Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Non-materialist neuroscience watch: *New article* "Mind does really matter"

My lead author Mario Beauregard has an article coming out in Progress in Neurobiology which describes a number of studies in non-materialist neuroscience (Non-materialist neuroscience = the mind exists and uses the brain but is not the same thing as the brain).

It also sets out his hypothesis of the relationship between the mind and the brain, the psychoneural translation hypothesis. Neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can now show the ways in which people reorganize their brains by changing their minds. However, their ability to do this is in direct conflict with materialist theories of mind, according to which the mind either is simply the brain at work or is a side-effect of brain processes - or perhaps does not even exist. As Beauregard writes,
The results of the neuroimaging studies reviewed here call in question the psychophysical identity theory and epiphenomenalism. For the psychophysical identity theory, mental processes (including intentional ones) are identical with neural processes (Feigl, 1958). For epiphenomenalism, mental processes are causally inert epiphenomena (side-effects or by-products) of neural processes. These findings also challenge eliminative materialism (or eliminativism). According to this view, mental processes and functions (e.g., consciousness, intentions, desires, beliefs, self) can be reduced entirely to brain processes. These mental processes and functions are pre-scientific concepts that belong to unsophisticated ideas of how the brain works (sometimes called ‘‘folk psychology’’). Eliminative materialism further proposes that all common language or ‘‘folk psychology’’ descriptions of mental experience should be eliminated and replaced by descriptions using neuroscientific language (Churchland, 1981). For these materialist views (psychophysical identity theory, epiphenomenalism, eliminative materialism), physically describable brain mechanisms represent the core and final explanatory vehicle for every kind of psychologically described data. These views are extremely counter-intuitive since our most basic experience teaches us that our choice of perspective about how we apprehend our mental states makes a huge difference in how we respond to them (Schwartz et al., 2005).With regard to this issue, we agree with Glannon (2002) that the tendency of modern neuroscience and biological psychiatry toward neurobiological reductionism, i.e., the reduction of persons to their brains (a form of "neural anthropomorphism"), is ill-advised and socially hazardous. We must keep in mind that the whole human person, not merely a part of a brain, thinks, feels, or believes. Indeed, the human person cannot be reduced to neural processes and it is difficult to understand a whole person without understanding the sociocultural context in which the person lives.

Okay, if you are not a neuroscientist, you are probably better off reading The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, which explains this and a whole lot more in really simple language - the kind of thing I understand better myself, no less.

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Alcoholics: Spirituality corks the bottle of spirits

A study of 154 adults who abused or depended on alcohol showed that those whose depth of spiritual experience increased were less likely to
fall off the wagon
"While people's actual beliefs don't seem to change during recovery, the extent they have spiritual experiences, and are open to spirituality in their lives, does change," says lead researcher Elizabeth A.R. Robinson, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the U-M Medical School's Department of Psychiatry and member of UMARC.. "This effect was also independent of their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous which has a strong spiritual aspect."

The specific beliefs of the recovering alcoholic did not change; it was the depth of participation that mattered. The study generally supported the role of faith-based recovery groups.

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Artificial intelligence: Making the whole universe intelligent?

Ray Kurzweil's current artificial intelligence prognostication is a yet grander dream than the conscious computer (which was supposed to be here already, but don't let that detain us): The intelligent universe. In his forward to James Gardner's book of that name, he says,
Where is all this headed? It is leading inexorably to the intelligent universe that Jim Gardner envisions. Consider the following: As with all of the other manifestations of information technology, we are also making exponential gains in reverse-engineering the human brain. The spatial resolution in 3D volume of in-vivo brain scanning is doubling each year, and the latest generation of scanners is capable of imaging individual interneuronal connections and seeing them interact in real time. For the first time, we can see the brain create our thoughts, and also see our thoughts create our brain (that is, we create new spines and synapses as we learn). The amount of data we are gathering about the brain is doubling each year, and we are showing that we can turn this data into working models and simulations.

The idea is to meld brains and computers to create super brains, and tomorrow the universe. In my humble opinion, it would be well to address some issues in basic nervous system physiology like this one and this one before moving on to take over the universe, as Kurzweil and Gardner suggest.

The whole introduction is worth a read, if a little spacey. Kurzweil has some interesting things to say about the search for extra-terrestrial life (he doesn't think the ETs are really out there):
My own conclusion is that they don’t exist. If it seems unlikely that we would be in the lead in the universe, here on the third planet of a humble star in an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, it’s no more perplexing than the existence of our universe with its ever so precisely tuned formulas to allow life to evolve in the first place

Perplexing? No, Ray, it's just a very strong signal, that's all. At any rate, you can tell that the search for ET has lost its oomph! when people like Ray Kurzweil express skepticism.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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Theories of everything: A theory of everything must address consciousness, says prof

A new theory of the universe outlined by Wake Forest University medicine prof Robert Lanza, called biocentrism, addresses the implications of failure to include our own consciousness in our understanding of the world:
Neuroscientists have developed theories that might help to explain how separate pieces of information are integrated in the brain and thus succeed in elucidating how different attributes of a single perceived object—such as the shape, color, and smell of a flower—are merged into a coherent whole. These theories reflect some of the important work that is occurring in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, but they are theories of structure and function. They tell us nothing about how the performance of these functions is accompanied by a conscious experience; and yet the difficulty in understanding consciousness lies precisely here, in this gap in our understanding of how a subjective experience emerges from a physical process.

[ ... ]

Physicists believe that the theory of everything is hovering right around the corner, and yet consciousness is still largely a mystery, and physicists have no idea how to explain its existence from physical laws. The questions physicists long to ask about nature are bound up with the problem of consciousness. Physics can furnish no answers for them.

Lanza argues, essentially, that attempts to understand the universe through physics and chemistry alone are doomed by the quantum mechanical nature of life. Interesting reading!

From what I can tell, most materialists are not so much looking for a way to understand consciousness (self, soul, free will, et cetera) as a way to define it out of existence or effectiveness. The fact that they want their biggest problem to be just dismissed as a myth shows the size of the challenge they face in dealing with it. Go here, here, and here for a few examples.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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Neuroscience watch: Another controversial new finding about nerves

In a controversial new finding, written up at Science Daily, physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University
Danish scientists challenge the accepted scientific views of how nerves function and of how anesthetics work. Their research suggests that action of nerves is based on sound pulses and that anesthetics inhibit their transmission.

Surprisingly, although anaesthetics have been in use for about 150 years, no one knew exactly how they work. The physicists argue that they work by changing the melting point of nerve membranes, so that they cannot transmit waves.

The standard textbook view has been that nerves send electrical impulses along their length (and presumably anaesthetics disrupt that). That explanation troubled physicists because the process should generate heat, but it doesn't.

David deWitt, however, writes to me urging caution:
I am quite skeptical of the claim (without reading the original paper). There is a good deal of electrophysiological studies that clearly demonstrate that an action potential is triggered electrically. You can attach electrodes to neurons and hyper/hypo polarize them and alter the activity. There are ligand gated and voltage gated ion channels that can be activated or blocked and it is the depolarization of the synaptic membrane that triggers the calcium channels that activate the machinery associated with vesicular docking and release of neurotransmitter at the synapse. You can electrically stimulate the neuron and this will trigger the action potential. It has been shown to be necessary and sufficient. Scientists have long worked out the process of opening and closing of potassium, sodium and calcium channels. You can block these and prevent proper functioning of the neuron.

Note that it is described as "theoretical" in other words they didn't actually measure any mechanical pulses or sound--they merely suggested it as a possibility and an explanation for the effects of anesthesia.

One of the rationales was the fact that different chemicals worked as anesthesia and they depend on the solubility in olive oil. No doubt this solubility is related to how it can penetrate the cell membrane. Just because different compounds have the same effect on a neuron does not mean that they work by the same mechanism. There can be several different mechanisms that are impacted, but all resulting in the same effect.

This is significant because anesthesia does not affect all neuronal populations in the same way. If it were just a matter of a non-specific sound blocking mechanism, then ALL neurons should be simultaneously affected. This should include all of your motor and autonomic neurons as well (the ones that control breathing, peristalsis etc.) However, this is not the case.

It is possible that a rush of ions into the neuron could generate a mechanical pulse as well as an electrical signal, so I want to be careful here. But it would seem that it would have more to do with a change in volume/density than it would in the production of sound.

Instead of what is the sound of one hand clapping, what is the sound of a 100 million potassium ions flowing through a ~2 angstrom hole in a second?

This is all kind of interesting, especially in view of an earlier new finding that brain cells communicate with each other not just at the synapses but along their length.

Anaesthetics exist to relieve pain, and pain is, after all, an experience of the mind as well as a state of the brain. Understanding the true relationship between the mind and the brain will certainly require neuroscientists to develop a more accurate account of how neurons operate.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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