Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Selected moments from the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium - afternoon

The afternoon panel of the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium (September 11, 2008), sponsored by the Nour Foundation, UN-DESA, and the Université de Montréal, featured some interesting exchanges between a number of non-materialist neuroscientists.

Non-materialist neuroscientists think that your mind is real and that it helps shape your brain. It is not a mere illusion created by the workings of the brain.

(Both the morning and afternoon panels were televised and can be viewed here. My excerpts from the morning panel are here.)

As before, French philosopher Elie During led off the panel, featuring (in order of first speaking), neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D., near death researcher Bruce Greyson, M.D., spirituality and health researcher Christina Puchalski, M.D., and neuroscientist Mario Beauregard.

Philosopher During noted, referencing Andrew Newberg's work:
What you show, based on neurological evidence, is that there's some sort of consistency or robustness to these [spiritual] experiences: they are, I quote, “the result of coherent sensory perceptions shaped by the proper neurological functioning of sound, healthy minds.” In other words, they may be unusual experiences, but they are not at all outside the range of normal brain activity. This is a very important conclusion, but I cannot get rid of a feeling of discomfort, because it seems what you’re implying is that ultimately, it is the brain that is able to answer the question of the reality or unreality of our lived experience. It is the brain—or the neuroscientist—that is the ultimate criterion when it comes to assessing the reality of those experiences. When it's real for the brain, it’s real for us. Reality, at the end of the day, is “what happens in the brain”…. This I find quite hard to accept, since the brain, after all, is itself only a piece—albeit an important piece—of the reality we’re experiencing and reflecting about: it doesn’t stand outside the picture as a transcendent norm. Do you see my point?
Newberg replied,
We often don’t know whether someone who has a normal psychology can also have a normal religious or spiritual experience versus someone who has an abnormal psychology. In fact, one of the questions that I pose to all of my students is: “What is normal?” We really struggle with that. It becomes something that is very difficult to know how to define, especially in the context of religious or spiritual experiences.
A good example of this type of problem is Joan of Arc. Fifteenth-century France was descending into chaos after the Hundred Years War, and the king of England was planning to absorb the country. A peasant girl, Joan, informed local notables that she had received visions telling her to take the crown prince (the dauphin) to the traditional place where French kings were crowned (Reims) - thus establishing a counterclaim.

At that time, of course, women, especially peasant women, were expected to mind their own business at home and keep silent. Politics was a game for men of noble birth.

Was Joan delusional? Many thought so. But she raised an army, took the dauphin to Rheims, and got him crowned, thus putting a deep - and permanent - dent in the English king's plans.

The conventional view of delusions is that they disorient us and prevent us from seeing reality clearly. But Joan's spiritual experiences had the opposite effect - they enabled her to see reality quite clearly and to do what no one else in France had managed. And she did it from one of the lowest positions in her society.

So was Joan "normal"? To ask the question is to impose on spiritual reality a standard created for Dilbert's cube world. She wasn't normal at all, and if she had been, she could never have done what she did. So part of the challenge of studying spiritual experiences is to move beyond the standards generated for measuring other types of experience, standards that may be irrelevant for the purpose.

(Note: Newberg also offered some interesting observations on attempts to measure consciousness, as I have reported here.

Panelists watched a National Geographic Moment of Death, on the complexities of determining when and how death occurs. One problem is that death, like life, is a process. Freezing cells, Hayflick-style, results in a stasis that is neither death nor life.

The panelists:

Mind-body panel 2: Andrew Newberg - "A growing openness to these kinds of issues"

Mind-body panel 2: Bruce Greyson - Brain and mind don't seem to be the same thing.

Mind-body panel 2: Christina Puchalski - "We know maybe forty percent"

Mind-body panel 2: Mario Beauregard - "Brain imaging data alone doesn't tell us whether an experience is real or not"

Next: Mind-body panel 2: Andrew Newberg - "A growing openness to these kinds of issues"

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Mind-body panel 2: Andrew Newberg - "A growing openness to these kinds of issues"

Dr. Andrew B. Newberg is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a staff physician in Nuclear Medicine.
It’s not that we necessarily have to change the way science is done, although that is something that may happen. It’s not necessarily that we have to change what religion and spirituality is, although that’s something that may happen as well. But it’s the ability for people of all different perspectives to be aware of what their biases are, what their beliefs are, and to try to find better ways of having a dialogue and interacting. I think that will improve our science, our politics, and our social and spiritual interactions. That’s really where I can see a lot of this kind of research and information going.

It’s not that we have to get rid of one way of being or one way of looking at things. But we need to understand how that relates to all the other perspectives, and to try to take a more open-minded approach. I think a lot of us have been fairly impressed at the growing openness to these kinds of issues—to have centers like Christina’s at major universities where this kind of work is going on, to have the kinds of projects we’ve been talking about here, to have a national center for complimentary and alternative medicine at NIH.

I mean that would never have been thought about 25 or 30 years ago, but it’s happening now. The cancer institute is working with the national center for complimentary medicine and NIMH, so people are beginning to realize that we need some kind of integration that looks at all of us, not just as biological beings, but as biological, spiritual, social, and psychological beings, and it’s combining together all of those different dimensions of who we are that is where I think this paradigm may ultimately lead us, making us look at the world in a different way.
One reason for the new emphasis on spirituality in medicine is probably demographics. Most Western societies now have large - and rapidly increasing - aged populations. Aged people often cope with several chronic disorders. Medication alone is not the answer. It can even be counterproductive - many people are injured by medications or don't take them correctly and end up in the hospital. Many health care professionals now consider mental states in promoting good health, which results in a reduced need for medication.

Newberg also brought up a problem that Mario Beauregard and I looked at in The Spiritual Brain, the problem of language. Language explains - but it also limits:
We’ve been running an online survey of people’s spiritual experiences and one of the things that we are learning from the data that we are looking at is that when you ask people to describe the spiritual experience they had, you get answers that are just all over the place: some people use the Force, some people say it’s an energy, some people say it’s God. If you ask questions in specific ways, you can get completely different answers. When we just ask general questions, it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of coherence between what people consider to be a spiritual experience, but if we start to ask questions in other ways, it seems like everybody had the same exact core experience.
That sounds right. Language is full of abstractions that can mean different things to different people - words like "love" and "peace" come to mind. Different life experiences create different spectra of meaning.

Consider a current example: For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, "religion" connotes oppression - based on her life experience. But in my own life experience, religion was the bedrock of philanthropy and social development and the guarantor of civil liberties, at home and abroad. So, because the word "religion" means such different things to the two of us, saying that we were both raised in a "religious" environment doesn't tell you anything. Further questions must determine what that means.

For other examples of new approaches, see Adopting a dog better for your health than pills? (Pfizer is promoting a "More than Medication" program)
Meditation really can change the brain
Getting past the "you are a computer made of meat" phase - a look at Andrew Newberg's work
Next: Mind-body panel 2: Bruce Greyson - Brain and mind don't seem to be the same thing.


Mind-body panel 2: Bruce Greyson - "Brain and mind don't seem to be the same thing"

Dr. Bruce Greyson is the Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia Medical School, and author of The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives. He is also the editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.

Philosopher Elie During asked Greyson,
I think it's clear that what is being tested by those who, like yourself, are investigating cases of near-death experiences is not so much survival as much as it is the degree of dependence of consciousness on the brain. The functional relation between consciousness and brain activity can be probed within this limited temporal lapse, when things happen that seem to loosen up the ordinary connection between the two. Again, the hypothesis being tested is not a straightforward metaphysical hypothesis—that of the substantial existence of a conscious entity fully independent from the body. And yet, we cannot help but try and interpret such phenomena along realistic lines, sometimes in a very naive way, as if “something,” some kind of mind-stuff, was wandering around in the emergency room floating above the body. In other words, it is difficult when sensory experiences are at play not to take the patients’ reports literally.
He replied,
Sometimes, when you talk to many near-death experiencers who assume they left their bodies and therefore their brains behind, you start wondering where we ever got this crazy idea that brains were involved in thinking. Where did this idea come from? Obviously it comes from our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, it seems as if the mind and the brain are the same thing. When you get knocked on the head, you don't think very clearly. When you get drunk, you don't think very clearly. It seems very obvious that the state of our brains affects the state of our thinking, our emotions, our thoughts, our feelings, our desires. And that seems to hold true for much of our daily lives. It doesn't seem to hold true in the extremes. Let me give you an analogy.

This morning Henry Stapp talked about Newtonian mechanics, which was accepted for 300 or 400 hundred years as a description of this wonderful clockwork world we live in, which was perfectly acceptable. Newtonian Mechanics treated the world as if it were billiard balls, which works very well for most of our daily lives. When you throw something up, it falls down, all the time. The harder you throw it, the faster it goes. Newtonian Mechanics works fine for everyday life. It is only when you get to the extremes of measuring extremely small particles, or extremely fast speeds, that the Newtonian model breaks down. It's not that Newton was wrong; it's just that the formulas he was using are a limited case. When you get to the extreme examples, his formulas no longer work and you need relativity to make the corrections.

In normal everyday life, the corrections relativity adds don't make much of a difference, and Newtonian formulas are a good approximation. I think the same thing is going on between the brain and the mind. In our everyday life, assuming the brain and the mind are the same thing works perfectly fine. It's only when you get to the extreme cases, such as when the brain stops functioning, that you see the analogy breaking down, and brain and mind don't seem to be the same thing. The most common example that's talked about now is the near-death experience. We have people who seem to be clinically dead, a few people who have actually had flat brain waves documented, who come back saying not only was I thinking, but I was thinking more clearly than I ever had before. But we also have other examples of cases in which the brain is compromised and yet people think more clearly. There are exceptional cases of people who have irreversible dementia or severe mental illness, who in their dying moments before they die become perfectly lucid: they start recognizing family members, they start talking coherently, they lose their delusions. And then they die.
It's quite possible that one of the brain's actual purposes is to restrict thinking - to narrow it to channels suited to the reality in which we live.

If we were conscious of everything going on around and within us, and fully realized the significance of all that we actually know, who could handle it? We would go mad and jump out of windows. We don't, because our brains restrict us to thinking about the deadline we must meet this afternoon, what's on the menu tonight, and whether we remembered to lock the back door. In other words, the stuff that keeps us on track in our ordinary lives. Only at the margins does that stream of everyday consciousness dissolve in favour of a larger one.

That may help us understand why many people change their priorities following a near death experience. Anyone can repeat the ironic mantra "No one ever said, on their deathbed, I wish I had spent more time complaining." We go on spending too much time complaining.

But suppose a person has a near-death experience in which she experiences a higher level of consciousness. So she changes. But what changed? Her normal stream of consciousness was interrupted, and she saw what that stream had prevented her from seeing clearly: She is the only person who is stopping her from living n the way that she thinks is right.

That might be a model for understanding serious life change in older people. However. Greyson also offered a caution about models:
William James was living in the steam era and he used the reducing valve, a model from the steam engine. And people since then have used the television analogy that the brain is like a receiver for the television signals—we keep changing our models. Now, the mind is software and the brain is hardware. The point is that the brain is not producing thought, it’s receiving thought or limiting thought in some way. And in that model, the brain is the way in which the mind has a function in the normal world. I’m not going to embrace any of these things because I think they’re all so locked into very limited models.

Let me connect with something that was mentioned this morning, and that’s the role of language in all this. If you ask near-death experiencers to describe what happened, they will usually start off by saying, “I can’t, it was ineffable, there are no words to describe what I went through.” And then we say, “Great, tell me about it,” and we force them to use words. And then we write down what they said as if that were the truth. But the fact that we make them use words doesn’t mean the words were accurate. And in fact, if you look at cross-cultural comparisons, there’s a core near-death experience that is the same all over the world. But you don’t have the same vocabulary described all over the world. Here people talk about tunnels; people in third-world countries don’t talk about tunnels, they may talk about a cave or a well, or one person told me about going through the stem of a flower. I had one truck driver who told me about going through a tail pipe. So your cultural background determines what words you use. People who come from a culture where you have a belief in a god will talk about seeing God. People from cultures where there isn’t a god, such as the Buddhist cultures, don’t talk about seeing God in their near-death experiences. They may talk about seeing deceased relatives, they talk about a warm, loving sense of whatever it is. When the Star Wars movies came out, a lot of near-death experiencers said, “Yes, the Force, that’s it, it’s the Force.”

I think it goes deeper than just our language. There’s a problem in how the culture makes us think that distorts how we describe things. As Sam mentioned this morning, so much of the way we think about things came from the ancient Greeks, and in fact our system of logic, of how we deal with ideas, is determined by Aristotle’s, it’s called a two-fold system of logic, where things are either true or false. He postulated the law of the excluded middle. Things can’t be both true and false, they have to be true or false. And that type of logic leads us to have what we’ve called “mysteries,” things we can’t explain, so we can choose between trying to reduce them to things we can explain, or to saying it’s a mystery that we can’t solve. That’s because we are locked into this yes-or-no law of the excluded middle. Other cultures don’t have this. There is a Hindu system of logic that was developed by Nagarjuna, in which there are four different types of logical statements: things can be true, or they can be false, or they can be true and false, or they can be neither true nor false. And all those are logical statements in their system. And when you think about what physics is doing these days—remember what Henry was talking about this morning—we have things that don’t fit into our logic. So philosophers can say, “Well, quantum physics is illogical.” Maybe it is by our Aristotelian logic, but not necessarily by another type of logic. Is a photon a wave or a particle? According to Aristotle, it has to be one or the other; it can’t be both. But in other forms of logic, it can be both or it can be neither. So maybe what science has to do, what scientists have to do, is get beyond our own prejudices and start using not only other languages, but other ways of evaluating the language, other ways of thinking.
Next: Mind-body panel 2: Christina Puchalski - "We know maybe forty percent"


Mind-body panel 2: Christina Puchalski - "We know maybe forty percent"

Dr. Christina Puchalski is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Health Care Sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. An expert in spirituality and health, she has also edited Time for Listening and Caring: Spirituality and the Care of the Seriously Ill and Dying.
I think mystery is a very real reality, if you will. The question is, “Can we really define it, can we understand it, and should we even study it?” I don’t have a particular answer, I’m just raising the question. The reason I bring this up is because in clinical settings, the concept of mystery is also very important. Again, I frequently work with dying patients, and as people are facing their death, there’s a lot of questions about life after death, about the value of their life, about how exactly the process is going to occur.

There’s a great deal of data about people who were told that they would only live two months but then lived ten years, and vice versa. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty that occurs, and as physicians we’re largely trained to provide answers and to give certainty, but in fact, for those of us who have practiced a long time we realize that we know maybe forty percent, and there is this big black box of things we don’t know.

So part of the journey is helping patients be comfortable with mystery and uncertainty, and yet all throughout what we are talking about today is whether we can take that mystery and dissect it and study it? I don’t have an answer, but I do think that there is some value to just honoring that mystery, and saying maybe there are some things that we don’t know about, and that’s fine. And we can relate that to what Esther said earlier regarding the fact that with our current technology we can’t answer this question, although down the line we will perhaps be able to do so. But is there ever room to just accept that there is mystery and simply embrace it?
One way of understanding mystery is simply to say that we cannot, at any given time, understand all facets of the universe we live in or all aspects or consequences of a fact about it.

Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a wonderful essay years ago, called What is it like to be a bat? No human can actually know that. If we are human, we are - by definition - not bats. So what it is like to be a bat will always be a mystery to us.

Next: Mind-body panel 2: Mario Beauregard - "Brain imaging data alone doesn't tell us whether an experience is real or not"


Mind-body panel 2: Mario Beauregard - "Brain imaging data alone doesn't tell us whether an experience is real or not"

Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., is currently an Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology, as well as the Neuroscience Research Center. Here's a snippet of dialogue he led off, from the second panel:

Mario Beauregard: Well, I have only one thing to add because a lot of things have been said already. It’s true that we have to take into account the meaning and content of the experience with respect to the experiencer, and we cannot rely solely on brain imaging data to determine whether an experience is real or not. If you take the case of hallucinations, for instance, you also have neuro-correlates for delusions, auditory hallucinations, etc., so it’s only one piece of data and we have to consider many other parameters.

Elie During: One thing I’ve learnt from your book The Spiritual Brain is that there are actually ways to detect the difference between someone who is faking it and someone who is hallucinating, based on brain imaging techniques.

Mario Beauregard: Sure, it can be useful, but that is not the only piece of evidence that we have at our disposal to consider.

Elie During: I believe there is a more general issue at stake in our discussion. I’ll put it this way, as a question addressed to all of you: what role does belief, and here I mean your own beliefs, play in the kind of research you’re involved in? When I say belief, I don’t necessarily mean religious belief, but more broadly, the systems of beliefs or values that shape your view of the world, especially those beliefs and values that relate to the way in which you draw the limits of reality.

My personal feeling is that no one can help having beliefs in that sense. Again, these beliefs can be based on philosophical, cultural, or religious grounds. How do these beliefs interfere with your activity as scientists or working professionals? Do they interfere at all? Because you are all well aware that one of the objections that is often raised against the kind of research programs you’re involved in is that it is quite biased.

The suspicion is that there is some hidden agenda— that you are either trying to provide evidence in support of specific personal beliefs, or you are trying to force facts into your own framework without even being conscious of it. Is it reasonable to expect people to sustain a purely neutral, objective stance on such issues? How does it work for you?

Andrew Newberg: All of us are human beings, and we all have beliefs and biases. That certainly holds true for science, for theology, and for philosophy. I suppose one of the things for us to always keep in mind is that as objective as somebody may think anything is, or however real or true or absolute anybody thinks anything is, we are very limited in our abilities to look at the world as human beings. As wonderful as our brain is, it only takes in a very small percentage of the information that’s out there. So whenever we apply ourselves to some part of the world, one of the problems that we have is that our brain tends to tell us that we’ve got the whole picture and doesn’t bother to tell us when it is filling in information, when it is lying to us, or when it is being inaccurate. Yet we often tend to think that we understand the world accurately, whether scientifically, politically, philosophically, spiritually, etc.
Newberg sure got that right. And, as Mario and I said in The Spiritual Brain, this is a time for exploration, not dogma.

See also:

Multidirectional skepticism: Skepticism finding its true voice?

Brain science supports traditional view of soul?

All the junk that's fit to debunk: Neuropolitics is up next

Is THIS your best shot? A response to New Scientist's recent hit piece on non-materialist neuroscientists

Back to top: Selected moments from the Beyond the Mind-Body Problem symposium - afternoon panel

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