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Mindfulness Affects Brain Matter: Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

Mindfulness Affects Brain Matter: Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.

Mind over matter, anyone? The question would be rejected by those who endorse the modern view of consciousness, which appeals to hard-liners in cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or behavioral genetics, all of whom would support some material explanation for consciousness. These approaches consider as defective and retrograde any appeal to a non-material explanation. Along comes Jeffrey Schwartz, neuroscientist and Research Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, who has worked with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients, and who has a wholly different take on consciousness after finding that OCD people can free themselves from the disorder. ( See his book, Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.) He has written another book, this one with Sharon Begley. Its title is italicized in the header for this article. Schwartz is also a practicing Buddhist. Here he is on materialist explanations:

LOOKING BACK, IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that advances in brain science during the 20th century led almost all people esteemed as "scientifically literate" to believe that eventually all aspects of the human mind would be explained in material terms. After all, in an era when the unquestioned cultural assumption was "for science all causes are material causes," how could one be expected to think differently? What's more, tremendous advances in brain-imaging technologies during the last two decades of that most materialist of centuries enabled scientists to investigate the inner workings of the living human brain. This certainly seemed to further buttress the generally unexamined and often smugly held belief that the deep mysteries of the brain, and the "laws" through which it created and ruled all aspects of the human mind, would someday be revealed.

Thus arose the then virtually hegemonic belief that human beings and everything they do are, like all other aspects of the world of nature, the results of material causes--by which the elites of the time simply meant results of material forces interacting with each other. While primitive, uneducated, and painfully unsophisticated people might be beguiled into believing that they had minds and wills capable of exerting effort and rising above the realm of the merely material, this was just--as Daniel Dennett, a widely respected philosopher of the day, delighted in putting it--an example of a "user illusion": that is, the quaint fantasy of those who failed to realize, due to educational deficiencies or plain thick-headedness, that "a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by local mechanical disturbances." Were you one of the rubes who believed that people are capable of making free and genuinely moral decisions? Then of course haughty contempt, or at best pity, was the only appropriate demeanor a member of the intellectual elite could possibly direct your way.

On a societal and cultural level the damage such spurious and unwarranted elite opinions wreaked on the world at large was immense. For if everything people do results solely from their brains, and everything the brain does results solely from material causes, then people are no different than any other complicated machine and the brain is no different in principle than any very complex computer. If matter determines all, everything is passive and no one ever really does anything, or to be more precise, no one is really responsible for anything they think, say, or do.

What's more, if anything they think, say, or do causes problems for them or society at large, then, the sophisticates of that thankfully bygone era believed, the ultimate way to solve the problem would be to make the required changes in the brain that would make it work the way a properly functioning machine is supposed to. This naturally led to the widespread use of drugs as a primary means of treating what generally came to be called "behavioral problems."

After all, if the brain is the final cause of everything a person thinks, says, and does, why bother with old-fashioned and outdated notions like "self-control" or even "making your best effort" to solve a problem? If the brain is the ultimate cause underlying all the problems, then the sophisticated thing to do to rectify things is to give a chemical (or even place an electrode!) that gets right in there and fixes things. "God helps those who help themselves?" Not in the real world, where science knows all the answers, sneered the elites of the time.

Happily for the future of humanity, in the early years of the 21st century this all started to change. The reasons why, on a scientific level, grew out of the coming together of some changes in perspective that had occurred in physics and neuroscience during the last decades of the previous century. Specifically, the theory of physics called quantum mechanics was seen to be closely related, especially in humans, to the discovery in brain science called neuroplasticity: the fact that throughout the lifespan the brain is capable of being rewired, and that in humans at least, this rewiring could be caused directly by the action of the mind.

Work using new brain-imaging technologies of that era to study people with a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) played a key role in this development. OCD is a medical condition in which people suffer from very bothersome and intrusive thoughts and feelings that give them the sense that "something is wrong" in their immediate surroundings--usually the thought or feeling that something is dirty or contaminated or needs to be checked because it isn't quite right.

This is what is called an obsession. The problem the medical condition causes is that although the sufferers generally know this feeling that "something is wrong" is false and doesn't really make sense, the feeling keeps bothering them and doesn't go away, due to a brain glitch that was discovered using brain imaging. Sufferers often respond to these gut-wrenching thoughts and feelings by washing, checking, straightening things, etc., over and over again, in a desperate but futile attempt to make things seem right. These futile repetitive acts are called compulsions.

In the 1990s it was discovered that OCD sufferers were very capable of learning how to resist capitulating to these brain-related symptoms by using a mental action called "mindful awareness" when confronting them. In a nutshell, mindful awareness means using your "mind's eye" to view your own inner life and experiences the way you would if you were standing, as it were, outside yourself-most simply put, it means learning to use a rational perspective when viewing your own inner experience.

When OCD patients did this, and as a result came to view the bothersome intrusive thoughts and feelings just as medical symptoms that they had the mental power to resist, they found they were empowered to direct their attention in much more useful and wholesome ways by focusing on healthy and/or work-related activities. Over several weeks, and with much mental effort and faith in their ability to overcome the suffering, many OCD patients were found to be capable of regularly resisting the symptoms. . . .

In the early years of the current century brain imaging was used to reveal many similar and related findings. For instance, people with spider phobia, or people viewing stressful or sexually arousing films, were found to be entirely capable of using mental effort to apply mindful awareness and "re-frame" their perspective on their experience. By so doing it was clearly demonstrated that they could systematically change the response of the brain to these situations and so cease being frightened, stressed, or sexually aroused, whatever the case may be.

This latter finding was realized by some at the time to be potentially relevant to teaching sexual abstinence strategies to adolescents--for if you have the power to control your brain's response to sexual urges, then practicing sexual abstinence in arousing situations will not only strengthen your moral character; it will also increase your mental and physical capacity to control the workings of your own brain--an extremely wholesome and empowering act!

All this work came together when physicist Henry Stapp realized that a basic principle of quantum mechanics, which because of the nature of the brain at the atomic level must be used for proper understanding of the brain's inner workings, explains how the action of the mind changes how the brain works. A well-established mechanism called the quantum zeno effect (QZE) readily explains how mindfully directed attention can alter brain circuitry adaptively. Briefly, we can understand QZE like this: The mental act of focusing attention tends to hold in place brain circuits associated with whatever is focused on. In other words, focusing attention on your mental experience maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience. . . .

The rest, as they say, is history. Once a solid scientific theory was in place to explain how the mind's power to focus attention could systematically rewire the brain, and that the language of our mental and spiritual life is necessary to empower the mind to do so, the materialist dogma was toppled. We may not have all lived happily ever after in any simplistic sense, but at least science is no longer on the side of those who claim human beings are no different in principle than a machine. More. If that link fails, click here for the article with omitted paragraphs. (From World on The Web, 3 April 2004, Volume 19, Number 13)

(In a spirited debate with Michael Schermer on C-Span2, Schwartz drew from the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination to help explain his view of volition.)

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