Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Beautiful Mind: When the mind restores order to the brain?

A friend writes to ask,
I was wondering if you were aware of the movie A Beautiful Mind? It may make for a good brain/mind point.

John Nash's malfunctioning brain kept telling him that the people, which he was hallucinating, were real but his mind eventually figured out that they were not (even though he kept experiencing the hallucinations after figuring it out).
The film is based loosely* on the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for economics. Here's a synopsis.

Essentially, my friend is right. In the film, Nash must decide whether to believe what he is experiencing or what he knows to be true. The more he believes what he knows to be true, the more distant the fantasy figures that formerly dominated his life become. In some ways, that is a useful analogy to the importance of the focus of attention in non-materialist treatments of brain disorders.

Perhaps my friend is also recalling this comment by neurosurgeon Mike Egnor regarding the great neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield:

Penfield was a neurosurgeon who pioneered the field of epilepsy surgery. He operated on thousands of patients who were awake (under local anesthesia), and were able to speak to him while he stimulated various regions of their brains.

Penfield found that he could invoke all sorts of things- movements, sensations, memories. But in every instance (hundreds of thousands of individual stimulations- in different locations in each patient- during his career), the patients were aware that the stimulation was being done to them, but not by them. There was a part of the mind that was independent of brain stimulation and that constituted a part of subjective experience that Penfield was not able to manipulate with his surgery.

I've performed some epilepsy surgery (although it's not my primary specialty), and my experience has been the same. Patients always know that the memory or sensation or movement is is imposed on them, not by them. Some colleagues who do specialize in epilepsy surgery have confirmed Penfield's observations as well.

Penfield called this "double consciousness", meaning that there was a part of subjective experience that he could invoke or modify materially, and a different part that was immune to such manipulation.
*Doctors tell me that, in reality, most schizophrenic delusions are not nearly as interesting as described in the film.

See also:

Just how much brain do you need? Could you use that space for something else?

Non-materialist neurosurgeon's criticisms of current medicine called well-founded

Neuroscientist Michael Egnor to lecture on why we got eugenics

Here is a trailer for A Beautiful Mind:

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