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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mind-body panel 2: Mario Beauregard - "Brain imaging data alone doesn't tell us whether an experience is real or not"

Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., is currently an Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology, as well as the Neuroscience Research Center. Here's a snippet of dialogue he led off, from the second panel:

Mario Beauregard: Well, I have only one thing to add because a lot of things have been said already. It’s true that we have to take into account the meaning and content of the experience with respect to the experiencer, and we cannot rely solely on brain imaging data to determine whether an experience is real or not. If you take the case of hallucinations, for instance, you also have neuro-correlates for delusions, auditory hallucinations, etc., so it’s only one piece of data and we have to consider many other parameters.

Elie During: One thing I’ve learnt from your book The Spiritual Brain is that there are actually ways to detect the difference between someone who is faking it and someone who is hallucinating, based on brain imaging techniques.

Mario Beauregard: Sure, it can be useful, but that is not the only piece of evidence that we have at our disposal to consider.

Elie During: I believe there is a more general issue at stake in our discussion. I’ll put it this way, as a question addressed to all of you: what role does belief, and here I mean your own beliefs, play in the kind of research you’re involved in? When I say belief, I don’t necessarily mean religious belief, but more broadly, the systems of beliefs or values that shape your view of the world, especially those beliefs and values that relate to the way in which you draw the limits of reality.

My personal feeling is that no one can help having beliefs in that sense. Again, these beliefs can be based on philosophical, cultural, or religious grounds. How do these beliefs interfere with your activity as scientists or working professionals? Do they interfere at all? Because you are all well aware that one of the objections that is often raised against the kind of research programs you’re involved in is that it is quite biased.

The suspicion is that there is some hidden agenda— that you are either trying to provide evidence in support of specific personal beliefs, or you are trying to force facts into your own framework without even being conscious of it. Is it reasonable to expect people to sustain a purely neutral, objective stance on such issues? How does it work for you?

Andrew Newberg: All of us are human beings, and we all have beliefs and biases. That certainly holds true for science, for theology, and for philosophy. I suppose one of the things for us to always keep in mind is that as objective as somebody may think anything is, or however real or true or absolute anybody thinks anything is, we are very limited in our abilities to look at the world as human beings. As wonderful as our brain is, it only takes in a very small percentage of the information that’s out there. So whenever we apply ourselves to some part of the world, one of the problems that we have is that our brain tends to tell us that we’ve got the whole picture and doesn’t bother to tell us when it is filling in information, when it is lying to us, or when it is being inaccurate. Yet we often tend to think that we understand the world accurately, whether scientifically, politically, philosophically, spiritually, etc.
Newberg sure got that right. And, as Mario and I said in The Spiritual Brain, this is a time for exploration, not dogma.

See also:

Multidirectional skepticism: Skepticism finding its true voice?

Brain science supports traditional view of soul?

All the junk that's fit to debunk: Neuropolitics is up next

Is THIS your best shot? A response to New Scientist's recent hit piece on non-materialist neuroscientists

Back to top: Selected moments from the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium - afternoon panel

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