Binaural Beats and Brainwave Entrainment

Over the course of time, sometimes months to years, meditative practice allows the diligent student the ability to remain consciously aware at different rates of brainwave activity than that of waking state [beta]. It has also been observed that various types of drumming, from tribal to raves, provide a rapid access to trance states based upon the rhythm combined with overpowering volume of sound. In some manner these sounds alter brainwave state through a process usually referred to as entrainment. Once a particular brainwave state is achieved in this manner, it becomes easier to access the state without necessarily having to use the technology again.

For the individual wishing to experience a more solitary experience of binaural beats than tribal drumming, there are several options, ranging from CDs to light-sound machines. Robert Monroe studied the ability of sounds provided at slightly different pitches to cause an entrainment of brainwaves which related to the difference between the sound frequencies in each ear. This technology is designed to entrain brainwaves to more rapidly move into the frequencies often associated with meditative experience: low alpha to mid-theta. Most studies have suggested that people do not become reliant on these methods to reach meditative states. Rather, the technology can help them reach the states initially, but is not required to return to those same brain states in the future.

The Theory of Everything: or My Big TOE

Thomas Campbell, a physicist by training, has developed a clever and seemingly complete description of the development of consciousness in his book series My Big TOE [Theory of Everything]. He correctly criticizes current scientific views of the world as being unable to incorporate subjective experience into the predominant models. His response is to suggest that by using only two a priori assumptions he can accurately model the universe more accurately than mainstream scientific theory. Campbell’s only two assumptions are that the primary primordial “stuff” of the universe contains rudimentary consciousness, and that this primordial “stuff” could evolve. He is then able to weave together a detailed description of the forces within physics and the primacy of direct experience.

He chose to use the two simplest assumptions available that would provide for the derivation of a richness of both experience and of basic physical science. He does not necessarily suggest that this basic primordial consciousness is the actual description, only that even if this very basic definition is applied that the results of the evolution of consciousness can become staggeringly complex. What is highly relevant about the model is the use of consciousness at any level as essentially a primary building block of the universe both subjective and objective. He is clearly not a monistic idealist, but his underlying assumptions at least have similarities in some ways to the idealist perspective. The difference is that he uses his assumptions to support the existence of an objective scientific universe which exists independently of the idealist. Quite an intellectual tour de force.

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.