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August 4, 2010

heart lotua

 

5.  Neurological Enigmas
(Section III, The Heart Doctrine)

 “Mind-scientists and philosophers cannot even agree on what consciousness is,
let alone how it should be explained.”  (John Horgan,1999, p. 228)

 
    Many scientists like Sagan, Crick and Sperry, assume that the cerebral cortex (and/or sub-cortical areas) produce consciousness and the mind.  However,  when it comes to specifying exactly what this consciousness is, and by what mechanisms it is produced, the so-called exact scientists are strangely vague.  Talbot (1987) writes:
Most neurologists remain convinced that consciousness is a consequence of the anatomy and physiology of the cerebral cortex, and though a great deal is known about the biological workings of the brain, when backed into a corner, most scientists are forced to admit that no one really has any idea how the brain contrives to produce consciousness.  (p.89)
Scientists assume that neurological processes within the brain produces consciousness, but what and where this consciousness is, remains a fundamental enigma.
    Stanislav Grof, MD., (1993) notes that mental functions are obviously linked to biological processes in the brain, but that this does not necessarily support the metaphysical conclusions which are usually drawn from these facts.  A wealth of clinical and experimental work establishes relationships between states of intoxication, trauma, tumours and other brain pathologies to loss of cognitive and mental functions, and to dramatic changes in conscious states.  Grof notes, however, that this does not necessarily mean that consciousness originates in or is produced by the brain, a conclusion which is a metaphysical assumption, rather than a scientific fact.  Grof states, “the assumption that consciousness is a by-product of material processes occurring in the brain has become one of the most important metaphysical tenets of the Western worldview.”   (p.5)
    Wilder Penfield, a prominent Canadian neuro-physiologist, argued that the brain cannot account for consciousness and the mind.  In his pioneering efforts to treat epilepsy, Penfield developed methods of electrically stimulating the cerebral cortex of conscious subjects.  Using these methods, he was able to map how different functions of the mind are located in specific areas of the cortex.  However, in The Mystery of the Mind, Penfield (1977) explained that the results of his investigations led him to the conviction that there is some form of “mind” which cannot simply be accounted for in terms of brain mechanisms.  Penfield notes that electrical stimulation of the cortex can cause subjects to experience crude sensations, or movements, or have vivid recollections of the past, yet the subjects always “remains aloof,” like spectators observing and passing judgments on what is happening.  The subjects realize that it is the experimenter causing the experiences.  Thus, the electrical stimulation produced various contents of conscious experience  (sensations, perceptions, actions, feelings, thoughts and memories), yet the subjects’ consciousness and mind are somehow separate from the electrical activity stimulated, and the experiential content.  The consciousness and the experience of “I” seem to exist independently of the contents of experience.  The “I” was present to the various sensations, memories, etc., but not completely determined by them.  Penfield argued that the patient’s mind, observing this situation in an unattached manner, has to be something other than the neurological action itself.  He concludes: “... although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not.”   (p. 55)
    This is not what Penfield had expected to find.  To the contrary, he notes that throughout his career, he had attempted to explain the mind in terms of the brain’s activity.  However, in light of his shocking findings, he was forced to grant serious consideration to the idea that there could be some form of independent mind which might interact with the material brain.  Penfield’s comments are a long way from those of Carl Sagan, who suggests that: “there is not a shred of evidence to support ... any ...  mind-body dualism.”  The esteemed Dr. Penfield argues that there is no evidence to support the reduction of the mind to the cerebral cortex and cognitive functions, which Sagan and Sperry embrace as articles of faith:
In 1936, ...  I presented the obvious conclusion that had been forced upon me in the first years of neuro-surgical practice ... that the integration within the central nervous system, which makes consciousness possible, did not take place in the cerebral cortex.  ... to expect the highest brain mechanism ...  however complicated, to carry out what the mind does ... is quite absurd. ...  the mind seems to act independently of the brain in the same sense that a programmer acts independently of his computer ... .  (1977, pp. 111-2 & 79)
Unfortunately, Penfield offers no arguments as to what this other mind or awareness might be, nor how it interacts with the material brain.  Nevertheless, Penfield’s research had a profound philosophical effect upon him, as he concluded: “... the scientist, too, can legitimately believe in the existence of the spirit!”   (p. 85)
    Penfield’s final conclusions are a leap of faith beyond that supported by his data.  He does not prove the existence of spirit.  However, he did realize that the existence of spirit is not inconsistent with what has been scientifically established about the nature of the mind, brain and consciousness.  In fact, materialist scientists make such leaps of faith in assuming that the material brain can account for the mind and human consciousness.  Really, there is no evidence to support that conclusion.  Whether one is a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and spirit, or a strict materialist, subscribing to the view that matter alone is sufficient to account for reality, the question is, from a scientific viewpoint, moot.  Neither position has been proven.

    Sir John Eccles, another prominent neuro-scientist, assessed his discipline’s enigmas and anomalies, and concluded that:  “... consciousness is a nonmaterial something that does indeed exist apart from our biological selves and causally determines which of our neurons fire and which do not.”  (Talbot, 1987, p. 103)  Eccles regards the supplementary motor area of the cortex–the SMA–as a site at which mind and matter interact.  He reaches this conclusion as a result of the experimental work of neuro-physiologists R. Porter and C. Brinkman.  Those researchers implanted electrodes in the SMA of a monkey, and found that 1/100th of a second before the monkey pulled a lever to obtain a reward, the cells in the SMA began to fire; that is, the  cells in the SMA fired before cells in  related parts of the brain were activated.  Eccles interprets this to mean that the SMA is a site where “mental intentions” occur, as precursors to physical movement.  Hence, he believes that this is a site where mind might influence matter.   #
     Eccles concluded: “It is important to recognize that this burst of discharge of the observed SMA cells was not triggered by some other nerve cell of the SMA or elsewhere in the brain.  ...  So we have here an irrefutable demonstration that a mental act of intention initiates the burst of discharges of a nerve cell.”  He goes on to argue that mental intentions can initiate different patterns of neural discharge in the SMA, and that somehow  “the nonphysical mind is actually ‘playing’  the 50 million or so neurons in the SMA region as if they were the keys to some sort of piano.”  (in Talbot, p. 107)
    Eccles’ views raise some of the neurological enigmas associated with attempts to understand  what is“the mind.”  Is it something separate from the brain, and if so, how it is related to the material neurological processes of brain?  What is known of neurophysiology does not allow us to explain consciousness and the mind.  It is entirely reasonable then to consider the idea that there is some form of immaterial mind or substantive consciousness.  Eccles maintains a dualistic view of immaterial mind and material body and assumes that the interaction of  mind with body has its focus in the brain.
     John Lorber, a British neurologist, is another researcher whose work highlights the significance of neurological enigmas.  In a controversial article, in Science (1980), he dared to ask the question: “Is the Brain really necessary?”   In the mid 1960's, Lorber discovered two very young hydrocephalic children who appeared to show normal mental development–despite their apparent lack of a cerebral cortex! (Hydrocephalus is a condition in which an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid fills the brain cavity, and the cortex does not fully develop.)  Although his two patients died at an early age, Lorber regarded their unexpected mental capacities as comprising an intriguing and provocative conundrum.  If consciousness and intelligence are products of the brain (particularly, the cerebral cortex), then how was it possible that these children were not severely mentally impaired when their cerebral cortexes were barely existent?
    One patient, a student with an IQ of 126 and an honours degree in mathematics, posed an particularly puzzling case.   When he was referred to Lorber because of a slightly larger than normal head, Lorber ran a CAT scan (measuring brain densities), only to discover that the patient had “virtually no brain.”  Instead, his skull was lined with a thin layer of brain cells, a millimetre or so thick, and the rest of his cranium was filled with cerebrospinal fluid.  Apparently, this boy “continues to live his life normally except for the fact that he is now aware that he possesses no brain.” (Talbot, 1987, p. 87)
    Lorber continued to turn up cases of individuals who functioned normally despite highly reduced brain capacities.  The Science article described a study sample of some 600 hydrocephalus patients.  In the worst of four conditions–in which the subjects had cerebral fluid filling 95% of the cranium–half of the subjects were severely mentally disabled, but the remainder possessed IQs greater than 100!  Surprisingly, Lorber’s findings are not unprecedented.  In fact P. Wall, a professor of anatomy, states that:  “Scores of similar accounts litter medical literature, and they go back a long way.”  (Talbot, 1987, p. 88)  These cases suggest how neurologists face an utterly mysterious and profound task in their efforts to explain the existence of consciousness and mind strictly in terms of the cerebral cortex’s functions.
 
   In the last decade, Scientific American published two articles on the study of consciousness–a first for this prestigious, yet conservative magazine.  In one, David Chalmers addresses The Puzzle of Conscious Experience. (Dec., 1995)  He describes consciousness as being paradoxically, “the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious,” and he notes the “tangle of diverse and conflicting theories” existing within the field.  According to Chalmers, the “easy problems of consciousness” concern the mechanisms of various forms of cognition, while the “hard problems” concern “how the physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience.” The basic fact of the subjective side of consciousness simply cannot be deduced from physical facts about the brain’s functioning. He notes that we have no idea how the subjective experiences arise from neurological processes.  Between the physiological processes and the subjective experience, there is, in scientific terms, an explanatory gap.
    Chalmers’ solution is to suggest that consciousness is perhaps a “fundamental feature of the world,”  irreducible to anything else.  He compares this to basic physical concepts such as space-time, mass, charge and so on, which are regarded as fundamental properties, unexplained in terms of lower order phenomena. Chalmers notes that physicist, John Wheeler, suggests that “information” is fundamental to the physics of the universe, and that consciousness might be the “subjective side” of information.  In this case, information would have a two fold nature as both physical and experiential, objective and subjective.  Thus, a model of consciousness would require a set of fundamental laws unique to the description of consciousness, analogous to the laws of physics used to describe the physical world. This is a new form of dualism–not of mind and matter–but of the subjective and objective sides of information.  It also brings us back to the possibility of a substantive consciousness, which is some thing, whatever that might be.  Ideas about the substance of consciousness are emerging again in a contemporary form.  Basically, we still have not solved the problem of the I and the me.
    In a second Scientific American article, Can Science Explain Consciousness? (July 1994).  John Horgan reviewed diverse theories which have emerged within the literature, or which were  presented at a scientific conference on consciousness.  Horgan clearly acknowledges the profound enigmas and mysteries of consciousness:
... a  growing number of scientists have dared to address what is simultaneously the most elusive and inescapable of all phenomena: consciousness, our immediate, subjective awareness of the world and of ourselves. (p. 88)
Although he focuses on Crick’s work, Horgan surveys a broader range of ideas, from the conventional to those bordering on the mystical.  He describes an interdisciplinary conference on consciousness which suggested that despite the narrowness of conventional scientific thinking about the topic, there remains a diversity of views about how this most mysterious thing in the world might be approached or defined.  For example, Brian Josephson, a Nobel laureate in physics, called for the development of a unified theory of consciousness which would allow for the existence of mystical and psychic experiences.  Another speaker described thoughts as “quantum fluctuations of the vacuum energy of the universe - which is really God.”  Still, other theorists, most notably, Roger Penrose, suggest that consciousness might be the result of quantum effects at the levels of microtubules, which are protein bodies within cells that perform quantum based computations.  Horgan does not elaborate upon the complexities of these viewpoints but gives a flavour of the diversity of modern theories and the lack of scientific consensus concerning the mysteries of consciousness.
    In his book, The Undiscovered Mind (1999), John Horgan elaborates further upon the enigmas facing researchers trying to understand consciousness and the mind.   The most evident theme is again the mysterious and unknown nature of consciousness.  Horgan writes: “Mind-scientists and philosophers cannot even agree on what consciousness is, let alone how it should be explained.”  (p. 228)   The major assumption underlying most of the theories reviewed by Horgan is that somehow the neurological processes of the brain produce consciousness, and that it is centerd in the head.  However, there is no evidence to support this.
    At one point,  Horgan quotes Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, who suggests that someone may find “deep and fruitful commonalities between Western views of the mind and those incorporated into the philosophy and religion of the Far East.”  Gardner suggests that a fundamentally new insight is necessary, although unfortunately, “we can’t anticipate the extraordinary mind because it comes from a funny place that puts things together in a funny kind of way.”  (p. 260) These comments are ironic somewhat, as indeed, there is a fundamental difference between western views of the mind and the Eastern spiritual traditions.  It is this difference between the head doctrine and the heart doctrine which could provide a novel perspective, putting things together in a “funny kind of way.”

   In summary, these articles underline the fact that, while the problem of consciousness gives rise to a great diversity of ideas and theories, it remains the most paradoxical, unexplained mystery within science today.  Generally, theorists talk over consciousness, around it, under it, about it, but have few substantive ideas which do more than scratch the surface of this profound mystery.  In this critical area, science is almost purely speculative.  Most of the recent theoretical perspectives subscribe to the common assumption that the brain produces consciousness and the mind, but the details of this magical transformation are lacking.  When we look more closely at scientific explanations of what consciousness is, and how and where it is produced by the brain, they are based on nothing more than speculation and hunches–a house of cards, as Crick admits.
    If there is an immaterial mind, spirit and soul, and some form of irreducible consciousness, what are these things, and how do they relate to the physically body and brain?   There are many issues to be resolved and all the doors should be kept open in trying to understand these mysteries.  The idea that a human being has a spirit or soul, or a divine spark, has not yet been dis-proven, because the nature and origin of human consciousness pose such profound mysteries.  Scientists only assume that it is produced by the neurology of brain processes, as they gloss over the gaps in science.

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