Joined: Oct. 2006
O'Leary's The Spatula Brain is chock full of own goals. From my review of the book a couple years ago (now also posted on Amazon):
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.
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