Monday, January 28, 2008

Mind and brain: How do unconscious people know when to wake up?

Spiritual Brain friend David Rice writes to say,
Hey Denyse - I work at the library's circulation desk at the University of MS and noticed a book just lying around entitled "Understanding Sleep and Dreaming" by William Moorcroft. I started leafing through it and noticed this interesting blurb. On page 118 (Box 15 inset) he writes that there was a study done which concluded that when people EXPECT to be awakened at a certain time that their bodies will begin to produce adrenal corticotropic hormone (which tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol) at they time necessary to awaken thus facilitating that awakening process. Others, who were told that they could sleep in, did not produce this hormone if they were awoken BEFORE the time they actually EXPECTED to awaken. Thus the mind appears to have a causal role, non-materialistic, on the bodies preparations for arising from sleep depending on what they mind expects will happen. Provocative no?

Yes indeed. I asked lead author Mario Beauregard about it and he said, "This finding effectively supports the view proposed in our book regarding the causal influence of mind processes on brain/body functioning."

I suspect there are many similar examples out there, but if we are not looking for them we won't notice them.

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Books: New Physics takes on the human mind

Here's a book I am just about to go and order, New Physics and the Mind by Robert Paster:

The Mind and Physics

The mind has played a role in physics since the earliest days of quantum physics. The Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 featured a debate between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein about whether the mind and consciousness are (Bohr) or are not (Einstein) part of physics. Einstein's position has dominated mainstream physics for decades, but the battle simmered on for the entire twentieth century.

Author Paster's challenge to readers is
List every phenomenon of new physics that you can think of. Add "consciousness" and "the mind." See what theories of physics you can find.

Very few, I would think. The field has largely been left to overly imaginative psychologists who believe in God switches, genes, and helmets, and Darwinian philosophers who claim that the mind isn't real. (And if there is no self, whose arthritis is this? - The Jewish Zen.)

There's a bit of stuff out there on the mind that addresses physics, actually. Have a look at Schwartz, Stapp, and Beauregard, for example, free online, for one model of mind-matter interaction.

I won't say anything more about Paster's book until I read it, but he is certainly correct in thinking that a valid theory of mind needs to address the data from physics. That does NOT mean that it needs to be a materialist theory, in fact, it probably should not be a materialist theory. But it does need to address the data from physics.

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The Catholic Register likes The Spiritual Brain ... and the fun part is ...

The fun part is that Dorothy Cummings's review picks out the very thing that I found funny about materialist approaches to spirituality, and she enjoyed it too:
The chapter entitled "The Strange Case of the God Helmet" is alone well worth the work involved in reading a book that is, after all, about neuroscience. The Spiritual Brain is hardly a beach book. But it has its rewards, and among them is the account of Michael Persinger, a researcher at Laurentian University who invented a machine he claimed could induce mystical experiences. As Beauregard and O'Leary explain, "Persinger proposed that… electrical microseizures within the temporal lobes generate a wide range of altered states, resulting in religious and mystical visions, out-of-body experiences and even recollections of abduction by aliens." From experiments inducing electrical microseizures in students with his "God helmet," Persinger concluded two things: "that the experience of a sensed presence can be manipulated by experiment, and that such an experience ‘may be the fundamental source for phenomena attributed to visitations by gods, spirits and other ephemeral phenomena.' " However, as Beauregard and O'Leary point out, "The first conclusion is a research result that should be able to be replicated if it is valid. The second is, of course, an opinion." As a matter of fact, Swedish researchers were unable to reproduce Persinger's results. But the God helmet did manage to convince some very influential and credulous people — the pop-science media.

Well, yes, I nearly split a gut laughing, myself, over how credulous self-confessed skeptics can be.

Listen, I learned far more about religious people from being a deputy warden at an Anglican church for some years than they will ever learn from reading village-atheist books. They need to get out more. If they want to know about religious people, they could try going to church, for example, and meeting some of them.

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Is human consciousness a trick to ensure survival?

Commenter ST quotes psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at Edge, saying:
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance—so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.

Now, like the commenter, I am pretty skeptical when I read stuff like that, and there is an amazing amount of it out there right now.

One aspect of the question of consciousness that is worth commenting on is the assumption that the advent of consciousness improved human survival chances. Of course it did in the long run; otherwise we would not be as numerous as we are. But it didn't do so in the short run, or not noticeably. The short run matters because Darwinian evolution, by its very nature, is not goal-directed, so the Darwinist must show that consciousness also aids survival in the short run. And that is far from clear.

To see what I mean, read J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, an account of the earliest known religions. When humans became conscious of such matters as future risk and inevitable death, they seem to have developed manage them. Some of these beliefs and rituals (washing, for example) may have been useful, but others were time sinks (menstrual taboos, ancestor worship, etc.) Many practices, such as human sacrifice and the execution of violators of a taboo, etc., surely decreased the human population, as would any form of religious or ideological warfare. All these net population decreases are direct outcomes of human consciousness that would not occur in a non-conscious species.

Once humans became conscious, there was no going back, to be sure, but there was certainly a long period when it was only intermittently "useful" in the Darwinian sense - which suggests in turn that consciousness did not develop in a Darwinian way.