Posts Tagged ‘ fMRI ’

The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

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Seeking to Illuminate the Mysterious Placebo Effect

Erik Vance for the NYT:

Dr. Wager (pronounced WAY-gur) is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. His specialty is neuroscience and brain imaging, but his passion is the placebo effect — a phenomenon that has undergone a resurgence in recent years and is now being studied by researchers in many corners of science.

Much of this attention is a result of the kind of brain imaging Dr. Wager does, and he is a leading figure in the new generation of placebo researchers.

Which may make his background seem unlikely. Dr. Wager, 35, was raised in Christian Science, a religion mostly known for its aversion to medical treatment. His family was not strict about it, however; he recalls an incident from his Colorado childhood that could have served as a harbinger for his career.

As a baby, he says, he came down with a rash, and after much prayer his mother took him to a doctor, fearing scarlet fever. “The doctor said, ‘Here’s a cream, rub it on there,’ and it went away,” Dr. Wager said.

So did his mother’s distress. Her pulse probably slowed, he says now, and her breathing relaxed — just the effect a placebo may have on a terrified patient.

Increasingly, placebo effects are being viewed as real and tangible, if mysterious. In various surveys, 45 percent to 85 percent of American and European practitioners say they have used placebos in clinical practice, and 96 percent of academic physicians in the United States say they think placebos have therapeutic effects.

Even so, many scientists mistrust them.

“When I started grad school I felt like it was kind of taboo to study the placebo,” Dr. Wager said. The research at the time was spotty at best, “and then there were whole sections of society that were ready to jump on that and say, ‘Oh, look how powerful the mind is!’ ”

But placebo research has gained respectability in recent years, thanks largely to the work of Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, an Italian neuroscientist widely seen as the patriarch of the field. Dr. Benedetti argues that there is not a single placebo effect, but many.

More here