Christian Thought in the 21st Century

Consciousness: Mind, Spirit, Brain.

Part 3

Data Supports Mind Over Brain

This page contains a boat load of data supporting the view that the mind exerts downward causation or control over the brain and body. The arugement is that downward causality invovles the mind as an agent acting it its own interst and ruling over the acitivities of the brain. Included is evidence on Veto power.

"Take the matter of "downward causation" to which Harman gives some attention. Why should this be an issue in brain dynamics? As Erich Harth points out in Chapter 44, connections between higher and lower centers of the brain are reciprocal. They go both ways, up and down. The evidence (the scientific evidence) for downward causation was established decades ago by the celebrated Spanish histologist Ramon y Cajal, yet the discussion goes on. Why? The answer seems clear: If brains work like machines, they are easier to understand. The facts be damned!

This is a telling criticism, and one that SEEMS to be softening in the contemporary scene.

So, what we have seen so far in this piece:

1. Materialism is simply inadequate--from the standpoint of modern physics.

2. Reductionism is therefore misguided (at best).

3. "Bigger" views of the universe have emerged, and are being accepted/developed by the academic community.

4. These "bigger universes" include fundamental mechanisms (non-mystical ones!) for mind to 'exist' and to interact with 'matter'.

5. There is a large body of diverse data that supports the view that mind ACTUALLY DOES exert downward causal action on the brain-body.

This notion has become a total commonplace among Internet atheists. This is the idea that our consciuness is merely cognition and therefore is reduceable to chemical patterns in the brian. A huge explosion of brian/mind research over the last decade has cast the arua of a Scientific mystique over this view so that today it is commonly accepted as proven scientific fact. Nothing could be futhre from the truth.

Glenn Miller, Christian Think Tank, has summarized a great deal of data from studies published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. A look at the more critical data points and arguments supporting the causal efficacy of the mind.

This data comes from a very wide range of research. The arguments will range from neurobiology to philosophy to mathematics to psychology. They are not all of equal weight nor credibility, but as a cumulative case, the data is rather overwhelming.

1. Let's start with the grossly obvious--our personal experience. That I can create radical imaginative structures, move my arm at will, make choices and put them into practice, be influenced to action by things I read, be aware that I am aware, initiate unconscious memory retrieval processes by merely focusing on features of the whole, do pop-psychoanalysis of my friends, have inner-child therapy experiences, feel the difference in my mental functions when I am on antihistamines, and experience paradigm conversions are primary data that must be explained. This data is simply too powerful and impressive to be either denied or explained away via simplistic axioms of reducibility. There is a growing agreement that this data is of a primary, irreducible nature that has forced us to expand our horizons [e.g. JCS:1.1.9; ] Flanagan and Polger put it well [JCS:2.4.321]:

"It may well be, we suspect it is the case, as a matter of contingent fact, that for human beings consciousness does facilitate learning, that it does radically influence behavior, that it does influence higher-level thought processes"

2. We have an incredibly powerful belief in the explanatory power of the existence of other minds and intentions [JCS:1.1.55]:

"It would be difficult to overestimate the power and finality that an intending human has as an explanation of some state of affairs in which we find the world...Insofar as humans are taken as a first cause when a crime, accident, or other event has been traced to an intending human, our search for explanation normally stops."

3. Phenomenal awareness MUST contribute to the felt character of perception (i.e. be a partial 'cause' of it)--the information feed we get from the outside world is simply too crude to account for the richness of our experience [JCS:1.1.67]

4. For a catalog of items that cannot be plausibly explained under other approaches, see the classic by Popper and Eccles, The Self and its Brain, cited approvingly by Beloff in JCS:1.1.35.

5. We learn so much faster in consciousness than the brain can physically develop physical connections! [JCS:1.1.72] (The brain 'seems' to get 'caught up' during sleep, when the events of the previous day are replayed at 10x the speed, assumed to be for consolidation into long-term memory. See CS:CRA:p87)
6. We know from non-linear systems that emergence can exercise downward control in OTHER systems. If consciousness IS such a system, then there is no theoretical objection to downward causality--indeed, given the definition of such systems, it would be EXPECTED. [JCS:1.1.92] And, indeed, this is exactly what we find at the nervous system and other metabolic levels.(For an detailed treatment of various non-linear effects in the nervous system, see Kelso [CS:DPSOBB, chapter 8], where he describes nonlin effects at the microscale, mesoscale, and macroscale levels. Also see Mainzer on subcellular and metabolic oscillation phenomena, CS:TIC:91.)

7. We have studies of neuronal changes induced by mental processes (with the interface mechanism unspecified) [JCS:1.1.124]: "for example, neural activity (as indicated by measurements of regional blood flow or metabolic rate) has been shown to increase selectively in the supplementary motor area (SMA) when the subject is asked to imagine moving his fingers without actually moving them."

8. The studies of neuronal timing by Libet has demonstrated that conscious will exerts a veto effect on action sequences initiated at an unconscious level [JCS:1.1.130; CS:TSC:342f]. In other words, an unconscious process may get a muscle ready to move, but when that readiness becomes 'visible' to the conscious mind, that conscious mind can let the action continue, or shut it down! Elsewhere [CS:TSOC:113], Libet explains the implications of this veto-power, over against those who would ASSUME that even the veto was "upwardly caused":

"It has been argued that the appearance of the conscious veto would itself require a prior period of unconscious neural development, just as for conscious intention; in such a case even this conscious control event would have an unconscious initiating process. However, conscious control of an event appears here after awareness of the impending voluntary action has developed. Conscious control is not a new awareness; it serves to impose a change on the volitional process and it may not be subject to the requirement of a preceding unconscious cerebral process found for awareness. In such a view, a potential role for free will would remain viable in the conscious control, though not in the initiation, of a voluntary act. These findings taken together have a fundamental bearing on the issues of voluntary action, free will and individual responsibility for conscious urges and actions."

In case you didn't get that--the veto cannot have antecedent unconscious processes (before it becomes aware), since it only appears in as the initiated action has ALREADY become aware--it controls with a go/nogo decision THEN.

[Note: I have some hesitation about accepting Libet's conclusions that ALL voluntary actions arise before awareness. The nature of his experimental procedures are such that I find it impossible to agree that the voluntary movements were 'completely' voluntary (i.e. non-primed). The description of the instructions to the subjects about the voluntary actions probably start EMG-measurable influences in ME the reader! It's sorta like the old impossible instruction: "Do NOT think about elephants!" This is not to detract from the experimental procedures, but rather to caution on some aspects of interpretation.]

9. The paranormal (e.g. ESP, telekinesis) is best explained under a efficacious mind theory. Although my skepticism shows a bit here, there is nonetheless a growing body of statistical evidence (esp. meta-level analysis, cf. JCS:1.1.36; 1.2.222) in support of this kind of phenomena. I also find in very interesting that the oft-cited Turing test for differentiating between 'natural' minds and 'artificial' minds included this element! (most discussions do not take this element of Turing seriously, and apologize profusely for him in this area!). If even a fraction of this data is true, then [JCS:1.1.36]:

"If it is the case that a mind can, on occasion, extract information from an object other than its own brain and, if it is the case that a mind can influence intentionally the behavior of an object other than its own brain, it would be futile to doubt that a mind can interact with its own brain in the ordinary course of life."

Still from Miller:

Transpersonal Realities or Neurophysiological Illusions: Toward an Empirically Testable Dualism

Charles T. Tart

[Presented at 1978 Meeting of the American Psychological Association in Toronto, Canada.]


Transpersonal experiences, in which a person seems to go beyond (trans) the limits of his body and mind, are exceptionally important to their experiencers, and can form the basis of religions and philosophies, yet the current scientific position that totally equates consciousness with brain functioning automatically views the content of these vital experiences as illusions and delusions. Transpersonal psychology is thus reduced to the study of hallucinations. More than 600 experiments, however, provide first-class scientific evidence for the existence of paraconceptual phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP), phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of brain processes and which argue that some aspects of consciousness are of a qualitatively different nature than physical processes.

10. We don't know what pain really is, but we still research analgesics!!! We believe, somehow, that other people's reports of phenomenal characteristics (e.g. pain and suffering) is real enough to warrant both research as well as massive benevolent activities. [JCS:1.1.140]

11. The concept of an inner self is found in children before the age of three [JCS:1.2.3]. Folk psychology is probably present from birth (see data given above). Young kids distinguish between 'mental' and 'physical' at a VERY early age [ JCS:3.1.61]. "Infants' emerging concepts of others, the self, and social relations my reflect a beginning awareness of the mind, which blossoms into a theory of mind during the preschool years" [CS:CD:188]. Certain simian groups (chimps, orangutan, some gorillas; but not gibbons, baboons, monkeys) have a definite sense of self [CS:CD.205]. Bonobo apes have been known to develop a 'theory of the mind' similar to that of children [JCS:3.3.280]

Still Quoting G. Miller

"This is rather strong evidence that concepts of mind are NOT acquired but are part-and-parcel of our very nature, and therefore makes a contribution to our survival, development, and/or actualization.

12. The Bafflement argument (noted above) is really difficult to explain, since it is immediately 'mental' by its very nature. If something "causes" bafflement, then it must be "Causal" in some sense. Consider how this is expressed by philosopher of science Elitzur in JCS:2.4.355. He discusses the situation in which we ask a computer 'what is consciousness?' If the machine responds with something like "the range of my internal processes, namely, the complex pattern of electric currents running within my wires, that are accessible to my direct self-observation" then we would suspect that no 'phenomenal awareness' was there. But suppose the computer came back with this:"

"Consciousness is the range of my internal processes, namely, the complex pattern of electric currents running within my wires, that are accessible to my direct self-observation. Yet, there is more to it--there is more to my seeing, recognizing, remembering, etc. that I cannot convey by this definition. Do you understand what I am talking about?"

We would be forced to admit that something 'else' was in there as well. In other words, the something else CAUSED the machine's bafflement--a distinctly causal force.

And what is really fascinating about this argument, is that it is being accepted--VERY RELUCTANTLY--by a materialist [p.357]!

"If I may be allowed to close with a personal note, I feel there is hardly a reason to rejoice over this conclusion (note: that human bafflement over the mind is evidence of a causal influence of mind). I have always been a materialist, and I would hate to provide arguments in favour of any sort of dualism. Moody seems to be less troubled. Others might claim that the Bafflement Argument does not lend support for dualism. I hope they are correct."

13. The conscious mind seems to build an expectancy model for each action it 'approves'. This representation/model is pushed-down to act as a feedback-control, as in a servo-mechanism. There are fully developed models for this feedback process, sometimes invoking what is know as efference copies. [For a discussion and references, see JCS:3.2.139-157] There is a tremendous amount of observational data to support the selective and feedback control 'causal' effects of consciousness. It is often understood as exercising this control via sheer frequency of activation of consciously-represented states [CS:SAC:486-490].

14. We have experimental data that show how volition/will can affect phenomenal experience in visual perception [Helmholtz]. "He showed that if the eyeball is moved passively, the world seems to move, whereas active movement of the eyes does not give that illusion. So he concluded that vision has a component in it which reflects the action of willed movements." The only difference is the will in the test--a mental choice made a considerable difference. [JCS:3.2.175]

15. Learning, as an intentional process, initiates hormone secretion of the x-amines. It literally drenches the brain in the chemicals necessary to record and integrate, in the various subsystems, the content that is being attended to, with intentions of memory. [JCS:3.2.177].

16. There is a technical argument from Incorrigibility [JCS:3.3.227]. It is a bit convoluted, but it runs something like this:

a. Some statements about mental states ("I am in pain") are incorrigible (i.e. impossible to be wrong).

b. Only statements about my mental states are such--they are mind-dependent statements.

c. Mind-dependent statements presuppose mind.

d. Therefore, both mind and relevant mental states 'exists'.

AT this point Miller introduces a long list of some of his most powerful evidence for downward causation:

17. It is widely known that psychosomatic effects are very, very real. The mechanisms are not even remotely understood--although there are several models of how this works-- but the correlation between the mental states and predictable body changes is undeniable. In CS:TSOC, Psychology professors Sheikh, Kunzendorf, and Sheikh (Marquette U) describe (and give the literature citations for) a wide range of somatic consequences of consciousness. Although they also describe the effects of meditation, biofeedback, and hypnosis, I want to list the bodily changes documented in experimental and/or clinical situations caused by the use of simple mental imagery ALONE. In most cases the DEGREE of 'causation' is DIRECTLY related to the VIVIDNESS of the image. When the mind visualizes certain scenes, changes in the following bodily conditions can be seen (pp.145-149):

1. heart rate

2. diastolic blood pressure

3. systolic blood pressure

4. vasomotor activity (both constriction and dilation)

5. curing of warts

6. enlargement of breasts(!) [also used hypnosis]

7. skin swelling (visualization of poisonous plants)

8. blistering of skin (visualization of burns)

9. external bleeding reduction

10. sexual response and arousal

11. free fatty acid concentration

12. cholesterol levels

13. salivary flow

14. gastric acid production

15. dilation of the pupil

16. electrical activity of the retina

17. reflex movements of the eye

18. voluntary movements of the eye

19. process of visual space accommodation (near and far stimuli)

20. electrodermal activity

21. galvanic skin response

22. electrodermal habituation

23. frontalis EMG (electromyographs, dealing with muscle collectives)

24. "visual images of a pencil produced EMG activity in the right arm"(!)

25. "visual images of the letter 'P' led to EMG activity in the lip" (!)

26. facial corrugator EMG activity

27. "helpful in disinhibiting the 'frozen' body part in clients with Parkinson's disease" (p.148)

28. immune system functioning.

29. "In healthy subjects, images of 'white blood cells attacking germs' increased neutrophil adherence, lymphocyte counts and salivary immunoglobulin A concentration, whereas images of an unresponsive immune system produced less neutrophil adherence and lower lymphocyte stimulation of immune response." (p.149)

30. increase in natural killer cell function

31. cancer elimination(!)

32. cancer remission

33. cancer stability

34. healing of burn wounds, ulcers, vaginitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis

The authors of the chapter state (p. 152):

"The foregoing review makes it abundantly clear that consciousness is not a mere epiphenomenon, a derivative of physiological processes, and in itself of no functional significance. As the Nobel prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner, reflecting on the connection between consciousness and the physical world, observed, 'if mind could not affect the physical world but was only affected by it, this would be the only known example in modern physics of such a one-way interaction'"

[Hmmm....Wigner's quote makes me wonder if the reductionist/materialist isn't asking us to believe in something that never occurs in nature anywhere else? Asking us to believe CONTRARY to all we know about science and observed reality, that this relationship is sui generis?!]

18. The placebo effect is a rather staggering example of the power of mental states over the body. It differs from imagery in that, as based on expectancy, it does NOT work on children, whereas imagery DOES (p.172). Patrick Wall (Physiology, Univ. of London) discusses this strange phenomenon in CS:TSOC:162-180. The placebo effect is where a person BELIEVES a medical intervention (e.g. surgery, medicine, ultrasound procedure) was administered, but where it was NOT, but STILL RESPONDS FAVORABLY to the 'fake' treatment! The types of people that response to 'bread pills' instead of medicine are NOT of a uniform personality type (p.169), and the ranges of placebo effectiveness varies from 0% to 100% (p.168). The key element is expectation, called by various terms: belief, faith, confidence, enthusiasm, response bias, meaning, credibility, transference, anticipation (p.172).

Wall contrasts this with the phantom limb effect--where a state is CREATED for one that exists. In the case of a placebo, a state (of pain) is UNCREATED (p.178):

"I consider the placebo effect to be equal but opposite to the phantom in defining the operation of the brain. In one a state is created (note: the phantom limb, in which a person still 'feels' the missing limb), in the other a state is abolished. In the placebo response, there is no known mechanism and no evidence that the activity of the afferent peripheral nerves is changed in any way. Yet the state of the brain is radically changed to a new state. It must be emphasized again that this change is not limited to conscious perception. A patient whose severe cancer pain disappears in response to a placebo not only states verbally that the pain has gone but also shows appropriate changes of blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, gut motility, pupil size, etc. This complete pattern of body and mind alteration differs from some cases of hypnotic suggestion where the verbal report may conflict with autonomic body system changes."

This is a staggering reality (Wall proposes a clever conflict-resolution understanding of the phenomena), and one that constitutes hard data for the view of 'downward causation'. 19. Some working models of scientific approaches to consciousness ASSUME that the conscious mind and the unconscious mind have areas of overlap AS WELL AS areas of independence. In other words, the conscious mind can exert influence WITHOUT using the unconscious mind (which is generally considered the more 'physicial' of the two)! This argued in detail--with specific data--in the introduction sections of CS:SAC:19ff. The authors--Jacoby, Yonelinas, Jennings (McMaster)--are all specialists in process-disassociation and used that approach to test hypotheses of independence, redundancy, or exclusivity between Unconscious and Conscious processes. Their data clearly supported the independence hypothesis--that some conscious processes seemed to operate apart from unconscious processes. Much of their data comes from cross-modality memory research, with tests in fame recognition and fragment completion.

20. The strange data of 'verbal slips' is evidence that the conscious mind can exert executive control (via priming) over conflicting goal-completion activities by the subsystems (generally unconscious). "Whereas unconscious action routines are fast and effective in predictable situations, consciousness in needed to combine multiple automatisms into a single, coherent action plan, without internal competition, and thereby supports flexible action in the face of novelty." [CS:SAC:423f].

21. Eccles cites the work of Corbetta (via PET) that voluntary top-down visual searches have been shown to activate the neocortex at will [CS:HSCB:174f]. From Corbetta: "attention enhanced the activity of different regions of extrastriate visual cortex that appear to be specialized for processing information related to the selected attribute...Physiologically, neural activity is increased in extrastiate regions specialized for processing information related to the selected visual attribute. These enhancements reflect cognitive (top-down) control of visual processing"

22. The phenomena of latent touch and expected sensations make massive brain changes. Eccles describes the experience in CS:HSCB:99]: "When one is at absolute rest in a darkened silent room, it is possible to engage in some specific thinking. For example, one can concentrate attention to a finger tip in order to detect a minimal touch that is expected. This attention causes neural activity in rather large areas of the brain..." (Areas 'excited' by the readiness were the postcentral gyrus of the cerebral cortex, and the midprefrontal and parietal areas--involving tens of thousands of dendrons!)

23. The fact that psycho-pharmaceuticals are MUCH more effective when used with therapy (a radically 'mentalist' approach!) is a strong argument for the causal efficacy of the mind [CS:CRA:p95]. So, Schechtman (Univ. of Ill at Chicago):

"The most successful uses of psychoactive drugs indicates a need for psychotherapy, and suggests an account of psychological illness that involves a complicated interaction between both psychological and physical factors."

Indeed, if folk psychology is wrong (meaning there are no intentional states), then the implication for clinical psych is rather odd: "If eliminativism is right, then much of what goes on in clinical psychology is bound to be useless. People's problems can't be remedied by removing irrational beliefs or making them aware of subconscious desires; there are no such things." (Stich, CS:DTM:116).

24. Deshmukh (Neurology, Univ. of Fla) argues that the brain-mind can voluntarily activate or inhibit cortical areas [CS:CRA:100], even allowing the inhibition of the executive cortical functions (such as task monitoring):

"The human brain-mind is capable of voluntarily activating as well as inhibiting various higher cortical functions such as movements, speech, head-eyes-body orientation, sensory perception, remembering the past and anticipating the future, facing and reacting to the current environment cognitively, emotionally as well as physically. The activation of a specific cortical area manifests in a specific conscious activity, whereas the inhibition of a specific cortical area manifests in a specific conscious quiescence..."

It should be obvious from the breadth and depth of the data and arguments given above--experimental, clinical, introspective, observational, theoretical, philosophical, anthropological, dynamical, neurological, paranormal, developmental, functional--that there is STRONG support for the view that the mind is "downwardly" causal on the brain/body.

So, what we have seen so far in this piece:

1. Materialism is simply inadequate--from the standpoint of modern physics.

2. Reductionism is therefore misguided (at best).

3. "Bigger" views of the universe have emerged, and are being accepted/developed by the academic community.

4. These "bigger universes" include fundamental mechanisms (non-mystical ones!) for mind to 'exist' and to interact with 'matter'.

5. There is a large body of diverse data that supports the view that mind ACTUALLY DOES exert downward causal action on the brain-body.

Actually, we could stop here--we have shown that (1) 'classical matter' is not ALL THERE 'is'; and (2) that something ELSE interacts with 'classical matter' as it appears to us. This amounts to some kind of 'mind' or 'soul' already--whether it is identified with quantum effects, non-linear dynamics, other fields, higher dimensions, or ghosts is simply immaterial (pardon the pun). But, since this smacks of what has historically might be termed 'dubious dualism', it may be pertinent to comment on the status of dualism and the status of knowledge in the field.

Page 4: Problems with Functionalist Data

The Religious A priori