Challenging Materialism's "Chokehold" on Neuroscience

By William A. Dembski


Review of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. By Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. HarperCollins. 432 pp. $27.50.



In the epilogue to The Mind and the Brain, we read: "Finally, after a generation or more in which biological materialism has had neuroscience -- indeed, all the life sciences -- in a chokehold, we may at last be breaking free.... Biological materialism did and does have real-world consequences. We feel its reach every time a pharmaceutical company tells us that, to cure shyness (or "social phobia"), we need only reach for a little pill.... Biological materialism is nothing if not appealing. We need not address the emotional or spiritual causes of our sadness to have the cloud of depression lift; we need not question the way we teach our children before we can rid them of attention deficit disorder."


Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor in psychiatry at UCLA and the principal author of this book, is convinced that the life sciences as a whole and neuroscience in particular have been subverted by materialist philosophy. This book is his attempt to unseat that philosophy and substitute a dualist conception of mind (i.e., that mind and brain are ontologically distinct). Anyone at all familiar with current discussions of neuroscience, consciousness studies, and the mind-body problem will realize just how fiercely materialistic and nondualist these fields are. Schwartz's explicit anti-materialism and embrace of dualism therefore places him at odds with the scientific and philosophical mainstream.


Schwartz provides a nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience and argues that this interpretation is more compelling than the standard materialist interpretation. Schwartz arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is, as Schwartz describes it, an "ego-dystonic disorder." That is to say, OCD sufferers recognize obsessive-compulsive thoughts and urges as separate from their intrinsic selves. For instance, after a few washings, the compulsive hand-washer realizes that his hands are clean and yet feels driven to keep washing. It's this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that provided Schwartz his entrée into reassessing the philosophical underpinnings of neuroscience.


From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain regions in the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, brain enables mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with dysfunctional mental states). Nonetheless, having found abnormal patterns of brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort through what he called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing, and revaluing (the 4 Rs). In the case of compulsive hand-washing, this would involve a patient acknowledging that the hands are in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about the hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing thoughts and actions away from handwashing and toward productive ends (refocusing); and, lastly, understanding at a deep level the senselessness of OCD messages (revaluing).


Schwartz documents not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain-activity patterns. Thus, without any intervention directly affecting their brains, OCD patients were able to reorganize their brains by intentionally modifying their thoughts and behaviors. The important point for Schwartz here is not simply that modified thoughts and behaviors permanently altered patterns of brain activity, but that such modifications resulted from, as he calls it, "mindful attention" -- conscious and purposive thoughts or actions in which the agent adopts the stance of a detached observer.


After reviewing his own research on OCD in the early part of the book, Schwartz devotes the middle half of the book to summarizing the last twenty years' research on neuroplasticity. This research is very exciting, and Schwartz and Begley's description of it is worth the cover price of the book. There is a long tradition in neuroscience that sees neural circuits as laid down early in life, after which they become entrenched and any subsequent disruption leads to irrevocable deficits. Reviewing research over the last twenty years, Schwartz shows that this view is false and that the brain remains plastic throughout life. A key implication is that conditions previously thought to be untreatable are in fact treatable. Thus Schwartz describes how neuroplasticity offers real hope to everyone from stroke victims to dyslexics.


For instance, 600,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke each year. Of these, a quarter die immediately and half are left seriously disabled. On the assumption that neural circuitry is hardwired early in life and thereafter fixed, there is no reason to think that stroke victims experiencing serious disabilities should see any marked improvement. Like a shattered piece of china whose beauty cannot be recovered, there's no way to recover brain function that's lost. But Schwartz shows that this view is false. Granted, damaged portions of the brain may never recover. But undamaged portions may be "rezoned," and functions previously assigned to the damaged portions may be "reallocated" to the rezoned portions.


This view of the brain has radical implications for treatment. If the brain as a matter of course loses plasticity early in life, then the proper counsel for seriously disabled stroke victims is resignation. But if the brain retains its plasticity throughout life, then the proper counsel is a therapy that will help rezone and reallocate portions of the brain. One such therapy that Schwartz describes as having remarkable success with stroke victims is constraint-induced movement therapy (CI therapy). Here a stroke victim with impaired mobility in a limb is forced to make use of that limb by constraining other limbs that might compensate for the disabled limb. Schwartz documents how even two weeks of intensive CI therapy can lead to remarkable improvements in motor skills as well as lasting reallocations of cortical space.


What does all this have to do with materialism? If materialism is correct, then the mind and mentation is the product of brain processes (much as digestion is the product of stomach processes, to use an analogy of John Searle). But this means that even though brain can readily affect mind, there's no sense in which mind can affect brain except by way of brain. Top-down causation of mind affecting brain invariably presupposes bottom-up causation of brain first affecting mind. And yet with mindful attention, a conceptual act with no clear physiological underpinnings (for example, the conscious decision by an OCD sufferer to implement Schwartz's 4-R therapy) dramatically and lastingly alters patterns of brain activity. Here top-down causation seems to operate without prior bottom-up causation adequately compensating for it.


Is this a good argument for mind being fundamentally distinct from brain? It depends what you are looking for. If you want a knock-down argument against materialism and materialist accounts of mind, this won't do it. But if you are looking for consilience, in which multiple lines of independent evidence converge on the same target, then Schwartz's argument is a good one to have in your arsenal. Schwartz's argument fits nicely with biological arguments for intelligent design (cf. Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box), recent philosophical work on mental causation (cf. Robert Koons's Realism Regained), cosmological fine-tuning (cf. John Barrow and Frank Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle), and consciousness studies (cf. Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe).


No one argues that the brain doesn't condition the mind (psychotropic drugs make this abundantly clear). The issue is whether the brain determines the mind without remainder. For conceptual acts like Schwartz's "mindful attention" to permanently alter patterns of brain activity that otherwise would remain stuck is therefore exactly what one would expect if the mind transcends the brain and yet is capable of physical effects. To be sure, the materialist has counterarguments here. A popular one these days is to treat conscious will as an illusion -- we think that we have acted deliberately toward some end, but in fact our brain acted on its own and then deceived us into thinking that we acted deliberately. There's even a recent book making just that claim in its title: The Illusion of Conscious Will by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner.


Schwartz effectively engages that literature, especially the experiments by Benjamin Libet, which usually get interpreted as supporting the materialist view that conscious will is an illusion. Schwartz shows how these experiments are in fact better interpreted as leaving room for conscious will -- and in fact a full libertarian free will. In this respect, Schwartz's discussion of free will as "free won't" (namely, the idea that free will consists in the ability to rule out possibilities) is deeply illuminating. It calls to mind the Judeo-Christian idea that creation does not add to God but rather subtracts from God: in the act of creation God rules out those worlds that are not actualized. This idea of ruling out possibilities is also the essence of the mathematical theory of information, in which information increases and possibilities get ruled out.


The Mind and the Brain is strongest where it reviews current neurological research and shows how it leaves the door open to a nonmaterialist interpretation of the mind. The book is somewhat weaker where it attempts to place that research and its nonmaterialist interpretation within a theoretical framework. Schwartz's Buddhism is not the problem. "Mindful attention," which Schwartz draws from the Buddhist tradition, is a spiritual discipline right in line with the practice of detachment employed by the Church's desert fathers. Spiritual disciplines work. Schwartz simply shows that they work in the therapeutic context. Schwartz doesn't force his nonmaterialist interpretation of neuroscience into the mold of Buddhist philosophy (Buddhist doctrines like emptiness, nirvana, and reincarnation are absent).


Nevertheless, Schwartz's theoretical framework is incomplete. For instance, Schwartz looks to quantum mechanics to allow an opening for "mental force," as he calls it, to interact with the material world (and thus brains in particular). Schwartz makes a good case for quantum mechanics being compatible with such a nonmaterialist view of mind. But then Schwartz wants to argue that the quantum measurement problem requires consciousness for its resolution -- which would certainly strengthen the case for his nonmaterialist interpretation of mind. In quantum mechanics, measurement disrupts the unitary evolution of the wave function, implying a discontinuous break and the need for a probabilistic analysis. Why the discontinuous break? And where exactly is the measurement made? In the apparatus? In the interactions between systems that produce definitive states? Or is it postponed to the point that it registers in consciousness? Even without quantum many-worlds, which Schwartz successfully rebuts, consciousness remains only one of several live options to explain the break (cf. the spontaneous collapse models of Ghirardi, Rimini and Weber).


When it comes to situating Schwartz's nonmaterialist view of mind within a theoretical framework, The Mind and the Brain is definitely a work in progress. Even so, I give Schwartz's project great hopes for ultimate success. In particular, I'm optimistic that Schwartz's concept of "mental force" can be given a solid metaphysical underpinning in terms of Rob Koons's work on mental causation (adverted to earlier in this review). And a useful synergy between Schwartz's work in neuroscience and intelligent design's work in the life sciences more generally is in the offing (Schwartz and I met recently and plan a collaboration).


On balance, I love this book. If anything, it is a refreshing antidote to the relentless materialism that drives the neuroscience industry.