Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

Warning: Materialists need go no further. Well, that’s an exaggeration — materialists without an open mind should go no further, that much is certain. Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain makes a courageous attempt to resurrect a dualist perspective on cognition primarily by trying to illustrate the brain as a quantum system (which it is) but his argument ultimately falls a few planck lengths short. That’s not to say that the argument isn’t extremely compelling. Moreover what you will learn about neurophysiology and the phenomenon of neuroplasticity along the way will fascinate you.

The book’s progression is a leisurely and meandering walk through the philosophy of the mind, what is known about the operation of the mind, some discussion of specific clinical examples of OCD and therapy, some history of neuroscience, controversial experiments on monkeys (personally, the most difficult portion of the book to get through), a lesson in quantum mechanics and finally some proposals on the operations of a quantum brain and what that might imply for free will and moral philosophy. Schwartz pretty clearly has this last conclusion in mind from the very beginning and he makes no bones about it. All of us, since Darwin, have had personal difficulties with determinism and contending with the fact that if we are biological machines, we don’t feel like it. And whereas other authors might belabor this point and wax on about the horror of a world without moral philosophy and choice, Schwartz doesn’t linger but assumes that we all are pretty uncomfortable with the idea and moves straight into the story of his investigations and what is ultimately the first reasonable and potentially possible argument on behalf of dualism in a very long, long time.

More than anything, what is compelling about the book is that it is the story of an investigation. You learn as he learns. The book is at best, well written — possibly the contribution of co-author Sharon Begley. And if earlier I mentioned that the story meanders, that was not a criticism — it meanders like a walk through garden of ideas. “Over here, you see, we have neuroplasticity, and on your right, examples of OCD therapy that show how that works.” Schwartz does an excellent job of telling the story of his investigation while explaining all the foundational ideas along the way. To me, the book represents a prime example of the kind of synthetic writing that is necessary in an age of Knowledge when all around are specialists. Schwartz deftly moves through several of the sciences with great expertise, pulling a myriad of ideas together. It is for this reason that even those who can’t swallow a dualist argument should still read the text — for the sheer art of it.

So if the story is well told, does the ultimate argument in favor of free will, or what Swchartz calls volition, hold? Almost. I won’t attempt to reconstruct the argument here — read the book — but I will say that the argument hinges on the Quantum Zeno effect and the idea that the mind can make observations in the brain, or hold attention or “mental force”, that allow for the collapse of superpositions of particles and the subsequent firings of neurons. And Schwartz does an excellent job of describing and explaining all the phenomena involved in this process such as the Quantum Zeno Effect, quantum mechanics, neurons, and neuroplasticity. It’s just that something is missing. It is, according to Schwartz, volition or a mental force that allows for the constant observation of neuronal states, thereby allowing us to make choices of attention and he posits that this mental force is a quality of the universe, not unlike gravity or mass. From his point of view, it’s not entirely important what this mental force is, only that we can see how it interacts with the brain, solving the “problem” of the mind-brain interaction in dualism. I personally am not thrilled about a theorized force in the universe for which there seems to be no empirical evidence. A consciousness particle would be nice. I don’t believe this flaw pulls down the entire argument however. It leaves the question open and within there is a lot of room for free will and a “resurrection” of moral philosophy.

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