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Friday, October 31, 2008

5 Finally, an idea! Wow, a real idea! But wait ...

Right in the middle of "Creationists declare war over the brain," New Scientist's gift to writing teachers (= "the structure and function of the irresponsible hit piece, unpacked") we suddenly segue away from the National Enquirer style. We encounter an actual argument against the non-materialist interpretation of neuroscience.

It was unclear to me at first why anyone would bury an actual argument in all this scare-the-pants-ology. But then, when I had a closer look at the argument, I sort of understood. Here it is:
To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain. To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s* on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.
The problem is that Gefter's explanation does not explain anything. The brain is a semi-liquid organ, always in motion, so live brains do indeed change themselves all the time. However, when the mind changes the brain, it is a result of information received by the immaterial consciousness itself. Here is an example, from The Spiritual Brain, that dramatically illustrates the difference information received into one's consciousness can make:

University of Michigan researchers recently demonstrated the placebo effect in young, healthy men. They injected saltwater into their volunteers’ jaws and measured the impact of the resulting painful pressure via PET scans. Volunteers were told that they were receiving pain relief. They reported feeling better. The placebo treatment reduced the brain responses in a number of brain regions known to be implicated in the subjective experience of pain. No pain-relief drug was used in the study.

The researchers commented (2004): "These findings provide strong refutation of the conjecture that placebo responses reflect nothing more than report bias."47

47 Tor D. Wager, James K. Rilling, Edward E. Smith, Alex Sokolik, Kenneth L. Casey, Richard J. Davidson, Stephen M. Kosslyn, Robert M. Rose, Jonathan D. Cohen, “Placebo-Induced Changes in fMRI in the Anticipation and Experience of Pain,” Science 303, no. 5661 (February 20, 2004): 1162–67. They write: "In two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, we found that placebo analgesia was related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive brain regions, including the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex, and was associated with increased activity during anticipation of pain in the prefrontal cortex, providing evidence that placebos alter the experience of pain."

- The Spiritual Brain, p. 142

As the study authors observe, these findings certainly provide "strong refutation of the conjecture that placebo responses reflect nothing more than report bias." But they also demonstrate something else: the critical importance of what the mind believes is happening.

Essentially, volunteers did not feel pain when they were told they should not expect to, despite the fact that they were receiving no pain relief. Their brains apparently did not know that because their minds were not informing their brains correctly.

That cannot be accounted for by claiming that "the material brain is changing the material brain," in Gefter's phrase. The material brain isn't doing anything in this case except receiving input from the immaterial mind and acting on it - in this case receiving incorrect information and failing to produce sensations of pain that might otherwise be expected. And, as anyone who has suffered severe jaw pain will acknowledge, it's hardly something one can just fail to notice or choose to ignore.

I can now see why Gefter needs to offer her argument to her readers in a hit piece. Presented all by itself as an account of the interactions of the mind and the brain, it would not fare well.

Before we move on, let me offer a brief word about explanations in science in general. Any grand theory can "explain" a broad variety of phenomena. Some theories are presented as "theories of everything." For example, Freud, Marx, and Darwin (a familiar triad of theorists of everything) could each offer an "explanation" for the life and works of Mother Teresa or Gandhi. For example, Freud might say that Mother Teresa was sexually repressed, Marx might say that she was a useful idiot for capitalism, and Darwin might say that she was spreading her ideas instead of her genes by raising thousands of abandoned children as traditional Catholics.

In each case, the explanation supports the theory, but beyond that it doesn't lead anywhere. That is, if I wanted to know why Gordon "greed is good" Gecko is the way he is, one of these contradictory "theories of everything" might be useful at some point. But if my goal is to understand people who have transcended materialism and accomplished remarkable things as a result, materialist explanations are useless.

To sum up, a useful explanation in science must shed light, not merely come up with a story that supports the theory. Gefter's explanation of mind brain relations as mere brain-brain relations supports a materialist theory, but does not shed any light on the way the mind and the brain actually interact.

(*Note: When I tried this link, it did not lead to the article, only to The New York Times 's site.)

Next: 6 Scare their pants back on again and send them out to raise hell about stuff they know nothing about

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