Neuroplasticity

Although epiphenomenalism may be assumed true by both doctors and patients alike, since it seems to match data related to impaired neurological function, some of the research in neuroplasticity refutes the entire concept of epiphenomenalism. Early research demonstrated that when people learn new skills, such as typing or piano, that areas of the motor cortex of the brain actually increase in size to match. Later research demonstrated new brain connections, after some forms of brain injury, sometimes form to areas of the brain which would otherwise have processed information from different areas of function. This process actually restores the lost functioning, even with different areas of the brain processing the information.

Although these studies were fascinating as they showed the neuronal connections and biological functioning of the brain changed as a result of essentially newly learned tasks, some researchers minimized the results with arguments that this was largely a unique ability for repair following injury. One of the more recent studies was a true paradigm changer. In this research, Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in functional brain imaging studies while practicing a compassion based meditation technique. The finding was astounding: monks showed a novel Gamma brainwave pattern in the frontal lobe, which correlated with the subjective sense of blissfulness. This brainwave pattern had never been seen in any non-pathological state before, and its presence and strength was only related to the number of hours of meditative practice. No other demographic factors correlated with the finding, which suggested a clear circumstance in which willed meditative practice altered brain function over extended practice.

Since epiphenomenalism requires that mental process is only an accidental byproduct of neuronal firing, there is no conceivable way that mental process could actually effect the biological structure. This latest research proves just the opposite: that mental process changes the biology of the brain. Clearly then, any form of biological monism cannot account for this research finding. A different model is needed which accounts for the research data.

Monism

The more popular perspective amongst neuroscientists today is a physical monism which assumes that the entirety of conscious experience arises from the complexity of neuronal structure and connections.  This provides a very simple solution to the challenge of dualism, but at a rather high price.  The issue Chalmers raised regarding qualia became a central weakness of physical monist views.  In addition, it is only an assumption that the complexity of the neural net creates some new emergent property called consciousness, an entirely untestable assumption.

Various versions of physical monism have been posited including analytic behaviorism, interactionism, and purely neurological models.  Each of them basically requires the emergence of consciousness from a mass of non-conscious building blocks in a manner almost as mysterious as the elusive connection between mind and brain that is the weakness of dualistic theory.  This curious leap of organization is typically referred to epiphenomenalism [consciousness arising as an incidental output of a complex neural net], which will be the topic of multiple future posts.

Bishop Berkeley, in a reaction to his disdain for a materialistic version of monism described a mental form of monism which suggested that only thought was real, and the physical was an illusion.  This philosophy, called idealism, was never considered seriously by the scientific community, but it does raise significant questions.  In a truly monistic perspective, as physical and mental must at some level be identical, it would be actually quite difficult to fully discount the idealistic version of monism over the physical version.

 

Psychiatry and Consciousness

One of the most amazing questions I’ve found is the mystery of consciousness. The quest to explore it drove me towards the study of psychology as an undergraduate, and towards psychiatry after medical training. Psychiatry, at least historically, had a depth and breadth that seemed to allow real exploration of questions of consciousness. After nearly two decades in the field, and experience in academic and clinical psychiatry, it is truly peculiar to observe the minimal interest of my field in even asking the relatively hard questions. Many colleagues comfortably assume that all the questions of relevance have already been answered in the form of biology.

Until quite recently, consciousness was considered a taboo subject for research or consideration in mainstream academia. Not only ignored or defined into non-existence, the topic was considered quite dead until several authors began raising the timeless questions with new and serious discussion: authors such as David Chalmers, Roger Penrose, and Daniel Denett. The first two of whom used Godel’s Theorem as the starting point of their discussion on mind, brain, and consciousness. The discussion of the forbidden “C” word re-entered both public and academic life for the first time in decades.

David Chalmers has been credited with formulating the “hard question,” which is essentially the question of why is there mental experience at all. Or, how does the physical presence of a brain actually lead to subjective awareness, which he terms “qualia.”

Much more on Godel, Chalmers, Penrose and others later, but this essential question that Chalmers so perfectly framed remains the focus. Why indeed would a complicated physical system, such as a brain, necessarily result in subjective experience for you or for me? Answers to this question range from monistic versions of reality to dualism of various sorts. We’ll start this exploration looking at those two general models and later consider the limitations implied by Godel.

Epiphenomenalism

The version of mind brain interaction most popular in neuroscience these days is a version of physical monism called epiphenomenalism. Some form of epiphenomenalism is essentially required from a physical monist perspective to account for anything resembling mind or qualia. This perspective describes an emergence of consciousness or mind from the biological complexity of the brain. Hoffstadter and others assume this perspective, and argue that new phenomenon arise from complexity in many physical systems. Examples often given include the complexity of fluid motion not being clearly predictable from the observation of a single water molecule. Other philosophers find the concept so revolting that they don’t even dignify it as a legitimate perspective at all.

Arguments from complexity do create interesting an interesting delima, however. If the number of molecules in the Empire State Building meet a critical number, could they interact in a manner analogous to consciousness? If the number of Chinese in China reach a critical mass, does the country itself gain the quality of consciousness? David Chalmers and others argue that, in fact, China would become a conscious being at the level of a nation due only to complexity itself. Each person would have at least the interactivity of a neuron, and if enough interacted that would mirror neural nets, and if the total reached a critical mass then “consciousness” would arise. Although the experts who defend the complexity argument are forced to this position in order to maintain a coherent perspective, it is an increasingly difficult position to reasonably defend, in my opinion. What might be defined as the consciousness of a country or other large aggregate of interacting materials seems woefully different than what each of us experience as consciousness on a day to day basis, largely based upon the difficulty of defining who or what might actually experience that form of consciousness.

A key foundation of the principle of epiphenomenalism is the assumption that consciousness is an unintended byproduct of neuronal complexity. The corollary of this assumption is that consciousness, or perhaps mind, flows from the biology of the system, and could not even in theory control or alter the biological system itself, given that it is an unintended byproduct. Recent studies employing brain scanning technology bring this a priori assumption into serious question.

Mind Stuff, Brain Stuff, or What?

Western thought has wrestled with the concept of whether such things as brains and minds are one in the same, some version of monism, or whether they are distinct and separate, some version of dualism.

Rene Descartes, a prominent French philosopher, was an intellectual giant in his day. He created the “cartesian plane” which bears his name, which you may recall from high school algebra. He started a philosophical enquiry into the nature of reality by starting from a position of extreme skepticism, eliminating all dogma and based upon belief with only that which was self evident. He arrived at the famous phrase, often quoted, of “I think, therefore I am.” A brief series of other “self-evident” statements led to his suggesting a strong form of dualism, suggesting that physical reality and mental [spiritual] reality were entirely separate realities. The social ramifications of this conclusion freed science from the chains of church mediated versions of pseudo-science. Freeing scientific inquiry from religious dogma led to the technological and scientific revolutions, the fruits of which we enjoy today. From a practical standpoint, this dualistic philosophy of Descartes allowed science control over the study of the measurable and physical, but left religious authorities in control of matters related to the spirit.

Intuitively, dualism, at least in the West, feels so natural and experientially real: we experience sensations, emotions, and ideas, we don’t experience brain waves or brain chemicals in a direct way. It is so intuitively appealing, that although this strict form of dualism has substantial problems, it is often the manner in which we live.

Yet, the dualism of Descartes left one giant question: how does an immaterial mind affect the physical brain [and the reverse]? That difficult, if not impossible question, led many more recent theorists to propose some version of monism: mind and brain as identical. Various models of biological monism remain in vogue with neuroscientists. The most radical version of this espoused by Daniel Dennett even suggests that subjective experience does not even exist, and likens it to an illusion of subjective experience. That seems a rather high price to pay for an answer to dualism’s problems.

Mental monism was suggested by Bishop Berkeley, and known as Idealism. Mental monism declares the entire physical world a complete illusion with the only truly real being the thought or idea. Berkeley suggested this theory in response to what he perceived as the inappropriate emphasis on physical reductionism.

There is [rather amazingly] no experiment which could be performed, even in theory, that can actually refute the claims of any of these three perspectives: neuroscience tends to make the assumption of biological reductionism, but that a priori assumption does not prove truth. An open mind, therefore, is a prerequisite to exploring the more insightful questions.

Eastern philosophy largely escapes the questions of dualism versus monism, in that it assumes that the level of physical reality is distorted by the Veil of Maya. In that model, everything is the result of a monism of consciousness being interpreted as a dualistic universe by instruments as primitive as the five senses, the brain and general awareness. Such a solution is inherent in interpretations of the Qabalah as well, with monism implied the highest levels, but dualism required in lower physical realms.

 

The Experience of Different Brainwaves

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There are several generally recognized brainwave patterns within the brain which can be measured with EEG technologies. Each of these brainwaves correlates with different experiential realities. Most of us in the Western world experience only three levels of awareness: awake, asleep with dreaming, and asleep without dreaming. The normal sleep cycle includes Alpha, Theta, and Delta waves in special sequences throughout the night, in sequence with a dreaming pattern called REM [rapid eye movement]. We usually sleep through brainwave patterns other than active waking Beta brainwaves, and thus rarely experience some of the expanded awarenesses available to us as humans.

The names of the brainwaves relate to the electrical frequency generated by brain activity as measured by electrodes placed on the head. There is nothing better or worse about any particular pattern, but each has a distinct experiential quality which is useful for various life tasks.

The Beta brainwave state is involved with thinking, cognitive activity, work, driving and goal focused activity. It is necessary and useful to technological progress, and general daily functioning. If you think about your frantic daily schedule, work deadlines, or a shopping list, your brain is probably functioning in this range of electrical activity. Although an essential part of daily life, it’s contents would also include stress inducing material!

Alpha brainwaves begin in the eyes-closed state, and become more coherent across the brain hemispheres in meditative practice. The Alpha state typically increases a sense of relaxation, and in the sleep-deprived western world, many will fall into sleep states rapidly. If you’re “fading out” in a boring meeting, sitting back in a state of calm, or just starting to feel relaxed right before falling asleep, this is likely an Alpha state.

Theta brainwaves are slower than Alpha and in this brainwave pattern ecstatic states, dream like visions, out of body experiences, and a significant lessening of physical pain are common. Characteristic is a lack of awareness of the sensations of the physical body. Creative insights also occur in the mental space here, and amazing breakthrough discoveries begin here. Examples include Kekule’s insight about the structure of benzene, Einstein’s “thought experiment” about light, and Mendeleev’s vision of the periodic table of elements. More on creativity at another time. . . .

Delta brainwaves are expressed deep sleep, usually far outside of awareness. When conscious at this brainwave state, the experience is often of a pure empty void, described in several meditative traditions as an experience of the full infinity of nothingness that is at the same time full of possibility. Carl Jung made reference to this as the “Pleroma” of Gnostic traditions. Buddhist meditators simply refer to it as the void.

Meditation practice leads the meditator to remain consciously aware at these various brainwave states in a process unlike any other. Ken Wilber notes that as meditative practice progresses over time, one first experiences quiet relaxation [Alpha], then a reverie of creative imagery [Theta] followed by absolute silence and/or one-ness [Delta]. If you want to understand meditative experience in the context of brain physiology, this is an excellent place to start. Functional brain imaging is the next step at this level of understanding.

I’ll tell you about some of the amazing findings about a newly described brainwave pattern, called Gamma, in a later post. The findings about this make a substantial argument against biological reductionism in neuroscience, and thus, should not be underestimated.

Transformation

One of the newest fads in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience in general is the notion that addictions to various substances or behaviors are in some manner biologically “caused.” This is usually an argument based upon the connection of activation of the reward circuitry of the brain with the substance or behavior. Aside from the basic logical truth that this confuses a simple correlation with potential cause and effect, it also assumes that individuals with no addictions have minimal activity within the reward circuitry.

I would have to imagine that if I sit down and enjoy a favorite food and truly savor it, that the reward circuitry of my brain in in some manner mediating this experience. However, my enjoyment of the food does not necessarily lead to out of control eating or addiction.

The errors of the deeply biological explanation ignore the basic realities of experience that patients and friends clearly describe when they change their behavior in pretty profound ways. As an example, a patient I evaluated described ceasing the use of tobacco, one of the more biologically addictive substances on the planet. She said that at the moment her grandchild was born, she had in instant revelation that if she didn’t stop smoking she would never see her grandchild graduate high school. She ceased a several decade history of smoking in an instant. She reported that there had been a few carvings which she ignored and then she knew herself to be a non-smoker.

What changed? How could this addiction disappear in a moment?

The biological answer can only be that a rapid change occurred in her association cortex, which altered the meaning and neural networks related to the behavior of smoking. Even if the desire for the substance is mediated by the reward system, it seems that the connection with the reward system can be instantly disconnected by a transformation of the meaning of the behavior.

Brings to mind the people, places, and things comments of the 12-step groups. All things related to the association network of neurons.

This simple question of how an addiction can be broken really opens a phenomenal series of questions about who we are, how we change, and what layers of the self regulate thoughts and behavior.