Publishing yesterday’s poem reminded of this one.
Posts Tagged ‘Mind’
Posted in Self and Soul, Spirituality, tagged ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, brain, consciousness, Eric Reitan, John Hick, John Randall, mediumship, Mind, Near Death Experiences, Pam Reynolds, Paul Churchland, Pim van Lommel, psi, Raymond Moody, reincarnation, Stephen E Braude, William James on 16/03/2017| 4 Comments »
Or none of the above perhaps?
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 last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!
For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.
When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.
We are both performing an act of faith.
It is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.
John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he 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 in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.
As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.
There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.
Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.
The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . 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.’
I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.
Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.
My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.
I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.
Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.
For example, Braude’s work in Immortal 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.
I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.
Posted in Autobiographical, Spirituality, tagged ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Faith, brain, consciousness, Iain McGilchrist, j, John Donne, John Fitzgerald Medina, John Hick, Ken Wilber, Margaret Donaldson, Mind on 13/03/2017| 1 Comment »
As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.
I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.
‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.
I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.
‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.
As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.
‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.
‘To the University.’
‘Oh! Why there?’
‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’
‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’
‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.
‘No. Honestly. It really is.’
Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.
‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.
‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)
‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’
The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.
The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.
Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.
‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.
‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.
‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’
I scribble it down.
‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’
‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’
We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.
She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.
There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.
‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’
I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.
In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.
We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.
Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.
As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.
We’re good to go.
Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.
‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.
The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.
I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.
Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .
‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.
We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.
Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.
At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.
This could be tricky, I think.
As people take their seats I set up again.
The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.
I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.
I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.
They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.
I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!
‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.
‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.
That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.
I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.
Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.
Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.
. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.
“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’
As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’
The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?
‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.
The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?
Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.
‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’
Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.
At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.
As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, John Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.
The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!
If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?
How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?
- ‘Doubt Wisely’
Explore the agnosticism case:
Dennet & Churchland
John Hick & Eric Reitan
- Prevalent Theories
- Eliminative Materialism
- Emergent Property
- Seen by most as unscientific
Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)
- Mind as completely independent of the brain.
This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).
- Mind as a spiritual entity.
This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.
- There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
- There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
- What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).
The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.
How to explore it further?
Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.
Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.
Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.
What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.
How many of you are up for that right now?
Posted in Mental Health & Recovery, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged brain, Cognitive dissonance, Daniel Dennett, Filippo Varese, interthinking, Jeffrey Schwartz, Lorna Benjamin, Mind, mindfulness, Neil Mercer, Neuroplasticity, OCD, psychosis, relativism, Richard A. Shweder, Schizophrenia Bulletin, trauma on 02/06/2016| Leave a Comment »
In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of the experience with Ian, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste! I’ve in addition included references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity, emotion focused therapy, and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the last of five instalments.
We began this sequence of posts with a bit of theory. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end it the same way.
So, now for a discussion of the relevance to this work of relativism.
I see some value in Shweder’s description of relativism, in his mind-opening book Thinking Through Cultures and operate from within that frame of reference when I am engaged in collaborative conversation: `Relativists are committed to the view that alien idea systems, though fundamentally different from our own, display an internal coherency that can be understood but cannot be judged (page 114).’
As a result, I seek to know as much as I can about the context of another person’s thinking in order to make it intelligible, and I have generally found that sufficient information leads to coherence: other people remain unintelligible usually because I know too little about their frames of reference. As a result I too contend that individuals `can look at the “same” world and yet arrive at different understandings” (page 120). As a result I seek to `provide [a]. . charitable rendition of the ideas of others, placing those ideas in a framework that makes it easier to credit [them], not with confusion, error, or ignorance, but rather with an alternative vision of the possibilities of . . . life’ (page 121). I find this approach hard to live up to but can see no better one to use for these purposes.
Shweder provides further useful hints: `. . . since speakers always mean and convey more than they say, meaning is revealed by making explicit the relationship between the said and the unsaid’ (page 186).
He goes on (page 197):
In drawing inferences from what was said to what was unsaid, participants need to be informed, and in fact become informed, about things that were never mentioned,’
and (page 198):
. . . to construct the meaning of discourse in a communicative array, as either a participant or an observer, involves referring the explicit content of speech (what was said) to two indexed levels, the context and all the relevant prior background knowledge needed to make sense of what was said’ .
What is said (page 218) is not `isomorphic’ with `what is meant.’
I find I have to work very hard at eliciting all the necessary background information that would make an initially incomprehensible statement intelligible. Many people I work with leave me to fill in far more about their background and assumptions than I can possibly do. Perhaps they fear to say too much or perhaps they assume too much: perhaps both. The account of the work I did with Ian illustrates the truth of this I think: with hindsight I can see ways in which we might have done a better job of helping him transcend his problems: but then hindsight is always 20:20.
Trauma and Psychosis
All too often I am unable to fill in the missing pieces at all. Whenever I have managed to do so I have been struck by the link between earlier mental pain and the experience of voices. Sometimes when the person has not themself been able to provide the link the family has done so. I did not yet know what to make of those people whose lives and selves have been laid waste by demons and who yet fail to provide through their own story or the stories of their families any apparently traumatising situations.
At the time I was doing the work I have described in this sequence I had only the evidence of one article in the Schizophrenia Bulletin to suggest that trauma and psychosis were in anyway strongly linked (see Benjamin, No 1 in the reference list below). A lot more work on this has been done since.
For example an article in Schizophrenia Bulletin of 29 March 2012 (Reference 2) Varese et al write, after examining 36 studies:
This review finds that childhood adversity and trauma substantially increases the risk of psychosis . . . . Furthermore, our findings suggest that if the adversities we examined as risk factors were entirely removed from the population (with the assumption that the pattern of the other risk factors remained unchanged), and assuming causality, the number of people with psychosis would be reduced by 33%. The association between child-hood adversity and psychosis held for the occurrence of psychotic symptoms in the general population, as well as for the development of psychotic disorder in prospective studies; the association remained significant when studies were included that corrected for possible demographic and clinical confounders. The analyses focusing on the effect of specific traumas revealed that, with the exception of parental death (although this association became significant after the exclusion of a potential outlier), all types of adversity were related to an increased risk of psychosis, indicating that exposure to adverse experiences in general increases psychosis risk, regardless of the exact nature of the exposure. This meta-analysis found no evidence that any specific type of trauma is a stronger predictor of psychosis than any other.
Even though it is something I have dealt with earlier on this blog, I cannot resist another foray into the heartland of reductionists, but for a slightly different reason from my usual one: the mind-brain relationship. Dennett, in his materialist thesis Consciousness Explained, proposes an interesting model which excludes the `soul’ (which Shweder, much to my satisfaction, includes – page 256). None the less, within his argument he summarises a position with which I find myself in almost complete agreement (page 218-219): he asks how do behaviour programmes `of millions of neural connection-strengths get installed on the brain’s computer?’
Brains, he claims, require a form of `training’, which includes the `repetitive self-stimulation’ of inner speech. The `successful installation’ of these programmes `is determined by myriad microsettings in the plasticity of the brain, which means that its functionally important features are very likely to be invisible to neuroanatomical scrutiny in spite of the extreme salience of its effects.’ He adds (page 221): `We install an organised partially pretested set of habits of mind . . . in our brains in the course of early childhood development.’
I feel that, though difficult, the modification of these `habits of mind’ can be accomplished by adults with consequent changes to the `microsettings’. One means for accomplishing such changes is collaborative conversation.
[I]t enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
My sense is that collaborative conversation, and the interthinking it promotes, can change the wiring of the brain.
There is clear evidence that individuals can do this, working with a therapist.
For example, in The Mind & the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.”
His model involves four stages for learning to manage obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.
The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:
Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.
This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’
There is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’
There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’
He concludes (page 94):
The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.
In case we miss the full implications of this work the authors spell them out (page 95):
The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism. that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.
While OCD is not the same as the hallucinatory experiences that can, in the presence of other difficulties, lead to the label psychosis, the evidence that willed effort can change the brain surely must apply here as well. As collaborative conversation leads to deliberate and conscious behaviour change, I am sure that it will also alter the way the brain is wired.
Its efficacy depends upon the presence of various motivating or facilitating factors. It is not possible to generate an exhaustive list of these, but trust was mentioned by Ian as a key component, and, in my view, in the light of dissonance theory, the person’s involvement in collaborative conversation has to be seen by them as something they are choosing to do, not something that is forced upon them.
Some limiting factors are apparent from the backgrounds of the two examples of collaborative conversation I shared with you. For example, both people depended for their survival in the community upon a large network of professionals. Sadly, as professionals we were often pulling in different directions at the same time, were absent when we should have been present, or present when we might better have been absent, and often with well-intentioned insensitivity we encumbered our clients with our idea of help.
Later work on Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT – Reference 3)) suggests ways in which that approach would have been very relevant to the difficulties experienced by the people I was working with, and would have further potentiated the efficacy of what we were doing together. Les Greenberg writes:
. . . . . the challenge of any effective psychotherapy, be it of trauma, anxiety or depression is to transform amygdala reactions so that innocuous reminders of past experience are not seen as a return of past loss, failure or trauma.
I’ve dealt with the role of the amygdala at great length elsewhere on this blog (see links for more information), so I won’t unpack it further here, except to say its main function is as an intensely powerful danger warning system.
He goes on:
Evolution however has blessed humanity with more negative basic emotions than positive ones, in order to aid survival. An important conclusion to be drawn from an evolutionary point of view is that negative emotions are often useful. Anxiety, anger, sorrows and regret are useful or they would not exist. Unpleasant feelings draw people’s attention to matters important to their well-being. However when unpleasant emotions endure even when the circumstances that evoked them have changed, or are so intense that they overwhelm, or evoke past loss or trauma they can become dysfunctional.
In Greenberg’s view insight is not enough:
Although re-appraisal or insight provides people with a new way of thinking or deeper understanding of the reasons they feel the way they do, cognitive change of this nature is unlikely to reconfigure the alarm systems of the brain, or the emotion schematic networks that have been organized from them.
He argues for a deeper process of emotional re-education:
Emotion coaching is aimed at enhancing emotion- focused coping by helping people become aware of, accept and make sense of their emotional experience. Coaching is defined in general as involving a mutually accountable relationship in which both client (trainee) and therapist (coach) collaborate actively in the creation of an educational experience for the client who is an active participant in the process. Emotion coaching entails a highly collaborative relationship involving both acceptance and change . . . . . The goals of emotion coaching are acceptance, utilization and transformation of emotional experience. This involves awareness and deepening of experience, processing of emotion as well as the generation of alternative emotional responses. In emotion coaching a safe, empathic and validating relationship is offered throughout to promote acceptance of emotional experience. An accepting, empathic relational environment provides safety leading to greater openness and provides people with the new interpersonal experience of emotional soothing and support that over time becomes internalized . . . . . In this type of relational environment people sort out their feelings, develop self-empathy and gain access to alternate resilient responses based on their internal resources. Emotion coaching is a collaborative effort to help clients use their emotions intelligently to solve problems in living by accepting emotion rather than avoiding it, utilizing both the information and response tendency information provided by it, and transforming it when it is maladaptive.
Looking back I can see how we were attempting to achieve this but were not fully aware that we were doing so. Also I was unaware of the existence of this model at the time. It was not registering on the therapeutic radar.
This is perhaps why Ian on reflection, as I mention in a previous post, did not feel the gain was worth the pain. That left me feeling uneasy, in the aftermath, about the use of the approach and alerted me to the need to forewarn people of the difficulties they might encounter, so that consent to continue would be better informed than in Ian’s case.
On balance, though, I strongly suspect that even in those early days the approach did bring significant benefits. Hopefully you would agree.
1. Benjamin, Lorna (1989) Is chronicity a function of the relationship between the person and the auditory hallucination? Schizophrenia Bulletin. She observed that a high proportion of people in her study had experienced a trauma of some kind prior to the appearance of their voices.
2. Filippo Varese et al (2012) Childhood Adversities Increase the Risk of Psychosis: A Meta-analysis of Patient-Control, Prospective- and Cross-sectional Cohort Studies, Schizophrenia Bulletin.
3. Les Greenberg (2004) Emotion–focused Therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
Just read an article by Robert Epstein on the Aeon website, flagged up by Gordon Kerr on his FB page. It ducks the mind–brain question, but brilliantly demolishes the computer model of the brain. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.
No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.
Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.
To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.
A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.
Computers, quite literally, move these patterns from place to place in different physical storage areas etched into electronic components. Sometimes they also copy the patterns, and sometimes they transform them in various ways – say, when we are correcting errors in a manuscript or when we are touching up a photograph. The rules computers follow for moving, copying and operating on these arrays of data are also stored inside the computer. Together, a set of rules is called a ‘program’ or an ‘algorithm’. A group of algorithms that work together to help us do something (like buy stocks or find a date online) is called an ‘application’ – what most people now call an ‘app’.
Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.
Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?