A very brief exploration of consciousness, neuropsychology and psychotherapy
by David St. John, Ph.D.
I am losing my mind, and I think you may be too.
That is to say, slowly, and methodically, the mind has been evaporating from the discourse of conventional psychology. So too, its twin consciousness. They have followed the way of many other concepts that are unable—however naturally—to fit into the severity of empirical measurement (think ego, will, spirit, soul). The difficult to define, impossible to capture and infinitely elusive mind has been disappearing, drying up like a stream in a great creative drought. Into the emptiness that stretches the sands of conformational science on and on and on…
See the birth and rise of the brain, with it’s vast array of chemical charms and photogenic capabilities. It flashes its smile and we’re captivated. Through PET scan and MRI portrait, we’re dazzled by its functional beauty, its promise of power—its whisper of control. The shimmer of grey and white matter is all that matters. It’s the philosopher’s stone that psychology had searched so hard, so long to find. The fleshy rock to stick its electrodal flag as it claims victory in the long battle to become a science.
For at least a hundred years, the brain has been the promise of Western psychology. Disregard the fact that consciousness—from Wundt’s scientific introspection to Freud’s analytic insight—was the first spark of modern psychology. It’s the jelly-like fuel in the head that has nourished the flame. Everything has become secondary to that organ: thoughts, memories, language, feelings, creativity, inspiration, dreams, imagination—all behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Every thing that makes us human comes from the body of the mind. That is, the brain.
Even when there has been a complete lack of empirical evidence for such a neuro-centric fantasy, it was taken on faith that through an allegiance to the scientific method, the brain would prevail. And prevail it has. Now we know that all we experience, all that we are, is the effect of an electro-chemical dance of fire in the skull. The immaterial mind—once the core of human experience—is a mere side-effect of an organic computational network. Consciousness is a neurologically-generated illusion.
At least that’s what some would have us believe.
It is little wonder that one particular thing would be the touchstone of truth within psychology. It is little wonder that that one particular thing would be material. The brain is not an accident. It is the inevitable offspring of at least two major philosophical discourses embedded in our current psychological way of thinking: scholastic philosophy, with it’s deep singular assumptions, and scientific positivism, with its material demands. The one truth of god meets the material truth of science, as understood by psychology. A few superficial glimpses of history for context:
In the beginning, there were hunter/gatherers, who lived in different tribes throughout the globe. Our best, fantastic guess—based on the fossil record, ancient historical writings, and modern day interactions with present day hunter/gatherers—tells us very little. Thought to be anatomically identical, but psychologically different, then modern humans, they had a perspective—perceptions—we can only imagine: of spirit and land and magic. Their world was alive. The wind, and the sun, the land, ocean and sky: purposeful and aware. Gods and goddesses, directing our fates—for good and ill. There were as many groups of spirits and deities as their were tribes. For hundreds of thousands of years they roamed, until the domestication of plants and animals, and the rise of cities in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.
Around 3000 years ago, there was a great western push against the folly of the primitive mind. Classical Greek thinking, writing and mathematics began to drive away the world of spirit. The magical forces were split—the gods mere myth, the elements only nature. A great Platonic struggle to fit the world into a cohesive form of logic: well defined and well meaning. An Aristotelian study of an ultimately purposeful world, to be examined and understood. The rationality of the Greek mind rides to Rome like Caesar, and beyond to conquer the world: through words of war, wit and bureaucracy.
Soon enough though—1500 years ago—another shift. The collapse of the Roman Empire, followed rather quickly by the rise of the Roman Church. Scholastic philosophy, with the degrading of the body and world, rules the thinking of the day. Augustine struggles with the rationality of the mind, the pleasures of the body and the purity of the soul. The soul wins, of course: the mind is runner up, and the body a distant last. Soul is everything. No spirit—no body. Articles of faith shackle free thought, and focus it on One Truth: there is One God, One Faith and One Church.
For hundreds of years, the church held the power of truth. About 500 years ago, that power began to be siphoned towards a new way of understanding: the study of the natural world using the rational mind alone. First, Occam, and then Galileo and Newton. An objective—and increasingly secular—perspective, as the mind is used in the service of science. Reduction, prediction and control of nature and all of her phenomena is the promise. All except, of course, the soul. Descartes deftly shields that immaterial essence from scientific discourse, preserving it for religious discourse.
The mind—which is both not of the soul and not of the body—is up for grabs. Philosophers Hume and Kant struggle with its illusiveness, conceptualizing it both as beyond the body, and trapped in it; both passively blank and innately active; tragically finite and transcendently eternal. Endless argument and counterargument, through axiom, proof, syllogism, dialectic and metaphor. Around and around they go, until finally, a little over a hundred years ago, they just gave up. Why struggle through rational debate, when one can prove through scientific observation alone?
Science positivism became the new force of understanding the world. At first controlled by the church, it quickly broke away, and it’s powerful perspective was unleashed. Although with a radically different method, like the church, it had a single-minded focus: the search for the essence of all matter; to find the laws of nature. This new method of knowledge spread throughout Academia, and the world, and was soon on the mind of almost everyone: especially the new psychologists.
From its inception, American psychology grappled with how to define itself. Simplistically saying, there have been two view points on how best to define what psychology does: psychology as hard science—similar to physics, chemistry and biology, and psychology as soft science—like history, anthropology or linguistics. Traditionally, Titchner and Hall on the one side, with their strict rules regarding objective subject matter, and James on the other, with his radical empiricism: whatever a person experiences is worthy of psychological investigation.
Of course, both sides were interested in the mind: that stuff that seemed so particular to human beings. But what was mind? What was the strange awareness thought to be familiar only to humans? For the majority of recorded human existence, it seems that the elusive character of the mind was accepted. How else could one relate to it? It was beyond measure; it was of divine inspiration. All human experience emanates from this immaterial and holy essence: to try to hold it was like grasping on air.
But as the great power that was science began to show its greatness—through great explosions of industry and ingenuity—leaving the mind in an insubstantial state was unacceptable. To define and measure—to control—this subtle phenomena was the key to the new field of psychology. It too would be great and powerful. Therefore, it needed tough-minded classifications—a solid, masterful approach. If not, it would end up as flimsy as philosophy, or even worse: as fanciful as art.
The hard science of psychology won out—at least in academia—and the more tender aspects of psychology were brushed off to the sidelines as quickly as possible. But rigid psychology soon struggled with it’s own success. Psychology needed an object of study, and in the beginning, all it had were a few introspective studies of consciousness, and some borrowed psychophysical measurements from physiology. How was that a hard science? It needed something tangible, and quick. If psychology was to fit in—show itself to be equal to the other branches of modern knowledge—it needed something to measure. It needed something solid to justify it’s place in the new world of knowledge.
Psychology had a few choices at how best to make its subject an acceptable object; that is, how to create an objective subject. One way was through description and metaphor, using eloquent theories and interesting case studies. But that would be too much like the philosophy it was trying to replace, and was blasted by critics as pseudoscience. Another way was through statistical inference: indirect measurement gained by the ever-so-rigid method of paper and pencil questionnaires. As popular as this technique was to become, it would only confirm psychology as soft—merely a social science of between subject observations and interpretations. Yet another focused exclusively on observable behaviors. That worked quite well for a while, but was ultimately unsatisfying for most psychologists, as they yearned to see inside the ‘black box.’
Luckily, there was something handy that would prove worthy. Something that for the decades leading up to the birth of psychology, had gathered more and more scientific credence. Something that met the criteria of scholastic philosophy’s belief in One Truth, and scientific positivism’s essential materialism. Something that was obviously and consistently correlated with the mind. Something that was as material as a rock, and as measurable as a 3 lb bag of gold. The brain.
Neuropsychology, as measured by scientific standards, is the dominant force within psychology today. It has generated thousands of empirically-based papers, has an impressive array of technologies—X-rays, EEGs, MRIs, PET scans—and supports hundreds of pharmaceutical interventions.
The master human organ, with its billions of neurons, thousands of neural path ways, hundreds of neurotransmitters, and how it might impact behavior, is the focus of this psychological specialty. Through it, much has been learned about the effects that the brain has on other bodily organs, on our senses, on our ability to think, plan or remember. Yet, peruse a text book on biopsychology, or handbook of neuroscience, and there is almost no mention of the mind or consciousness. Although in the beginning it was one of the primary goals, after over a hundred years of examining the brain—searching through its many folds, fissures and cavities—no ‘agent’ or ‘global work space’ or ‘unifying center’ has been found. There is still no known physical substance to the sense of ‘I’ or self that pays attention, processes information from the environment, thinks, plans or remembers. That, to me, is striking.
As is the habit of most dominate systems of thinking, instead of openly addressing a problem it might have—and this absence of mind is a rather serious problem—neuroscience simply pretends there is no problem. Instead, it justifies. One popular defense states that because terms like mind and consciousness are so vague, and lack even the most basic scientific credence, they should be avoided lest one be caught using an un-objective concept. Who cares that we all experience them on a daily basis. Another common cover is that the brain creates the experience of mind, therefore the mind is only a secondary condition, and consequently not worthy of serious attention. Why worry about an effect when the cause is so much more essential?
Of course, there is absolutely no scientific basis for the claim that the brain creates the mind. No doubt, there is an undeniable connection between the two. No doubt, it can be shown that by affecting certain parts of the brain, certain aspects of the mind are affected as well (e.g. a blow to the head, tumors, chemical substances). But it can also be shown that certain states of mind affect the brain (e.g. mediation, listening to music, learning). Both demonstrate a relationship—not a cause. Which creates which, how one is affected by the other, remains unknown. To claim that the brain creates mind is a claim based purely on faith and convention.
For the better part of the 20th century, the adult brain was thought to be static. There were no normal structural changes (e.g. neuronal growth). When there were changes, they were abnormal (e.g. tumors, traumas, dementia). Lately, this assumption has not only been questioned, but overturned. The brain is now thought to be flexible: it changes on the neuronal level with experience. Like virtually all aspects of neurology, the exact mechanisms of how it changes is still unknown, but the idea that the brain can be physically altered by experience has gained dominance in the last 15 years.
This new assumption of the brain—neuroplasticity—radically changes the relationship between mind and brain. If the brain can be changed by experience, than the primacy of the brain over the mind is called into question. It is now equally possible that the mind (or consciousness) can have primacy over the brain. Experiences—both behaviorally external and mentally internal—effect the brain. This can (and should) have very real impacts on many different aspects of psychology.
Specifically, psychotherapy should be reconsidered in the context of neuroplasticity. In general, psychotherapy has often been criticized as being less powerful, and less relevant a psychological intervention when compared to psychopharmaceuticals—the neuropsychological intervention of choice. It does not have a direct impact on the brain as a drug is thought to have. Instead, the effects of psychotherapy (indeed if there are any) are merely effects on theoretical and metaphoric aspects of the mind. As the mind receded into the background to make room for the great and powerful brain, the importance of psychotherapy has faded as well.
But does that make sense when consideration is given to a brain the can be altered by and with experience? Might not the experience of psychotherapy have a direct impact on the brain? Might not insight, interpretations, empathy and other psychological interventions transform the mind and the brain?
Currently, neuropsychology holds great sway over politicians, healthcare providers, psychologists, professors and the public at large. Like so many other areas of science, the philosophical assumptions of neuropsychology have, for the most part, gone unquestioned. But to ignore the assumptions underlying traditional neuroscience is to ignore a rich and important area of intellectual and creative material. The opening of the brain through neuroplasticity might be an opening for other areas of psychology to rethink what they have to offer to psychology as a whole.
The study of the mind is as crucial for understanding the human condition as ever. Given the potential power of the changing brain, it is likely that the diverse theoretical approaches of the mind could shed light on the diverse aspects of the brain. The divisive divisions between the different traditional theories of psychology—psychoanalysis, humanism, existentialism, cognitive/behaviorism—seem so much less important now. For all their supposed differences, at their core, they share something fundamental: a belief in the mind. When compared to neuropsychology, this common belief out weighs all of their many important variations of perspective.
The brain is not an unmoving stone. The brain is a dynamic system that is intimately correlated with our sense of self—our sense of spirit. But so, too, is the mind. To attempt to make the philosophically difficult concept of consciousness disappear is to make us disappear. The material and the immaterial are mysteriously intertwined in our experiences of the space between our skull. If we lose that space, we lose our minds.
And the mind is a terrible thing to waste.
For further readings on neuroplasticity and other mind/brain discussions, consider:
Doidge, N (2007) The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking Publishing.
Schwartz, M. & Begley, S. (2003) The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial.
Kelly, E., Kelly, E, Crabtree, A and Gauld, A. (2006). The Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology For the 21st Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
David St. John, Ph.D
. is a core doctoral faculty member at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, in Farmington Hills, MI. His is also a board member of the Academy for the Study of the Psychoanalytic Arts, and has a private practice in Plymouth, MI. This paper was first published in the October 2009 Newsletter of the Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.
Dr. St. John may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org