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Mental Disorders: What Are Dysfunctions?

A dysfunction is a failure of some mechanism to perform its natural function as designed by nature. For example, the natural function of the heart is to pump blood; the natural function of perception is to convey information about the environment; the natural function of emotions is to avoid harm and enhance pleasure. A mechanism may have other characteristics as well, such as the heart producing sounds.

However, pumping blood is the natural function of the heart even though it has other characteristics, such as sounds, which may be helpful in diagnosing heart conditions. The clause ‘‘as designed by nature’’ is the evolutionary explanation of the structure, existence, and activity of the organ or mechanism. In other words, mechanisms that contributed to the organism’s coping and reproductive success over successive generations increased in frequency or were ‘‘naturally selected’’ and exist in today’s organism. This evolutionary explanation is bound to cause criticism; however, determining how these organs and mechanisms came to be is not central to this notion. The fact that such organs and mechanisms exist is sufficient. The major difficulty is that we know a great deal about physiological mechanisms and structures because of the basic research into normal functioning conducted by biological scientists. This is the basis of modern medicine, which uses the basic research to understand physical disorders and treatment. Physicians know what normal physiological functioning is and usually they can quickly spot a deviation from this normalcy.

Psychology, on the other hand, is in a great state of ignorance regarding the causes of normal psychological functioning or its related mechanisms. To make matters worse, psychological practitioners are typically ignorant of basic research in psychology and fail to use the wealth of basic research available to them in clinical problems. As a group, clinical psychologists, particularly private practitioners, have disowned basic research, which has stifled advancements in applying basic knowledge.

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