Dec 31 2007

Deep Nonsense from Deepak

Deepak Chopra is one of the biggest names in dualist woo nonsense. His arguments are particularly vacuous and poorly thought out, and in his recent two-part article in the Huffington Post he remains true to form. (Part I and Part II) This time he is trying to argue from some recent developments in neuroscience that the mind is separate from the brain, but his argument is little more than a thinly veiled leap of faith.

He writes:

One need only turn to the work of the late Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita from Mexico, who attracted general scorn thirty years ago when he suggested that the brain was capable of “sensory substitution.” That is, a blind person could learn to “see,” for example, by substituting the sense of touch for the sense of sight. Braille already gave a clue that something akin to this audacious idea was possible, but Dr. Bach-y-Rita went much further. By the time of his death at 72 last year, he had developed a mechanism known as a “Brain Port,” a small paddle that fits on the tongue. Using a grid of 600 electrical points attached to a camera, the Brain Port can deliver a picture to the tongue of whatever the camera sees. This picture consists of electrical impulses that activate touch, yet after some practice, the blind person’s brain actually sees the image.

The phenomenon of sensory substitution is interesting, but it is no mystery. It is, rather, an example of brain plasticity – a phenomenon which is well known and increasingly understood. Neurons that have previously served one purpose can be recruited for another purpose, and also neuronal stem cells can generate new neurons in order to provide raw material for new functionality. Further, if someone becomes blind then their visual cortex (in the occipital lobe) will be largely unused. They can still imagine images, but there will be no new stimuli coming in. If, however, the person receives new sensory information and they consciously try to visualize an image from that sensory image it makes perfect sense that brain plasticity will allow this process to become more and more automatic. With practice the person can “see” the image created by the new sensory information.

So far what we have is a purely physical brain phenomenon. But Deepak Chopra is a dedicated dualist – he must find the woo in the neuroscience. So he proceeds:

A woman who had lost her sense of balance thanks to the side effect of an antibiotic could not be helped by drugs or surgery because the entire vestibular labyrinth in the inner ear had been rendered completely useless. Yet by training with the Brain Port, which told her tongue when she was upright and when she wasn’t, she regained her balance.

Taken at face value, this story is only slightly more remarkable (and no more supernatural) than the previous example. The vestibular system is just another brain system and is subject to plasticity. Like all parts of the brain it can learn, and in fact physical therapy has long been a treatment for vestibular disorders – retraining the brain through repetitive maneuvers or exercises.

However (and this is tangential to the main point) I happened to see the PBS special that Deepak is referring to, and when I saw this segment my reaction (as a clinical neurologist) was that I had serious doubts about this specific case. Using a case history is always problematic because it is ultimately anecdotal, which means you cannot account for all variables. One segment showed a neurological exam and from the video shown it looked as if the subject’s poor balance was at least partly (if not completely) psychogenic. It didn’t look real. In other words, it is possible that her symptoms were completely psychological, and therefore amenable to complete recovery without any dramatic brain training or plasticity. I have to qualify my opinion because it is based upon a brief video and not a personal exam, but that was my reaction, and I have a great deal of experience with this.

At the very least, before we start making sweeping conclusions about the nature of brain pasticity and consciousness itself such a case would have to be independently scrutinized and repeatable with other similar cases. But whether or not you accept the interpretation of this one case, Deepak next goes off the deep end:

For after all, how does an organ that is mostly water and is governed entirely by electro-chemical impulses know that a person needs a new way of sensing the world, one that so far as we know wasn’t necessary to human evolution?

And here starts the horrendous logical fallacies for which Deepak is famous. How does the brain know? The question does not even make rudimentary sense, and seems to contain as a premise the very conclusion that Deepak is straining for. The brain does not have to know what the needs or intention of the person are. The brain simply responds to experience, to training. One of the primary functions of the brain is to learn and remember. That, in fact, is the whole point of the nervous system – to adapt to the environment and the needs of the organism faster than genetics can evolve. The brain is an organ of adaptation and flexibility.

This leads to the last statement about evolution. Deepak is making the classic mistake of assuming that anything that is the result of evolution must have been the product of specific evolutionary pressures. Therefore if you cannot identify the evolutionary pressures, the trait cannot be explained by evolution. But this is not in accord with modern evolutionary thought. Traits and abilities can arise for one purpose but may also serve many other purposes, either by chance or by extention. The brain is, in fact, the best example of this. Vertebrates in general and humans in particular evolved a large amount of gray matter for more complex thinking and adaptation. The brain as a organ is like an all purpose personal computer – many of its cognitive abilities are generic and can be adapted for many purposes. It is not like a calculator, which is dedicated to a limited number of very specific functions. Therefore humans can perform complex behaviors like playing the piano even though we were not specifically evolved for such tasks.

Having set the stage, Deepak descends further:

This gives us a clue that sensory substitution has always been a latent power of the brain. But that supposition needs to be pushed away from gray matter into the realm of consciousness. Brains don’t adapt to disability automatically. They respond to a person’s will and desire. That is, they obey our intention. The mind must first want the brain to change. This is fairly obvious through a simple example. If you take an unwilling subject and place him on a tight rope, he’ll fall off. But if the person wants to learn to walk a tight rope, he will gradually develop that skill. The unwilling subject will fall off no matter how many times he’s put on the tight rope; the willing person will get better over time. The connection between intent and brain adaptation seems pretty undeniable.

And there we have the leap. Deepak concludes that the brain is responding to the will of the person – but where is the justification for that conclusion. It is a simple bold assertion without any justification. It is far simpler to conclude that the brain is responding to experience, to practice. Practice requires attention and conscious effort. All of these things are functions of the brain – it is brain activity which direct attention, which makes the effort to control muscles and achieve balance, and then the brain learns these complex motor tasks through practice. The introduction of a noncorporeal will is completely extraneous. Again – Deepak is just assuming his own conclusion and then interjecting it into his line of argument.

Referring to monks who have spent years meditating and to saints who have had profound spiritual experiences, he concludes:

Now we can surmise that they wanted to be near to God in the first place, and their intention translated itself into new brain functioning. It seems undeniable that consciousness can’t change unless the brain does, yet mysteriously, it’s the invisible desire of the mind that alters the material landscape of the brain, not vice versa. Skeptics can argue all they want about how brain disease and genetic predisposition play a powerful role in certain cases. That’s true; nobody disputes the fact. But it’s equally indisputable that a complete picture of human awareness is only in its infancy. Equating epilepsy and saintly experiences was arrogant and insulting from the start. To say that the brain is the mind, or that the mind is only a figment of the imagination (many neurologists and philosophers can be found who hold both these views) is completely untenable. Until the argument is resolved, the best course for each of us is to assume that our brains can adapt freely to our vision of life, and that the promise of enlightenment, a matter of faith for many centuries, will soon be a matter of fact.

Deepak just restates his premise – that the mind, which is something separate from the brain, changes the brain. But he has provided no evidence or chain of argument to arrive at this conclusion. All the anecdotes he presents can also be interpreted as thought and behavior, which arises from brain activity, changing brain activity because that is exactly what the brain evolved to do – adapt to our needs. Yes – if you spend years medicating that will change your brain. And if you spend years playing the piano that will change your brain, and so will years spent playing tennis. An immaterial will is not needed to explain any of this.

Regarding saints and epilepsy, this was not a whimsical assumption on the part of arrogant neuroscientists. It has been well established through numerous independently verified cases that some epileptics can have religious experiences during their seizures. It is not uncommon – I had such a patient myself. In fact we can reproduce such experiences at will by stimulating a certain part of the brain. This is well established neuroscience, not arrogance.

Deepak then plays the “false controversy” gambit. He wants us to keep an open mind “until the argument is resolved.” But there is actually nothing left unresolved. Deepak has presented no mysteries that cannot comfortably be explained within the completely material paradigm of neuroscience. His “invisible will” is nothing more than a trick of semantics – not an established phenomenon; not a genuine mystery to be solved. He says the material paradigm is “untenable” but has presented nothing that makes it so.

He concludes with a typical argument of the crank – their vision of the world is on the brink of proof or broad acceptance. Faith will soon become fact. And a mechanism for ESP will soon be discovered, right after the gray aliens reveal themselves to the world and the documents that prove a conspiracy to assassinate JFK are made public.

Despite Deepak’s very marketable and profitable optimism, nothing he presented (even if we accept it as face value, which I don’t) leads to the conclusion that our will can force its vision of reality on the waiting brain. This is the ultimate woo, The Secret, feel good, easy answers, you invent your own reality nonsense. Instead what we have is the simple fact that the brain is an all-purpose cognitive organ that has a fair degree of plasticity and can learn and remember.

Deepak is a creationist of neuroscience. Just as the creationists are forever telling us that evolution is untenable and on the brink of collapse, the dualists are always claiming that materialist neuroscience is a failed approach. Meanwhile, just like with evolutionary theory, neuroscience chugs on – an increasingly and remarkably successful scientific program that is progressively laying bear the inner workings of the brain and the mind it creates.

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