Friday, October 31, 2008

Mind-body panel 1: Mario Beauregard - A Tale of Two Cultures ...

Mario Beauregard, an Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology, as well as the Neuroscience Research Center, spoke on both the morning and afternoon panels of the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium. In this morning session, he talked about how non-materialist neuroscientists (= the mind is real) interact with materialist ones (= the mind is an illusion).

Elie During [moderator]: He is of course an expert in the field of neuroscience and especially in issues regarding the spiritual side of the brain, if one may say so. I am referring to the book he co-authored, The Spiritual Brain, which is really a wonderful synthesis of almost all the questions that arise today in the field of the neuroscience of consciousness, and beyond. So my first question for you is the following: I’d like you to tell us a little bit more about the way your research, and more generally the kind of research you document in your book, is perceived by your colleagues. Is it easy to raise the kind of questions you’re concerned with? Do you perceive a form of embarrassment in the scientific community? And if so, how would you explain it?

Mario Beauregard: Thank you. Well, I would say that it depends where you are presenting your research, and also on the specific cultures associated with the various academic institutions.

I'll give you an example. In Montreal, we have two different cultures, an Anglophone culture and a Francophone culture. I am a French-Canadian and I’m at the University of Montreal, which is the second largest French university in the world after Paris. We have a very famous institution in Montreal, McGill University. It's called the “Harvard of the North,” as you know.

A few years ago when I decided to do a project with the Carmelite nuns, funded by the Templeton Foundation, two of the studies were supposed to be conducted at the University of Montreal, and a third was supposed to be conducted at McGill University, at the famous Montreal Neurological Institute founded by Penfield in the late 20s. This project was supposed to involve PET scanning to examine what's going on with regard to a chemical messenger in the brain called serotonin that is related to all sorts of functions, including mood regulation as well as various spiritual and mystical states. We asked for permission to use their PET SCAN to conduct this project over there and we were flatly rejected, whereas at the University of Montreal the other two projects were welcomed because the researchers there thought the projects were pioneering, innovative, new, and exciting, and that such questions were considered to be worthy of scientific investigation.

I was told later that at McGill University, neuroscience and spirituality/religion should not have anything to do with each other. And one of the members of the committee was a famous neuroscientist over there—I’m not going to mention her name, but she is known all over the world and she's even studied with Penfield in the 60s; some of you may know her. She said that as long as I'm here, as long as I am on the PET-working committee, there is never going to be any study about neuroscience and religion/spirituality. So that illustrates the differences in views regarding this question. It depends on where you are, but in general it’s very polarized.

For a minority of my colleagues, they think that his new kind of research is important, which tackles the mind-body problem and at the same time reveals all the shortcomings and limitations of the materialist view. I would say this is true for the minority of my colleagues who dare to say this publicly.

But in reality, many more colleagues have sent me e-mails or have had secret discussions with me saying that it's time for a major paradigm shift in neuroscience, but since we're only a minority of maverick scientists at this point, it's not possible yet to reverse the old paradigm, even though a lot of young neuroscientists are very encouraged to look in this direction. But they're still afraid of having trouble securing research funding and encountering opposition from universities. The field is still controlled by the old guard, and the old guard still believes in the old doctrine that the mind is what the brain does and that you can reduce all spiritual and mystical experiences to simply electrical or chemical processes in the brain. So there's a battle. It's like a cultural war, if you will. But we are making progress slowly. I'm sure that in 10 or 20 years from now, things will change dramatically, especially if we can receive important funding to do these types of studies. Interestingly, more and more private foundations are open to these questions in Europe as well as in the United States.

Elie During: Well, I guess in 10 years, you can eventually publish these secret emails and make a book out of it!

Beauregard later said: To come back to the question of how consciousness can influence brain events, I would like simply to note that during the last decade, there’s been a series of brain imaging, functional neuroimaging studies that have been done by Jeffrey [Schwartz], in my own lab, and in many other labs as well showing clearly that intention can modulate brain activity in the brain regions and neural circuits involved in the processing of emotion; this has also been shown with respect to the placebo effect. In the placebo effect, neuroimaging studies have shown that beliefs and expectations about various types of treatments can significantly influence the way the brain is functioning. In other words, mental factors like beliefs, desires, emotions, and feelings can exert a very important influence on how the brain is functioning electrically and chemically. This is something that is very important to remember and that can be used in everyday life.

The line of inquiry to use is to demonstrate that perhaps mind and consciousness are non-local, to use terminology similar to that in quantum physics. In other words, it’s possible to demonstrate that mind and consciousness can exert non-local effects between humans at certain distances, or between humans and animals, or even electronic machines. That’s the goal of “psi” research, or so-called parapsychology. These types of studies have been done now for several decades, though they’re still taboo among mainstream science. Yet, if you consider all the data that has been accumulated in this field of research, it seems clear that mind and consciousness cannot be associated solely with the brain and the body, for they seem to be able to exert an action, a non-local action. So that’s one line of investigation that would be useful.

Next: Mind-body panel 1: Esther Sternberg - "Esther, you're going to ruin your career by doing this."

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