before taking this class, but I didn’t have a definitive understanding nor did I have a label for it. For me, the most exciting conversation in class revolved around perception, especially visual perception and how much of what we experience is a construction of the mind. I’m not sure I really ever knew how active our unconscious is or how much of a role it has in how I perceive the world. I also really enjoyed being challenged by this course. As a biology major, science has always been a right and wrong answer. But now, I like that I can recognize when there isn’t always a right answer or when there are a thousand more possibilities to explain a phenomenon.

In the future, I would like to see more research on artificial intelligence and how achievable it is. Is this something that would even be useful or desirable? Also, it would be great if there were non-pharmacological treatments for psychological disorders. Finally, I would love to see advancements in the area of those unexplainable sensations, including but not limited to, pain and itching.  

Schmeltz's picture

Initially, I was a Descartian

Initially, I was a Descartian probably because I have been heavily influenced by all the literature and poetry I have explored from the Romantic era and also because I really did believe in the concept of a soul.  I still do. Now, however, I have been able to develop a new story of where this soul originates and I have been able to recognize science as having the potential to be a spiritual journey.  I now believe one can be an expansionist, a spiritualist, and a materialist all at once.  I think Dickinson is an example of this.  So, I am now a converted Dickinsonian and I am happy with the transformation because I believe it has allowed me to view the world from a new perspectives.

The next bullet is a loaded question. To be honest, most of what we explored in this class was new material for me.  I really want to explore the concept of the I-function in more depth and how it functions under certain environments/conditions.  Further, I'd like to explore spiritual, self-transcendent experience to a greater extent and determine in what ways I may facilitate these experiences in my own life.  Also, I would like to gain more insight into the unconscious nervous system.  I feel like I think too much now in terms of I-function.  Additionally, I want to explore E.O. Wilson's ideas on the human connection to nature and possibly expand on the foundation he established for philosophers and scientists to take a more rigorous approach toward the conservation ethic.  Conversations/topics I found interesting: paraplegic dogs, science as being "loopy" and about "getting it less wrong", picture in our head is a construction, Dickinson and "The Brain is Wider than the Sky", CPGs, nervous system as being a system of outputs, I-function, exploration of the bipartite nervous system, color, vision, and fovea (I definitely want to explore the auditory system more after this exploration of the visual system), set points, dreams, fugues...   

I really believe that if others were offered the opportunity to explore more about the brain and behavior the approach we took would really heighten awareness and generate understanding that I really think could potentially enhance our human connection.  When you realize and come to terms with the fact that each of us is truly individualistic and a unique nervous system composed of outlets and resulting inputs, it becomes, I think, easier to accept differences.  Also, people become more interesting because you realize that you can never share their exact experience.  This is why conversation is so significant because there is so much going on of which we are not aware and of which we cannot experience.  I think by understanding the brain and behavior, people may learn to gain tolerance and compassion for the different ideas different brains possess.  By conversing and sharing the ideas in our brains, we expand and enhance our own experience.  I really believe this.

Some questions that I would like answered:

How may drugs be used to enhance our human experience i.e. hallucinogens? Do they have the power to empower the I-function?  

Are self-transcendent experiences localizable?  Do they correlate to specific brain regions? 

How exactly does anesthesia work? 

Do paraplegic dogs wag their tails? Based on my series of observations I say yes, but it is still an interesting thing to explore...

Congwen Wang's picture

An end and a start

I stayed as Dickinsonian throughout the semester, but I think it doesn't matter anymore.  The most important idea I learned in this class - and will keep in mind - is constantly questioning every theory. To me, the name "Dickinsonian" is more of a lable for the summary of my thoughts on our brain and behaviours.  As for my actually thoughts, they have changed a lot, and they will surely keep changing. Maybe one day I would believe there are souls in us, and then I could call myself a Descartian.

I'll surely remember our discussion about vision, and all of the amazing tricks our brain played with us.  After that, I could and will never regard our brain as something completely "objective".  I once thought no matter how we interpret something, there had to be a "reality" as its base. It turned out that the supposed "reality" and our interpretation of it actually don't have a one-to-one correlation. Now I can understand why "everything is the construction of our brain". Yes, for a bio major, it sounds a bit unsettling. But I guess that's what science is supposed to do - to challenge our worldview, to push us to find new explanations and ideas. I'm feeling fortunate to take this class in the first year of college; now I can constantly remind myself how little I know, so I can always revel in exploring the new.

And here is a newly found vision trick:

3 Questions:

1. How do our brain abstract the words from various handwriting styles? More particularly, sometimes when the handwriting is rather indicernible, we can still recognize some words by looking into the context; how is this achieved?

2. I also find our accents very interesting. My English accent changed after I come here; I can tell that it's americanized, with a clearer "r" sound. But when talking to a non native speaker, my accent sometimes shifts back to my old accent. It seems that although we can change our accent, there is a "default" accent that we tend to get back to. I wonder whether there is research on this topic?

3. I read an article about dream:  What interests me is that scientists observed that when we are lucid dreaming, our brain activities have similarities with both REM state and waking state. To me it seems to suggest that our "waking self" and our "dreaming self" are actually different. I wonder if and how these two "self" are different?

meroberts's picture


In the beginning of the semester, I was in the Dickinsonian camp and I have remained there throughout the semester. Maybe it's because I'm a jaded senior, but the whole concept of a soul- especially a soul that was capable of thought- seemed out of place in a neurobiology class.

In keeping with the Dickinsonian theory, I believe that the fact that reality is just a construct of one's brain/mind is important to everyday life. If more people knew that the world might not be so crazy because there is no single or correct way to perceive something. I also think it's important to know that the brain is dynamic, not static, and that there is no such thing as complete objectivity.

In the future I would like to see the field of neurobiology: create new pharmacological treatments to promote neuronal growth and regeneration after traumatic brain injury; to clarify what "consciousness" is; and to determine if other  animals are capable of consciousness of the self.

kdilliplan's picture

End-of-the-Semester Reflections


When the semester began, I was on the Dickinsonian side of the spectrum. I am still on the Dickinsonian side of the spectrum, though this course has given me a different perspective on my position. Instead of arguing that it is possible that nothing exists outside of the brain because I don’t believe in the existence of a creator or the necessity of a soul (the way I did at the beginning of the semester), I now argue that it doesn’t matter if there is anything outside the brain because our experiences of the outside world are limited to the stories we construct in our brains. There may be such a thing as input from the outside world, but each and every one of us perceives it slightly differently. The reality that I perceive has always served me quite well, so for all intents and purposes I am comfortable with the notion that my perception is limited.

I think the ongoing discussion of the role of the I-function is the most interesting one we’ve explored. At first, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of the I-function because I thought it sounded too much like the concept of a soul. However, I now think the I-function is an important part of understanding behavior. I especially like the notion that it is not located in one place in the brain and that everyone’s I-function works differently and can serve different purposes in different situations. In my mind, this allows us to account for differences between individuals without asserting that one kind of behavior is “normal” and anyone who behaves differently is “abnormal.” It also feels less mystical to think of the I-function as a portion of the nervous system that can be engaged and disengaged like a program on a computer but at the same time does not reduce the human brain to a mere machine.

Several of the questions I want to see explored have to do with collective consciousness. Why are certain fears virtually universal? How come different cultures come up with remarkably similar mythologies without having interacted? How come we are capable of spontaneously developing language? I am also interested in finding out more about the similarities and differences between the nervous systems of other organisms besides humans. If no two humans perceive the outside world the same way, what staggering diversity of perception must exist among the rest of life on the planet!   


mcurrie's picture

Final Thoughts

 With Descartain/Dickinsonian spectrum I was in the middle believing that the there is a mind, soul along with the neurons, and matter. I have not changed my mind throughout the course. Although as we described the brain there were certain subjects like the I-function and vision that are connected to what you experience and can shape your character or how you think. I think that not only is there the neurons and matter that send the signals but there's the mind that is a part of what you experience. 

With the course I will always remember the talks about vision and how the brain lies to you or fill in the blanks to make the picture in your head. Whenever I look over a paper or see some image change I think oh my brain is filling in the blanks. When looking over my Italian blogs it is very frustrating when my brain looks at a word that is spelled wrong but looks right. Or even with my other papers where mistakes are overlooked because my brain has seen them as correct. As I go throughout my day I try to figure what my reality is, what images can look different and how that may affect what I experience or think. The most important for others to be aware is the differences with our brains, how we all have different experiences, view things differently, which is a good thing. That even if someone sees something or thinks differently does not mean that their wrong. 

Three questions I would like to pursue are what happens when a person is in a transitive state or meditative state? Is the I-function turned off? What is going in the unconscious portion of the brain? I'd also like to explore emotions in more depth. I'd like to know what parts of the brain and interactions correlate with different emotions. 

Lauren McD's picture


I don't think this class has changed my view on the Dickinsonian/Descartian debate. I'm still confused as to where I lie on this spectrum, but I know that I don't identify with one or the other. And that's certainly nothing against the content of this class! This debate is one that had been in my mind for a while, just without labels, and I'm still trying to figure out which one I believe in more.

I think the most interesting aspects of this class that will stay with me are the most recent discussions on vision. Originally, all I had understood about how vision worked was that our eye picks up information and sends it to the brain for interpretation. We delved far beyond this simple understanding of vision. I also think I'll remember the counter-intuitive ideas, since they most surprised me. Some examples of this are the optical illusions, outputs generating inputs, and Christopher Reeves' non-isolated nervous system. These ideas were the most interesting to me because they changed my original views on these topics.

There are many intriguing aspects of the brain and behavior that I am still wondering about that were not discussed in this class, but of course we don't have time for all of them! I'm still interested in learning how the mind can control physiological symptoms, such as in meditation. Also, I'd be interested in learning about the other senses in the manner that we learned about vision. And lastly, I wish we had gone slightly more into social interactions among people instead of just remaining in individual behavior. All in all though, I was very interested in our discussions that we did have in class and have a better general knowledge of the brain and the nervous system.

Jeanette Bates's picture

Final Reflections

 At the beginning of the semester, I had no idea where I was on the Descartian/Dickinsonian spectrum, but now I feel that a bit closer to the Dickinsonian view. I have learned a lot about what the brain can do and about what it can make us perceive and feel. Nevertheless, I think the fact that all of us have such an amazing organ that can do so much is something that must be caused by something greater. 

I think the I-function was the one thing that struck me as the most interesting, especially when I realized how the rest of our brain can keep information from it. I always wondered why there was an unconscious and a conscious area of the brain, and now I'm realizing how ineffective it would be if our I-function ran everything. It would be too complicated and we would end up getting confused. 

The questions that I still have are ones that we were only able to touch on at the end. I don't have three at the moment, but I do have one question that keeps popping into my head: how does brain affect culture and how does culture affect the brain? How do those two relate? If the answer to that could ever be discovered, I'd be rather amazed. 

yml's picture


I was more on the Dickinsonian spectrum at the beginning of the semester. I didn’t disagree or find it hard to believe the Descartian side of the argument, but I believe more in the Dickinsonian idea, because it seemed like it can be based on scientific proof more than the Descartian can do. And I always find scientific proof more concrete than other types of proof and comfortable believing in them. However, now, I am not so sure. I think my view basically changed everyday based on the topic we discussed in the class that day. Sometimes, brain seemed so capable of everything and others, it was more vulnerable and deceptive that I thought maybe mind actually be separated from the brain.

It’s hard to pick an idea from the class that will stick in my mind the most, because all the topics were so interesting and eye opening to me. But if I had to choose, I would definitely say that when I first heard science does not give definite answers, which was against all my beliefs in science, and also the idea of getting it less wrong to make more right. I think these are very valuable lessons that I can carry on beyond neurobiology class and keep in my mind forever from now on.

I would like to learn more about nature vs. nurture debate and views from each side, cultural influences in thoughts, and more deeply in some neuro-psychological disorders in the brain.

This class was very different from my other classes and I really enjoyed it. Thank you!!!


Saba Ashraf's picture

Reflections on the Semester

In the beginning of the semester, I believed Descartes point of view in that there was a brain and a soul. I was comforted in the idea that everyone had a soul and not everything an individual experienced was based off of the physical processes going on in the brain and nervous system. There was also the subject of death and the idea that an individual’s soul could live on, which was also comforting. Now that the semester has ended, I find myself leaning towards Dickinson’s point of view, but I still don’t completely believe in the idea that everything is brain, neurons, etc.   However, I do believe in Dickinson’s point of view much more than when the semester had begun because of everything that was discussed in the course. The idea of the I-function and the fact that certain illnesses were thought to be a problem of the mind, but then turned out to be a problem of the brain were just some of the things that strengthened my belief in the Dickinson point of view. 

 In class, I found the idea of the I-function and the idea that humans are only aware of a small percentage of what is going on in the nervous system very interesting and think they will stay in my mind. Initially, I had never known the extent of information that is received by the nervous system continuously, so it came as a surprise that we are only aware of a small percent of this information. Also, the idea that everything was a construction of the brain happened to be very confusing to me at first, but after discussing vision, this idea became much more clear. In fact, the optical illusions were a prime example of a construction of the brain of a 3d image that didn’t exist. I feel as if others should also be aware of the ideas that everything is a construction of the brain and one is not aware of much of what goes on in one’s nervous system. Other topics that I found interesting and didn’t have much knowledge of before this class included central pattern generator, corollary discharge signals, and color.  

 Three questions I would like to see pursued in the next few years include:

Why does the use of antidepressants increase the probability of suicide among adolescents?   Why is it difficult for some individuals to control their anger over others (anger management issues)? How is de ja vu explained?   

MEL's picture

Reflecting on the Semester

When the semester started, I was a bit unsure about my stance on the Descartian and Dickinsonian arguments. I think I was leaning more towards Descartes' opinion. I preferred Descartes’ opinion because to think that the brain and its chemical reactions solely control my being made me feel like I had no personal control over myself. I also felt like I was not a unique and individual person if all that controlled me was my brain. In this way, I found Descartes’ theory much more comforting because it made me feel like I was more than my brain.  Now, I agree with Dickinson’s opinion. The evidence supports Dickinson’s claim because a person’s behavior (which is thought to be controlled by the mind) can be controlled by pharmaceuticals that change brain chemistry.  The fact that my behavior is controlled by my brain no longer upsets me. We have spent this semester exploring individual differences caused by unique neuronal pathways in the brain. So, even though our brains control our behavior we are still individuals and have control over ourselves.

The conversation that will stick the most in my mind is our discussion about color and vision. I found this topic very interesting and eye-opening. I think the most important thing for other people to be aware of is the I-function. People should be aware of the fact that many things (that aren’t connected to the I-function) go on beneath their consciousness. Learning about the I-function, has made me think of things in a different way and see things in a new light.

Three questions involving the brain and behavior that I would most like to see pursued in the next few years are:

1.      How does personality develop? Which has a greater influence on personality, genetics or environment?

2.      What is the most effective way to treat mental disorders?

3.      Why isn’t it possible to reconnect or repair neurons after they have been destroyed? Many diseases are caused by cell death or weakening, so would it someday be possible to transplant or regenerate neurons?


gloudon's picture

end of the semester...

At the beginning of the semester, I was on the Dickinsonian side of the spectrum.  Although, when someone I knew died, I often thought about their death through the Descartian prospective.  Now that we are at the end of the semester, I still am a believer in the Dickinsonian side, however, I still enjoy the comfort that the Descartian theory brings, as I never really want to think about anyone I know rotting away in the ground with not account for their spirit.  

The conversation that has changed my understanding of the brain and how we function was definitely the I-function.  I never realized that there was actually a part of the brain making very conscious decisions.  I still am not sure if the I-function is really limited to humans... as I eluded to in my paper about the possibility of lobsters having I-functions.  However, the concept of the I-function has allowed me to understand paralysis in a way I never thought possible.  The concept that cords between the I-function and the limb being cut and prohibiting conscious use of that limb, but the limb still moving as a reaction to external stimulus is amazing to me.  I will never forget about the amazing powers of the I-function!

1) I would like to see neurobiologists pursue the treatment of mental retardation... which has already started!!!

2) Cure/ treatment for alzheimer's disease

3) Better treatments for schizophrenia... without using metals that dull the patients reactions so much

emily's picture

 In the beginning of the

 In the beginning of the semester, I was on the Dickinsonian side of the spectrum, and I maintain my stance now. I also believed that the soul was part of the mind/brain, because I did not see any proof otherwise. Where else would the soul be? From this class and from the book I read for the commentary, "Proust was a Neuroscientist", I can conclude that not only does the soul come from the brain, it also comes from the body; the soul, mind, and body depend on each other. Surely without the I-function, we would have no sense of self, no consciousness. We would have no body and no soul. However, our feelings also depend on our body as we are in tune with many of the fine changes going on within our bodies (sensory input, muscles moving, pain, etc).

I thought this class was very interesting and I would recommend it to other people because I think a lot of the ideas are important for others to be aware of. One in particular are the ways our brains/ns are malleable and those in which they are not. For example, we have certain set points, but on the other hand, we are more creative/imaginative than we think. Our neural connections can change, but many of our actions depend on established patterns of activities across motor neurons.

One idea I am still considering is the nature of sensation. How interconnected are our senses really? How do we distinguish between our interconnected stimuli, how different (how interrelated) is vision from our other senses?

Another question I have is how we build concepts of things: how do these connections grow and how dependent are they on our sensory input?

I also have lots of questions about artificial intelligence and connectivity that I hope can be answered in researching my last web paper as well as taking some computational methods classes!

aeraeber's picture

Looking Back

When the semester started, I was on very much on the fence in the Descartian/Dickinsonian debate.  From a religious point of view, I wanted and still want to believe in the concept of a mind separate from the brain, the concept of a soul. But, from a scientific perspective, the idea that everything is construction of the brain has always made more sense. Now, I’m far more on the Dickinsonian end of the spectrum, since I have a better understanding of just how much the brain can do. It seems less impossible that the brain can be responsible for consciousness and other functions that we think of as purely human. Still, I hold out a lingering hope that there is something else, some part of a person that goes on after the brain ceases to function. This semester has made me realize that it’s probably just wishful thinking.

The idea that every person experiences the world differently from everyone else and that what we experience/perceive is not “what’s out there” but instead a construction of the brain will stick with me for a long while. We talk so much about reality as though it existed, and tend to assume that everyone is seeing exactly the same thing, even though that isn’t the case. I feel like this is something important for people to be aware of, because education and other forms of public service focus on trying to provide the same experience for people regardless of their circumstances. And, on the other hand, arguments often stem from disagreements over perception, despite the fact that there isn’t really any single correct perception of an object or event.  On a different note, we talked about the concept of “loopy” science and “getting it less wrong” during the first few weeks of class.  What really stuck with me from those discussions was the idea that, especially within a scientific framework, there is often quite a bit to be learned from being wrong.

Personally, I would like to learn more about the biochemically and molecular functioning of the brain, and how that ties into the more big-picture concepts of behavior that we talked about this semester. On a wider note, I would very much like to see more work done in the area of memory, why some people are better able to remember specific kinds of sensory input than others.  For example, why would one person remember the color of the walls in their grandparent’s living room, while their sibling would remember the sound of the cookoo clock that was in the living room? Finally, I would love to see more research done in the area of treatment for psychological disorders. Can we create treatments that don’t have such serious side effects and are effective for a wider range of patients?


Raven's picture

 When the semester started, I

 When the semester started, I was on the Descartian side of the spectrum. The idea that mind and body were separate seemed appropriate. I always understood the Emily Dickinson argument, that the brain is all encompassing. From a scientific standpoint I suppose the Descartes view was less supported in a scientific sense. However the Dickinson argument always seemed the "cop out" explanation that the brain is just EVERYTHING, and this is the view which neuroscience believes. I don't know where I stand after the class. I understand the arguments that everything in our life is a construction of our mind, but I still want to believe there is a "me" separate from my brain. A me that is not the "I-function", a me that does not depend on the anatomy of my brain. 

So many of our class discussions have influenced the way I think about the world. I find myself talking to friends and bringing up the random things we talk about in class and asking about their opinions on the subject. I love it when a class can make me do that. I was always questioning what I thought was right, feeling wrong all the time, but being totally okay with that. I think the discussions on the senses and perception will stick out most to me as my scientific interests lie in understanding the visual system. However I always find it hard to disconnect/connect what I have learned in this class with the rigidity of the research lab. Yes I investigate this molecule through all of these experiments but then I think about all the questions we've raised in this class and then wonder where should I be focusing? Is the lab or my mind(thoughts) the best place to answer these questions about how the mind works? I don't think I will ever view the world or my research the same again. 

In the next years, I would like to talk a lot more about perception and I would like to talk more about dreams. I never took a psychology or philosophy class but I always had questions about these topics lingering in my mind. How we perceive the world? 

mcchen's picture

Reflecting on the semester

 In the beginning of the semester, I was definitely leaning towards the Descartes story more than the Dickinson one.  I felt that the Descartes story was more comforting in that we had two different entities the body and the mind which worked together to create the world we live in.  As of now, I am leaning towards the Dickinson story but I'm not yet ready to let go of the Descartes one.  Throughout this semester, most of what we have learned is a construction of the mind, color is a construction of the mind, and how we interpret what we see is a construction of the mind.  Our memories and stories we utilize on a daily basis are all constructions of the mind.  Even through all we have learned about the construction of the mind a part of me still wants to believe that there are somethings out of my control and not within the scope of being a construction of my mind.  

This class definitely made me keep an open mind about how we perceive things.  While I have not fully accepted that everything is a construction of the mind I am open to more observations that prove it is so.  I have learned that the key is to be skeptical, and to question everything in order to learn and to learn from others.  I think it is important for others to be aware of the I-function and how we think about consciousness.  There is such a fine line between being conscious and unconscious about the world around us.

Three questions involving the brain and behavior that I would like to pursue are:

1. Are there any ways we can potentially increase our consciousness? such as being able to be more aware of the world than we are now?

2. Will there ever be a non-pharmacological treatment for psychological disorders that will work on everyone?

3. Can physical health be any indication of mental health?