The Spiritual Brain

  • Mario Beauregard, Denyse OLeary
  • Jun 30, 2008
  • Series: Volume 11 - 2008

Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary. The Spiritual Brain. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.  384 Pages.

In The Spiritual Brain, Beauregard presents his case for why a materialist view of mind is incomplete. Beauregard, who has a Ph.D in neuroscience, proposes the existence of the non-material self, or the soul, in a manner that can be understood by anyone with an interest in the subject. One does not have to possess a Ph.D in the medical field to grasp the philosophical nature of this issue, nor to follow the arguments presented.

In chapter one, Beauregard gathers an array of examples concerning how the public views the existence of a non-materialistic world, and how various experts attempt to debunk it. From computer games of chess (and their ability to "duplicate" human behavior) to evolutionary psychology to quantum mechanics, academics continue to attempt to provide a purely mechanistic account of all things. Yet, the public at large continues to doubt these claims. He also raises the question of whether all events require a material cause as a necessary explanation.

Chapters two through four provide a survey of recent attempts to show that RSME's ("religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences") are the result of various brain states. Beauregard provides a quote from Edward O. Wilson as an example of the materialist worldview, "If the brain evolved by natural selection... religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanism." All religious experience, all belief in a spiritual realm, and even consciousness itself must be explained by complex structures in the brain. Some leading theories involve describing RSME's as a result of epileptic episodes in the temporal lobe, or due to increased magnetic activity that can be simulated with "The God helmet." This was developed by another neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, who claimed to be able to reproduce an experience of God with a simple helmet that stimulated the temporal lobe with weak magnetic fields. Beauregard reports that the popular media jumped on this discovery with much excitement; however, this invention did not attract very much attention from neuroscientists. He concludes that much of this device's results can be accounted for through simple psychological suggestion. But more importantly, he says Persinger, "offered no imaging data to support his claim about what is happening in the subjects' brains." (p.89) If the experience is merely physical in nature, there ought to be physical data to support this claim, which Beauregard argues is nonexistent.

Chapter five provides a philosophical overview of some of the problems associated with a materialist account of mind. The notions of qualia, consciousness, free will, and the self have become challenging topics and major roadblocks according to Beauregard. He summarizes this position by stating, "Current materialist accounts aim to preserve materialism rather than account for the evidence. Materialism has no workable science model for consciousness and no idea how to acquire one." (p.120)

Chapter six opens with a transitional statement, asking, "Can a nonmaterialist science of mind account for observed facts better than a materialist one?"(p.125) For the next three chapters Beauregard attempts to show why this should be true. Some examples include studies on patients with OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder), where the patient is trained on how to use his or her mind to "rewire" their brains and replace harmful repetitive thought patterns with more useful ones. The assumption that the mind is independent of the brain was a key component in the studies' success. Beauregard provides other lines of evidence from near-death experiences, psychokinetic abilities, and the well-known placebo effect. He argues that the placebo effect is a rather simple yet overlooked example of how the mind can influence the brain. He provides anecdotes of fake pills and even fake surgeries that cured patients of medically recognized ailments. The reason placebos are used in drug studies is not because they are useless but because they work so well. He argues that it is difficult to explain the placebo effect without the existence of a mind distinct from the brain.

To provide a better interpretation for all of these lines of evidence, one needs a new hypothesis, says Beauregard. He offers up PTH (psychoneural translation hypothesis) as one such alternative. This theory assumes that the mind and brain are two distinct "epistemologically different domains" (p.150) that interact in some unknown manner. This position maintains that mental processes are neurally instantiated in the brain, but that these cannot be reduced to the brain and are not identical with neural processes. Beauregard goes on to say that we cannot capture thoughts by studying the activity of neurons and that we would need a "Rosetta Stone" to make such a translation possible between mind and brain. On this point I am unclear at what he is implying. Does each mental state uniquely correspond to a neural state? Or do multiple mental states map on to the same neural state? If it is the former, it would seem that at least in principle such a Rosetta Stone could be developed. If it is the latter, it would appear we are destined to never cross that chasm. Granted, there are billions of neural combinations available in the brain, but it seems intuitive that one can "think" of more thoughts and experience more qualia, at least in principle, than there are neurons, given enough time.

Beauregard concludes with his own study involving brain activity of a group of Carmelite nuns. He explores three points: to see if specific brain states could be associated with mystical contemplation, whether or not these states could be localized to the temporal lobe, and finally if these states were not unlike those observed during ordinary consciousness. His conclusions show that, through neuroimaging techniques, the nuns were having an actual experience of something rather than a delusion. He also concluded that no one region of the brain was solely responsible for the experience, thereby refuting the notion of a "God spot" or "God helmet."

I would have liked Beauregard to develop this concept more thoroughly. He states that neuroscientists can tell if a person is either "faking it" or imagining things. This is done through the detection of "beta waves" (implying strenuous mental activity), or "theta waves" (produced from meditative states) in the brain. (p.265) He seems to imply that one can discover the motivations behind these brain states, but this is unclear. For example, why should strenuous mental activity imply that the subject had direct conscious control over these results? Regardless, with either beta or theta waves the connection is not very clear as to why a non-material cause is warranted simply because the experience occurs in multiple spatial locations of the brain. He also provides little argument as to how studying brain states can differentiate between persons experiencing a real, external event, versus a hallucination that the person believes to be externally real.

Beauregard is careful not to attempt to state that he has proven or disproven the existence of God, or of a spiritual side of human beings. He rather wants to suggest that based on the evidence, it is reasonable to do so. He maintains that a non-material worldview best explains the scientific evidence; not just evidence from within neuroscience, but from multiple disciplines. He also is careful not to tip his hat concerning his own religious worldview. However, in the brief final chapter, he does provide some detail into his own past which includes numerous mystical experiences where he says that he "merged with the infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence and became united with everything in the cosmos." (p.293)

I found this book to be compelling in terms of showing the nature of the mind to be more than mere atoms-in-space. As Christians, we need to incorporate scientific findings into our worldview if we are to hold to a realist, correspondence view of truth. Beauregard's book helps in this regard by positing a dualist notion of mind/body as the best explanation of the evidence from neuroscience. Overall, Beauregard does a much better job of critiquing a materialist account of nature than he does of providing empirical evidence for a spiritual brain. However, I do not take this to be an argument from ignorance, but one where a non-materialist account seems to be the best hypothesis going based on the evidence. This is a refreshing position from within the academic world on a subject that, oddly, many strive to eliminate: the existence of the human mind. I would encourage this book to those interested in the mind/body debate as a great primer on the subject.

Jeff Stauffer
M.A. Philosophy of Religion Student
Denver Seminary
June 2008

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