Monday, March 02, 2009

Skeptico - The Spiritual Brain w/ Denyse O’Leary

Alex Tsakiris at Skeptico recently interviewed Denyse O’Leary of The Spiritual Brain fame. It's an interesting and sometimes contentious discussion. You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript (personally, I enjoyed hearing the discussion for the emotional content).

Transcript 62: The Spiritual Brain Denyse O’Leary

Show Notes: The Spiritual Brain, Denyse O’Leary

Download MP3 (47:18min, 22MB)

Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris.

Before we start in with my interview with Christian Science writer Denyse O’Leary, I want to take a minute and give you a non-update of the medium experiment. I say non-update because we kind of got about half way into trial three and then decided to revamp things substantially including adding a new voice mail system for mediums to use. So I’ll have more information for you on that in just a couple of weeks. Also a quick update on the Psychic Detective project I’ve been working on Ben Radford, we had been communicating quite a bit in trying to nail that down and hopefully in a month or two, we’ll have follow up on that as well. Finally, the dogs that no experiment is still out there kicking around and my one best dog is back in trial so I hope to have some information on that it’s been very slow going in terms of getting any trials completed. Just kind of normal life stuff for folks makes it hard for them to complete that experiment apparently.

So kind of a non-update update there but coming up, I have what I found to be just fascinatingly frustrating conversation with one of the authors of The Spiritual Brain, Denise O’Leary.

Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, Denise O’Leary. It’s a pleasure to have you. We’ve had a nice e-mail exchange here and we’re going to talk today about the book that you’ve co-authored titled The Spiritual Brain. But before we get into that I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about your bio, your background, what you do up there in Toronto.

Denyse O’Leary: I was the faith and science columnist at Christian Week in the mid ‘90s. What I noticed was that very few people were paying much attention to the way in which materialist ideas in science were just not panning out. What I mean is for example, there’s no good explanation for the origin of life on Earth because the most awkward fact is that even though living cells are very complex, life got started almost as soon as the planet cooled. So, an explanation that depended on random events doesn’t change a me [00:03:33] to have a long shelf life.

Alex Tsakiris: Well you know what, I’m going to stir us away from that whole thing because…

Denyse O’Leary: Okay, talk about what you want, that’s just how I got involved.

Alex Tsakiris: No, I appreciate that. I appreciate that and I don’t want to cut off that entirely. I just know that that’s going to – it’s going to show a lot of people down, a lot of people feel like that debate, it just gets into a lot of areas that have a lot of tire marks both good and bad.

Denyse O’Leary: You know what, I don’t have a cat in the fight it won’t matter to me except that I had to face the fact that a lot of things I was hearing *** [00:04:12] results of modern science didn’t make sense.

Alex Tsakiris: Right and let’s fast forward that into The Spiritual Brain. Who’s your co-author on that again?

Denyse O’Leary: Mario Beauregard. He’s an Associate Professor of neuroscience at the Université de Montréal, which is the second largest francophone university in the world. He basically, had been studying people who had had spiritual experiences. *** [00:04:45] it’s not how he got them to cooperate, I’m not sure but he and his graduate student *** [00:04:53] were very diplomatic and they got him to cooperate. They discovered a couple of things that are worth knowing. One is that spiritual experiences, where a person has an experience in which they feel they are contacting a cosmic power outside themselves or complex experiences like an experience where you’re talking to someone that you know that you like.

Alex Tsakiris: Can you define that a little bit what you mean when you say complex?

Denyse O’Leary: A number of brain areas are active. See, it’s only a very simple experience maybe only one brain area would be active. The second complex experience *** [00:05:33].

Now, the only reason that’s important is that many people have attempted to argue that spiritual experience as their cause by some kind of a glitch in the brain. This is unlikely under the circumstances because if it’s a complex experience that looks like a normal experience where there are a number of brain areas active, then it’s not likely to be a glitch. So whatever is happening, it’s not a glitch. The doesn’t prove that the person is contacting a power outside themselves, what it means is that it’s probably not useful to look for a glitch that explains why they think they are.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s take that one step further because I think, we’re going to find a lot of common ground in the idea that the materialistic and I think when you use materialistic, I think you’re also encompassing atheistic because it really isn’t atheistic world view that is perpetuated with that materialism that that kind of this permeates academia.

Denyse O’Leary: *** [00:06:34] By the way, Mario discovered something else which is that people who say that – I just want to get this *** [00:06:42] , When people have a genuine mystical experience, they generate fatal waves while they are awake, which are normally generated through in deep sleep. So, what he discovered is when they said, “I felt very unusual. It wasn’t like a normal experience.” They’re telling the truth. They’re not imagining it or telling people that to get attention. That’s the truth. If you’re generating those kinds of waves when you were fully conscious you would be aware of – I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just thought that since that was probably the most surprising finding of this research, I wanted to get it in.

Alex Tsakiris: I think those are very interesting points and I think they’re a little footprints in the sand if you will that tells us we are not heading in the right direction when we try and dismiss the spiritual experience as being just some glitch in the brain, which is exactly your point and I’m in complete agreement with you.

Denyse O’Leary: Thank you for permitting me to say that. Now, the other thing is I don’t know that it’s helpful to make it something about atheist versus for example, born again Christians because for example, the Dalai Lama; the head of Tibetan Buddhism is technically an atheist. His religious system does not require the existence of a God and he is a big financer of neuroscience research.

Alex Tsakiris: I’ve talked to a bunch of Buddhist including interviewing Alan Wallace, who is one of the foremost Buddhist scholars and I don’t think that he would agree or a lot of Buddhist would agree in kind of labelling the Dalai Lama or Buddhism in general as being atheistic. You know, I don’t want to get too far field but I think simple words kind of helped and when we start throwing around euphemisms to kind of get away from the idea, there’s a lot of angry atheist out there and they’ve had quite a revival with the books that have come out in the recent years, so I think we know who we’re talking about when we talk about the angry atheist and I think, those are the folks who oppose and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but oppose this idea that materialism is not a complete explanation for the spiritual experience that people are having.

Denyse O’Leary: Thank you Alex, you’ve pinpoint this matter beautifully. It’s not that they’re atheist but that they’re materialist. You see, what I meant to say is the Dalai Lama is an atheist but he is by no means a materialist.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know that he’s an atheist though.

Denyse O’Leary: Okay, he is an atheist. Well, rather it’s not important to me that he is an atheist because he’s not a materialist. So, he wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that people have in mind that actually exist. The materialist doesn’t think that the mind actually exist, they think that’s an illusion created by the bunch of neurons in the brain.

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. Yes and maybe I am taking in the wrong direction because you know, we are of the same mind about that and no pun intended, but I think the words can get in the way and I think that we were trying to refine that but let’s leave that for a minute.

Denyse O’Leary: Yes, I just wanted to make clear, I don’t use the word atheist as a term of the view, I consider it a technical.

Alex Tsakiris: See I do, I do and I don’t feel particularly a need to apologize about it because I think clarifies, really it gets to the heart of the issue that I think we’re talking about and I think that issue is really, really central to the conversation that I want to have.

Denyse O’Leary: Yes, as a matter of fact, technically for example, this philosopher Plato could have been called an atheist because he dismissed the Gods of his day as unworthy of worship however anyone who thinks that Plato did not have a sense of the mind obviously doesn’t *** [00:10:42].

Anyway, let’s do go on. I agree with you.

Read the rest of this discussion.

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