Monday, July 23, 2007

Just how much brain do you need? Could you use that space for something else?

Recently, I blogged on a guy who was apparently leading a normal life whose head turned out to be full of water. The neurosurgeon who said such kind things about The Spiritual Brain, also writes to say:
The redundancy of much of the brain (most of the cerebellum and cerebral hemispheres) is remarkable. The brain stem and the deeper structures (thalamus, basal ganglia) are less tolerant and more 'hardwired', and it's essential in this business to know what's hard wired and what's not. Most of the brain isn't hardwired. For example, it's well known (in my experience and in the experience of other neurosurgeons) that removal of most of both cerebellar hemispheres (because of strokes or tumors) causes no discernable long-term disability. I have many patients with large portions of their cerebellums missing who are completely normal. The invariable assumption- 'some other part of the brain took over'- is merely an inference. We generally have no actual evidence what, if anything in the brain, 'took over'. Perhaps the inference is because we start with a materialist bias, and we can't imagine neurological function without an identifiable region of the brain to cause it. We really don't understand a lot of whatever correlation exists between neuroanatomy and neurological function.

Many years ago I removed a tumor from the left frontal lobe of a patient. Adequate resection of the tumor required removal of most of the lobe, but I had to take care to avoid injury to the speech areas and the motor areas of the frontal lobe, located posteriorly. I did the surgery under local anesthesia (for the scalp- the brain has no sensation of pain) so I could electrically 'map' the speech and motor areas during the surgery and avoid injury. As I was removing nearly the entire left frontal lobe, the patient (under the surgical drapes) and I had a conversation, discussing life in general, philosophy, family stuff, etc. She never turned an hair as I was removing large portions of her brain.

I was cured of my 'materialist' neuroscience dogma. The brain's important, needless to say, but there's much more to the mind than the brain. To paraphrase Eddington, not only is the mind-brain interface stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine.

Dr. Egnor draws my attention to Dr. Wilder Penfield, who - like Mario - worked in Montreal. He writes,
Brain surgery under local anesthesia is fairly common, usually to treat intractable epilepsy but also at times to remove tumors while permitting stimulation of the brain to test for functional areas that cannot be removed safely. The press pays a fair amount of attention, but science reporters rarely discuss the philosophical implications of this kind of surgery. When they do discuss the implications, its usually to vaguely support a materialist neuroscience perspective.

Wilder Penfield was a Canadian neurosurgeon in the mid-20th century who was the pioneer in epilepsy surgery. He is one of the finest scientists the field of neurosurgery has produced. He started out as a materialist, but his experience with brain surgery on thousands of conscious patients made him a mind-body dualist.

His insights are fascinating. He found that he could elicit all kinds of things from electrically stimulating the brain- memories, emotions, movements of the body, etc. The mental processes elicited were remarkably vivid.Yet in all instances, patients knew that the evoked response was not caused by their own will. Penfield called it 'double consciousness'. Patients always saw the response from a third person perspective, as well as experiencing the response in the first person. Patients always knew that the response was done to them, not by them. Penfield noted that patients always experienced their own responses as observers, as well as participants, and they could always distinguish their own coincident experience from the simultaneous induced response. There always remained a first-person subjectivity that was untouched by electrical stimulation of the brain.

Penfield recognized that there was an irreducible component of human experience that was itself independent of neurophysiology. He noted "Something else finds its dwelling place between the sensory complex and the motor mechanism. . . . There is a switchboard operator as well as a switchboard." (reference in link above).

Science clearly points to mind-body duality. The materialist monist model of the mind is an ideological construct, and is indefensible philosophically and empirically.

Further, he adds, "Penfield's experiments and observations are still considered superb neuroscience. He firmly believed in the distinction between the mind (soul) and the brain. He wrote a book on his observations on the soul-brain duality. The default position of materialism in neuroscience is a recent aberration."

But what about lobotomies? Remember how that guy in Planet of the Apes was turned onto a total zombie by a lobotomy? Dr. Egnor comments:
Lobotomies were rather imprecise procedures that had a variety of effects on people. Some people were quite functional afterwards.

This is particularly interesting to me because thirty-five years ago I met and talked with a woman who had had a lobotomy (to cure some mental ailment that had resulted in frequent hospitalizations). She wasn't the brightest light on the string, but she seemed quite normal - and I actually don't know what she was like before the lobotomy. Lobotomy sounds like an awful idea and I can't imagine anyone in their right mind thinking of it today, but that woman certainly wasn't a zombie.

If you want to pursue the question of (mostly) brain absent people who appear to function normally in more detail, here's an article from the early 1980s, and a link to additional resources.

My sense is that we are only just beginning to discover the relationship between the mind and the brain, and the last thing we need is a bunch of materialists telling us that the mind doesn't really exist. Still, I would not advise you to try renting out that space upstairs. It all undoubtedly does something really important for you - but it clearly isn't the sum total of who and what you are.

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