Sunday, December 23, 2007

Beauregard and O'Leary on the Dennis Prager show - partial transcript

Bill Dembski asked me to post some excerpts from this interview that Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I did with American radio host Dennis Prager, on the difference between the mind and the brain (as set out in our book The Spiritual Brain, Harper One, 2007) at Uncommon Descent. I finally got a chance to transcribe a bit of it, so here is that bit:

DENNIS PRAGER: We always or nearly always associate scientists with skepticism if not downright hostility to the notion that there is something in us that is not physically or materially explicable. The notion that we have a soul, well, but you can't measure a soul, you can't see it, and it is not available through an x-ray and yet there are some scientists who say that science itself may argue for the existence of a soul and even for a higher intelligence.

And there is a book that has received remarkable reviews, just published it's called that argues and the neuroscientist in this case is a professor at the University of Montreal, an assistant professor in the departments of radiology and psychology and he is Mario Beauregard and in Toronto is Denyse O'Leary who is an award-winning Canadian science writer and journalist. They have co-authored this book.

So, tell our many listeners in North America, what is the basic theory of your book?

MARIO BEAUREGARD: Well, the basic theory in our book is that there are many lines of evidence that say that you cannot reduce mind, consciousness, and self to electrical and chemical processes in the brain. For instance, in the case of the placebo effect there is no good solid theory - material theory - in neuroscience that is able to explain this phenomenon because most neuroscientists believe in the central dogma of neuroscience which is that the brain produces the mind through electrical and chemical activity and that the mind does not really exist. It is more like an illusion, if you will, so an illusion cannot exert a significant effect over the electrical and chemical substances in the brain. So in other words they have a lot of trouble to be able to explain something like the placebo effect ...

PRAGER: By the way, the placebo effect, for those not aware is ... if you have 100 people and you give 50 people a real medicine and 50 people just a white coloured pill.* A lot of people taking the white coloured pill will have equally good results even though it's a piece of nothing.** How does that argue [your case]?

BEAUREGARD: It shows that beliefs and expectations about the pill in question can significantly change the way the brain functions so something immaterial that we call mind or belief can exert tremendous effect upon the brain functioning. So this is another difficult area for materialist neuroscientists.

DENYSE O'LEARY: I just wanted to add that it is also worth noting that materialists themselves thought for example when the new generation of antidepressants came out in the mid Nineties ... Tom Wolfe wrote a very significant essay called "Sorry but your soul just died" and the idea was that the new antidepressants showed that there really couldn't be a soul because otherwise how previously non-functioning persons could now be back at work? But the problem was that when they did further testing they discovered that quite often the placebo effect worked just as well.

PRAGER: But why couldn't the materialist argue - I believe in a soul but I want to be as fair as possible - if I take a placebo and my brother believes that my vitamin C is a placebo. He's a doctor and they have a deep skepticism with regard to vitamins. I claim to my brother, you know, it's amazing how little I get colds, I take a lot of vitamins. He says Dennis, God bless you, I want you to be healthy, but I think it's a placebo. Maybe what is happening is my psyche is in fact triggering material reactions.

O'LEARY: Precisely. But that means that you do in fact have a psyche that can act on your brain.

PRAGER: Oh .... fascinating argument ....

Yes, it's a new world out there, once materialism's kludges have been placed gently in the recycle bin.

Elsewhere, I have said, on the subject of the placebo effect,
Tom Wolfe wrote an influential essay in 1996 called "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," ascribing enormous power to the new antidepressants. Later, a very large amount of the miraculous effect turned out to be the placebo effect. Once people honestly believed that a drug could lift them out of depression, it could have been lithium or blue Smarties mix. Their own minds were apparently doing the heavy lifting, but they didn't even know it. I wonder if Wolfe will write another essay titled "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Prefers the Blue Smarties."**

Of course, our minds cannot do just everything and anything. None of this is magic. BUT - with that caution firmly stated - the main thing to see is that our minds are real and that what we believe is more powerful than we sometimes realize in shaping our lives.

*Actually, the colour of placebo sugar pills makes a big difference, according to students of the placebo effect. Most patients interpret blue pills as downers and red or orange pills as uppers.

**Or bad results, as a matter of fact. I happened to be talking to a research scientist last August who had directed a study of a pharmaceutical drug. The researcher told me that the team had to give medications for the side effects of the drug under study to the patients who had received the placebo ... the side effects they experienced were quite real, even though the medication wasn't.

Note: Elsewhere, another central dogma in neuroscience holds that the adult brain is not plastic. That isn't correct either, as it happens. In general, the brain remains plastic throughout life, far more like an ocean than a museum.

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