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Paula S. Derry
Preconditions for Transdisciplinary Health Sciences


Transdisciplinary models in the health sciences are of crucial importance. A reductionist, materialist approach to the science underlying health care has provided great benefits, but self, social interconnectedness, and the spiritual also contribute to the maintenance of health and cure of disease. In this paper, I discuss preconditions to developing transdisiplinary models in the health sciences. I then discuss transdisciplinary models I have developed in one mental health (clinical depression) and one physical health (menopause) area. The question explored in the paper is this: What habits of mind, presuppositions, or theory, lead to a transition from a materialist, reductionist view of the science underlying health care, to a perspective in which transdisciplinary, hence holistic, science makes sense and appears real?

The first precondition is going beyond thinking in terms of mutually exclusive categories. One step in relating apparently non-overlapping concepts is to find examples in which elements of one can be found in its apparent opposite. A second precondition is going beyond the idea that science is by its nature reductionist and materialist, and that only physical entities are objects of scientific inquiry. In practice, nonmaterial concepts of all sorts are typical in scientific inquiry. As science has actually been done, rather than in ideologies of science or hopes for future science, physiology and psychology have played independent interacting important roles. Subjective concepts like will, motivation, and choice are ubiquitous. “Behavior” and “social interconnectedness” are also nonmaterial but typical in scientific inquiry. A third precondition is understanding that what is distinctively human is an important scientific question. We know little about the distinct characteristics of humans, but this is a crucial question—the role of cause-and-effect relationships is understood only by knowing their role in the larger whole of which they are a part. We do know as scientists that the use of symbols and the shared culture are distinctively human means of adaptation to the environment. Humans live in a world of images, narratives, and values. These scientific issues provide common ground with more general questions of what is distinctively human, wherein lies our sense of meaning and purpose, and the nature and role of the self. A fourth precondition is to study the physical environment. A fifth precondition is creating transcending images. A transcending image is a theoretical framework, orientation, or set of images, that provide one model within which everyone can talk. This does not mean eliminating different approaches or disciplines—you still have psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and others. However, the transcending image provides a natural bridge between disciplines, and a sense that all are looking at different aspects of one larger phenomenon rather than distinct, non-overlapping phenomena. These preconditions will be applied to models for psychological depression and menopause. These are both areas in which reductionist physiological models have dominated the discourse and had important practical effects on how patients are treated.


Paula S. Derry, Ph.D. is a health psychologist who works independently in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, as Paula Derry Enterprises in Health Psychology.  She has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale University and postdoctoral training in research health psychology from the Department of Medical Psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and pursued study of zoology independently at the University of California, Berkeley.  She specialized in women’s health, especially menopause, for over ten years, and is a member of the board of directors of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.   A theorist and analyst, she has also published critiques of reductionist approaches to human biology like evolutionary psychology.  She is also interested in holistic health.  She is a graduate of the Ohashi Institute, where she studied the Asian bodywork practice Ohashiatsu, and has also studied a variety of other body-oriented practices.   


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