Friday, April 27, 2012

Neuropsychologist Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy Dismantles Deepak Chopra's Latest Argument for Dualism

More and more, Deepak Chopra is venturing into realms where he is in waaay over his head - and actual scientists are kicking his New Age arse around the internets. When Chopra and Jean Houston went up against Michael Shermer and Sam Harris on ABC's Nightline Faceoff (Does God Have a Future?) it was a bloodbath.

This morning, Chopra published an article at Huffington Post arguing for a dualist understanding of mind and brain and a neuropsychologist dismantled his argument with ease.

First up, the whole Chopra article.

Good News: You Are Not Your Brain

Posted: 03/27/2012

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, and Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Director, Genetics and Aging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
Like a personal computer, science needs a recycle bin for ideas that didn't work out as planned. In this bin would go commuter trains riding on frictionless rails using superconductivity, along with interferon, the last AIDS vaccine, and most genetic therapies. These failed promises have two things in common: They looked like the wave of the future but then reality proved too complex to fit the simple model that was being offered.

The next thing to go into the recycle bin might be the brain. We are living in a golden age of brain research, thanks largely to vast improvements in brain scans. Now that functional MRIs can give snapshots of the brain in real time, researchers can see specific areas of the brain light up, indicating increased activity. On the other hand, dark spots in the brain indicate minimal activity or none at all. Thus, we arrive at those familiar maps that compare a normal brain with one that has deviated from the norm. This is obviously a great boon where disease is concerned. Doctors can see precisely where epilepsy or Parkinsonism or a brain tumor has created damage, and with this knowledge new drugs and more precise surgery can target the problem.

But then overreach crept in. We are shown brain scans of repeat felons with pointers to the defective areas of their brains. The same holds for Buddhist monks, only in their case, brain activity is heightened and improved, especially in the prefrontal lobes associated with compassion. By now there is no condition, good or bad, that hasn't been linked to a brain pattern that either "proves" that there is a link between the brain and a certain behavior or exhibits the "cause" of a certain trait. The whole assumption, shared by 99 percent of neuroscientists, is that we are our brains.

In this scheme, the brain is in charge, having evolved to control certain fixed behaviors. Why do men see other men as rivals for a desirable woman? Why do people seek God? Why does snacking in front of the TV become a habit? We are flooded with articles and books reinforcing the same assumption: The brain is using you, not the other way around. Yet it's clear that a faulty premise is leading to gross overreach.

The flaws in current reasoning can be summarized with devastating force:
1. Brain activity isn't the same as thinking, feeling, or seeing.
2. No one has remotely shown how molecules acquire the qualities of the mind.
3. It is impossible to construct a theory of the mind based on material objects that somehow became conscious.
4. When the brain lights up, its activity is like a radio lighting up when music is played. It is an obvious fallacy to say that the radio composed the music. What is being viewed is only a physical correlation, not a cause.
It's a massive struggle to get neuroscientists to see these flaws. They are king of the hill right now, and so long as new discoveries are being made every day, a sense of triumph pervades the field. "Of course" we will solve everything from depression to overeating, crime to religious fanaticism, by tinkering with neurons and the kinks thrown into normal, desirable brain activity. But that's like hearing a really bad performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" and trying to turn it into a good performance by kicking the radio.

We've become excited by a flawless 2008 article published by Donald D. Hoffman, professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California Irvine. It's called "Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem," and its aim is to show, using logic, philosophy, and neuroscience, that we are not our brains. We are "conscious agents" -- Hoffman's term for minds that shape reality, including the reality of the brain. Hoffman is optimistic that the thorny problem of consciousness can be solved, and science can find a testable model for the mind. But future progress depends on researchers abandoning their current premise, that the brain is the mind. We urge you to read the article in its entirety, but for us, the good news is that Hoffman's ideas show that the tide may be turning.

It is degrading to human potential when the brain uses us instead of vice versa. There is no doubt that we can become trapped by faulty wiring in the brain -- this happens in depression, addictions, and phobias, for example. Neural circuits can seemingly take control, and there is much talk of "hard wiring" by which some activity is fixed and preset by nature, such as the fight-or-flight response. But what about people who break bad habits, kick their addictions, or overcome depression? It would be absurd to say that the brain, being stuck in faulty wiring, suddenly and spontaneously fixed the wiring. What actually happens, as anyone knows who has achieved success in these areas, is that the mind takes control. Mind shapes the brain, and when you make up your mind to do something, you return to the natural state of using your brain instead of the other way around.

It's very good news that you are not your brain, because when your mind finds its true power, the result is healing, inspiration, insight, self-awareness, discovery, curiosity, and quantum leaps in personal growth. The brain is totally incapable of such things. After all, if it is a hard-wired machine, there is no room for sudden leaps and renewed inspiration. The machine simply does what it does. A depressed brain can no more heal itself than a car can suddenly decide to fly. Right now the golden age of brain research is brilliantly decoding neural circuitry, and thanks to neuroplasticity, we know that the brain's neural pathways can be changed. The marvels of brain activity grow more astonishing every day. Yet in our astonishment it would be a grave mistake, and a disservice to our humanity, to forget that the real glory of human existence is the mind, not the brain that serves it.

Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi are co-authors of their forthcoming book Superbrain: New Breakthroughs for Maximizing Health, Happiness and Spiritual Well-Being by Harmony Books.
In response to this, Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy, PhD & neuropsychologist, who blogs at Brain Ethics, posted a cogent rebuttal at his blog, since it was too long to serve as a comment.

Here is a part of his reply - go read the whole thing.
Mr. Chopra,
The level of BS in this assertion is so high that I don’t even know where to start! We now have a whole century (actually, much more, but let’s leave it at that) of evidence providing a very close link between the mind and the brain. I am utterly puzzled at how one can even make such claims as you do, and feel compelled to do some debugging of your text:
  • The starter dish fallacy: The brain does not “light up” – what you see is a statistical representation of the change in signal intensity that (for fMRI scans) represent changes in oxygenated blood, which is an indirect measure of brain activation. Dark regions are still active, but not particularly for the task we have chosen to focus on (or rather, the tasks that researchers have decided to compare). This is a non-trivial distinction, because the link suggested by Chopra to a radio tuning in is simply erroneous. See more below.
  • The big leap of reason is the semantic trick of saying that neuroscientists (including myself) believe that the brain is in charge, and not you… I thought Chopra just agreed that neuroscientists believed that the brain IS you? Actually, most scientists I know believe that the brain and you are indeed the same! What happens in the brain is part of you as an organism, as a person, and often as a sentient being. The activation of hypothalamic nuclei can help control hunger, thermoregulation etc.; the response of the amygdala can help you become aware of specific events; the activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex does indeed reflect quite closely how much you enjoy reading this paragraph, the taste of that chocolate you’re having (lucky you) or the music you have playing in the background.
  • The great news is: this takes NOTHING away from the wonderful richness of your conscious life! But we understand so much better now HOW it is that the mysterious wet matter of the brain can even produce such magic. And the best part is…no supernatural explanations are yet needed. No need to evoke additional dimensions, pseudoscientific explanations or altogether magical mental bypasses.


Hokyo Joshua Routhier said...

Good discussion though an Integral view would be helpful. From my perspective, we are not our brain or our mind. Mind is the subjective phenomena(UL) and Brain is objective phenomena(UR). Neither is really reducible to the other so the how argument seems somewhat silly.

David said...

Actually, Chopra scored as many points in the Nightline debate as Shermer and Harris. I recall Chopra making one comment about enactivism that flew over the heads of Harris and Shermer, both of whom laughed as though they had heard something absurd.

In this little skirmish, Chopra has indeed pointed out the reductionism of people like Ramsoy. That doesn't mean Chopra is always right and they are always wrong. Sometimes Chopra says some silly things. But I think he deserves more respect than you're giving him.

julian walker said...

of course mind reduces to brain - this is an appropriate level of reductionism.

no brain = no mind, period.

damage the brain and you damage mental functioning.

yes - in integral terms UL and UR are wonderful way of talking about the relationship between subjective and objective aspects of consciousness, but we should be sober and honest about the fact that we are biological organisms who's capacity for interiority is 100% a function of our brains.

as far as the shermer debate, chopra got hammered and exposed for the blowhard waffling pretender that he is. whenever the subject is physics or the brain you can virtually guarantee that chopra will be wrong, because he is always trying to smuggle in the primacy of mind in an indian idealist/pantheist way under the cover of pseudoscience assertions and pseudo-philosophical jargon.

this is often hard for wilberites to see because ken is unfortunately prone to some of the same fallacies with regard to his vedantic assumptions.

julian walker said...

chopra is dug deep into the postmodern relativist dual strategy of critiquing so-called "scientific materialism" as if it is this outdated and failed narrow perspective on reality while simultaneously touting a "new paradigm" that is more pseudoscience than anything else and tries to use scientific means to justify unlikely beliefs.

he is stuck in the place so many intellectual spiritual folks get stuck i, namely:

they very much want to hold onto some concept of god (and of course the related longing to be themselves immortal), but have moved beyond conventional religion. rather than crafting a spirituality that has moved beyond belief in god, they try to find a way to make contemporary knowledge, science, etc fit around a contorted, convoluted notion of god as either:

1) a pantheistic/idealist consciousness that is in all things as the animating presence and/or
2) as a related dualist concept of consciousness as the true self that is somehow transcendent of the body and not rooted in biology

this is then given support by appeals to quantum physics anomalies as somehow proving or suggesting that there are in fact other dimensions in which god may exist hidden from us, or that time and causality are illusions, or that the experience of being here and now is just a reduction in consciousness form being everywhere and always, prior to the big bang, transcendent of matter etc...

unfortunately big thinkers like ken wilber have given chopra a lot of ammunition because they too are caught in this quandry of trying to integrate science and spirituality but not yet being ready to give up on supernaturalism/pantheism/dualist concepts of consciousness.

my experience is that either spiritual folks:

a) just get immediately sarcastic about how you can't prove love or beethoven or ethics scientifically and then draw a false equivalency with supernatural beliefs therefore being immune to scientific examination - or
b) they go right to the relativist who are we to say what is true or false game, or
c) they start talking about nazi germany being an example of a culture based in reason and science - which is mind-blowingly bizarre and perhaps indicative of the level of fear around having to accept reality, or
d) they enact this chopra-esque, wilber-inspired, pseudo-intellectual trip about the limits of so-called scientific materialism, the supposed possibilities of a mangled understanding of quantum physics, it being reductive and narrow to claim that consciousness is a biological phenomenon etc

it is a very tough thicket to clear in order to start to find a way forward.

the fire that cuts through it all is a simple one though - we are biological creatures who die at the end of our lives. accept it, celebrate it and live fully in the fleeting and therefore even more precious poetry, love, beauty and reason of what it is to be the unique creatures we are!

william harryman said...

I think this is a lot more complex than Chopra or the neuropsychologist can make sense of in their models of consciousness.

I agree with Julian's assessment of Chopra's position, and by extension, Wilber's position in AQAL. They both posit an anthropocentric model of universal consciousness (God) that projects (imo) our human need to feel ourselves central in the evolution of the universe (B Alan Wallace does this in Buddhism).

Mind does reduce to brain, no brain and there is no mind, no consciousness.

But mind is a LOT more than just the brain. Mind is our physiology, our experience, our cognitive function and all of our subjectivity, and it is also our interpersonal and intersubjective relationships, our cultural values, our environment, our social systems, our tools, and on and on.

Mind is embodied, embedded, and extended - it is way more than the brain, but that does not make consciousness or mind separate from the body, nor does it make mind or consciousness something will still exist when the body/brain is dead.

In my opinion, anyway.

David said...

Hokyo, nice comments, succinct and beautiful in the Zen style.

Julian, I think that was a bit of an outburst.

Julian: "no brain = no mind, period."

Clearly our functioning depends on the brain. Also, believing in interiority doesn't mean you necessarily believe in rebirth or spirituality at all. You can be an atheist existentialist and still believe in interiors. All it means is that interior perspectives and exterior perspectives go all the way down. There is nothing inherently spiritual about that view at all. I think you're conflating a few different things here.

Julian: "damage the brain and you damage mental functioning."

But damage the interior, through verbal abuse or emotional neglect, and you will damage mental functioning as well. You can provide for a child or even an adult in every way materially, but if you don't also provide for them emotionally their mental functioning will suffer.

Insulting, mean, loveless words or indifference cannot directly harm the body (UR). You can't even see this things under a microscope. Then how do they have the power to harm the body in the long run?

Julian: "We should be sober and honest about the fact that we are biological organisms who's capacity for interiority is 100% a function of our brains."

If you can't offer proof for this statement but nevertheless insist on it, why shouldn't we conclude that you are trading in myth, not science? Apparently even Dennett will say interiors go down to the amoeba. You seem to be taking a harder line than that.

The spiritual phenomena that Wilber and the wisdom traditions assert (though Wilber in a post-metaphysical way) is based on phenomenological inquiry. If you object to that (the three strands of science being extended to interior methodologies and phenomena), you must necessarily object to all science because no science is possible without the use of our subjective instrument, as Kant made clear centuries ago.

David said...

William, I think that's right. That's an example of belief in interiors while at the same time not believing in any sort of Spirit, Emptiness, God, etc.

My only objection would be about saying that "Mind does reduce to brain, no brain and there is no mind, no consciousness."

Mind is dependent on brain; without brain, no mental consciousness; but mind doesn't reduce to brain, in my opinion. That is, I accept the quadrant model that they are different sides of the same coin. We may just be understanding the word "reduce" differently.

I happen to believe in Emptiness, Brahman, and True Nature, as well, but that's another story. My only point here is that believing in interiors doesn't imply a belief in any of those things. With regard to spiritual phenomena, I think it's fine either to have a spiritual faith or a materialist faith as long as we understand that neither has been proven and both are a-priori assumptions or givens.

Steven Nickeson said...

Some notes on the preceding:posted in two comments:

1.To wander as a naive visitor into an Integral Province debate in the form of posted commentaries on a blog article is a little like setting in on one session of an undergrad seminar for all the education one will receive. In the almost total absence of in depth intersubjective context (as in who are these people and what are the stories behind their declarations) is to reduce all potential down to entertainment.

2. In talking reductions I find myself talking like a scientist or a philosopher because the R word seems limited to their vocabularies. It is not in the vocabularies of criminal defense lawyers or performance artists or burger flippers or horse breeders or truck drivers all of whose communications are equally critical to the functioning of the planet's population...a flat ontology.

3. The "can be reduced to..." or "can't be reduced to..." brains or minds or bodies or piston rings or pump capacitors always struck me (the aeluronic* existential phenomenologist) as being in the realm of what guys from Estatdo Chihuahua call "pinché," a word whose onomatopoetic value is as expressive as its various meanings. An over simplified analogy is to examine the value of a chain being boiled down to the value of a link, or to define it as nothing more than a series of links. The value of a chain, (if I were a romantic I might even consider using the word "essence") is only determined by its ability to perform the function for which it was designed and how that functioning contributes to material changes in the environment and whatever mythical extrapolations that might be derived from that material change. I think I can extrapolate from that analogy how pinché is the reductionist talk because it tends to disinter the human subject (I am using that term as in "the subject of the laboratory experiment") from its grounding in the environment and all the relations it has to the system. Pinché, or not, I realize R word considerations make up an apparently significant way that the civilians of the Integral Province like to talk about the world and I have to assume that some of that talk at least is directed toward ferreting out what the late Rorty called a "redemptive truth," a provisionally ultimate answer which will then guide behavior of the kind that seems better guided than authentic, such as the formation of mythical belief complexes.

*aeluronic is to cat, what kynic is to dog.

Steven Nickeson said...

4. Part of my entertainment here is to locate the mythical beliefs that are at play. Chopra's and Mister Wilber's are plain as day and after all these years I almost hate to see their names dredged up once again because whether or not theirs are viable redemptive truths, they (and the debates still raging around them) have become as stale as Abbot and Costello routines. (One can say about Chopra and his countless books what Stravinsky said of Vivaldi and his countless violin concertos, "Vivaldi did not write [countless] concertos, he wrote one concerto [countless] times.") Further, Hokyo's and David's seemingly similar myths to redemption seem clear and Julian's is fascinating. He wrote: "it is a very tough thicket to clear in order to start to find a way forward." Forward, unconditioned forward, describes an infinite number of directions. Here the usage seems to refer to a metaphysical given, no doubt it is a good place to be, a redemptive mythical given toward which no one seems to have started yet, or so the sentence reads. Or maybe it was none of that and the phrase was just the most facile cliché at hand. But the next exhibit is the one that counts here: "we are biological creatures who die at the end of our lives." On the one hand, the phrase is a glaring tautology and thereby meaningless, but I will assume that it was meant to convey the assumption that there is no "afterlife." How does Julian know this? When did he die and when did he come back with this report? Did he take notes, photographs? Were there any witnesses? Could he prove it in court beyond the shadow of a jury member's doubt? (Sub-note: I spent 33 years as a professional public and private investigator, mostly in connection with the USA legal system where the rules of evidence are more stringent than the rules of good science or good philosophy and where the stakes are almost always higher.) If it cannot be proven in court, then it is a myth. The really fascinating part of this is that he goes on to lay down that myth as the basis of a short sermon on how the rest of us should behave. Some might like to tell him where to stick the preaching, but I think it might have some value (or not) despite the fact that it is so quaint and so old school.

5. This blog article and its following comments reek with the need for redemption. I'm all for it. It is my experience that myths of this type help keep people from being a burden on those of us who know that insanity is nirvana and the safest place to live is in free fall through the abyss of ambiguity.