Barcelona snapshots

Prof. German Berrios

German Berrios psychiatrist United Kingdom Controversias Psiquiatry Barcelona
Cambridge University, United Kingdom
Talk Simplicity vs. Complexity in Psychiatry
Date Thursday, April 19th, 2018
Time 16:15 to 16:45


  • Psychology and Philosophy at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University (under J.O. Urmson, B Farrell, R Hare, E. Anscombe, G. Ryle)
  • History & Philosophy of Science (under C. Webster, A. Crombie, R. Harré, and B. Farrell)
  • Medicine, Neurology & Psychiatry (Oxford University and Oxford United Hospitals)
  • Statistics (Lecturer to Professor Max Hamilton at Leeds University)
  • Didactic Analysis (Harry Guntrip, Leeds University).
Main offices:
  • 1977-2007 Lecturer, Reader, Professor of Neuropsychiatry and the Epistemology of Psychiatry (Cambridge University)
  • 1978-1998 Director of Medical Studies and Tutor of Admissions, Robinson College Cambridge.
  • 1977-2007 Consultant Head of Neuropsychiatry, Addenbrooke's Hospital, University of Cambridge
  • 1985-1995 Honorary Librarian and Officer of the Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • 1989-1998 Assistant Editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry.
  • 1987-2003 Founder and Chairman of the History of Psychiatry Special Group, Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • 1988-1997 Chairman, Board of Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge
  • 1987-2007 Chairman, Research and Ethics Committee, University of Cambridge and Cambridge Health District
Prizes and awards:
  • Doctorates Honoris causa: University of Heidelberg (Germany), San Marcos (Peru), Barcelona (Spain), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Cordoba (Argentina), Chile (Chile).
  • 2006 Chair of Psychopathology “German E. Berrios” founded in the University of Antioquia (Colombia)
  • 2007 Order of the Sun (Gran Officer) awarded by the Peruvian Government
  • 2008 ‘Ramon y Cajal’ Neuropsychiatry Award, International Neuropsychiatry Association.
  • 2010 Honorary Fellowship awarded by Royal College of Psychiatrists of UK.
  • 2016 Life Achievement Award, Sociedad Española de Psicogeriatría.
  • 2017 Honorio Delgado Medal, Lima, Peru
  • Visiting Professor to the Universities of Hong-Kong, Heidelberg, Würzburg, Cayetano Heredia, Nagoya, Jerusalem, Cornell, Adelaide, Chile, Buenos Aires, Keio (Japan), etc.
  • Emeritus Professor of the Epistemology of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge
  • Emeritus Consultant Neuropsychiatrist & Head of Neuropsychiatry, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, University of Cambridge
  • Fellow of: 1) British Psychological Society; 2) Academy of Medical Sciences; 3) Royal College of Psychiatrists, etc.
  • Life-Fellow, Robinson College, Cambridge
  • Editor, History of Psychiatry
  • Chairman, History of Psychiatry Section, World Psychiatric Association
Research and Publications:
Neuropsychiatry and clinical, conceptual and historical aspects of psychopathology. More than 450 papers and book chapters on matters neuropsychiatric, conceptual and historical and 15 books; amongst the latter are his History of Clinical Psychiatry (with Roy Porter) (London, Athlone Press) London; Delirio: Historia, Clinica & Metateoria (with F. Fuentenebro); Memory Disorders in Psychiatric Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) (with J. Hodges) and Reinventing depression (Oxford University Press) (with C Callahan). His History of Mental Symptoms. Descriptive Psychopathology since the 19thC century (Cambridge University Press) was awarded the 1997 British Medical Association Prize as the Best Book in Psychiatry. In 2011 he published Towards a New Epistemology of Psychiatry (Buenos Aires, Polemos, 2011) (Italian translation: Per una nouva epistemologia della psichiatria, Roma, Giovanni Fioriti, 2013; Portuguese Translation: Rumo a uma nova epistemologia da psiquiatría, 2015).



Predicated of objects (or systems, processes, institutions, behaviours, etc.), it remains unclear whether 'Complexity' is to be considered as an ontological (i.e. as referring to an immanent property of the object under consideration) or as an epistemological affirmation (i.e. as referring to the relationship between a perceiving subject and the object in question).

Considered as its contrast or antonym, the concept of 'Simplicity' helps to reveal the metaphorical origin of both terms (simple=no fold; complex=many folds or parts). It is a moot point whether 'Complexity' is determined by the size of the manifold or the intricacy of the relationships holding the parts together or by both. Static and iterative relationships are likely to be considered as less 'complex' than dynamic and unpredictable ones. Complexity can be considered as particularly dense in the case of biological systems where component parts exchange matter, energy, and information and achieve auto-regulation by means of feedback loops.

When applied to Psychiatry, complexity seems to have many putative referents: ontological, epistemological, descriptive, explanatory, rhetorical and aesthetic. This means that it could be predicated of: 1) the bundle of protocolary statements that Psychiatry ordinarily uses to explain its structure and functionality and justify its existence; or 2) the structure of its objects of interest (currently mental symptoms and disorders); or 3) the manner in which such objects are known to affect sufferers. Some may even want to use 'complexity' as a rhetorical enhancer, i.e. to emphasize the intricacy and even mysteriousness of mental disorders.

The usefulness of abstract concepts should be measured by their capacity to explain and be remedial. Hence, to say that psychiatry and its objects are 'complex' is not to say much, unless this is accompanied by a theory that can illuminate both. Although theories of complexity have developed in fields as wide apart as meteorology, economics, fractals, logic, computing, etc., none of these versions of complexity seems to have shown to be relevant to psychiatry and its objects.

This is thus because psychiatry has a sui generis epistemological structure. Constructed during the 19th century as a discipline to deal with the medical view of madness it was forced to borrow concepts from both the natural and social sciences. This hybrid structure has characterized psychiatry ever since. Conventional models of complexity seem inadequate to deal with these new hybrid structures. If it is considered that complexity is a property worth importing into psychiatry, it is up to its practitioners to develop a theory of complexity that may help with the understanding of mental disorders and with patient care.

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