Near-death, rehashed

The story so far: Mario Beauregard published a very silly article in Salon, claiming that Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) were proof of life after death, a claim that he attempted to support with a couple of feeble anecdotes. I replied, pointing out that NDEs are delusions, and his anecdotal evidence was not evidence at all. Now Salon has given Beauregard another shot at it, and he has replied with a “rebuttal” to my refutation. You will not be surprised to learn that he has no evidence to add, and his response is simply a predictable rehashing of the same flawed reasoning he has exercised throughout.

In his previous sally, he cited the story of Maria’s Shoe, a tall tale that has been circulating in the New Age community for decades, always growing in the telling. This story is the claim that a woman with a heart condition was hospitalized, and while unconscious with a heart attack, her spirit floated out of the coronary care unit to observe a shoe on a third-floor ledge. As has been shown, she described nothing that could not be learned by mundane observation, no supernatural events required, and further, that the story is peculiarly unverifiable: “Maria” cannot be found, not even in the hospital records, and no one has been found who even knew this woman. The entire story is hearsay with no independent evidence whatsoever.

Beauregard attempts to salvage the story by layering on more detail. The description of the shoe was very specific, he says, right down to the placement of the laces and the pattern of wear, and she could not possibly have learned this by overhearing staff talking about it because “it would have been difficult for Maria to understand the location of the shoe in the hospital and the details of its appearance because she spoke very little English.” This is a curious observation; the claim is that she could not understand a description of the shoe, but she was able to describe the shoe herself to a woman, Kimberly Clark Sharp, who did not understand Spanish.

“When I got to the critical-care unit, Maria was lying slightly elevated in bed, eyes wild, arms flailing, and speaking Spanish excitedly,” recounts Sharp. “I had no idea what she was saying, but I went to her and grabbed her by the shoulders. Our faces were inches apart, our eyes locked together, and I could see she had something important to tell me.”

The question isn’t whether a seriously ill woman with poor command of English could see the shoe; it’s whether a healthy, ambulatory, English-speaking woman who has made a career out of the myth of NDEs could see the shoe. Beauregard’s additions to the anecdote do not increase its credibility at all.

Beauregard adds another anecdote to the litany, the story of another cardiac patient who was resuscitated and later recounted seeing a particular nurse while his brain was not functional. Seriously — more anecdotes don’t help his case. He threatens to have even more of these stories in a book he’s in the process of publishing, but there’s no point. He could recite a thousand vague rumors and poorly documented examples with ambiguous interpretations, and it wouldn’t salvage his thesis.

This new anecdote is more of the same. The patient is comatose and with no heart rhythm when brought into the hospital; over a week later, he claims to recognize a particular nurse as having been present during his crisis, and mentions that she put his dentures in a drawer.

I am underwhelmed. I must introduce Beauregard to two very common terms that are well understood in the neuroscience community.

The first is confabulation. This is an extremely common psychological process in which we fill in gaps in our memory with fabrications. I described this in my previous response, but Beauregard chose to disregard it. The patient above has a large gap in his memory, but he knows that he existed in that period, and something must have happened; he knows that he was resuscitated in a hospital, so can imagine a scene in which he was surrounded by doctors and nurses; he knows that his dentures are missing, so he suspects that someone put them somewhere, likely one of the people surrounding him during the emergency. So his brain fills in the gap with a plausible narrative. This whole process is routine and unsurprising, and far more likely than that his mind went wandering away from his brain.

The second term is confirmation bias. Only positive responses that confirm Beauregard’s expectations are noted. The patient guessed that a nurse he met during his routine care was also present during his episode of unconsciousness, and he was correct. What if he’d guessed wrongly? That event would be unexceptional, nobody would have made note of it, and Beauregard would not now be trotting out this incident as a vindication of his hypothesis. This is one of the problems of building a case on anecdotes; without knowledge of the range and likelihood of various results, one can’t distinguish the selective presentation of chance events from a measurable phenomenon.

While unaware of basic concepts in science, Beauregard seems to readily adopt the most woo-ish buzzwords. His explanation for this purported power of the mind to exist independently of any physical substrate is, unfortunately and predictably, quantum mechanics. Every charlatan in the world seems to believe that attaching “quantum” to a word makes it magical and powerful and unquestionable. I have to accept Terry Pratchett’s rebuttal: “‘Let’s call it Quantum!’ is not an explanation.” And neither is Beauregard’s feeble insistence that the universe possesses quantum consciousness, that psychic powers represent quantum phenomena, or that there is an infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence.

Beauregard then accuses me of having an ideological bias, and that I’m a fanatical fundamentalist. He, of course, is the dispassionate, objective observer with no axe to grind, only interested in reporting the scientific facts. Unfortunately, his book The Spiritual Brain reveals to the contrary that he has some very, very strange beliefs.

“Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being (or primordial matrix). That is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe, including both physics (material nature) and psyche (spiritual nature). Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical world…it is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe.”

If I am an ideologue, it’s only in that I demand that if you call something science, it bear some resemblance in method and approach to science, not mysticism. Beauregard insists on trying to endorse the babbling piffle above as science by reciting the number of publications he has made, and how much grant money he’s got, when I’m looking for verifiable, reproducible, measurable evidence.

I would also remind him that Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane Biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable.

(Also on Sb)

I was compelled to post this

I said I didn’t want to say anything about free will, and I still don’t, but Massimo Pigliucci weighed in, and Jerry Coyne responded, and so did Sean Carroll, and of course I created a free will thread for everyone else to talk about it, so I guess there’s a fair bit of momentum behind it all.

I don’t understand why free will was getting all tangled up in indeterminacy vs. determinism, since that seems to be a completely independent issue. I’ll sum up my opinion by agreeing with Jerry Coyne:

Of course, whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will, which in my take means that we can override the laws of physics with some intangible “will” that allows us to make different decisions given identical configurations of the molecules of the universe. That kind of dualism is palpable nonsense, of course, which is why I think the commonsense notion of free will is wrong.

My mind is a product of the physical properties of my brain; it is not above them or beyond them or somehow independent of them. It doesn’t even make sense to talk about “me”, which is ultimately simply yet another emergent property of the substrate of the brain, modifying the how the brain acts. It is how the brain acts.

I think consciousness is a product of self-referential modeling of how decisions are made in the brain in the absence of any specific information about the mechanisms of decision-making — it’s an illusion generated by a high-level ‘theory of mind’ module that generates highly simplified, highly derived models of how brains work that also happens to be applied to our own brain.

(Also on Sb)

What have the students been up to this week?

It’s another update on the bloggin’ students in my Neuroscience course, and what they’ve been thinking about.

They all welcome visits and comments!

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What have my students been thinking about lately?

I gave them an exam, that’s what. That and long boring lecturings at 8am on pattern formation in the nervous system. But otherwise, I’ve had them blogging, so we can take a peek into the brain of a typical college student and see what actually engages them.

I understand these are all the things all college students everywhere are contemplating.

(Also on Sb)

What have my students been thinking about this week?

I’ve got my neurobiology students blogging — all I ask is that they write something relevant to understanding how brains work. Let’s see where their minds are at this week, shall we?

(Also on Sb)

Wiring the brain

This story is some kind of awesome:

For those who don’t want to watch the whole thing, the observation in brief is that color perception is affected by color language. The investigators compare Westerners with our familiar language categories for color (red, blue, green, yellow, etc.) to the people of the Himba tribe in Africa who have very different categories: they use “zoozu”, for instance, for dark colors, which includes reds, greens, blues, and purples, “vapa” for white and some yellows, “borou” for specific shades of green and blue. Linguistically, they lump together some colors for which we have distinct names, and they also discriminate other colors that we lump together as one.

The cool thing about it all is that when they give adults a color discrimination test, there are differences in how readily we process and recognize different colors that corresponds well to our language categories. Perception in the brain is colored (see what I did there?) by our experiences while growing up.

The study is still missing one part, though. It’s presented as an example of plasticity in wiring the brain, where language modulates color perception…but we don’t know whether people of the Himba tribe might also have subtle genetic differences that effect color processing. The next cool experiment would be to raise a European/American child in a Himba home, or a Himba child in a Western home (this latter experiment is more likely to occur than the former, admittedly) and see if the differences are due entirely to language, or whether there are some actual inherited differences. It would also be interesting to see if adults who learned to be bilingual late experience any shifts in color perception.

(Also on Sb)

Neuro student articles

I’m teaching an upper-level course in neurobiology this term, and as I usually do, I made all the poor suffering students go out and create blogs, and I also told them they had to write one post a week about neuroscience. Today I was asked if I was going to pharyngulate their blogs, and of course I said I would. So go forth and harrass them! A word of warning, though: as many people learned last time I did this, these are not passive, cowed students, but feisty upperclassmen who are comfortable with biting back; the worst thing you can do is be condescending or patronizing.

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How am I going to fit an MRI in the bedroom?

Maybe you’ve seen this before: it’s a diagram of the sensory and motor cortex of the brain, with a little man or homunculus drawn over it to illustrate the somatic areas associated with each region. You see where the little man’s knee is on the left image of the sensory cortex? Stick an electrode in there and zap it, and a patient/victim will feel a sensation in his knee. Put the patient in an MRI and tickle his knee, and that region of the brain will light up. Cool, huh?

Another cute feature: look in the medial longitudinal fissure. You see the homunculus’s toes, and right down there, located beyond the toes, is where the genital sensory area is located. Poke at that with an electrode and…we’re talking happy time at the Mad Scientists’ convention. But notice, though, that in the diagram of the homunculus, the poor creature’s genitals are drawn, and they’re male. It’s a bit sexist, don’t you think?

This bias has now been corrected.

a team led by Lars Michels at University Children’s Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to confirm that the position of the clitoris on the homunculus was in approximately the same position as the penis in men. Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and his colleagues have now used the same method to map the position of the clitoris, vagina and cervix on the sensory cortex as women stimulated themselves.

I read these things, and I think to myself that I really went into the wrong research field. Oh, well.

They also discovered something else.

Komisaruk also checked what happened when women’s nipples were stimulated, and was surprised to find that in addition to the chest area of the cortex lighting up, the genital area was also activated. “When I tell my male neuroscientist colleagues about this, they say: ‘Wow, that’s an exception to the classical homunculus,’” he says. “But when I tell the women they say: ‘Well, yeah?’” It may help explain why a lot of women claim that nipple stimulation is erotic, he adds.

Now, as a true nerd and as a typical male who has always been mystified by the female sexual response, I feel a deep craving to plumb the mysteries with my own personal fMRI scanner. It’ll also be a research project that will go over well at the next Mad Scientists’ convention.

(Also on Sb)