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Posts Tagged ‘Evan Thompson’

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I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The earlier post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is the second and last post attempting to express simply what I thought I might say!

I argued in Thursday’s post, which describes my journey from atheism to belief in God, that finding completely compelling empirical evidence in support or refutation of the possibility of a spiritual dimension will be vanishingly hard to come by. I said I would examine a typical example in this post.

Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention (readers of my recent post on this issue can skip this bit). Pam Reynolds had a tumour deep in the brain stem, surgery for which required a total shut down of her brain, drained of all blood and kept at a low enough temperature to fend off brain cell death within the time frame of the operation.

Thompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. [An alternative account posits that the theatre staff had hidden the instruments to avoid alarming her.] So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

Pam reynold's surgeryBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

past-livesReincarnation:

Much later in the game I came back to giving reincarnation another look. It can’t really be ignored in any honest open-minded investigation. There is far too much evidence that suggests there are phenomena that invite interpretation as supporting reincarnation.

I explored reincarnation when I was investigating Buddhism and rejected it, so it is not only because my current belief in the Bahá’í Faith discounts it, that I am drawn to another way of interpreting the data.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this take on the issue. They also look at whether psi alone might be a sufficient explanation. Personally, though they do not close the door on that possibility themselves, for reasons concerning the degree of identification that the strongest cases exhibit (see below) psi does not seem to me the best candidate.

They then move on to what they refer to (page 278) as the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.

They accept that this could explain cases where (page 280) ‘more than one person remembers the same past life’ but feel that it is improbable that a child’s brain would be capable of resonating to an adult consciousness. They also feel that where memories of a past life display ‘continuity’ and ‘detail,’ this would not usually the case where psi is involved and for them accessing a universal mind would entail the use of psi.

The idea of a Cosmic Memory Bank appeals to me partly because this idea is to be found in other sources that I trust in different ways. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi and Jung speaks of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts his view succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

If we can accept this possibility, it provides, in my view, another possibly way of explaining the data which points also towards the possibility of reincarnation. Unfortunately, as always in this kind of area, greater certainty is inevitably elusive.

spiritual-brainWhere does that leave us?

In the end I’ve come to feel as Mario Beauregard does.

In The Spiritual Brain he refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately (2528):

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

This paves the way for finding the idea of mid-brain independence credible.

He also refers to the work in neuroplasticity which I have also dealt with on this blog (2605):

Generally, Schwartz says, success with the four-step method depends on the patient doing two things: recognizing that faulty brain messages cause obsessive-compulsive behavior and realizing that these messages are not part of the self. In this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy’s success.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (Kindle Reference: 2520):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists…who often confuse their religion with their science.

conscious-universeIn addition, Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe marshalls acres of evidence in favour of Psi, though it has been accused of overstating its case. He even quotes a sceptic in support of its rigour, thereby hopefully dismissing the spurious claims of dogmatic a priori sceptics (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

There is enough here overall, I feel, to give all but the most died-in-the-wool materialist pause for thought. Even if you only give credence to ‘hard’ scientifically gathered evidence, it seems clear that the exact nature of consciousness is an open question rather than a closed case.

Let’s hope I conveyed all that clearly enough to get the point across to a roomful of psychologists!

Or was it back to the lion’s den again, perhaps.

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filter-spectrum-v2At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.

For example, Braude’s work in Mortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention.

thompsonThompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

mind-brain-relationshipBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’

So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.

I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.

John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to  believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe.

To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):

Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.

This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):

One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.

Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.

Where does that all leave me?

I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.

300px-psychosynthesis-egg-diagram_color

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

Disappointing.

Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.

It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.

I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.

In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.

I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.

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focus-of-exploration

In a previous post, lamenting the death of my cafetière, I spoke of my strange elation as pennies dropped in my head when I realised more fully the significance of death in my life and appreciated better its relationship with mental health issues, especially psychosis.

I ended by saying that I felt as though all the pennies still had not dropped. Even so, I had no idea of the cascade of currency that was to follow.

cafe-exploration-v2

I was on my usual walk. At this time of year the hill through the wooded park near our home is every shade of brown, crimson and gold. As I was striding to the top at a pace brisk enough to get my heart beating faster, three words leapt to mind: trauma (including terror of death), transliminality (thresholds of consciousness and such) and transcendence (including spirituality in general). My subliminal mind had done it again. Not only had it grasped firm hold of the three things preoccupying me most strongly right now, but it had given me a mnemonic with which to hold onto them more easily. It’s so smart at doing this my left-brain gets quite envious.

churchill-gardens

As I walked, the trees, even with all their gold, faded into the background. I felt the three words jockeying for a position that made some kind of sense.

It was then I sensed there were dancing partners. When trauma paired up with transliminality the offspring could be psychosis. I’d need to explore how that might happen. Transliminality was not a faithful partner though and, as soon as the music changed beat, it eloped with transcendence and they gave birth to mysticism. Something else I needed to explore.

As soon as I got home, I dashed upstairs to my desk and notebook to catch these ideas on the wing before they migrated to Neverland.

I knew there were some gaps in my thinking. I wrote, at the same time as I drafted the diagram in Word: ‘Trauma is clearly an external event. The permeability of our threshold is probably a composite of experience, including the impact of trauma, and genetics. The transcendent will be hard to distinguish from illusion. Also I am not claiming that any of these factors explain all there is to know about the others, nor that psychosis is the only destructive consequence of trauma, or creativity the only positive consequence of transliminality, or transliminality its only precondition. All I am saying is that theirs is the interrelationship that fascinates me.’

Even so, I thought I’d nailed the essence of what I wanted to research more deeply.

img_3275No such luck. Thee days later, as I was getting the lawn mower out of the garage to give the front lawn its last trim of the year, I found myself wondering where my other obsessions – creativity, interconnectedness and compassion – fitted in. (Actually, it was more like a meadow – I don’t believe in cutting the grass, the wild flowers and the mushrooms more than is absolutely necessary: I was only mowing it now because the neighbour’s gardener had been wrily wondering whether all the sycamore leaves on our patch would blow over to the driveway he’d just cleared.)

I could see that reflection, my idée fixe, was necessary as a means of keeping me on the alert during every experience for any hint that would shed light on any aspect of these preoccupations, but I remembered my more muddled diagram of more than a year ago now, outlining what I wanted to investigate.

Interconnectedness

Clearly that wasn’t exactly on target anymore, but I didn’t want to lose anything of real importance that it contained.

As I walked the mower up and down the leaf-strewn grass, I could not escape the implications of the season; not so much ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ in my case – more leaf-death and cut greenery as potential compost and food for next year’s growth.

The beauty of the colours spread across the lawn drew me into the rhythms of the earth. I felt rather than thought that I am as much a part of nature as nature is a part of me. That’s why, as I have explored elsewhere, I prefer to be called Pete, with its echo of peat, rather than Peter, with its connections with rocks and popes. I loved dancing to the rhythms of rock music when I was younger, but geo-theological rhythms of that kind never have appealed to me in the same way.

I abandoned my mowing for the moment and went back in-doors for my iPhone. I needed to take some pictures even though most of the greenery and leaves were gone from our meadow by now. There was enough left though to capture what was stirring me into other perspectives on death.

Leaves die for a purpose as Shelley understood and as I have explored elsewhere.

According to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

img_3279Once I had finished the lawn and transferred all I had gathered to the compost bin with my wife’s help, I rushed again indoors to capture what my subliminal mind had garnered as I mowed.

The only way I can describe the feeling of these moments is to say it was as though connecting with the earth had lifted my mind up to the sky. Possible ways of making the abstract elements of my quest grounded in reality had floated across my mind’s sky as I focused on guiding the mower over the leaf-strewn surface, sucking up the gold and green together.

microsoft-word-focus-of-exploration-v2

Suddenly I could see how creativity, connectedness and compassion might fit into the pattern, and how the terror of existence for some might narrow rather than widen their horizons, so that defending themselves against the darkness could made them dark instead. I also could consider the possibility that, without transliminality, transcendence and trauma would never dance together to create a child. From my recent reading of Waking, Dreaming, Being, Evan Thompson’s richly rewarding, though for me somewhat flawed, analysis of the interface between Buddhism and neuroscience, I remembered that the pollen and nectar for the hive of my current enterprise can be gathered from almost anywhere. He weaves academic, monastic, literary and his own personal experience into a tapestry rich in implications for the nature of the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Incidentally, how I found his book was a beautiful example of serendipity – something else I need to be on the alert for at all times.

Sorry to digress again – well, not really.

thompsonI went to Waterstones in Birmingham because I knew they had a copy of Boarding School Syndrome. As I followed the shop assistant with the skull-head rings (would I never escape reminders of death?) across the shop to look for Schaverian’s book my eyes were caught by the cover of Thompson’s book. Even that glance was enough to convince me I needed to give it a more careful look.

Once we’d located Boarding School Syndrome and I’d got it firmly in my grasp after a bit of a search, I made a beeline (and I’m using that expression in full knowledge of what it means in terms of pollen and nectar, as my earlier post indicates at length) for Waking, Dreaming, Being, grabbed it off the display shelf and headed for the nearest chair. Reading a few pages made me feel it might be too good to be true so I Googled some reviews. No, it was the real Macoy. You will hear more about it later.  

I don’t think I will be able to produce, twice a week, posts with anything like that degree of disparate experience integrated into them. I may have to make myself slow down even further than I have done so far to get anywhere close.

Let’s see how it goes!

Winter v2

sky-lawn-fusion

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