Tag Archives: Neuroscience

Why Experience Is a Total Mystery (According to Science)

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Most of us have gotten used to the traditional opposition of science and religion. This opposition arose because two worldviews clashed, and only one could win. It was a zero sum game. On one side science stood for facts, data, measurement, experimentation, and a goal of pure objectivity. On the other, religion was cast as entirely the opposite, being faith-based, irrational, unprovable, totally lacking in data, and inherently subjective, which is to say, unreliable. But this was a case where the winning side (science and the larger secular world) claimed the right to paint the losing side (religion and the spiritual world) in the worst possible light.

If you actually explore the religious worldview, two things become instantly evident. First, that spirituality is much wider, deeper, and older than any single religion. Second, that spiritual experience exists on a level playing field with any other experience. Seeing a microbe under a microscope uses the same perceptual apparatus, so far as the brain is concerned, as seeing an angel, a soul, a departed ancestor, or God. This seems preposterous to the average science-minded skeptic, but in fact it is science itself that proves the validity of perception, and its deep mystery.

Let’s set aside the common skeptical argument that anyone who has had a spiritual experience is necessarily a charlatan, mentally unbalanced, self-delusional, lying, or all of the above. By “setting aside,” I mean that we won’t accept such experiences as ipso facto true, either. In fact, since religious and spiritual terms are so suspect in our present culture, let’s call the sight of a beautiful red rose spiritual; most people would call this a valid experience, and generally speaking they’d enjoy it. Continue reading

How To Be Smarter Than Your Brain

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Among all the sciences, neuroscience is a special case. Because it studies the brain, which is our interface with the mind, neuroscience covers the widest possible range of mysteries, from biology to metaphysics. No one doubts that we live in a golden age for studying the brain’s biology, but this fact doesn’t get around a central problem that baffles everyone. The problem can be stated very simply: The human brain knows almost nothing about itself. And there are no neurons within the brain that provide sensory information about the brain. That’s why you can put a knife through the brain of a person without that person feeling any pain.

Left to its own devices, your brain knows zero about neurons, for example. It doesn’t even know that it is made of neurons or how they work, much less how a cell that has much the same biology as other cells in the body (having developed from the same DNA and grown in the womb from one fertilized ovum) learned how to think. Your brain has no idea where a thought comes from. It cannot reveal to itself–or to you–how mushy gray matter trapped inside the skull, a silent, dark place, produces a world of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Because the brain knows nothing about itself, neuroscience had to begin somewhere, so it began by assuming that a brain is a privileged object, the only object in the known universe that is conscious. This assumption is almost never questioned by any neuroscientist, because the everyday work in that field consists of tinkering with the brain’s biology. All higher questions about mind, psychology, religion, morals, aesthetics, and metaphysics are reduced to biology. All fixes, insofar as the brain is concerned, are performed at the biological level if the fixer is trained in either neuroscience or its medical branch, neurology. Continue reading

How the Universe Solved the “Hard Problem”

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By Deepak Chopra, MD

For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret. How the human brain produces consciousness–if it does–is an age-old question, currently traveling under the name of “the hard problem.” Philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term, says, “There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.” This is especially frustrating because we all depend upon consciousness for everything. If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.

A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight. Think of sunlight. Obviously the sun can’t shine unless stars exist. There are few secrets left to discover about how stars form, what they are made of, and how light is produced in the incredibly hot cauldron at the core of a star. The secret lies elsewhere. As sunlight travels 93 million miles to Earth, it penetrates the atmosphere and lands somewhere on the planet. In this case, the only somewhere we’re interested in is our eye. Photons, the packets of energy that carry light, stimulate the retina at the back of the eye, starting a chain of events that leads to the part of the brain known as the visual cortex.

The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious. No matter what you see in the world—an apple, cloud, mountain, or tree—sunlight bouncing off the object makes it visible, but how? No one knows. The secret of sight is totally immersed in consciousness itself. Without being conscious of light, photons are invisible. Yet it is mistaken to say that light becomes bright in the brain through some physical process, because the brain has no brightness, either. It is as dark as outer space. Because there is no light in the brain, there are no pictures or images, either. When you imagine the face of a loved one, nowhere in the brain does that face exist like a photograph. Continue reading

Why Consciousness Is Still a Mystery—Sorting Out the Clues

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By Deepak Chopra, MD

No one doubts that it’s hard to figure out where consciousness comes from, and when a problem persists for thousands of years—which is literally true in this case—it’s worthwhile sorting out the clues that might lead to an answer. Some are better than others, and a few may be completely false. At the very least, if we can agree on the hottest leads, a final answer may come nearer.

Clue #1: The brain lights up when we think.

Neuroscience depends exclusively upon this clue, which offers material traces (so-called neural correlates) to mental activity.

Advantage: Watching the brain in action provides the most reliable map to date of how the activity of consciousness is physically processed.

Disadvantage: There is no proof that neural correlates are anything except correlates. They could be symptoms or signs of consciousness rather than the cause. Any attempt to make consciousness physical, in fact, is suspect.

Continue reading

How to Free Yourself from Your Brain

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By Deepak Chopra, MD

On many fronts people feel the urge to change their lives–so why don’t they succeed? We live in therapeutic times. Advice surrounds us about achieving success. Yet when we set our minds to do something seemingly simple–losing weight, giving up a bad habit, acting nicer to people, and so on–something intervenes between the intention and the goal. This “something” exists in the relationship between the mind, which issues a desire or intention, and the brain, which is the physical apparatus for carrying out desires and intentions.

If you assume that the brain is the mind, which is the working assumption in 99% of neuroscience research, there is little room for solving the problem. It’s as if you hear a piece of music you don’t like on the radio, so you try to rearrange the radio’s parts. Obviously a mistake is being made there, but the relationship between mind and brain is subtler. It’s like a conversation between two people, where one person is dominant one moment and the other person is dominant the next. In the dialogue between mind and brain, most of the time the mind is automatically dominant. If you want to raise your arm, the brain sends the appropriate signals without obstacle of interference.

But sometimes the brain interjects its own feedback, and then the signals become confused. In the last post we discussed how brain-trained responses can make us virtual robots obeying old conditioning, habits, memories, and so on. The mind trains the brain to do X, and then without benefit of new training, the brain does X all the time. If you look at your own life, you can find endless examples of how brain-training limits your freedom of choice. For example, Continue reading

How to Stop Being a Biological Robot

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By Deepak Chopra, MD

 

Most people are too busy, or otherwise distracted, to think about how the mind works, much less about the vexed problem of connecting mind and brain. This includes neuroscientists. They run their experiments and publish new data without addressing the most fundamental questions. Their field runs nicely by simply assuming that the brain is the mind. After all, without a brain there cannot be any mental activity, QED. Why bother to go any deeper?

One reason is that human beings are clearly not brain-defined. We need the brain the way a musician needs a piano or TV news needs a television set–to carry the mind into the physical world. The belief held by 99% of neuroscientists is that with sophisticated enough brain scans and various other measurements, the mystery of thinking, feeling, sensing, and imagining will one day be solved. It’s a futile dream, however, because even the most basic issues, such as why the color red is red, how we hear sounds in a brain that is totally silent, and where a thought comes from are nowhere near being understood.

Leaving theory aside, there is a huge practical problem involved. What do we do when the brain makes us its victim? If we are brain-driven, this implies that the brain is in charge of daily habits, decisions, reflexes, and responses. In many cases this is clearly true. When you reach for ice cream at midnight telling yourself that it’s the wrong thing to do, who is making you act automatically, against your best interests, and without your ability to break the habit? Continue reading

Who Controls Your Mind? (Hint: It’s Not Your Brain)

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By Deepak Chopra, MD

One of the easiest bets to win is to offer a million dollars to anyone who can accurately predict their next thought.  It would be foolhardy to accept such a bet. As we all experience every day–and yet rarely notice–our thoughts are unpredictable and spontaneous. They come and go at will, and yet strangely enough, we have no model for where a thought comes from.

This lack of understanding has serious medical significance in mental disorders, for example. A common symptom of various psychoses, particularly paranoid schizophrenia, is the belief that an outside force is controlling the patient’s mind, usually through an alien voice heard in the head. Being sane, a normal person has the opposite experience, that his thoughts are his own. But if that was true, we’d call up any thought we wanted to have, the way you can call up a Google search. But this is far from true.

If you are asked to add 2+2, you can call up the necessary mental process, and there are millions of similar tasks, such as knowing your own name, how to do your job, what it takes to drive a car home from work–these give us the illusion that we control our own minds. But someone suffering from anxiety or depression is the victim of uncontrolled mental activity, and even in everyday circumstances we have flashes of emotion that come of their own accord, along with stray thoughts of every kind. Artists speak of inspiration that strikes out of the blue. Love at first sight is a very welcome example of uncontrolled mental activity.

So at the very least, the human mind can’t be explained without understanding the dual control feature that gives us total control over some thoughts and zero control over others. That challenge is hard enough, but several others are just as thorny. If I listen to rap music and love it while you listen to the same music and loathe it, what creates this difference, given the same input? This is a vexing question for any theory that attempts to put the brain in charge of the mind. The brain is supposedly a machine for thinking. But what kind of machine churns out a different response to the same input? It’s like the world’s most dysfunctional candy machine. You put in a nickel, but instead of getting a gum ball every time, the machine spits out a poem or a delusion, a new idea, or a trite cliché, a great insight or a totally wrong conspiracy theory. Continue reading

Want to Lead a Happier Life? Talk to Your Genes

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By Deepak Chopra, MD, Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD

Genetics may be on the verge of solving a very complex question in a revolutionary but quite simple way. The question is, What does it take to be happy? The question never goes away. It hangs over our heads every day. The possible answers are many, but they follow two general trends whose results, frankly, have been disappointing. One trend is psychological, holding that happiness is an emotional state. The other trend is philosophical, holding that happiness is a mental state. When someone is unhappy, psychologists aim to improve their mood, largely by addressing anxiety, depression, and various psychological wounds from the past. A philosopher, on the other hand, would examine the underlying idea of happiness itself and why it is or isn’t feasible. In the end, happiness is all about health and wellbeing.

Yet after thousands of years of deep thinking and a hundred years of psychotherapy, the condition that the vast majority of people find themselves in is marked by total confusion. We muddle through on a wobbly combination of wishful thinking, hope, bouts of high and low spirits, denial, family ties, love, distraction, and the constant pursuit of external pleasures, as if happiness can be cobbled together more or less randomly.

For all of our muddling, the key to happiness could be as simple as biology. To a biologist, the wellbeing of an organism consists of healthy cells functioning without falling into dysfunction. Dysfunction is a dry-sounding term, but once the life of the cell starts to go awry, it’s only a matter of time before the whole body is affected, resulting in pain, discomfort, illness, and a general decline from wellbeing. The brain operates through cells like any other organ, and neuroscience now has abundant evidence that psychological states like anxiety and depression have physical correlates in brain cells.  Continue reading

Deepak Chopra: Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 8)

What's black and white and red all over??Click here to read Part 7!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., and Neil Theise, MD

Despite the fact that cultures have institutionalized the universal Mind with terms long accepted as true (e.g., God, Brahman, the Absolute), words aren’t very helpful to someone who hasn’t yet had the experience. If the unreliability of subjective reports puts off many scientists, the claim that some people have special experiences that go beyond words bolsters their skepticism. As a result, formulating a science of consciousness has been slow to start and even slower to gain credibility.

A personal disclosure: the authors include some contemplative practitioners with a varying depth of experience in the traditions of Buddhism, Vedanta, and Kashmir Shaivism. This doesn’t mean that our personal experiences are “true,” only that these topics are not hypothetical for us. Aligning with centuries of contemplative practitioners, we find the reports of expanded awareness compelling, but being physicians and scientists, we also think of such experiences as material for hypothesis-making and testing through experimentation.

Alas, other scientists hotly disagree, saying, “No, this is not a fit topic for scientific exploration – your evidence is born of hearsay and superstition.” To those who draw a boundary around what is worth exploring scientifically and what is not, we ask, “Isn’t this just another form of unthinking fundamentalism, akin to that of religious fundamentalists whom many rational scientists claim to abhor?” The Roman poet Terence wrote, Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto (I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me). Consider all the forbidden topics, from female sexuality to epidemics, from madness to gross anatomy, that were once placed under a ban. These meditation experiences are human experiences, like every other human experience that scientists deem worthy of investigation by techniques such as putting people inside an MRI machine: experiences like depression, memory, love, fear, excitement, orgasm.

The trend is now moving away from the naysayers. Research is starting to account for the swing between the inner and outer world, a swing we all experience every day, using as subjects adept meditation practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. These meditators report experiences in which the sense of inside/outside and self/other dissolves. Instead of dismissing this as mysticism, one hypothesis now suggests specific neural activity within two complementary signaling networks in the brain – one is active when you are dealing with the world outside the body (called task positive network), the other, the “default network” (or task negative network) revs up when your focus is inward as commonly happens in wakeful rest, introspection, or from lack of significant sensory inputs).

Our brains are thought to alternate rapidly between these two networks, but when deep, “non-dual” meditation is performed, they both activate together, because inside and outside are no longer opposite and contrary, but are experienced as a seamless mind contemplating a seamless whole. We don’t mean to suggest the default mode network is the basis for the mind (since default mode activity is also seen in primates and rats), but the data illustrates how mental states like meditation affect the brain.

Short of proving with scientific rigor that the mind is not located just in the brain, we have pointed to the fact that the experience of your mind in your head is not the only experience you can have. Exploring the implications for yourself only takes a few moments a day – you can feel for yourself how your thinking does not have to remain locked up in the box of your skull.

Finally, the aura of religion is so strong that skeptics dismiss all spiritual experience – being alien to materialism – as matters of faith. Faith, in a great many varieties, is something we all turn to for interpreting our experiences. From the perspective of quantum mechanics, which has shown beyond a doubt that solid objects are not solid, it takes faith to believe that the physical world exists – certainly a rationalist must admit that the five senses are lying or at best are unreliable.

In everyday life, faith is part of the equation. But it is not only great faith that drives spiritual investigations but also, as is said in Zen, “great doubt” – doubt as to the meaning of existence and the reason for suffering in the world. The great faith in this equation is what makes the great doubt bearable. This balance between what we know and what we hope to discover drives science as well as spirituality. The difference lies in which tool of investigation is used.

The mind studying the mind reveals aspects of reality that can’t be reached by investigating the physical world. The reach of consciousness becomes even greater once we realize that the mind isn’t locked in the skull or even bounded by the skin. Step by step, the findings of mainstream science have opened the domain of Mind, that transcends our individual minds and is fundamental to the universe.

In the next posts we’ll return to what contemporary science understands about the most fundamental structures in nature – our aim is to find a meeting place between the inner and outer method of investigation. Have we made you curious? We hope so, because curiosity is the theme to be taken up next.

(To be continued…)

* * *

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books with over twenty New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra ofSuper Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com

Deepak Chopra: The Mystery of 3 Small Words – “I Love You”

I♥youBy Deepak Chopra, MD, and  Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi

Current brain research is hot on the trail of mysteries that need solving. Current imaging techniques can show, with remarkable precision, what happens in specific parts of the brain when we feel an emotion, for example. Eventually neuroscientists may be able to pinpoint the exact process that leads to the emotion of love; indeed they already feel that they are close, since there’s a map for tracing the hormones that make falling in love feel ecstatic, along with the areas of the brain responsible for emotions.

But close does you no good if your model has a serious flaw. In this case, the flaw is to assume that the physical mechanisms associated with love are the same as love itself. What if love takes place in the mind rather than the brain?

To many, that’s a distinction without a difference. The mind is invisible, yet everything it thinks or feels requires a physical response in the brain. If you know what the brain is doing, you know what the mind is doing, or so the scientific method, based on materialism, holds to be true. But a huge mystery, known as the mind-body problem, is being begged. As long as we ignore the mind, we may be making profound mistakes about the brain.

The words “I love you” give us a perfect example. Imagine that you are sitting close to someone who has not made clear what he or she feels. The moment is right; the mood is intimate. In your ear you hear the words “I love you.” Stop action. If we ask a neuroscientist what happens next, he will unfold a trail of physical events. Air molecules vibrate when those words are spoken, and in turn they vibrate the ear drum. Tiny bones in the middle ear transmit the signal, which gets turned into electrochemical reactions in the inner ear. As soon as electricity and chemicals are involved, we are in the precinct of the brain, which goes to work rapidly. Various areas light up, involving a complex interaction between those areas that process sound, meaning, memory, and emotions. Even if it takes years or decades for neuroscience to trace this pattern exactly, the result is the same: your heart jumps for joy, you flush, and the delight of hearing “I love you” overtakes your body.

Or does it? What if you don’t welcome those words? Instead, this was the moment, perhaps, when you were going to end the relationship. The physical trail remains the same, but something is drastically different. The meaning of the words as they apply to you. The dictionary definition of “I love you” isn’t in doubt. Yet if you think about it, every response imaginable is available to us when we hear “I love you,” from horror (if a serial killer says them) to indifference (if you’ve heard it too many times) to joy. As for the body, it, too, is capable of any response – you might feel nothing or you might faint dead away. How is this possible?

Of course, we each hear the words “I love you” in a personal context, involving our own associations and memories. A gentle “I love you” might invoke memories of your mother’s arms when you were a child. Individual meaning gets shaped in the brain’s memory centers. But memory has its own baffling mysteries. One of us (Rudy), a Harvard neuroscientist, asked dozens of colleagues at a scientific conference, “Where are memories stored”? Instantly every one replied, “In the brain, of course.” He pressed the point. “Where exactly in the brain? In neurons? If so, where in the cellular structure?” After hemming and hawing, most had to concede that no one really knows. We know that synapses fire to retrieve a memory, but we do not actually understand how or where memories are physically stored in the brain, or, for that matter, whether they can be physically located at all.

Meaning occurs in the mind, and the brain obeys the mind. They are not the same thing. A radio plays music, but it doesn’t create music. A radio is dependent on the station you tune it to. Meaning is like tuning in but more subtle. You don’t turn a dial; you automatically know what the meaning is, and if you don’t, what happens? Your mind tries to straighten out the meaning. Your brain doesn’t accomplish this task. Maybe the person whispered “I love U2.”  There’s a huge difference between loving a rock band and loving a person who might love you back.

Can we really claim that brain tissue, which is made up of organic chemicals and water, can tell that “I love you” leads to joy while “I love U2” leads to a mild “that’s nice. I do, too”? No, we can’t. It’s a mistake to attribute to physical things — cells, molecules, atoms, and so on – what really belongs to the mind.

We aren’t talking metaphysics, although science often takes that escape route when its faith in materialism is challenged. So let’s leave aside the mind. There is no physical explanation for why the body reacts as it does to words. Consider that you hear any of the following sentences:

It’s bedtime.
Your life savings are gone.
Look out, a rattlesnake!

Everyone agrees that each of these causes a terrifically different reaction in the body. Yet if you hear them spoken, each sentence begins with the tiniest vibration of the ear drum, and the brain signals that come next are also barely measurable in microvolts of electricity and a few hundred of thousand molecules of messenger molecules. Yet these tiny, tiny events get amplified enormously. The adrenaline rush that sends you running in panic from a rattlesnake represents millions of times more energy than the words that caused them. The words “It’s bedtime” cause an equally massive amplification but in the opposite direction, toward relaxation and shutdown of the body for sleep.

It’s well known that the human body depends upon homeostasis, the ability to keep very complex systems in balance and to return to a state of balance when it is disturbed. Yet words cause us to deliberately go out of balance, and there’s no physical mechanism to explain it. Meaning explains everything, since “It’s bedtime” and seeing a rattlesnake of course hold totally opposite meanings. But if you say that the brain creates the meaning of words in the cerebral cortex – the standard textbook explanation – you have no way of escaping a dead end. The physical world is ruled by cause and effect. We cannot say that a feather can dust the table one minute and push over a boulder the next. Yet these same tiny molecules of brain chemicals manage to do just that. One minute you hear some words and decide to go to sleep; the next minute you hear other words and instantly run away on high alert.

There is no doubt that your body can amplify signals; there’s no doubt that different words have different meanings. Yet if you try to put these two facts together using just the brain, you can’t. A tiny virus can enter the body and cause every system to break down, leading to death. It’s as if a baseball broke a window in a skyscraper and the whole building fell down. But that’s not really a mystery, because the virus divides, and by a simple train of cause-and-effect, its toxins are amplified until the immune system is overwhelmed. But there is no explanation for how a few words can create such a powerful effect that it gets repeated, day after day, for years. The things we worry and obsess over, the grief that lingers on and on, the game-winning touchdown, and the girl who got away – all can be amplified into bodily reactions from a state of near zero, since memory requires no expenditure of energy.

Some mysteries are worth pondering because they fascinate us. Others are worth pondering because they can shake our whole worldview. The mystery of “I love you,” we believe, is the second kind.

Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP
deepakchopra.com
Follow Deepak on Twitter

Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi
Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy
Professor of Neurology,
Harvard Medical School
Director, Genetics and Aging Research Unit,
MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease
Massachusetts General Hospital

Originally published September 2011

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