Monday, July 14, 2008

Neuroscience: Meditation really can change the brain

Barbara Lantin of The Times of London reports that "Meditation can alter brain structure" (March 14, 2008):

Long-term meditation seems not only to alter brain-wave patterns: early research suggests that it may also result in changes in the actual structure of the cortex, the outer parts of our brains. “We have found that brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditators than in the controls,” says Dr Sara Lazar, an assistant in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"The data give credence to some of the claims of long-term meditators and suggests that meditation can play a role in reducing stress, improving emotion regulation and perhaps slowing the effects of ageing on brains - slowing the normal decrease in mental agility, ability to learn new things and memory that comes with age."
The thing to see here is that the brain is not cast in cement. Anything we spend a lot of time doing will alter our brains. Unfortunately, some people get hold of that and conclude that "meditators have a certain kind of brain" and set about looking for a "spirituality gene"

That makes as much sense as saying that people who are physically fit have a certain kind of body and looking for the "fitness gene" that explains it. As if.

Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation:


My experiences point to truth but yours are classic examples of brain rot?

The one-way-only skeptics at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst New York assure us that they know why other people have spiritual experiences:
Amherst, New York (July 11, 2008)The very same processes that enable our brain to be so dramatically successful are frequently the same ones that lead us into error. Epilepsy, drugs, damage, and stresses can cause the brain to function in ways that lead people to believe they have experienced or witnessed something supernatural or paranormal. But although dramatic errors and anomalies of experience often result from the malfunctioning brain, many cognitive errors and illusions occur when the brain is functioning normally. Join us for The Skeptic’s Toolbox 2008, where we will explore the ways in which the normally and the abnormally functioning brain can lead us astray and create cognitive illusions.
It would be just as easy to show that one-way-only materialist skepticism is an illusion caused by a glitch in the brain. If the materialists were right, they could never know they were because their brains are supposedly kludges.

Mario and I debunk a whole whack of this stuff in The Spiritual Brain. It was the funniest part of the book, as I explained shortly after turning in the manuscript.

See also:

"So you don't stick to your goals? Blame your kludgebrain - or maybe not?"

Evolutionary Psychology: Eliot Spitzer is a kludgebrain! psychologist opines (but so are we all)

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Jeff Schwartz lectures in Ireland on changing the troubled brain by changing the mind

Neuropsychiatrist Jeff Schwartz, Mario's colleague and lead author of The Mind and the Brain, has been lecturing in Ireland. According to Dick Ahlstrom, science editor for the Irish Times (July 11, 2008),
THE FANCIFUL notion of "mind over matter", where the mind can exert influence over the body, is not so fanciful after all. It is possible for the mind to impose lasting physiological changes on the brain to overcome psychiatric problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder.

So argues Prof Jeffrey M Schwartz, one of the world's leading proponents of mind over matter in a psychiatric sense, who was in Dublin yesterday to deliver a lecture at St Patrick's Hospital.
Ahlstrom talks about Schwartz's work treating obsessive-compulsive disorder - which highlights something I always stress when discussing non-materialist neuroscience: It is, first and foremost, a practical discipline.

Non-materialist neuroscientists like Schwartz and Beauregard are not trying to have a faculty common-room fight with materialist neuroscientists over abstract issues that begin and end in "ism." How would that help anyone?
Rather, they are concerned that many mental problems are not effectively treated when the brain is viewed materialistically as a pre-programmed machine - whose addled programming can somehow be knocked back into kilter by powerful drugs.

Non-materialists see the brain as the organ that connects our minds to life. Like any organ, it can have problems. Our minds can have problems too - we can have attitudes that are wrong and destructive.
That is not a brain problem, it is a mind problem. A mass murderer might have a perfectly healthy brain.

The non-materialist works with the patient whose behaviour is creating a problem, such as obsessive compulsions, to help change their mind. Then the mind changes the brain in the process, and thus the person's life changes slowly over time. Neuroscientists like Mario and Jeff have imaged this very process.

As Mario and I show in Chapter Six of The Spiritual Brain, non-materialist treatments work - and that is what keeps the non-materialist neuroscientist at work, despite much misunderstanding and occasional misrepresentation.

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Neuroscience: First detailed map of the Grand Central Station of the brain

In "First Detailed Map of the Human Cortex" in MIT's Technology Review, Emily Singer notes,
"A new imaging technique reveals previously hidden brain structures, including the central hub" and explains,
The first high-resolution map of the human cortical network reveals that the brain has its own version of Grand Central Station, a central hub that is structurally connected to many other parts of the brain. Scientists generated the map using a new type of brain imaging known as diffusion imaging. The technique maps the largely inaccessible tangle of the brain's white matter--the long, thin fibers that ferry nerve signals between cells.
and we also learn,
Conventional imaging techniques, such as structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), reveal major anatomical features of the brain. But in humans, the brain's finer architecture--the neural projections that connect its different parts--has, until recently, remained hidden. "The brain we've been looking at with conventional MRI or CT scans all these years is not the real brain," says Van Wedeen, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, who was also involved in the study. "We're just seeing a shadow of its surfaces."
The notion of the "real" brain vs. "a shadow of its surfaces" is an intriguing one. My guess is, we will never find the "real" brain for the same reasons as we never find the "real" Grand Central Station or the real Canada. There is a physical reality that corresponds to Grand Central Station and one that corresponds to Canada. But usually, what we find is a series of overlapping material and immaterial things whose "reality" can only be understood as a series of generalities - the reality is not any one of the generalities nor even all of them together, nor only in specific things we can point to.

I suspect that it will always be much easier to find the answers to specific questions about the brain than to find - and take in - the"real" brain.

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Can languages be treated as if words were genes?

"Some researchers think that the evolution of languages can be understood by treating them like genomes — but many linguists don't want to hear about it" Emma Marris reports in Nature News. (Paywall)

In that case, treating language families like a genome evolving over generations raises some interesting questions. We must assume that the speakers of languages do not have much conscious input into the fate of languages, just as we do not have much conscious input into our physical genetic codes.

Can we all say out loud together "reductionism!"?

As a general rule, reductionism does not work when a given thing is reduced below the level of meaningful information. We will not usually understand words better by cutting them up into letters, for example, or by treating them as if they were genes.

Examining the letters in a word can tell us some interesting things, as we will shortly see, but not usually the social and cultural meanings of the word.

We are constantly providing input into the language we use. One thinks immediately of the significance certain phrases acquire during an election campaign. Barack Obama, for example, may well have rescued the word "audacity" from near oblivion by his phrase, The Audacity of Hope. However, I think the word will go back to near extinction in a few years.

Some might argue that a sort of Darwinian process governs which word innovations or recoveries succeed. Maybe, but the process begins with intelligent design. The skilled orator knows what effect he intends to have and how he proposes to create it. Given the importance rhetoric has played in the oldest cultures, we can assume that skilled orators have had their hand in the system all along.

A friend enumerates reasons for doubt more academically than I can:
Languages clearly are hierarchically-structured systems while actual science is far from understanding the hierarchical structure of genomes (if any);

Languages are tools daily used by intelligent agents who constantly use them (and change them) to express meanings. As such languages evolution is driven by intelligence. Genomes are not used daily by intelligent agents this way and even Darwinism [Darwinian evolution] denies a front-loader designer at their beginning;

Language always expresses concepts and manifests thought and ideas, it is fully teleological. According to Darwinism, genomes are not teleological systems.
Of course, sometimes looking at the individual letters can tell us something about words. The word "skirt" in Scandinavian languages became "shirt" in English (which tends to soften the consonants). Then later, English speakers also grabbed "skirt" and made it mean the bottom garment rather than the top one. To maintain the distinction between the two garments, we had to stick with Scandinavian phonetics this time. Our first grab was probably automatic, but the second required a conscious distinction in spelling and pronunciation.

And then, when I was young, the skort made a brief appearance - essentially a skirt with built-in shorts, pictured above. I am glad to see it has not entirely gone out of fashion. The word "skort", at any rate, was a deliberate coinage by an intelligent agent, probably the earliest skort designers, explaining their concept.

I would hate to think of an earnest researcher attempting to compile "laws of descent" for the English language and spending many hours trying to show how "skort" arose without any intelligent agency. On another planet, perhaps.

(Note: The image is from Bartleby's American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000, a good place to bookmark. This isn't quite the type of skort I remember from 1960, which was loose cotton, and sometimes pleated, but it's close enough.)