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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Consciousness, Illness, and Belief: The Divorce of Body and Soul and their Celebrated Reunion (Part Two)

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, May 23, 2014

To the humanists’ dismay, the conceptual ambivalence created by a scientific worldview in which an outer, measurable reality remained incongruent with the value-laden mental world of private experience ended up birthing a proto-psychological discipline that went under the banner of ‘behaviourism’. Behaviourism continued the diabolical Darwinian enterprise by outright denying the self-directive and creative aspects of conscious awareness and dismissing them as metaphysical illusions of the fundamental type. The denial would have stemmed partly from the reductionist prerogative of the time and partly from scientists’ obvious inability to describe the purposeful scope of cognition and emotion strictly in behavioural terms. This created a persecutory atmosphere in the scientific arena where intimations of top-down causation, meaning the ability of human thought, willpower, or motivation to influence and enact change in the impersonal outer world, was tantamount to, say, repeating ad nauseam the trope that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married with a daughter to a bunch of Pentecostals.

The will to carve meaningful narratives into the fabric of reality, the will to exercise mental autonomy, and the capacity to formulate cognitive schemata and put them into operation could not be verified in any quantifiable, objective sense; hence they were metaphysical untruths worthy of joining the same historical dustbin as the pseudosciences alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. There was nothing of any scientific worth to be found within the human head, or without for that matter. Behaviourism’s fervent supporter, the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), drove home this particular sentiment with the words, “A scientific analysis of behaviour dispossesses autonomous man and turns the control he has been said to exert over the environment.”[1] The obvious absurdity of this position was rife from the 1920s to the 1960s, a time when behaviourist conformists and converts forced lab animals like rats and rabbits to run miles and miles through the interconnected tunnels and pathways of their micro-labyrinths, convinced as it were that vindicating their objective theorems would eventually dish up some hitherto deeper understanding of the human plight in purely physical terms. Soon everyone was abroad the Pavlovian bandwagon, seeking a plethora of conditioned responses to deliberately paired stimuli that would show, once and for all, that quantifiable similarities with our primitive animal ancestors far outweighed any subjectively perceived differences.  

For a while behaviourism went about its business, assuming that it was taking out the dirty laundry, dusting the bookshelves, sweeping the floors, and airing the bedrooms of scientists and literati enamoured of a stringently impersonal world. Things just weren’t as complicated as what some of the more philosophically-orientated predecessors had thought, and the simpler explanations were far more plausible than intricate and multidimensional ones in accounting for mental epiphenomena. The new methodology sounded really good on paper, infallible even, until one day it dawned upon the scientific housekeepers that the detritus and dust they were desperately trying to banish from sight was simply re-accumulating in the cellar. Let’s proceed with some examples. Russian scientists working to consolidate Pavlov’s paradigm in the first half of the twentieth century found that guinea pigs and rabbits subjected repeatedly to a dual prescription of a trumpet blast and a bacteria injection became conditioned to the associational network so that eventually sound alone could elicit an immune response.[2] This top-down connection between the unconscious mind and the immune system, or the limbic brain and physiology, was explored further in the 1970s by the co-founder of psychoneuroimmunology, the psychologist Robert Ader (1932-2011), and his associate Nicolas Cohen; in their experiments methodical injections of a cocktail comprised of saccharin and an immunosuppressant in lab rats inevitably forged an association between the mental prescription of sweet or anything sweet-tasting and immune suppression.[3] Roughly two decades later, Howard Hall took the final plunge into behaviourism’s no-man’s land, daring to utilize scientific advances in microbiology to authenticate past clinical anecdotes implicating the unconscious mind as the eternal wellspring of anomalous healing. Deploying strict experimental controls he was able to demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt how conscious intervention through dynamic psychotherapies like guided imagery and self-hypnosis increased white cell stickiness, thus enhancing immune function.[4] Historically, it was the first empirical demonstration of conscious mind manipulating matter.

The evolution of a mind-matter synergy shouldn’t have existed, yet here it was staring the behaviourists in the face like morning rays that light up an entire room from a peripheral slit in the shutters. To their utter consternation, dismissing it from theoretical consensus as metaphysical psychobabble a second time around was going to be even harder given that the empirical evidence in support of a mind-body link aligned with the prevailing scientific method and could be replicated by any scientist inquisitive and open-minded enough to accept the proposition as a possibility. Naturally when there’s a will there’s a way, and for a time behaviourists remedied this problem with the adoption of tyrannical attitudes towards the growing counterculture of holistic health. We know that hidden beneath the patina of any existing scientific paradigm are emotionally-charged assumptions that researchers will not part with for obvious reasons, something Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) found our when he dared to suggest that leading a repressed emotional life could manifest cancerous tumours.[5] Reich’s unintentional upsetting of the status quo was castigated and penalized in a manner that would have titillated the diabolical masterminds and frontrunners of fascist movements; in an act most paradigmatic of a barbaric and immoral attack against the spirit of true science, Reich’s intellectual corpus was gathered and incinerated at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the sole book burning event to be held in the United States and endorsed by the U.S. Constitution.

Thankfully, no scientific truth may be combusted and the ideas simply passed into the expansive continuum of practical esotericism offered by alternative paradigms like humanistic and transpersonal psychology with their emphasis on self-determination, intentionality, and subtle energy. Following in Reich’s footsteps, a psychologist working at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in the 1980s named Lydia Temoshok found that cancer patients who gave free reign to their inner emotional voices experienced accelerated rates of recovery that were significantly higher than those who did not.[6]  Again, the normal science subscribed to by the material behaviourists was implicating the indivisibility of psychological attitude and immune response, the mental and physical ontologies–no matter how many times they had attempted to exorcize it from their conceptually cleaned laboratories, it just kept popping out from the cellar like an ominous clown-faced jack-in-the-box.       

Roughly six thousand years have elapsed since thinkers from cradle civilizations like Sumer and Egypt pondered the nature of the mind-matter connection, and still we go on spinning the infinite thread, convinced that our contemporary science will soon unravel a tangle most resistant to anthropic rationalization. Whereas the behaviourists eventually faded into obscurity, the materialistic monism they were so fond of passed to the cognitive neuroscientists, a new breed of sophisticated scientists searching for system-level explanations to account for phenomena attributed to the conscious and unconscious mind. Working under the behaviourist premise of bottom-up causation, many of them will take the innumerable gamut of subjective conscious states experienced by each individual in the guise of an integrated and indivisible personal experience as evidence for a dynamic process buttressed entirely by the distinct morphology of biological structures wrought via evolutional selection. Today, arguments for the neural correlates responsible for consciousness are consistently made for brain structures like the mesencephalic reticular formation, the thalamocortical loops, the reticular formation, the intralaminar thalamic nuclei, and the tangential intracortical network of layers I-II.[7] Polemics have sparked over which areas, neural subsets, and neural properties take part in fabricating conscious experience and which do not, an experimental endeavour bound to raise far more questions than what it can answer. The idea of mind as an emergent property of the brain is known as the embodied mind hypothesis. If the empirical validity of this contemporary paradigm is absolute, then there should be nothing in the experimental corpus suggestive of authentic communication between nonlocal minds in the absence of physical mechanisms.  But there is, and plenty of it.

In 1974, the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson examined young children who could recall memories connected to deceased personalities which had died under violent and tragic circumstances. Among other unfathomable and anomalous characteristics, it was found that some of these children exhibited skin abnormalities and birth marks on the same areas of the body where the established prior personality had incurred its fatal injuries. After subjecting each to clinically-detached scrutinization, Stevenson selected the twenty most salient for publication in his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1974). To date this particular work offers some of the most empirically sound evidence for the doctrine of reincarnation and the survival of human personality after death and has been continually cited in journals and books on mind-matter interaction.

From this and an accumulating mass of other experimental investigations into ‘psi’ phenomena it is patently clear that mind isn’t embodied at all, but rather that mind is nonlocal in nature, a bandwidth of nonphysical energy covering multiple frequencies which are tapped, transferred, and temporarily stowed in the physical brain for the entire duration of one’s corporeal life. From what we know and understand about the universe today it appears that what we call mind is in fact subtle albeit higher frequency-based information protracting into a much denser and visible environment through cell-based biological agencies, our nervous systems. You might like to think of consciousness as the internet or online world and the brain as the desktop computer able to download software programs onto its hard drive. The gradual twentieth century shift from a particle-based universe to a universe comprised of subatomic particles which are more frequency-like in their behaviour harmonizes with this more comprehensive perspective. Speaking with reference to the aforementioned debate, Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eban Alexander has recently stipulated that, “The old paradigm of birth to death represents an outdated concept that is woefully inadequate in defining the unfolding reality of expanded awareness. Materialist science is at the end of its days as most scientists are changing their views. The old concepts are soon to be relegated to the same dust bin as ‘the earth is flat’ as we develop a more mature understanding and transcend old beliefs.”[8]

Going on what the Harvard neurosurgeon has predicted for Newtonian science, the embodied mind hypothesis, and other dominant paradigms of the mechanistic worldview, one has to wonder what kind of conceptual renovations are in stall for the proverbial chicken-egg debate in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ll learn that hidden behind the chicken-egg schematic is something far nobler, grander, and revolutionarily apocalyptic than what we had ever imagined…

[1] Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (New York, USA: HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 283.

[2] Candace B. Pert, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine (New York City, NY: Scribner, 1997), pp. 190.

[3] Ibid, pp. 190-191.

[4] Ibid, pp. 191.

[5] Ibid, pp. 191.

[6] Ibid, pp. 191-192.

[7] Gerald M. Edelman & Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (New York City, NY: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 8.  

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