Mind over matter

Interview | A new book on neuroscience challenges the prevailing materialist worldview

Issue: "Preach it," Oct. 6, 2007

Your mind doesn't get the credit it deserves. Not according to The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperOne), a new book aiming to show that the mind-as distinct from the brain-is a real entity with nonphysical qualities. That's opposite the current dogma in the field of neuroscience, where materialism-the philosophy that physical matter is all that exists-has held sway, promoting drug treatments for most psychiatric disorders and fueling atheists who argue spirituality is a delusion created by the brain.

Spiritual Brain authors Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist from the University of Montreal, and Denyse O'Leary, a science journalist who often writes about the Intelligent Design movement, offer a "nonmaterialist" approach to brain science. Drawing on evidence as wide as the placebo effect, near-death experiences, and Beauregard's own research into "religious, spiritual, and/or mystical experiences" (RSMEs), Beauregard and O'Leary make a researched case for the nonmaterial-and ultimately spiritual-nature of man.

WORLD: Mario, you describe yourself as a "nonmaterialist neuroscientist." The phrase itself sounds like an oxymoron; how does one go about experimenting with nonmaterial subjects?

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BEAUREGARD: All neuroscientists, whether materialist or nonmaterialist, investigating the neural basis of mental processes-thoughts, emotions, volition, consciousness-are actually experimenting with nonmaterial entities. For instance, we cannot see a feeling such as love. Yet, love has the power to completely change our lives. This situation is very similar to that in quantum physics, where physicists are constantly working with nonmaterial concepts, such as fields and strings.

WORLD: The Spiritual Brain claims materialism doesn't account for the mind and consciousness. Why not?

O'LEARY: There is no useful materialist account of the mind. The materialist must treat the mind as an illusion created by the activity of neurons in the brain. Yet many treatments of disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias, depend not only on the existence of the mind but on its control over the brain. The massive placebo effect depends on it.

WORLD: Why? How does a nonmaterialist view placebos?

O'LEARY: The placebo effect (you get better because you think your sugar pill is a wonder drug) is so powerful that in one study men who did not take their placebos were more likely to die than men who did. And in other studies, treatments that were later discovered to be medically useless only stopped working when the doctors began to doubt their value. So you would think that finding a way to harness the placebo effect would be a priority. But no, the priority is explaining it away.

If you think the mind is real and has a major effect on the brain and body, the placebo effect makes sense, and the problem is that so little practical use is made of it. Many people might be better off if they could reduce their medication, for example, by using their own mental faculties more effectively in managing a chronic illness.

WORLD: Your book argues, "When we treat the mind as capable of changing the brain, we can treat conditions that were once considered difficult or impossible to treat." Which conditions?

BEAUREGARD: Anxiety disorders-specific phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder-and mood disorders like major depression. By recognizing that mental processes such as thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and volition can significantly influence the functioning and plasticity of the brain at various levels-molecular, cellular, neural circuitry-nonmaterialist neuroscience could markedly alter the way psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs are prescribed.

O'LEARY: Tom Wolfe wrote an influential essay in 1996 called "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," ascribing enormous power to the new antidepressants. Later, a very large amount of the miraculous effect turned out to be the placebo effect. Once people honestly believed that a drug could lift them out of depression, it could have been lithium or blue Smarties mix. Their own minds were apparently doing the heavy lifting, but they didn't even know it. I wonder if Wolfe will write another essay titled "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Prefers the Blue Smarties."

WORLD: How has your own work in neuroscience challenged materialist explanations of religious experiences?

BEAUREGARD: For our research project, my doctoral student Vincent Paquette and I recruited 15 Carmelite nuns, all of whom had had at least one intense mystical experience. We looked at the nuns' brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the sisters entered into a mystical state. Some researchers have theorized that religious experiences involve epilepsy-like seizures in the temporal lobes. They have proposed the idea of a "God spot" or "God module" in this region of the brain. But the mystical state activated a dozen brain areas (including the temporal lobes) involved in self-awareness, positive emotion, and body representation within space. We concluded that mystical states and experiences are supported by a complex network of regions widely distributed in the brain. This conclusion stands against the notion of a single "God spot" located in the temporal lobes.


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