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Mind transcending matter

"Mind transcending matter" Continued...

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

This is what is called an obsession. The problem the medical condition causes is that although the sufferers generally know this feeling that "something is wrong" is false and doesn't really make sense, the feeling keeps bothering them and doesn't go away, due to a brain glitch that was discovered using brain imaging. Sufferers often respond to these gut-wrenching thoughts and feelings by washing, checking, straightening things, etc., over and over again, in a desperate but futile attempt to make things seem right. These futile repetitive acts are called compulsions.

In the 1990s it was discovered that OCD sufferers were very capable of learning how to resist capitulating to these brain-related symptoms by using a mental action called "mindful awareness" when confronting them. In a nutshell, mindful awareness means using your "mind's eye" to view your own inner life and experiences the way you would if you were standing, as it were, outside yourself-most simply put, it means learning to use a rational perspective when viewing your own inner experience.

When OCD patients did this, and as a result came to view the bothersome intrusive thoughts and feelings just as medical symptoms that they had the mental power to resist, they found they were empowered to direct their attention in much more useful and wholesome ways by focusing on healthy and/or work-related activities. Over several weeks, and with much mental effort and faith in their ability to overcome the suffering, many OCD patients were found to be capable of regularly resisting the symptoms.

This greatly strengthened their mental capacity to focus attention on useful wholesome activities and overcome compulsive urges. The major scientific finding that was discovered using brain imaging was that when OCD sufferers used the power of their minds to redirect regularly their focus of attention in wholesome ways, they literally rewired their own brains in precisely the brain circuit that had been discovered to cause the problem.

In the early years of the current century brain imaging was used to reveal many similar and related findings. For instance, people with spider phobia, or people viewing stressful or sexually arousing films, were found to be entirely capable of using mental effort to apply mindful awareness and "re-frame" their perspective on their experience. By so doing it was clearly demonstrated that they could systematically change the response of the brain to these situations and so cease being frightened, stressed, or sexually aroused, whatever the case may be.

This latter finding was realized by some at the time to be potentially relevant to teaching sexual abstinence strategies to adolescents-for if you have the power to control your brain's response to sexual urges, then practicing sexual abstinence in arousing situations will not only strengthen your moral character; it will also increase your mental and physical capacity to control the workings of your own brain-an extremely wholesome and empowering act!

All this work came together when physicist Henry Stapp realized that a basic principle of quantum mechanics, which because of the nature of the brain at the atomic level must be used for proper understanding of the brain's inner workings, explains how the action of the mind changes how the brain works. A well-established mechanism called the quantum zeno effect (QZE) readily explains how mindfully directed attention can alter brain circuitry adaptively. Briefly, we can understand QZE like this: The mental act of focusing attention tends to hold in place brain circuits associated with whatever is focused on. In other words, focusing attention on your mental experience maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience.

If, using mindful awareness, a brain state arises associated with a wholesome perspective, the sustained application of that mindful perspective will literally, because of the QZE mechanism, hold in place the brain circuitry associated with the wholesome process. Of course, the QZE mechanism would be expected to work the same way to hold in place the brain's response to meditation or prayer, and brain-imaging research in the early years of this century demonstrated that to be the case.

The rest, as they say, is history. Once a solid scientific theory was in place to explain how the mind's power to focus attention could systematically rewire the brain, and that the language of our mental and spiritual life is necessary to empower the mind to do so, the materialist dogma was toppled. We may not have all lived happily ever after in any simplistic sense, but at least science is no longer on the side of those who claim human beings are no different in principle than a machine.

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