Thursday, December 20, 2007

Can people simply decide to die?

Recently, I wrote about "deathcat" - a cat named Oscar with a very good record for predicting when patients in a nursing home were within a few hours of death.

Of course, Oscar's human friends were elderly patients suffering with dementia, and nothing was being done to prevent them from dying, so he probably picked up vital clues by scent or some similar method. But what about people who just die when they are ready, in the full knowledge that it is time to move on?

That does happen, according to coronary care physician Hugh Montgomery, who gives this year's Royal Institution's Christmas Science lectures in the UK.

As Stuart Jeffries reports in The Guardian (December 11, 2007),
He tells the story of a church organist he treated. "She had a condition which meant she had to be on a drip, but she kept pulling it out. She told me: 'I don't want a drip any more.' I said: 'Your chances of surviving are very low if you don't keep it.' But she told me that Jesus was waiting on the other side and was calling her. She was with her husband and so I said: 'If you're both comfortable with that, do that. I can give you pain relief.' As I got up to go she said: 'Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?' and so I gave her a kiss and left. Moments later she was dead.

"What I have found again and again is that dying patients hold on for a loved one to arrive - say for a son to get the visa to fly to London and see mother in hospital for one last time. My father, who was unconscious in hospital for the last couple of days of his life, died at the rare moment when we - my mother, sisters and me - were in the room at the same time."

A number of palliative care physicians have told me similar stories. One even went so far as to say that people in their nineties can die pretty much whenever they want to, by ceasing to try hard to remain alive - which makes sense, when you think about it.

Montgomery's thesis is certianly consistent with the basic hypothesis of The Spiritual Brain that the mind is real, and not simply the buzz of neurons in the brain. But the main thing to see here, in my view, is how much we actually mean to each other - that is, how much we promote - or diminish - each other's survival. Good thing to keep in mind during the holiday season, which often stresses relationships.

There is much else of interest in Jeffries' article, including a discussion of relative mortality rates among grades of civil servants. Highly recommended.

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Free will: It used to be all my mom's fault, but now it's all my brain's fault?

Stephanie West Allen from Brains on Purpose points me to a "Battle of Ideas" seminar on FORA TV: My Brain Made Me Do It.

Quite honestly, I think that - apart from the high tech brain scanning - "my brain made me do it" is just this decade's version of the 1950s' psychiatrist's "it's all his mother's fault."

Neuroplasticity is a fact. We shape our brains through life by what we think about and how we think about it. I am not saying that everyone is in total control all the time, but that we must accept responsibility for a messy mind as we would for a messy house. And that includes the knowledge that we made it that way and that we can do something about it if we want to. And if we don't want to, we have made a choice.

Here's a different view from cognitive scientist and artist Jim Davies:
Descartes's dichotomy of the non-material mind and the material brain still lingers on in our cultural understanding of psychology. One place I think it arises is in the "problem" of free will. Your brain determining how you react to an environment is not a troublesome notion if you think that the brain running your mind is all you are. People say "but my brain controls me!" As though the "me" were some spirit. Your "me" is just the software running on the brain. Your brain and mind determining what you do is your exercising of free will, at least in any meaningful sense of the term.

So, it is not so much that your brain made you do it as that there is no "you" to begin with. It's just software and hardware.

Davies thinks that anyone who would disagree with his materialist view must be a non-scientist, which would come as news to Mario Beauregard and Jeff Schwartz.

I think his view demonstrates the chief reason that the computer analogy for the human brain does not work. Software is a product of a human mind. It is not itself a mind. Minds produce software, but not the reverse.

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"Change your mind, change your brain" seminar in Denver

Stephanie West-Allen, a self-confessed idealawg, is giving a seminar on self-directed neuroplasticity as a Colorado Free University course:
"Brains On Purpose: Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain" here in Denver in February and again in April.
The dates are:

Tuesday, February 5 and 12, 6-8:15 PM


Wednesday, April 9 and 16, 6-8:15 PM

Mario Beauregard and I discuss self-directed neuroplasticity in The Spiritual Brain. Put simply, it means that changing your mind - and staying focused on the change - eventually changes your brain.

Mario and his team were, for example, privileged to help a group of women who dreaded spiders to overcome their fear through a guided learning process - and the neuroscientists were also able to watch their brains change in the process. (See pp. 136-40, The Spiritual Brain.) Similarly, West Allen's colleague, neuropsychiatrist Jeff Schwartz, observed the same process with obsessive-compulsive disorder (pp. 126-30).


Jewish community life takes root again in Germany

Here is an interesting article by Suzanne Fields on the gradual recovery of Jewish identity in Germany, with some interesting observations on religion in Europe vs. North America:
The religious focus here is of an entirely different order than in the United States. No one much cares that Angela Merkel grew up as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman in Communist East Germany, where being religious was an invitation to official trouble and harassment. The omnipresent Stasi, the government's efficient secret police, lurked behind every cross, a symbol of the free society the communists hated. But freedom of religion was only one among many of the freedoms the Germans were denied in the East.

Germans enjoy neither freedom of speech nor separation of church and state as we know it. Germans are free to say whatever they like, as long as they don't say anything forbidden by the government such as anti-Semitic Nazi slogans. All "official" religious bodies must pay taxes to the state, and in return receive subsidies from the state.

Apparently, Jews are the fastest growing community. While that's partly a function of their small post-Holocaust numbers, the rediscovery of Jewish community life is probably helping as well.

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