On the neurobiological redefinition of psychiatric symptoms: elimination, reduction, or what?


Because biologization of psychiatric constructs does not involve derivation of laws, or reduce the number of entities involved, the traditional term of ‘reduction’ should be replaced. This paper describes biologization in terms of redefinition, which involves changing the definition of terms sharing the same extension. Redefinition obtains through triangulation and calibration, that is, respectively, detection of an object from two different spots, and tweaking parameters of detection in order to optimize the picture. The unity of the different views of the same object does not occur through derivation from one of them, as reduction suggests, nor does it obtain through mechanistic unity or the goal of explaining one mechanism, as the phrase ‘mosaic unity’ suggests. Instead, it depends on finding a specific angle of observation, from which linguistic consistency matches sound localization in the brain, so that all observations make sense together, just as an anamorphic picture makes clear sense only when observed from the right spot.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. 1.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for the argument and example.

  2. 2.

    This account relies on a very clear, albeit partisan, historical presentation in Berridge (2004).







Nucleus accumbens


Ventral tegmental area


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

  2. Berridge, K. C. (2004). Motivation concepts in behavioral neuroscience. Physiology & Behavior, 81(2), 179–209. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.02.004.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Berridge, K. C. (2007). The debate over dopamine’s role in reward: The case for incentive salience. Psychopharmacology, 191(3), 391–431. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0578-x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2008). Affective neuroscience of pleasure: Reward in humans and animals. Psychopharmacology, 199(3), 457–480. doi:10.1007/s00213-008-1099-6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Berridge, K. C., Robinson, T. E., & Aldridge, J. W. (2009). Dissecting components of reward: “Liking”, “wanting”, and learning. Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 9(1), 65–73. doi:10.1016/j.coph.2008.12.014.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bickle, J. (2003). Philosophy and neuroscience: A ruthlessly reductive account. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Carnap, R. (1991). Logical foundations of the unity of science. In R. Boyd, P. Gasper, & J. D. Trout (Eds.), The philosophy of science (pp. 393–404). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Churchland, P. S. (1989). Neurophilosophy: Toward a unified science of the mind-brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Craver, C. F. (2007). Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Danna, C. L., Shepard, P. D., & Elmer, G. I. (2013). The habenula governs the attribution of incentive salience to reward predictive cues. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 781. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00781.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dantzer, R., O’Connor, J. C., Freund, G. G., Johnson, R. W., & Kelley, K. W. (2008). From inflammation to sickness and depression: When the immune system subjugates the brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(1), 46–56. doi:10.1038/nrn2297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Feighner, J. P., Robins, E., Guze, S. B., Woodruff, R. A., Winokur, G., & Munoz, R. (1972). Diagnostic criteria for use in psychiatric research. Archives of General Psychiatry, 26(1), 57–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hempel, C. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Kandel, E. R. (Ed.). (2011). Principles of neural science. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing Division.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Kim, J. (2000). Mind in a physical world: An essay on the mind-body problem and mental causation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kim, J. (2006). Emergence: Core ideas and issues. Synthese, 3, 547.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kitcher, P. (1984). 1953 and all that. A tale of two sciences. The Philosophical Review, 3, 335.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Klimek, V., Schenck, J. E., Han, H., Stockmeier, C. A., & Ordway, G. A. (2002). Dopaminergic abnormalities in amygdaloid nuclei in major depression: A postmortem study. Biological Psychiatry, 52(7), 740–748. doi:10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01383-5.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Kranz, G. S., Kasper, S., & Lanzenberger, R. (2010). Reward and the serotonergic system. Neuroscience, 166(4), 1023–1035. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2010.01.036.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Murphy, D. (2006). Psychiatry in the scientific image. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Nagel, E. (1961). The structure of science: Problems in the logic of scientific explanation. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Naranjo, C. A., Tremblay, L. K., & Busto, U. E. (2001). The role of the brain reward system in depression. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 25(4), 781–823.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Nestler, E. J., & Carlezon, W. A, Jr. (2006). The mesolimbic dopamine reward circuit in depression. Biological Psychiatry, 59(12), 1151–1159. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.09.018.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. NiMH. (n.d.). NIMH Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). http://www.nimh.nih.gov, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/research-priorities/rdoc/nimh-research-domain-criteria-rdoc.shtml.

  25. Nocjar, C., Zhang, J., Feng, P., & Panksepp, J. (2012). The social defeat animal model of depression shows diminished levels of orexin in mesocortical regions of the dopamine system, and of dynorphin and orexin in the hypothalamus. Neuroscience, 218, 138–153. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.05.033.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Salamone, J. D. (2007). Functions of mesolimbic dopamine: Changing concepts and shifting paradigms. Psychopharmacology, 191(3), 389. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0623-9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Salamone, J. D., Correa, M., Farrar, A., & Mingote, S. M. (2007). Effort-related functions of nucleus accumbens dopamine and associated forebrain circuits. Psychopharmacology, 191(3), 461–482. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0668-9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Schaffner, K. F. (2008). Etiological models in psychiatry: Reductive and nonreductive. In K. S. Kendler & J. Parnas (Eds.), Philosophical issues in psychiatry (pp. 48–90). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Schaffner, K. F. (2016). Behaving: What’s genetic and what’s not, and why should we care?. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Schlaepfer, T. E., Cohen, M. X., Frick, C., Kosel, M., Brodesser, D., Axmacher, N., et al. (2008). Deep brain stimulation to reward circuitry alleviates anhedonia in refractory major depression. Neuropsychopharmacology, 33(2), 368–377. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1301408.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Wimsatt, W. C. (2007). Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings: Piecewise approximations to reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Team 4 of Unit 930 (Imagery and the Brain) of the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) welcomed me and integrated my own work into theirs. Thanks in particular to Samuel Leman, Catherine Belzung, Wissam El Hage and Vincent Camus. The University of Tours provided for a sabbatical leave that helped a great deal in writing this paper. The Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh invited me to present a draft at the ‘Mind–Brain Dualism in Psychiatry’ Conference. Serife Tekin and Kathryn Tabb created the friendly environment needed for the ideas presented here to mature. Participants provided benevolent and useful feedback. Ken Schaffner challenged an earlier draft of the paper, which helped improve it. Katie discussed the final written version. This article is dedicated to Peter Machamer, in regret for a second missed opportunity (the third shall be the right one).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Maël Lemoine.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lemoine, M. On the neurobiological redefinition of psychiatric symptoms: elimination, reduction, or what?. Synthese 196, 2117–2133 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1270-2

Download citation


  • Reduction
  • Elimination
  • Neuroscience
  • Psychiatry
  • Mosaic unity