The Wall Street Journal has a great article today in its Marketplace section “How Thinking Can Change the Brain.” (Click here to see the beginning, but you can access the full article only if you are a subscriber. In the print version, it is on page B1.)
It describes a dialog that transpired between some neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama (head of Tibetan Buddhism whose beliefs I do not here endorse). The neuroscientists — committed as they are to the faith of naturalism — see the human mind as simply the product of chemical and electrical activity in the brain. That is, all mental processes are simply effects physically generated by the organ, and that what we call the human “mind” is simply the result of physical changes in the brain. The mental is purely the result of the physical. Chemicals and electricity are the cause and “mind” is the effect. This makes influence a one way street: the chemicals and electrical activity can affect (indeed, completely cause) the state of what we call the “mind,” but there is no going in reverse, in which mind affects the brain. In fact, the idea of going in reverse — according to the neuroscientists – is not even supposed to be conceivable, since “mind” is simply the word we use to describe the result of these physical processes and therefore has no independent existence apart from them.
The article’s comments on the scientists’ reactions to the Dalai Lama’s query — whether or not the influence can be reversed, or whether or not the mind can change the brain, instead of the other way around — is worth reading “as is”:
One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted; “downward” causation from the mental to the physical is not possible.
I like the “hardly paused” comment. But the surgeon would have done better to give greater pause. As the article (which is apparently adapted from a new book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by Sharon Begley) goes on to discuss, there is growing evidence that the mind can influence the physical characteristics of the brain — the brain can change in reaction to the mind, and the causation is not always “one way.” Experiments on humans (some of the Buddhist monks under the Dalai Lama’s direction) seem to demonstrate that the physical organ of the brain can be shaped and transofrmed by choices made by the mind.
Now, on a less spectacular level, a weaker version of this idea has been known for some time. For instance, one can choose to use addictive drugs, which shape the brain in ways that cause you to want more of the drug — not just to “mentally” want more, but to “physically” want more. This is a no-brainer (I don’t think that qualifies as a pun, by the way), and isn’t really what we are talking about. On a step up, the article mentions discoveries in neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change in response to one’s environment or experience — that have been capitalized on in improving the lives of many suffering from dyslexia and stroke patients, using the physical environment and intense activities to repair or change the brain in beneficial ways.
Still, what the article focuses on is something entirely different: when thinking alone changes the structure and function of the physical brain. Emeril Lagasse might say that this kicks things up a notch. (Or so I hear, since I do not watch cooking shows. Except the occasional Good Eats, but that doesn’t count…) Why is this so different? Because there is (theoretically) no external stimulus, no repetitive motion or programmed sound — simply thought directed by will. And the studies referenced in the article are among those that are showing this to be possible.
I’m sure that these studies are progressing and that good naturalism adherents are finding holes in the idea, and that’s OK. That’s how science works — at least, it’s how it is supposed to work. And given the idea under consideration — that an essentially immaterial mind could be causing, by itself, changes in the material brain which is supposed to generate it — we can expect naturalism fundamentalists to resist such a conclusion with the fullest devotion of their hearts and, well, minds. We can’t have the supposed illusion affecting the designated reality! If true, it would at least show the neat and clean “cause and effect” hypothesis that many neuroscientists have crafted for themselves concerning brain and mind to be not quite so “neat and clean.” It would mean some revisions of models and perhaps the creation of some new naturalism fundamentalist fairy tales.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe in an immortal soul, and the Bible does not describe one. But the Bible does describe an immaterial part of man’s nature — his spirit — and that immaterial part is intimately connected with his mind and his intelligence (1 Corinthians 2:11). It is this spiritual part of man, the record of all he has been, that God reclaims at our deaths (Ecc. 12:7) for use in our resurrection. How that spirit, which makes man so unique in this physical creation, might be “wetwired” to our brain is a question fun to ponder (at least, fun for me). I look forward to the day when we will really know and I do enjoy the insights that can be provided by neuroscientists concerning the interaction between mind and brain – naturalism bias or no.
Until then, I will continue to be amazed at stories like those told by Roger Lewin way back in the December 12, 1980, issue of Science. In an article titled, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” there is a fascinating tale (on p. 1232, emphasis mine):
“There’s a young student at this university,” says Lorber, “who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.” The student’s physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him to Lorber, simply out of interest. “When we did a brain scan on him,” Lorber recalls, “we saw that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.”
The tale is so much more fascinating in that it is not unique. Not that such a condition would not normally constitute a horrible detriment to the life of the one suffering from it. It normally does. But, it doesn’t always. Sometimes, in fact, it is as if there is no problem at all. Brain does not equal mind.
So, if any critic out there decides to call you “brainless,” don’t let it get to you. “Mindless,” on the other hand…