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What Thinking Means:
Book Review of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. By Jeffrey Schwartz & Sharon Begley.
By: William A. Dembski
First Things
May 1, 2003

Original Article

Book review:
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 Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, 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.”

Schwartz, a research professor in psychiatry at UCLA, is convinced that the life sciences as a whole and neuroscience in particular have been subverted by materialist philosophy. (Because the book centers on Schwartz’s research and thought, I shall refer to him as the primary author of the book.) The Mind and the Brain is his attempt to unseat that philosophy and substitute a dualist conception of mind (according to which mind and brain are ontologically distinct). Anyone familiar with current discussions of neuroscience, consciousness studies, and the mind-body problem will realize just how fiercely materialistic and non-dualist these fields are. Schwartz’s explicit antimaterialism and embrace of dualism therefore places him very much 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. He arrived at this position as a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 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 them. It was reflection on this difference between the obvious truth (the hands are clean) and the irrational doubts (they might still be dirty) that prompted Schwartz to reassess 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, the brain enables the 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 involved a patient acknowledging that his hands were in fact clean (relabeling); attributing anxieties and doubts about his hands being dirty to a misfunctioning brain (reattributing); directing his 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 its middle half to summarizing the last twenty years of research on neuroplasticity. This research is very exciting, and Schwartz and Begley’s description of it is worth the 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 reconstructed, there would seem to be no way to recover brain function once it has been lost. But Schwartz shows that this view is erroneous. 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.

What does all this have to do with materialism? If materialism is correct, then mentation is the product of brain processes (much as digestion is the product of stomach processes, to use an analogy proposed by the philosopher John Searle). But this would mean that even though the brain can readily affect the mind, there’s no sense in which the mind can affect the brain except by way of the brain. That is, top-down causation in which the mind affects the brain must invariably presuppose bottom-up causation of the brain first affecting the mind. And yet Schwartz clearly shows that a conceptual act with no clear physiological underpinnings (for instance, the conscious decision by an OCD sufferer to implement the 4-R therapy) can dramatically and lastingly alter patterns of brain activity. And in such cases, top-down causation seems to operate without prior bottom-up causation.

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, for it 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’ 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 mind is entirely unconditioned by the brain (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 this 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, indeed, a thoroughly 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. The 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, showing 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. One might suspect that Schwartz’s Buddhism is the problem, but it isn’t. “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 he wants to argue that the problem of making quantum measurements requires consciousness for its resolution—which, if true, would certainly strengthen the case for his nonmaterialist interpretation of mind. Yet he falls short of demonstrating that consciousness is the key to resolving the quantum measurement problem. There are other plausible explanations of quantum measurement that do not invoke consciousness. Schwartz therefore needs to do more than he does here to exclude such explanations.

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’ above-mentioned work on mental causation. And a useful synergy between Schwartz’s work in neuroscience and intelligent design’s work in the life sciences is also highly promising.

William A. Dembski is on the faculty of Baylor University. His books include The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.

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