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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Neuroscience as if your mind matters - meet some of the non-materialist neuroscientists

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 featuring 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 special, 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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