Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright

Despite an incredible number of high-profile members, mostly from Hollywood (including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Lisa Marie Presley, Jason Lee, Isaac Hayes, Beck, and of course, Tom Cruise), Scientology is widely considered (and rightfully so) a cult. Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, have so far refused to give Scientology the religious recognition (and tax-exempt status) it enjoys in the U.S. and a handful of other countries (Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of China [Taiwan]).

The mythic/occult doctrines of Scientology were made public in the 1980s and again in the 190s and are available on the internet in various forms. One of the most controversial beliefs they hold is that psychotherapy, psychiatry, and psychopharmacology are destructive and abusive and should be eradicated (Tom Cruise famously made statements to this effect in his media feud with Brooke Shields over her use of antidepressants to move through severe postpartum depression).

Based on more than 200 personal interviews with current and former Scientologists, both famous and less well-known, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright uses his investigative ability to uncover the inner workings of the Church of Scientology in his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.
This is an interesting interview - Wright seems to have produced the most in-depth examination of Scientology to date.

'Going Clear': A New Book Delves Into Scientology
January 24, 201312:31 PM

Listen to the Story

Lawrence Wright is a staff writer at TheNew Yorker and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Austin, Texas.Kenny Braun/Courtesy Knopf

In the introduction to his new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright writes, "Scientology plays an outsize role in the cast of new religions that have arisen in the 20th century and survived into the 21st."

The book is a look inside the world of Scientology and the life of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. A recent ad for Scientology claims to welcome 4.4 million new converts each year.

Wright, who won a Pulitzer for his book The Looming Towerabout the history of al-Qaida, has written throughout his career about the impact of religion on people's lives. He reports that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists, and about 5,000 of those live in Los Angeles. This includes some Hollywood actors; Wright says that almost from the time Hubbard founded Scientology, he hoped to attract members from Hollywood.

"He really said that he wanted to take over the entire entertainment industry," Wright tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, " ... but his dream grew larger when he established the Church of Scientology in Hollywood and set up the Celebrity Center with the goal of attracting notable celebrities. ... They wanted an exemplary Scientologist to show to the world, and ... you know, they did get some people like Gloria Swanson, the star of silent films, became a member. Rock Hudson came in the door for a while, and, in those early days, they were constantly patrolling for someone who could be the public face of Scientology."

Interview Highlights

Hardcover, 430 pages 

More on this book:

On the Scientology practice of auditing

"If you get into Scientology, you will go to auditing. It's like therapy except that there is an E-meter between you and your auditor. That's a device that actually measures your galvanic skin responses. It's two metal cans that you hold. They used to be Campbell's Soup cans with the label scraped off. A small current passes through it and there's a needle that registers your reaction, and that's what the auditor is looking at when you're responding. Oftentimes in these circumstances you might remember — when pressed by the auditor — a previous existence, and this is given reality and validity by the E-meter. If you have an image in your mind and the E-meter says — according to the auditor — this is something real, what is that? And you have a vague memory of maybe a farmhouse in France — southern France in the 19th century — then you're asked to give more flesh to that memory and, eventually, you've developed a full, fully bodied, confabulated memory of another existence, and that's, that's very powerful in the minds of a lot of Scientologists, and good news because the idea that you are immortal has just been proven to you."

On a key moment in Hubbard's life when he believed he had a near-death experience

"He was taking gas for the dental surgery, and in the process he had, I think, what was a hallucination. He believed that he had died and gone to heaven and his disembodied spirit floated through these gates and suddenly all the secrets of existence were revealed to him and all the things that people have been asking since the beginning of time about the meaning of existence. And then, suddenly, these voices were saying, 'No, no. He's not ready. He's not ready,' and then he felt himself being pulled back, back, back, and then he woke up in the dental chair and he said to the nurse, 'I was dead, wasn't I?' and she apparently looked startled and the doctor gave her a dirty look. But this was a big moment in Hubbard's career because suddenly he became interested in metaphysics. And he wrote a book called Excalibur, which was never published, but it was based on the revelations he supposedly had achieved during this dental surgery. He said that people who read it were so shaken by it that, in one case, the reader came in and put the manuscript on the desk of the skyscraper office of the publisher and jumped out the window, and that the Russians had seized it and so on, but it never actually got published and we only have fragments of it available to us."

The Church Responds

On how Hubbard really believed in Scientology and wasn't just a con man

"If he were purely a fraud and a con man as many say, at some point he would have taken the money and run. But he never did. He spent his whole life elaborating the cosmology, the bureaucracy he created to support this church. He spent the rest of his life — usually very much alone — elaborating his theories, the psychology, the religion that he was trying to create, the bureaucracy that's very intricate that supports it. That's what he gave his life to. So I think he really did believe, to some extent, that Scientology was real, but he was constantly inventing it. It was always on the fly, and for people who were around him, actually that was very exciting because you never knew what revelation was going to come next."

More On Scientology

On the difference between Dianetics and Scientology

"In Dianetics ... there was a reactive mind and an analytical mind, and, you know, if you can purge these ancient memories that trouble you, you then, you'll be free, you'll be clear. Scientology has another layer on top of that, and in Scientology there are these levels of spiritual accomplishment that are called 'Operating Thetans.' The word 'Thetan' means, you know, 'the immortal soul.' We are all immortal souls, and part of Scientology is that you discover that in the course of your learning. But there are presently eight levels of Operating Thetans. When you get to Operating Thetan Level No. 3, there's a big discovery that you have in Scientology. It was the most closely held secret in the church until it was put out and dumped into a courtroom in the '80s and all the copyrighted secrets of the church became public knowledge. At that level, Hubbard reveals that we are all infested with space aliens that are called 'Body Thetans,' and they're really the sources of all of the problems and fears and things that we have in our lives, and if you can audit yourself and discover these Thetans and expel them, it's akin to casting out demons that you can free yourself to ever higher levels of spiritual accomplishment."

On the belief that Hubbard will return to Earth

"There's a widespread belief that he's going to return, and every Scientology church and his several residences and so on, they have his office ready for him. His sandals are at the shower door. He's got his cigarettes on his desk. In his residence in the Scientology compound in southern California there's a novel beside his bed, and they change his sheets on his bed daily and they set a table place for him for one at his dining room table. So there's a sense that he might come back at any moment."

Read an excerpt of Going Clear

Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche - Searching for Self

From the Tricycle Wisdom Collection, this is a brief excerpt from Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche's (Pema Chodron's current teacher) 2005 book, It's Up to You: The Practice of Self-Reflection on the Buddhist Path.

Searching for Self
Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche offers advice for facing up to our egos.

Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche

Holding to an ordinary notion of self, or ego, is the source of all our pain and confusion. The irony is that when we look for this "self" that we're cherishing and protecting, we can't even find it. The self is shifty and ungraspable. When we say "I'm old," we're referring to our body as self. When we say "my body," the self becomes the owner of the body. When we say "I'm tired," the self is equated with physical or emotional feelings. The self is our perceptions when we say "I see," and our thoughts when we say "I think." When we can't find a self within or outside of these parts, we may then conclude that the self is that which is aware of all of these things—the knower or mind.

But when we look for the mind, we can't find any shape, or color, or form. This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can't actually be found—which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home. The house seems to be empty, but all the housework has been done. The bed has been made, our shoes have been polished, the tea has been poured, and the breakfast has been cooked.

The funny thing is that we never question this. We just assume that someone or something is there. But all this time, our life has been managed by a ghost, and it's time to put a stop to it. On one hand, ego-mind has served us—but it hasn't served us well. It has lured us into the suffering of samsara and enslaved us. When ego-mind says, "Get angry," we get angry; when it says, "Get attached," we act out our attachments. When we look into the "slavish" arrangement we have with our ego-mind, we can see how it pressures us, plays tricks on us, and causes us to do things that bring undesirable consequences.

If you want to stop being the slave of a ghost, you must demand that ego-mind show its face. No true ghost will show up when it hears this! You can practice this simple meditation throughout the day. Whenever you don't know what to do with yourself, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. When you're cooking your dinner or waiting for the bus, challenge your ego-mind to show its face. Do it especially when ego-mind overwhelms you, when you feel threatened, fearful, or enslaved by it. Just straighten your posture and challenge ego-mind. Don't be gullible, wiggly, or spineless. When you challenge ego-mind, be firm but gentle, penetrating but never aggressive. Just say to your ego-mind, "Show me your face!" When no mind shows up saying, "Here I am," ego-mind will begin to lose its hold on you and your struggles will lighten up. See if this isn't true. Of course, maybe your mind does have a face and your experience will be different. But if you don't find a mind with a face, you won't take your struggles so seriously, and all of your pain and suffering will lessen.

When we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be. We can actually see through this seemingly solid ego-mind, or self. But what are we left with then? We are left with an open, intelligent awareness, unfettered by a self to cherish or protect. This is the primordial wisdom mind of all beings. Relaxing into this discovery is true meditation—and true meditation brings ultimate realization and freedom from suffering.

From It's Up to You: The Practice of Self-Reflection on the Buddhist Path © 2005 by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.,

Image: 15 Buddhas, Atta Kim, 2004, chromogenic print, 74 x 92 inches. © Atta Kim

"THE TWO STEVES" - Pinker vs. Rose - A Debate on the Nature of the Mind

This debate is from 1998, but the basic divide still exists. Annoyingly, the debate is spread over five pages with no single page option. The audience questions are quite good, so it's just a continuation of the debate.

I side with Rose on this debate - Pinker is too reductionist for me.

Far from being determined, or needing to invoke some non-material concept of free will to help us escape the determinist trap, it is in the nature of living systems to be radically indeterminate, to continually construct their-our-own futures, albeit in circumstances not of our own choosing.
The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. 
Certainly, there is truth in both perspectives, but in my mind, Rose's viewpoint transcends and includes Pinker's viewpoint.

"THE TWO STEVES"- Pinker vs. Rose - A Debate(Part I) [3.25.98]

Introduction by
John Brockman

On January 21st, Steven Pinker and Steven Rose debated each other in an event chaired by Susan Blackmore and held at London University's Institute of Education under the sponsorship of Dillon's and The London Times. Over a thousand people attended-and the event was sold out within three days of being announced. I wish I had been there.

No two individuals better illustrate my notion of a "third culture" which "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

In this culture, there is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

The Two Steves have serious disagreements. But whether it's Steve Pinker weighing forth on the notion that the "problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes" or Steve Rose asserting that "it is in the nature of living systems to be radically indeterminate, to continually construct their-our-own futures," their debate, their disagreement sharpens and clarifies.


* * * * *

The complex structure of the mind is the subject of this book. Its key idea can be captured in a sentence: The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people. The summary can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history. The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximizing the number of copies that made it into the next generation.

Steven Pinker, from How the Mind Works

STEVEN PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development; Learnability and Cognition; The Language Instinct; and How the Mind Works.

* * * * *

(My task is to) offer an alternative vision of living systems, a vision which recognizes the power and role of genes without subscribing to genetic determinism, and which recaptures an understanding of living organisms and their trajectories through time and space as lying at the centre of biology. It is these trajectories that I call lifelines. Far from being determined, or needing to invoke some non-material concept of free will to help us escape the determinist trap, it is in the nature of living systems to be radically indeterminate, to continually construct their-our-own futures, albeit in circumstances not of our own choosing.

Steven Rose, from Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism

STEVEN ROSE, neurobiologist, is Professor of Biology and Director, Brain and Behaviour Research Group, The Open University; author of Lifelines; The Making Of Memory; coauthor of Not In Our Genes; editor of From Brains To Consciousness.

SUSAN BLACKMORE, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, columnist for the Independent, and author of In Search of the Light and the forthcoming The Meme Machine.

Thanks to Dillon's and the London Times for granted permission for transcribing and publishing the debate.

To the Debate
Questions and Answers

Friday, January 25, 2013

NPR - The Self That's Left When Memories Fade

This is an interesting discussion about how our sense of self is - partly, at least, constructed with memory - so what happens to our self when memory fails or is damaged in some way? For more background, read Daniel Levitin's Atlantic piece "Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost."

The Self That's Left When Memories Fade
January 24, 2013

Listen to the Story

Talk of the Nation
36 min 10 sec

Our memories and experiences help shape who we are, so what happens when memories are erased? Host Neal Conan talks with neuroscientist Daniel Levitin about the role memories play in defining our sense of self and the challenges that arise when we lose them.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a piece in The Atlantic, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes the day a teacher, a famous neuropsychologist, told the class that his colleague, a close friend, had just called him to say he had a brain tumor, would gradually lose his memory and, the teacher said, would soon no longer understand who he was.

We'll ask Daniel Levitin to pick that story up in just a moment. But it's a story that raises questions. How much of who we are is shaped by our memories? Are you the same person if you can't remember high school, your wedding day or maybe just last year?

Later in the program, we'll talk about the original Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but first back to Daniel Levitin, now a professor of psychological and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and joins us today from the studios of KQED, our member station in San Francisco. And thanks so much for coming in.

DR. DANIEL LEVITIN: Oh, it's my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And would you continue that story? The teacher said that loss of memory would erase the understanding of who he was. And what happened next?

LEVITIN: Well, his colleague, this other eminent professor with a brain tumor, eventually committed suicide, we're told - this happened many years ago - under the threat of losing his sense of self gradually, he chose to kill himself.

CONAN: But there was another student in that class when you heard that story, who objected.

LEVITIN: That's right, a guy named Tom(ph) who I didn't really know well. And I think, you know, all of us have these people in our lives that we don't - wouldn't really call friends, but we know them to say hi to. We may end up being - maybe end up out to lunch with them in a big group. And I was astonished about 10 years later when I ran into somebody who said that Tom, this fellow in the class with me, himself had a brain tumor - an inoperable one, and that Tom only had four months to live.

CONAN: And would suffer the kind of brain loss, the memory loss, excuse me, that - it's the kind of amnesia, as you described it, that we see in soap operas, you suddenly can't remember your past at all.

LEVITIN: Right, so neuroscientists call this kind of memory loss retrograde amnesia. It's where you no longer have memory of your past, but you can still form new memories. It's a particularly cruel kind of disease or disorder, because you know that you have a tumor, and you know you're dying, and you know that you have no memory.

CONAN: You went to see him.

LEVITIN: I did. So, you know, the interesting thing about this story is that back when we were students, Tom had objected to our professor's characterization of memory and the self being so intimately linked. Tom shot up his hand and said, you know, well, that's crazy. Your self is a lot of things, and your memory has got nothing to do with it.

I went to go visit Tom, although I didn't know him well, when he only had a few months left to live. And I met him in his apartment, and the first thing he said was, he said: Forgive me for asking this, but I do this with everybody. He said: Can you tell me your name again and how it is that I know you?

And I found that very chilling, and I said - I told him my name, and I said we'd gone to college together. And in fact, some years later we ended up working at the same research company in Palo Alto. And it was this surreal conversation because Tom had no recognition of the events of his life. He just wanted to gather it all together.

And then the most awkward thing happened. I mean, picture this. I don't really - I'd never had a conversation with him over a 10-year period, that lasted longer than a couple of minutes. And sitting in his apartment, he looked at me, and he said - he asked: So were we friends? And I just stared at him. And I started thinking, well, would it be rude if I told him I've never really thought of him as a friend?

I mean, you know, if he's thinking of me as a friend, and I deny it, would that hurt his feelings? And I'm thinking all of this. He interrupted my thoughts, and he said: That's OK. He said: There's this gray area in human relations, right. We meet people, we see them every day, we say hello, we don't really know them.

And with all of that, he put me at ease. There was this kindness in him that was really pronounced.

CONAN: Back in that classroom, what he'd said to the teacher who said loss of memory would erase the sense of identity, the sense of self, he says: No, we have things that are separate from that. Your tastes are not going to be affected by the loss of your memory. You're still going to be who you were.

LEVITIN: Right, Tom felt that, and back then, it's not what we believed. Now, neuroscientists have had a lot of cases of this, where we lose our memory for specific events of our lives, we lose the ability to remember oh, I'm somebody who likes chocolate ice cream, I'm somebody who's generous, I'm somebody who's shy. We don't remember the episodes that give rise to those personality traits, and we may not even remember that we have them, but we still exhibit them.

CONAN: So what is the relationship between memory and self?

LEVITIN: Well Neal, it goes back to John Locke, the philosopher who said our memories of our past are part of what gives us a sense of identity. Now what do we mean by that? Well, the University of California Santa Barbara psychologist Stan Klein has distinguished a number of different components of what we mean by self.

And it's a bit confusing, isn't it? We talk about self-control and self-esteem, self-regulation, self-improvement, self-image. Well, Klein distinguishes seven components of the self, and I'd like to talk with you about four of them.


LEVITIN: First there's self-awareness. That's the ability we have to recognize ourselves in a mirror or to recognize the parts of our body and know that they are ours. And separate from that we have a sense of agency or responsibility. You recognize that your body belongs to you and that you more or less control it, right.


LEVITIN: Now, there's a third one, and that's a sense of these attributes that belong to you, what you were just talking about, what kind of person you are, your likes and your dislikes. And a fourth one is the sense of your personal life history, the story that made you who you are, adversity that you overcame.

And there really is this sense that if you lose those stories, are you really the same person? We want to get some callers in on this conversation. If you've suffered memory loss, and there are different types of memory loss, not just this one fairly rare type we're talking about, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And let's start with Sophina(ph), Sophina on the line with us from Santa Clara in California.

SOPHINA: Hi there.


SOPHINA: It's mostly short-term memory loss, and it's from a series of strokes in 1996. Gosh, it's changed everything.

CONAN: When you say short-term memory loss, does that mean you can't remember the last week or the...?


SOPHINA: If I - the things I told your screening person, I can't remember. So I'm, like, really good at telling a story or saying something the first time, but if you say can you repeat that, I stand there like a fish with my mouth hanging open...

CONAN: The acting profession is closed to you.

SOPHINA: I know...


SOPHINA: But improv might be OK. I can't remember when I go to the grocery store, even with a list, I'll look at it, and if I can't remember why I needed something, I don't get it. Or there was the classic five loaves of bread day, where I kept going out and buying bread because I put it in the wrong place, and I forgot I bought it.

I can't remember what I say to people.

CONAN: And does it change your sense of who you are, your personality?

SOPHINA: It kills me. It - I used to be really bright, and I had an amazing job that really used - well, it was all brain, but I was all brain. And I'm kind of the organ grinder monkey. I'm very glad I have lots of friends who appreciate me for my silliness and my - I guess my silliness. But I am not the - I'm not who I was.

And even on a day-to-day basis, I really don't know if I'm going to have a day where I can function out in society. And that includes online.

CONAN: It's - go ahead, I'm sorry.

LEVITIN: I would like to ask you a question, Sophia(ph), and...

SOPHINA: Sophina...

LEVITIN: Sophina, I admire your courage for calling and sharing this story. You have an acute awareness of the part of your personality and self that you lost. If you could choose, would you rather have the awareness of the loss or not?

SOPHINA: I would rather not. It's really cruel. It is cruel to know that no matter how hard - trying doesn't matter and that props and tools only help to a certain extent. And that it mostly hurts in my interpersonal stuff, because I will hurt people's feelings and not know it, and then I see them again, and they look at me kind of cross-eyed, and I forget that I was an ass.

So I'd rather not know.

CONAN: It is cruel to describe yourself as used to be bright. That's not self-deprecation. It sounds to me like you mean it.

SOPHINA: Venture finance for very early-stage biotech companies. There were only like eight of us in the whole country doing that. And now I don't even know how a checkbook works.

LEVITIN: So did your doctors tell you what part of the brain has been damaged?

SOPHINA: Yes, I know it's my frontal lobe. I know it's - I know it's in four places because there are four spots. But I can't remember. And I just looked up my scan about 10 minutes ago, when you first came on. I said oh, I better look it up, and it never occurred to me to bring a copy of that page to the phone with me.


SOPHINA: I'm kind of laughing, because it's a really silly life.

LEVITIN: You know, we think of our self as something that we create and maintain, not as a biological process. But you understand - we understand from cases like yours that when the biology goes wrong, we really do lose this piece of ourselves.

Now, frontal regions of the brain, the frontal lobes are associated with planning and keeping to schedules and organizing your to-do list. And so I can feel the pain and frustration that you're going through.

SOPHINA: Yeah, I have one bathroom, and I've bought flooring for it three times, not that I've changed my mind. I kind of forgot I bought it, and we put it in the shop. Yeah, thank you. I...

CONAN: It does sound that you have friends and memories from before the stroke. Are they unimpaired?

SOPHINA: From before the stroke, yes, I think my memory loss prior to that is pretty normal. And if I need to remember - if I'm reminded, I can remember that I remembered something. But in the short run, literally if I were to walk back into the kitchen and go to the table, I would sit back down at my paperwork and wonder what I was doing. So I have to hit the restart button a lot.

CONAN: I understand. So Sophina, we will remember you. Thank you very much for the call.

SOPHINA: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about memory and the sense of self. Our guest is Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychological and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Dementia and Alzheimer's account for a large portion of the memory loss we hear about. There are other forms, too. Amnesia is uncommon, but it does happen. Patients with signs of retrograde amnesia can't recall past events. Sometimes it's temporary. Other times the memories never come back.

There's also what's called anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new memories. That sounds like we just heard a little bit about that. Other forms of memory loss, some patients lose the ability to recognize faces but can still recall and identify voices. Some lose their ability to speak.

We're talking today about the intersection of memory and self, how one helps form the other. If you've experienced memory loss, how did it change who you are? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Daniel Levitin, professor of psychological and behavioral neuroscience at McGill. His forthcoming book is titled "The Organized Mind." And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation, and let's go to Betsy(ph), Betsy with us from Michigan.

BETSY: Yes, I had shock treatments for depression, ECT, and I've lost huge chunks of memory from before the time I had them, and I still have trouble in the present.

CONAN: And how long ago were these shocks?

BETSY: They were like - it was like 15 years ago. And I've - that was when my children were in high school, and I've lost most of that, down to when they were much younger. And I was a botanist, and I knew all kinds of plant names, and now I just can't bring them up.

CONAN: And other than, well, it's terribly frustrating, I'm sure, but does it change who you are?

BETSY: Yes, I think it does. People have trouble keeping up with the fact - they have trouble remembering that I can't remember. And so they act astonished when I'm in a conversation, and they refer to something, and I can't say what it is.

CONAN: Because there's no outward sign, of course, you look perfectly normal.

BETSY: Right, right.

CONAN: And how has that changed your friendships, your relationships?

BETSY: I've lost some friendships over the years because of this. And my relationship with people now, it's - they get frustrated with me easily.

CONAN: And what about your relationship with your kids? Obviously that time in school is critical.

BETSY: It's a problem. You know, again they'll refer to things that happened, and I don't remember them. And they were having trouble in school because of the trouble I was going through. And it would be helpful for me to have remembered that.

CONAN: And being a mother is such a critical part of - being a parent is a critical part of anyone's identity. You just have to live with this, no?

BETSY: Yes, yes I do, and I also consider it important to warn other people about this because they play down the dangers when you sign up to have this done. And people should be aware of the possibility that they might lose a lot of memory instead of just the short-term memory that they tell you about.

CONAN: Thank you very much for joining us.

BETSY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Daniel Levitin, ECT, electroconvulsive shock therapy, as it's called, very controversial when it was first used, well, all those years ago.

LEVITIN: Yes, and we don't really know how it works. It's most typically prescribed for people who have intractable depression that doesn't - it's the method of last resort. If you're unable to get out of bed for weeks on end, and you're suicidal, and you're not responding to drug therapy, electroconvulsive therapy is considered, by some therapists and practitioners, as the last resort.

And they know that in many cases it works, that is it keeps people from killing themselves or wanting to kill themselves, but at what cost.

CONAN: And as I understand it, the voltages administered are much smaller than they used to be.

LEVITIN: Yes, and they find similar effects and similar side effects, as we just heard. Now, the interesting thing is that memory has a bunch of different components to it. Betsy was describing that she didn't remember the events of her children's lives. And she couldn't remember the names of plants as a botanist.

These are two separate memory systems. One of them we call episodic memory, which is where we remember the episodes of our lives. And the other kind of memory is semantic memory, that is you remember facts and figures, you remember where you were born, who the president of the United States was 15 years ago or the names of plants.

And it appears that in this very rare case, Betsy has lost both systems, the semantic and the episodic system. I have to point out that's a very rare thing because they're separately located in the brain, and they invoke different neural structures.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Katherine(ph): My name is Katherine. I'm a 27-year-old female living in Connecticut. I suffer memory loss as a result of extreme depression and bipolar disorder. I am forgetful, minute-to-minute, but also have lost the memories of complete periods of my past.

It's my belief that the loss of past memory greatly upsets our sense of place, particularly the memories of how we have overcome hardship. Without access to the tools we have gained through these experiences and the confidence built from the knowledge of our past accomplishments, we will have incomplete understanding of ourselves.

And Daniel Levitin, it's hard to disagree with her.

LEVITIN: I believe that. You know, the professor of mine who described a colleague of his who - that we began with at the top of the hour, who killed himself rather than lose his sense of place in the world, that's - I think that's - the fear of that loss, of losing your sense of place, is not only a great fear but a perhaps justified one.

And my friend Tom - well my acquaintance Tom, who died of a similar brain tumor, the fascinating thing about him was that he knew that he was going, but his zest for life and for understanding his place and his life was such that he wanted to surround himself with people who, during his last weeks of life, could tell him the stories of his life so he could put it all together and enjoy it.

CONAN: You describe his - the room he was living in. There were, for example license plates from all the states on one part of his wall, though a couple of them were missing. And it later became clear why.

LEVITIN: He had said, when I came there, he says, would you like to take anything? I said: What do you mean? He says: Well, I'm not going to be around much longer, and I'm giving my stuff away. And he said: I have a complete collection of - in addition to the license plates, he had a collection of spoons from all 50 states.

And already I could see the dusty outlines of some of the spoons that had been taken off the shelf. And here he was proud of having the whole collection, and it had already been decimated. But his - I found it tragic but also wonderful at the same time. His enthusiasm and his kindness, you might call it his soul, was still intact in the face of all of this tremendous memory loss.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), and John's on the line with us from Tucson.

JOHN: Yes, but it's not just losing a sense of who you are, it's thinking about those who know you and not recognizing who you are, because you can't express yourself to them. I just came, a couple of hours ago, from seeing my doctor. I had some initial tests. I'm going in for an MRI because the last couple of years, my memory's been going downhill.

I'm forgetting who I work with. And my biggest concern is my grandchildren coming to me, and I'm not knowing who they are, and I don't want to be around for that,or see that, and then put them through a crisis by them looking at me and know they love me, I love them. And I can't see the possibility of my not recognizing and what that would do to them. That is my biggest fear, right now, more than anything, is the effect I'm going to have on those who love me, who I love.

LEVITIN: John, if I could share with you a personal story, I really understand your pain. My grandmother slipped into a state where she no longer recognized anybody. And in the last two or three months of her life, I spent more time with her than I ever had before. And we were very close.

And I would never trade those three months for anything. Even though she didn't know who I was and forget that she had children or grandchildren, she knew that I was an intimate of hers and a confidante. And she recognized me as an ally and as a confidante. And we were closer during those three months when she didn't recognize me than we ever were when she did because of the intimacy that was created by that circumstance.

JOHN: But don't you feel that not only can you lose who you are, but you can also create some damage to the youngest? I have children who are - grandchildren, an eight-year-old, 12-year-old. And I cannot imagine how they will be able to comprehend what this is all about.

You know, they told their parents to come stay with grandma and grandpa than to go out to an amusement park, you know. I mean, this is a great love we feel from them, and I cannot imagine what their hearts would be going through to visit and know that I cannot understand who they are. I just feel that would be so cruel to them. You know, if they were older, I can understand, but this is - it happened rapidly in the last year, a few months and got worse. And...

LEVITIN: Well, I wouldn't underestimate the power of children's resilience and the power of love that they feel for their grandparents. I - I'm an optimist who thinks that the experience of being able to spend time with you, even in periods of declining memory, are priceless.

JOHN: Well, I will try to keep holding on to that thought. I appreciate that very much. I just found it coincidental that I was kind of driving around after leaving the doctor's office with this - just happened to realize that the show comes on, so I appreciate the coincidence.

CONAN: Well - and we appreciate the phone call. You should also wait for that MRI. Don't get...

JOHN: I'm going to. I'm going to. The initial tests were not good, but I am going to wait for that and see what can be done, if anything. I appreciate your show, and I'm always an avid listener. Thank you.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much, and good luck.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This is from Tom(ph) in Salt Lake City. I was about 26 years old when I first saw the movie "Memento," and it moved me in ways I couldn't explain. I later realized that I'd been struggling with alcohol-induced memory loss for years. I'd lost countless personal possessions and friends due to my inability to remember even the simplest of things. This drastic wake-up call helped me decide to quit drinking, and sobriety's helped me regain my ability to create more memories. When I look back at my early 20s, the memories are extremely fuzzy compared to other parts of my life. I think alcohol's ability to affect memory is very serious and deserves more attention and awareness.

Is he right?

LEVITIN: He's absolutely right. Alcohol abuse, of course, leads eventually in some cases to Korsakoff's syndrome, a particular kind of alcohol-induced memory loss. What's required for us to store new memories is a period of consolidation. Many neuroscientists, including me, feel that almost everything we've experienced in our lives - every conversation, every piece of music, every taste, every sensation - is encoded in memory, potentially.

But for that to happen, you have to have a good night's sleep, because sleep is one of the processes by which the memories are encoded. And then we have to be able to retrieve the memories later, and alcohol can interfere with both processes when it's abused.

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, author of "This Is Your Brain On Music," and "The World in Six Songs." His forthcoming book, "The Organized Mind." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Hailey's(ph) on the line with us from Birmingham.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

HAILEY: OK. Well, I've had bunches of different kinds of memory loss. I had, in my late-20s, in - over the course of five years, I had four open heart surgeries. A couple of them were very complicated, and I had many different kinds of memory loss with that, from working memory to long term to short term, and it was extremely difficult.

Your producer wanted me to cover one series of events. I will. But after recovering from that and getting back to work, I also had many years undiagnosed neurological Lyme disease, which created a different, you know, whole branch of issues with memory and being able to function.

I will - you know, I did lose a lot of a sense of myself, and I will give a story in a second. But I do want to say, over time, it has given me more of myself because it's forced me to learn patience. And that was something I was not going to do without this kind of life lesson. So there are things that I've gained.

But I was telling her about when I was first sent actually by - during my Social Security application for neuropsychological testing to figure out if I had lost memory. And I had always been a fairly high scorer on standardized tests, and here I was taking these tests, the basic battery of them, and I just was stumbling through all of it and really having a hard time and crying because I was very aware of how - I mean, it was just - it was so excruciatingly frustrating to not be able to summarize just a few sentences back to somebody, not to be able to remember words that had just been told to me, things that I would have been able to do practically asleep, you know, at another time in my life.

I think on the - when I took the GRE, I'd gotten a - let's see. The score is, out of 800, I'd gotten a 780 on the analytical reasoning at one point. So, you know, I've been a very high scorer on this sort of thing. And when the test giver came back to me, she said, don't be upset. You're nearly average in every area.

CONAN: Oh, my God.

HAILEY: You know, I had, you know, been scoring in the 58th percentile and below. And so I was so upset by it that she thought I was trying to obstruct the test, but it just was very emotionally upsetting to me to go through that. I didn't realize that it had been as profound as it was at that point.

CONAN: Daniel Levitin, obviously there's a lot there. The story about Lyme disease, notoriously difficult to diagnose, I know. I had not heard memory loss being associated with it.

LEVITIN: Well, we're talking about the brain is a biological system that we don't understand as well as we'd like to. And what we do know is that memories are stored, or at least registered, throughout all different parts of the brain and different kinds of memory. So, for example, we've seen patients who lose, just as you mentioned earlier, patients who lose just memory for faces. It's called - it's common enough, there's a name for it called prosopagnosia. Other people remember faces and they forget places, or they have a complete loss of recognition for fruits and vegetables, but they can still recognize animals.

Lyme disease is a neurodegenerative disease that can take out particular parts of the brain and thus compromise particular systems. And in Hailey's case, it sounds particularly cruel in that she remembered that she was above average and smart and now is not performing that way. And, you know, talk about a loss of self-identity or a sense of self. I used to be that kind of person, now I'm this kind of person and it's not my fault. It's something that happened to me. And who is the me in all this that it happened to?

CONAN: Yeah. Hailey...

HAILEY: Most difficult for me was that I was still articulate. So I was able to describe my situation well enough that people didn't believe that it was as difficult as it was. So that was extremely difficult for me.

CONAN: You're still articulate, Hailey. Thank you very much for the call, and we wish you the best of luck.

HAILEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're going to continue this conversation when we come back from a short break. And we're also going to talk with the author of a book on papers going back to the Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago. Linda Greenhouse will join us on The Opinion Page to talk about her discovery that reading that ruling, it turns out it was all about the rights of doctors. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. We posted a link to his recent piece in the Atlantic, "Amnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory is Lost."

And this is Gessie(ph) from Salt Lake City, who sends this email. Although it's not a diagnosed problem, I know my memory is failing me. It has altered my confidence level and keeps me from starting conversations or even in participating in them.

An undiagnosed problem presumably because she's not gone to have it diagnosed. And I wonder is it the case that people don't go to see - get a diagnosis because they're afraid of what they're going to find?

LEVITIN: Well, that's certainly a possibility. And, you know, we all have experienced, as we get older, forgetfulness. We lose our car keys more often. We lose our passports or our glasses, things like that. We miss appointments. And in many cases, I think this is not early onset Alzheimer's and nothing to be afraid of.

I think it's important to realize that we are busier than ever before, we have more things on our minds than ever before. And with the information explosion, the amount of information and email and updates and news that we are taking in dwarfs that which any of our ancestors had to deal with. And it's not that we're really losing our memories, Neal. It's that we're just distracted a lot of the time by all the other things going on in our lives.

CONAN: I wanted to ask this email question as well. This is from Grace. I'm a divinity student at Vanderbilt University School studying the theological implications of trauma and memory in the creation of self-identity. How are changing views of the way that the brain and the self are intimately connected changing the ways in which doctor's provide care?

LEVITIN: Well, that's a great question, and I have to say I don't know the answer to that other than that, I think, doctors are more aware of the kinds of things that can go wrong. You know, we heard from Hailey a few moments ago - the caller who had Lyme disease - and she also mentioned that she had four open heart surgeries. Now, some of - some or all of her memory loss could be associated with that, a condition known as anoxia where the brain doesn't get enough oxygen could've occurred either during the surgery or during heart attacks that led to the surgery. And doctors are increasingly aware that loss of oxygen can lead to memory loss and personality changes.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. And this is Deborah(ph), and - excuse me - there we go. Deborah's on the line with us from Milwaukee.

DEBORAH: Hi. On April 1, 1990, I was driving in Bedford, New York, on my way to see Shawn Colvin, my face went through the steering wheel of a Plymouth Valiant convertible. And the horn broke, ripped my bottom lip off, knocked my top and side teeth out. And I remember in the hospital, the doctor asked me who the vice president of the United States was, and I couldn't remember. But now I remember the question but I've have now, like three concussions since then. I had post-concussive syndromes from then.

It's - every day it's a struggle. I take medication for ADD but - and that seems to - that, I think, that's what keeps me going. But, I mean, I just know what I had, I know my memory is - it's just not - it's - and nobody thinks it's serious because you're so - you seem - you're, you know, you're able to, like, make decisions and you seem not affected but it's - that's not the truth.

CONAN: Sorry to hear about your condition. And how has it changed who you are as a person?

DEBORAH: Well, you know, every store I go in to, there's always one person who treats you - yeah, I mean, they treat me - there's like - they snicker. And I'm like - but then I just have to attribute that to the lack of understanding on their behalf. But I - it's frustrating. I have to, like, work really hard to be - I'm not the person I used to be. I used to be able to make a list and conquer it, and I can't do that anymore. It's getting worse.

LEVITIN: Do you feel that your personality is the same or different?

DEBORAH: People think I'm goofy. I really - it's a little different. It's - I - yeah, I'm - I think people - I am different. I'm not - because I'm not as - I can't present myself as an intelligent, intellectual, happy person, and I just seem goofy. I think people...

LEVITIN: But you do sound - you sound like you have empathy and compassion, and you sound kind. Are those traits that you feel that you had before?

DEBORAH: Oh, absolutely.

CONAN: So some continuity, certainly. Deborah, thank you very much for the phone call. And I wanted to ask Daniel Levitin about one other thing you said, and several other callers have said it as well, and that is the sense of other people with - who treat them, don't understand what they're going through because they look perfectly normal.

LEVITIN: Yes, this is one of the, you know, memory loss is hidden, right? It's a kind of private experience. And so - and then the devastating thing is when your friends or family members do notice it and start treating you differently and others who don't see the evidence of it and may not have the compassion for it don't understand that you've suffered a terrible loss and that you're not just being inattentive, it's a terrible double whammy, I guess you'd say.

CONAN: Daniel Levitin, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

LEVITIN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Daniel Levitin joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. You can, again, find a link to his article on our website. That's at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

What Would You Be Willing to Sacrifice?

Very cool video from the On Being blog.

What Would You Be Willing to Sacrifice?


"This project isn't about making images. It's not about creating the world's largest camera. It's about doing what you love. If you had been searching your whole life for something you love, what would you be willing to sacrifice?" ~ Ian Ruhter, from Silver & Light
I can't remember watching something so heart-breakingly gorgeous, unswerving in its emotional sway, inspirational to the point of forcing me to wonder about my current station in life. What am I doing here?

Mind and Life XXVI: Mind, Brain and Matter - Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science (Day One)

In the 26th iteration of the Mind and Life Conference - Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science - the Dalai Lama hosts 20 of the world's leaders in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology, including several leading Buddhist scholars.

It's another great series of discussions over four days - I will present one day at a time over the next few days.

Mind and Life XXVI: Mind, Brain and Matter - Critical Conversations Between Buddhist Thought and Science (Day One)

Twenty of the world’s foremost scientists and philosophers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan scholars will address topics over the course of the week that include the historical sweep of science and the revolutions in our understanding of our physical universe and the nature of the mind. Scientific and the classical Buddhist philosophical methods of inquiry will be studied, as well as selected topics in quantum physics, neuroscience, and Buddhist and contemporary Western views of consciousness. In addition, the applications of contemplative practices in clinical and educational settings will be explored.
Day One (a.m.):

Day One (p.m):

Presented by Mind and Life Institute and the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Venue: Drepung Monastery, Mundgod, Karnataka, India
Date: January 17-22, 2013

  • Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
  • Michel Bitbol, PhD, Directeur de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
  • Khen Rinpoche Jangchup Choeden, Abbott, Gaden Shartse Monastery
  • Richard Davidson, PhD, Founder and Chair, Center for Investigating Healthy Minds University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Sona Dimidjian, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience University of Colorado at Boulder
  • James R. Doty, MD, Director, Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
  • Stanford University
  • John Durant, PhD, Adjunct Professor Science,Technology & Society Program Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Anne Harrington, PhD, Professor, Department of the History of Science Harvard University
  • Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, Program and Research Director Mind & Life Institute
  • Thupten Jinpa, PhD, Adjunct Professor McGill University Chairman Mind & Life Institute
  • Bryce Johnson, PhD, Director Science for Monks Staff Scientist Exploratorium
  • Geshe Lhakdor, Director, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
  • Rajesh Kasturirangan, PhD, Associate Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore
  • Christof Koch, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer Allen Institute for Brain Science
  • Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Member and Translator/Interpreter Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Emory University
  • Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD, Senior Lecturer Emory University
  • Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, PhD, Professor and Chair Centre for Neuroscience at the Indian Institute of Science
  • Matthieu Ricard, PhD, Buddhist Monk Shechen Monastery
  • Geshe Ngawang Samten, Vice Chancellor, Central University of Tibetan Studies
  • Tania Singer, PhD, Director, Department of Social Neuroscience Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
  • Aaron Stern, Founder and President, The Academy for the Love of Learning
  • Diana Chapman Walsh, PhD, President Emerita, Wellesley College Governing Board Member, The Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard
  • Carol Worthman, PhD, Professor Department of Anthropology Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Emory University
  • Arthur Zajonc, PhD, President Mind & Life Institute

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Carl Sherman - Right Brain-Left Brain–A Primer (Dana Foundation)

This is a brief but useful primer on left brain-right brain functions from the Dana Foundation.

Right Brain-Left Brain–A Primer
By Carl Sherman

The human brain is basically symmetrical, split down the middle: the right cerebral hemisphere receives sensory input from and directs movement on the left side of the body, while the left hemisphere governs corresponding functions for the right side.

Symmetry only goes so far, however—there are differences, too. Yet in recent years, the two sides of the brain have come to symbolize two sides of human nature; the left brain hailed (or disparaged) as “logical,” “analytical,” and “intellectual,” and the “intuitive” right brain as the avatar of emotion and creativity. A host of popular books, educational strategies, and even therapeutic interventions have ensued, promising to enhance abilities and relieve mental maladies by optimizing function on one or the other side of the cerebral cortex.

The reality is not so simple—and a good deal more interesting. And like so much in neuroscience, far from fully understood.
Read the whole article.

H. Allen Orr Reviews Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos"

At the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr reviews Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False - he is thorough and finds, in the end, that Nagel too fully rejects materialism to be taken seriously. Rather, Nagel embraces a belief in the "tendency of the universe to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time. Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology."

It is an interesting and thorough review.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 130 pp., $24.95

Erin Pauwels Collection/Art Archive/Art Resource - ‘A Sun of the Nineteenth Century’; cartoon from Puck magazine showing Charles Darwin as a shining sun, chasing the clouds of religion and superstition from the sky, 1882


The history of science is partly the history of an idea that is by now so familiar that it no longer astounds: the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter. We scientists are in the business of discovering the laws that characterize this matter. We do so, to some extent at least, by a kind of reduction. The stuff of biology, for instance, can be reduced to chemistry and the stuff of chemistry can be reduced to physics.

Thomas Nagel has never been at ease with this view. Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He is perhaps best known for his 1974 paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” a modern classic in the philosophy of mind. In that paper, Nagel argued that reductionist, materialist accounts of the mind leave some things unexplained. And one of those things is what it would actually feel like to be, say, a bat, a creature that navigates its environment via the odd (to us) sense of echolocation. To Nagel, then, reductionist attempts to ground everything in matter fail partly for a reason that couldn’t be any nearer to us: subjective experience. While not denying that our conscious experiences have everything to do with brains, neurons, and matter, Nagel finds it hard to see how these experiences can be fully reduced with the conceptual tools of physical science.

In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel continues his attacks on reductionism. Though the book is brief its claims are big. Nagel insists that the mind-body problem “is not just a local problem” but “invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” If what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can’t explain life, then it can’t fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It’s a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.

As Nagel makes clear in the subtitle of Mind and Cosmos, part of what he thinks must be reconceived is our reigning theory of evolutionary biology, neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism maintains, or at least implies, that the origin and history of life can be explained by materialist means. Once the first life arose on earth, the fate of the resulting evolutionary lineage was, neo-Darwinists argued, shaped by a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Biological types that survive or reproduce better than others will ultimately replace those others. While natural selection ensures that species constantly adapt to the changing environments around them, the process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any goal. This view, Nagel tells us, is “almost certainly false.”

Before creationists grow too excited, it’s important to see what Nagel is not claiming. He is not claiming that life is six thousand years old, that it did not evolve, or that natural selection played no part in this evolution. He believes that life has a long evolutionary history and that natural selection had a part in it. And while he does believe that intelligent design creationists have asked some incisive questions, Nagel rejects their answers. Indeed he is an atheist. Instead Nagel’s view is that neo-Darwinism, and in fact the whole materialist view elaborated by science since the seventeenth century, is radically incomplete. The materialist laws of nature must, he says, be supplemented by something else if we are to fold ourselves and our minds fully into our science.

His leading contender for this something else is teleology, a tendency of the universe to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time. Nagel believes that (currently unknown) teleological laws of nature might mean that life and consciousness arise with greater probability than would result from the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Scientists shouldn’t be shocked by Nagel’s claim that present science might not be up to cracking the mind-brain problem or that a profoundly different science might lie on the horizon. The history of science is filled with such surprising transformations. Nor should we dismiss Nagel’s claims merely because they originate from outside science, from a philosopher. Much the same thing happened when natural theology—the scientific attempt to discern God’s attributes from His biological handiwork—gave way to Darwinism.

It was the philosopher David Hume who began to dismantle important aspects of natural theology. In a devastating set of arguments, Hume identified grievous problems with the argument from design (which claims, roughly, that a designer must exist because organisms show intricate design). Hume was not, however, able to offer an alternative account for the apparent design in organisms. Darwin worked in Hume’s wake and finally provided the required missing theory, natural selection. Nagel, consciously or not, now aspires to play the part of Hume in the demise of neo-Darwinism. He has, he believes, identified serious shortcomings in neo-Darwinism. And while he suspects that teleological laws of nature may exist, he recognizes that he hasn’t provided anything like a full theory. He awaits his Darwin.

Mind and Cosmos is certainly provocative and it reflects the efforts of a fiercely independent mind. In important places, however, I believe that it is wrong. Because Nagel’s book sits at the intersection of philosophy and science it will surely attract the attention of both communities.1 As a biologist, I will perhaps inevitably focus on Nagel’s more scientific claims. But these are, it appears, the claims that are most responsible for the excitement over the book.

I begin by considering the reasons Nagel believes that materialist science, including neo-Darwinism, is false. I then turn to his alternative theory, teleology.


Nagel believes that materialism confronts two classes of problems. One, which is new to Nagel’s thought, concerns purported empirical problems with neo-Darwinism. The other, which is more familiar to philosophers, is the alleged failure of materialism to explain consciousness and allied mental phenomena.

Nagel argues that there are purely “empirical reasons” to be skeptical about reductionism in biology and, in particular, about the plausibility of neo-Darwinism. Nagel’s claims here are so surprising that it’s best to quote them at length:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?
Nagel claims that both questions concern “highly specific events over a long historical period in the distant past, the available evidence is very indirect, and general assumptions have to play an important part.” He therefore concludes that “the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.”

This conclusion is remarkable in a couple ways. For one thing, there’s not much of an argument here. Instead Nagel’s conclusion rests largely on the strength of his intuition. His intuition recoils from the claimed plausibility of neo-Darwinism and that, it seems, is that. (Richard Dawkins has called this sort of move the argument from personal incredulity.) But plenty of scientific truths are counterintuitive (does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?) and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition. Nagel never explains why his intuition should count for so much here.

As for his claim that evolutionary theory is somewhat schematic and that it concerns events that happened long ago, leaving indirect evidence, this is partly true of any historical science, including any alternative to neo-Darwinism, e.g., the one that Nagel himself suggests. In any case, a good part of the evidence for neo-Darwinism is not indirect but involves experiments in which evolutionary change is monitored in real time.2

More important, Nagel’s conclusions about evolution are almost certainly wrong. The origin of life is admittedly a hard problem and we don’t know exactly how the first self-replicating system arose. But big progress has been made. The discovery of so-called ribozymes in the 1980s plausibly cracked the main principled problem at the heart of the origin of life. Research on life’s origin had always faced a chicken and egg dilemma: DNA, our hereditary material, can’t replicate without the assistance of proteins, but one can’t get the required proteins unless they’re encoded by DNA. So how could the whole system get off the ground?

Answer: the first genetic material was probably RNA, not DNA. This might sound like a distinction without a difference but it isn’t. The point is that RNA molecules can both act as a hereditary material (as DNA does) and catalyze certain chemical reactions (as some proteins do), possibly including their own replication. (An RNAmolecule that can catalyze a reaction is called a ribozyme.) Consequently, many researchers into the origins of life now believe in an “RNA world,” in which early life on earth was RNA-based. “Physical accidents” were likely still required to produce the first RNA molecules, but we can now begin to see how these molecules might then self-replicate.

Nagel’s astonishment that a “sequence of viable genetic mutations” has been available to evolution over billions of years is also unfounded.3 His concern appears to be that evolution requires an unbroken chain of viable genetic variants that connect the first living creature to, say, human beings. How could nature ensure that a viable mutation was always available to evolution? The answer is that it didn’t. That’s why species go extinct. Indeed that’s what extinction is. The world changes and a species can’t find a mutation fast enough to let it live. Extinction is the norm in evolution: the vast majority of all species have gone extinct. Nagel has, I think, been led astray by a big survivorship bias: the evolutionary lineage that led to us always found a viable mutation, ergo one must, it seems, always be available. Tyrannosaurus rex would presumably be less impressed by nature’s munificence.4


While Nagel’s worries about neo-Darwinism are misplaced, he’s on somewhat firmer (or at least more familiar) ground when he turns to mental phenomena like consciousness. These are, after all, separate problems. A science might explain the evolution of life but leave consciousness—the subjective experience of the saltiness of popcorn, the shock of cold water, or the sting of pain—unaccounted for. Consciousness is Nagel’s big problem:
Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.
Nagel’s story here starts, as it must, with Descartes. As Nagel writes, Descartes posited that matter and mind are “both fully real and irreducibly distinct, though they interact.” Given this, science was, from the outset, concerned solely with matter; mind belonged to a different domain. While scientists happily toiled under Cartesian dualism, giving rise to a recognizably modern science, philosophers often demurred. Instead, thinkers like Berkeley favored various forms of idealism, which maintains that nature is at bottom mind. Under idealism, then, any reductionist program would be in the business of collapsing matter to mind.

Nagel argues that as a result of a rapid shift whose causes are unclear, these idealist philosophies were “largely displaced in later twentieth-century analytic philosophy by attempts at unification in the opposite direction, starting from the physical.” This approach likely seems natural to most of us. But we live with a tension. Though the materialist program of reducing mind to matter would appear the properly “scientific” approach, we haven’t the slightest idea how it would work. And it’s not for lack of trying. Philosophers have, Nagel reminds us, attempted many ways of tying mind to matter: conceptual behaviorism, physical identity theory, causal behaviorism, and functionalism, to name a few. To Nagel all these approaches have failed “for the same old reason”:
Even with the brain added to the picture, they clearly leave out something essential, without which there would be no mind. And what they leave out is just what was deliberately left out of the physical world by Descartes and Galileo in order to form the modern concept of the physical, namely, subjective appearances.
Nagel is deeply skeptical that any species of materialist reductionism can work. Instead, he concludes, progress on consciousness will require an intellectual revolution at least as radical as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Nagel’s chapter on consciousness is a concise and critical survey of a literature that is both vast and fascinating. He further extends his survey to other mental phenomena, including reason and value, that he also finds recalcitrant to materialism. (Nagel concludes that the existence of objective moral truths is incompatible with materialist evolutionary theory; because he is sure that moral truths exist, he again concludes that evolutionary theory is incomplete.)

Nagel concedes that many philosophers do not share his skepticism about the plausibility of reducing mind to matter. And I can assure readers that most scientists don’t. I, however, share Nagel’s sense of mystery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mereobjects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.

Despite this, I can’t go so far as to conclude that mind poses some insurmountable barrier to materialism. There are two reasons. The first is, frankly, more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist. The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out. Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness.

And this brings me to the second reason. For there might be perfectly good reasons why you can’t imagine a solution to the problem of consciousness. As the philosopher Colin McGinn has emphasized, your very inability to imagine a solution might reflect your cognitive limitations as an evolved creature. The point is that we have no reason to believe that we, as organisms whose brains are evolved and finite, can fathom the answer to every question that we can ask. All other species have cognitive limitations, why not us? So even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.

To McGinn, then, the mysteriousness of consciousness may not be so much a challenge to neo-Darwinism as a result of it. Nagel obviously draws the opposite conclusion. But the availability of both conclusions gives pause.

Given the problems that Nagel has with materialism, the obvious question is, What’s the alternative? In the most provocative part of Mind and Cosmos, he suggests one, teleology. While we often associate teleology with a God-like mind—events occur because an agent wills them as means to an end—Nagel finds theism unattractive. But he insists that materialism and theism do not exhaust the possibilities.

Instead he proposes a special species of teleology that he calls natural teleology. Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don’t yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes “have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.”

Nagel intends natural teleology to be, among other things, a biological theory. It would explain not only the “appearance of physical organisms” but the “development of consciousness and ultimately of reason in those organisms.” Teleology would also provide an “account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate.”

Nagel concedes that his new theory isn’t fully fleshed out. He hopes merely to sketch the outlines of a plausible alternative to materialism. It’s unfortunate, though, that Mind and Cosmos is too brief to allow consideration of problems that attend natural teleology. For it seems to me that there are some, especially where the view confronts biology.

Darwin himself wrestled with attempts to reconcile his theory with teleology and concluded, reluctantly, that it seemed implausible. While Darwin published almost nothing on such philosophical matters they loom large in his correspondence, particularly with Asa Gray, an American champion of evolution and a Christian. Gray, like Nagel, wanted to believe that, while Darwin had identified an important force in the history of life, nature also features teleology. In particular, Gray suggested that the variation provided by nature to natural selection biases the process in desirable directions.

Darwin, though sometimes vacillating, argued that Gray’s reconciliation was implausible. Exercising his uncanny ability to discern deep truths in prosaic facts—in this case the artificial selection of a pigeon breed by a few fanciers—Darwin wrote Gray:
But I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go as far as you do about Design…. You lead me to infer that you believe “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines”.—I cannot believe this; & I think you would have to believe, that the tail of the Fan-tail was led to vary in the number &direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men.5

Here’s another problem. Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.

Similarly, Nagel’s teleological biology is run through with talk about the “higher forms of organization toward which nature tends” and progress toward “more complex systems.” Again, real biology looks little like this. The history of evolutionary lineages is replete with reversals, which often move from greater complexity to less. A lineage will evolve a complex feature (an eye, for example) that later gets dismantled, evolutionarily deconstructed after the species moves into a new environment (dark caves, say). Parasites often begin as “normal” complicated organisms and then lose evolutionarily many of their complex traits after taking up their new parasitic way of life. Such reversals are easily explained under Darwinism but less so under teleology. If nature is trying to get somewhere, why does it keep changing its mind about the destination?6

I’ll be the first to admit that these problems may not be fatal. But they represent the sorts of awkward facts that occur immediately to any biologist. Minimally, they pose serious challenges to teleology, challenges that deserve, but do not receive, consideration in Mind and Cosmos. 

I will also be the first to admit that we cannot rule out the formal possibility of teleology in nature. It could turn out that teleological laws affect how the universe unfolds through time. While I suspect some might regard such heterodoxy as a crime against science, Nagel is right that there’s nothing intrinsically unscientific about teleology. If that’s the way nature is, that’s the way it is, and we scientists would need to get on with the business of characterizing these surprising laws. Teleological science is, in fact, more than imaginable. It’s actual, at least historically. Aristotelian science, with its concern for final cause, was thoroughly teleological. And the biological tradition that Darwinism displaced, natural theology, also featured a good deal of teleological thinking.

The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block.

None of this is to suggest that evolutionary biology will not, someday, change radically. Of course it might; any science might. Nor is it to suggest that materialism represents some final unassailable view and that teleology or, for that matter, theism will inevitably be spoken of in the past tense by many scientists. It is to say that the way to any such alternative view will have to acknowledge the full powers of present science. I cannot conclude that Mind and Cosmos does this.

1. Nagel’s work has long attracted the attention of both philosophers and scientists. Indeed the careful reader will notice that I’m mentioned in his new book as a scientist-participant in a workshop that he organized on some of the topics covered in the book; many of the other participants were philosophers.
2. The field of “experimental evolution” is concerned with watching evolution as it occurs. Because of their short generation time, microbes are the focus of much of this work.
3. While I’ve heard this concern before, I must admit that I think I only now understand it.
4. This is not to say that adaptation is rare or that natural selection doesn’t modify the DNA sequences of species. Even species that ultimately go extinct have experienced many previous bouts of successful adaptation.
5. November 26, 1860; see Historians of science do not all agree that Darwin wholly banished teleology from his thinking; see the exchange between James G. Lennox (1993, 1994) and Michael T. Ghiselin (1994) in Biology and Philosophy.
6. It’s true that organisms are on average more complex now than they were three billion years ago. But as biologists have long recognized, this doesn’t require any inexorable bias toward complexity. If life starts from a floor of zero complexity, it can on average only get more complicated.