Joined: Oct. 2006
A review of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul
Should you happen to pick up The Spiritual Brain, I suggest you begin by reading the last three pages. There Mario Beauregard describes the experiences and convictions that motivate his book, convictions that are not grounded in neuroscience at all. This passage begins on page 293:
"In this last section of this final chapter, I want to present, very briefly, key elements of a nonmaterialist view of mind, consciousness, self, and RSMEs [religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences]. This personal view...is based not only on the findings of various scientific disciplines (some of which are presented in his book), but also on a series of mystical experiences that I have had since my childhood....
"One of these experiences occurred twenty years ago when I was lying in bed. I was very weak at the time because I was suffering from a particularly severe form of what is now called chronic fatigue syndrome. The experience began with a sensation of heat and tingling in the spine and the chest areas. Suddenly, I merged with the infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence (or Ultimate Reality) and became united with everything in the cosmos. This unitary state of being, which transcends the subject/object duality, was timeless and accompanied by intense bliss and ecstasy. In this state, I experienced the basic interconnectedness of all things in the cosmos, this infinite ocean of life. I also realized that everything arises from and is part of this cosmic intelligence."
Beauregard concluded, "Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being (or primordial matrix). That is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe, including both physis (material nature) and psyche (spiritual nature). Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical world...it is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe."
In reading The Spiritual Brain I made my own discovery: Contact with The Matrix does not, apparently, confer the ability to organize a book-length argument, or even write coherently with any consistency. This is a pretentious, flawed, often self-contradictory, and sometimes downright peculiar work.
Pretensions and Flaws
The Spiritual Brain announces its grandiose pretensions in its title: "A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul." We are advised on page 3 that "thousands of books" published in dozens of disciplines that advance naturalistic accounts of human origins and functioning are plain wrong. Daniel Dennett is appointed proxy for these "materialist" views. "This book will show that Professor Dennett and the many neuroscientists who agree with him are mistaken...It will show you why he is mistaken." The peculiarities of this work are quickly evident as well. Although this is to be "A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul," the word "soul" appears just once in the direct (unquoted) text of the book and remains undefined and unaddressed. And while Daniel Dennett is early appointed villain, his work is itself never addressed.
Nevertheless, in asserting the above Beauregard and O'Leary assume some responsibility to at least attempt to approximate the level of scholarship employed by their primary targets. They fail miserably in this respect. Beauregard and O'Leary frequently draw uncritically upon secondary and tertiary sources. Weirdly, although Dennett is early designated proxy for the evils of "materialism," and the text mentions in passing titles such as The Minds Eye, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds, Kinds of Minds, Freedom Evolves and Breaking the Spell, Beauregard and O'Leary never really describe or engage Dennett's work, and only Kinds of Minds appears in the bibliography. And, to a degree that quickly becomes maddening, they repeatedly declaim pretentious assertions that are entirely unsupported and uncited. On page 33 we learn, "experiments have shown that, because your brain is a quantum system, if you focus on a given idea, you hold its pattern of connecting neurons in place." Srsly?
Ignorance or omission of other primary literatures is rampant throughout. Astoundingly, while Robert Trivers is cited in passing (on pages 9-10) during a discussion of the origins of altruism, Beauregard and O'Leary fail to mention his classic and seminal work on reciprocal altruism, game theory, and the prisoner's dilemma which he first described in 1971 (The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 46, No. 1, Mar., 1971, pp. 35-57). Similarly, in an exceptionally weak passage intended to deny the significance of research into the social-cognitive resources of other great apes to an understanding of human cognition (p.17), Beauregard and O'Leary indirectly report, without identification or citation, the work of Brian Hare and others at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology regarding the relative sensitivity of chimpanzees and dogs to human gestures (such as pointing). Worse than relying upon tertiary sources neglecting citations, this passage omits mention of the extensive and often astonishing research findings regarding primate social cognition that this team has reported in recent years (much of which was documented in a recent, quite excellent, broadcast of NOVA earlier this month). In all, the scholarship informing The Spiritual Brain is piss poor, and Beauregard, at least, should know better. One can only conclude, as one meanders across this dismally incomplete landscape, that Beauregard and O'Leary can't be trusted as guides.
Although less important to the thesis presented in this book, irritating stylistic quirks disrupt any semblance of sustained argument. Blocks of quoted material appear on at least half the pages of this book, as though Beauregard and O'Leary can't quite marshall the resources to make arguments for themselves. Oftentimes, such quotes, when supportive of their position, are offered as though a few sympathetic words settle the matter at hand. Sprinkled throughout the text are sidebars with titles such as "The View From Neuroscience" (isn't that what the entire book purports to be?) and "The Mind Brain Problem" (isn't that what the entire book purports to address?) - as well as other topics that beg for integration into the main text. Also rather odd is the voice of the book, which vacillates from that of "this book" to, sometimes startlingly, the first person singular, although we are left to guess which of the two authors is addressing us.
But these are quibbles, and there are bigger problems afoot. Several arguments presented in The Spiritual Brain flatly contradict one another. On page 5 we are asked, "If materialism is true, why don't most people believe it?" This is followed by a recitation of statistics regarding the widespread religiosity of Americans. On page 7 Beauregard and O'Leary continue, "By contrast, most humans have never believed in atheism or materialism. Indeed, religion may well have been around as long as humans." All well and good. But on pages 40-41 we find the following passage, which remarks upon a 2005 display at the London Zoo that presented human beings in animal pens. One participant commented, "A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we're not that special..." Beauregard and O'Leary remark, "Yes, we are physically members of the animal kingdom and participate in all its risks and opportunities. But the participant's comment...shows how entrenched philosophical materialism has become in our society. Faced with obvious differences between humans and the typical zoo denizens, many assume that they have actually seen similarities."
Which is it? When Beauregard and O'Leary wish to deny that "materialism" has never had attraction for many people, they say that. When they wish to portray "materialism" and atheism as threatening movements within our culture, materialism is "entrenched in our society" and governs our everyday experience. I don't see that either author has detected this ridiculous contradiction. Perhaps neither has read the other's contributions to the book.
A more problematic contradiction has bearing upon the centerpiece neuroimaging studies that are presented within this book: that of Carmelite nuns. The object of those studies is "mystical experiences." On page 191 we are told, "Mystical experiences are rare even for mystics. One reason is that the desire for such an experience poses a barrier. As Sister Diane of the Carmelite convent in Montreal explains: 'You can't search for it. The harder your search, the longer you will wait.' Most mystics spend considerable time in prayer and contemplation; these practices reduce mental noise and pave the way for mystical consciousness, although they do not directly produced that consciousness." On page 190 we learn that mystical union is often difficult to attain, an experience that came to be designated the "dark night of the soul" by 16th century Carmelite John of the Cross. On page 200 we learn that Mother Teresa had four mystical experiences in 1946 and 1947 - and never again had such an experience, "which caused her personal sadness."
Against this background, which established that "mystical experiences are rare, even for mystics," we are to believe that Beauregard placed 15 Carmelite nuns into his fMRI and all attained mystical experiences that became grist for his scanner. "The fifteen nuns were scanned while they recalled and relived their most significant mystical experience (mystical condition) as well as their most intense state of union with another human (control condition) ever felt as members of the Carmelite order" (p. 268). Beauregard expressed confidence that the nuns had indeed attained mystical union by means of this procedure. "During the qualitative interviews at the end of the experiment, the nuns said that they had felt the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace." During a subsequent study entailing EEG rather than fMRI, "several nuns mentioned that during the mystical condition they felt the presence of God, his unconditional and infinite love, and plenitude and peace. The also felt a surrendering to God." He concluded, with confidence that seems unwarranted given the above observations regarding the scarcity of true mystical union, "In other words we had succeeded in measuring brain activity of the nuns while they went on to an actual mystical state."
If Mother Teresa were still here, she'd be pissed.
Most damaging to the aims of this book are the "own goals" that Beauregard and O'Leary inadvertently score. Indeed, they repeatedly score "own goals" with respect to the central, dualistic thesis of the book: that mind and brain differ, and that mind controls and modifies brain. Beauregard and O'Leary cite the example of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). "My friend an colleague Jeffrey Schwartz, a nonmaterialist UCLA neuropsychiatrist, started working with OCD sufferers in the 1980s because he sensed that OCD was a clear case of an intact mind troubled by a malfunctioning brain." Schwartz determined by means of scans the cortical and subcortical brain circuitry that appears to underlie OCD, and devised a "mindfulness" treatment protocol that draws upon cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy to treat the disorder. When treatment succeeded, "he was not simply getting patients to change their opinions, but rather to actually change their brains. He wanted them to substitute a useful neural circuit for a useless one....in this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy's success" (p. 130). Further neuroimaging disclosed areas of patients' brains that displayed modified activity following treatment.
The problem with all this is that the imaging in fact disclosed something quite other than minds operating independently of brains. By means of imaging, "Schwartz noted that the most recent (and thus most sophisticated) prefrontal parts of the human brain, in evolutionary terms, are almost entirely unaffected by OCD. That is why patients perceive compulsions as alien. They are alien to the most characteristically human parts of the brain. To the extend that the patient's reasoning power and sense of identity remain largely intact, they can actively cooperate with their therapy" (p. 128).
There you have it. Reasoning power and sense of identity are hosted by recently evolved prefrontal areas of the human brain, those areas that render us most characteristically human. We know that the human brain is organized hierarchically, with loops of regulation culminating in highly abstract frontal modeling and monitoring of self relative to one's physical and social environment and related goals, and we know that prefrontal areas of the brain are crucial to these high level representational and planning activities. Schwartz's imaging again confirms this view. The upshot of this research is not that a mind independent of brain monitors and modifies that brain; rather, this imaging confirms once again that the brain regulates and modifies itself by means of these neurally instantiated high level representations of self. Own goal. Similar own goals are evident in Beauregard's description of his scans of subjects asked to "down regulate" emotions, sexual arousal, etc., all of which demonstrate the marshaling of highly specific frontal areas to accomplish the tasks that Beauregard insists upon interpreting as mind acting upon brain. And, because we note that the cortical areas that host these crucially human functions are recently evolved, some version of evolutionary psychology must in fact be correct, Beauregard and O'Leary's repeated dismissals of this new discipline notwithstanding.
Indeed, the same may be said about the scans of Carmelite nuns who claimed mystical union while within Beauregard's fMRI scanner. Beauregard is eager to refute the hypothesis that RSMEs are explained by seizure-like activity in the temporal lobes of the mystics. Rather, "The results of the two studies, taken together...dispose of the notion that there is a God spot in the temporal lobes of the brain that can somehow 'explain' RSMEs. The results of our fMRI and QEEG studies suggest that RSMEs are neurologically instantiated by different brain regions involve in a variety of functions, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception. This conclusion correlates well with subjects' descriptions of RSMEs as complex and multidimensional (p. 274).
It is not entirely clear to me why a highly unique pattern of activation of many brain components is more appealing to Beauregard than a single "God spot." But never mind. Were I to assert that mystical states of consciousness were grounded in brain states, because I believe that all forms of phenomenal, experiential, and representational consciousness are somehow ultimately instantiated in brain tissue, Beauregard's images are exactly the result I would expect. Indeed, ALL of the results of ALL of these studies demonstrate nothing less than the thoroughly neurobiological bases of these experiences. It doesn't follow from that conclusion that there are no "selves," no "you" enabled by these exquisitely organized tissues. But what does follow is that that "we are spirits made of bodies," and that our bodies and brains display sophistication and subtlety sufficient to host even our most complex and ineffable experiences.
But it gets a bit worse for Beauregard and his scanning nuns. Above I quote him denying the existence of a temporally based "God spot," and instead pointing to findings that demonstrate the number and complexity of the brain structures and interactions that accompany these (so-called) mystical experiences. Yet on the page 273, in a "The View from Neuroscience" sidebar, the areas seen to be active during mystical union are listed and their putative functions described. While other brain areas are thought to account for phenomenal experiences such as changes in the emotional state of the subjects, visual imagery, and the spatial perception of self, "We hypothesized that the right MTC [right middle temporal cortex] was related to the subjective impression of contacting a spiritual reality." Should this be filed under "contradictions," or "own goals?" Never mind.
Throughout The Spiritual Brain we hear complaints about what Karl Popper called "promissory materialism," reflecting the (still correct) assertion that many materialistic IOUs regarding the nature of things, including human consciousness, have yet to be cashed. But the mentalism advocated by Beauregard and O'Leary is worse: if materialism has yet to make good on promissory notes, the mentalism advocated by Beauregard is pure counterfeit currency, printed in his basement. The most egregious example of such a counterfeit explanation is his "Psychoneural Translation Hypothesis." This is presented on pages 150-151:
"I posit that the mind (the psychological world, the first-person perspective) and the brain (which is part of the so-called "material" world, the third-person perspective) represent two epistemologically different domains that can interact because they are complementary aspects of the same transcendental reality.
"The PTH recognizes that mental processes (e.g., volitions, goals, emotions, desires, beliefs) are neurally instantiated in the brain, but it argues that these mental processes cannot be reduced to and are not identical with neuroelectric and neurochemical processes. Indeed, mental processes - which cannot be localized in the brain - cannot be eliminated....according to the PTH, conscious and unconscious mental processes are automatically translated into neural processes at the various levels of brain organization (biophysical, molecular, chemical, neural networks). In turn, the resulting neural processes are further translated into processes and events in other physiological systems, such as the immune or endocrine system."
That's it. No posited mechanism, location, or other pathetic levels of detail are offered regarding this heretofore undiscovered, yet pervasive and metaphysically powerful mechanism. Indeed, one wonders if it is implemented in the mind, or in the brain. Nor does this astonishing, multilevel translation mechanism receive another mention in the book. The PTH remains completely empty. I looked around a bit; Beauregard's presentation of his PTH in the journal Progress in Neurobiology (Mind does really matter: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect, 2007, issue 81) is equally empty.
A Single Wise Moment
The wisest passage found in The Spiritual Brain is found within a sidebar presented on page 112:
"We must keep in mind that the whole human person, not merely a part of a brain, thinks, feels, or believes. Indeed, the human person cannot be redued to brain processes and events, and it is difficult to understand a whole human person without understanding the sociocultural context in which the person lives."
Indeed. Many of the phenomena that Beauregard and O'Leary assert demand the resuscitation of an unworkable dualism - a view of "minds" as wholly independent of brains - don't really call for such a drastic solution. Rather, they need to be seen as embedded in and dependent upon the biological and sociocultural contexts within which they arise. Had Beauregard and O'Leary heeded their own words in this respect, they might have written a better book.
(Thanks to Albatrossity2, who passed his copy of The Spiritual Brain on to me.)
Myth: Something that never was true, and always will be.
"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you."
- David Foster Wallace
"Hereâ€™s a clue. Snarky banalities are not a substitute for saying something intelligent. Write that down."
- Barry Arrington