01/02/01 (Revised 12/27/01)                                                                                                      S. David Stoney, Ph.D.
                                                                                                                                                         Dept. of Physiology

Towards an Ecological Neuroscience - Introduction

"When minds themselves are shown to be purely physical, then the physical itself is shown to be purely psychical."
(William P. Montague, in Charles Hartshorne, Creativity in American Philosophy, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pg. 212, 1984)

[Note: This is my first attempt at revising certain aspects of contemporary neuroscience into a form compatible with reconstructive postmodern philosophy (process philosophy).  My little essays will necessarily be somewhat crude and incomplete.  Please take what you like and leave the rest.  In considering the process philosophical approach, I ask that you try to willingly suspend disbelief.  Since the collective representations of euroamerican scientific culture are so strongly materialistic, reductionistic, and dualistic, it often takes some sustained effort and open-mindedness to begin appreciating an alternative perspective. The quotation above points to a conclusion I reached after 30 years of unsuccessfully trying to force the round peg of mind into the square hole of the brain. Perhaps, you will not take as long to grasp the real.]

I. Introduction

The patient's head was shaved in preparation for her surgery for Parkinsonism.  She was anesthetized and the wheeled into the operating room where the surgeon, the anesthetist, and the operating room staff awaited her.  The incision was made and the hole drilled into her skull, while the vial with the fetal adrenal chromaffin cells waited off to the side.  One month later, a video shows the patient - who before was confined to a wheel chair in state of rigidity with few movements - striding across the doctors office with a large grin on her face.

Wonderful! Marvelous! Another triumph for modern science and medicine?  Marvelous and wonderful, yes, but more a triumph for the power of the mind than for modern science and medicine.  This patient received a sham treatment.  She was part of the control group for an experiment utilizing fetal tissue for brain implantation and never received the implant of the adrenal chromaffin cells into her caudate nucleus and putamen. Her recovery is due entirely to the so-called "placebo effect," her own expectations about the efficacy of the procedure led to her dramatic improvement (see Reference <1> below).

The other side of this coin that calls for change in our neuroscientific perspective is represented by the elderly woman that a neurologist friend of mind told me about one day.  She had come to the doctor complaining of recent clumsiness with her movements and a slight loss of sensation in her body (arms, trunk, and legs).  MRI revealed a large tumor in her cervical spinal cord.  The tumor had compressed her dorsal columns (dorsal funiculi; 1° DC-ML system fibers) to the extent that only about 20% of fibers were still intact.  The fact that sensation and movement were intact up until about 80% of her dorsal columns were destroyed is quite remarkable.  How can a neural system continue to provide for sensation and movement without noticeable impairment when so much of it has ceased functioning?  The same phenomenon shows up in Parkinsonism, where 70-80% of nigrostriatal neurons must be lost before symptoms appear.  Could it be that some of our neurons are superfluous to normal function?

What do findings such as these mean?  Well, I am a firm believer that it only takes one white crow to prove that all crows are not black.  I believe that such findings mean that the mind can influence the brain and the body and that mind is not likely to be merely a by-product (epiphenomenon) of or strictly reducible to brain activity.  This means that development of an ecological neuroscience, one that moves beyond the solipsistic trap of deconstructive postmodern neuroscience (neuralism: brain activity = mind) is not only possible, but actually demanded.  This means that the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of things can be accepted, in conjunction with the neural dependence of embodied human consciousness.  This means that we can begin to broaden the view of ourselves and our world in such a way that science and religion are no longer seen as conflicting (see <2>).  In my judgment, such a broadening of view is critically necessary at this particular time in human history, the time when the reality of abrupt global climate change (see <3>) is becoming known.  Each person and each society is now faced with a choice between coming to grips with this knowledge or slinking away into a posthuman future of denial, environmental degradation, and ever decreasing freedom.

II. Resources

A. Papers. Copies of the following papers are on reserve at the MCG library (Neuroscience - Dr. Stoney).  They provide a more thorough and coherent description of process philosophical principles than I have been able to do in the piece I prepared (see "The Nature of Things According to Process Philosophy").

John B. Cobb, Jr., Alfred North Whitehead, In: Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pgs. 165-196, 1993.

Christian de Quincy, Past matter, present mind: A convergence of worldviews, J. Consciousness Studies 6: 91 -106, 1999. [A book review of David Ray Griffin's Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem]

David Ray Griffin, Of minds and molecules: Postmodern medicine in a psychosomatic universe, In: The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, David Ray Griffin (Ed.), Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pgs. 141-163, 1988.

David Ray Griffin, Charles Hartshorne, In: Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pgs. 141-163, 1988.

B. Books.  I have asked the MCG library to order the following books:
David Ray Griffin (Ed.), The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.

David Ray Griffin et al, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.

David Ray Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, SUNY Press, 1997.

David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.

David Ray Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts, SUNY Press, 2000

John A. Jungerman, World in Process: Creativity and Interconnection in the New Physics, SUNY Press, 2000.

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

C. Website.  I have developed a website, David Stoney's Iced Neuron, that describes aspects of process philosophy, our climate predicament, and possible interconnections with the nature of human consciousness and the idea of freedom.  This site contains additional references and links.

III. Process philosophy and medicine.  I particularly recommend the following paper, which moreso than the others addresses some implications of process philosophical thinking for medicine.

David Ray Griffin, Of minds and molecules: Postmodern medicine in a psychosomatic universe, In: The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, David Ray Griffin (Ed.), Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pgs. 141-163, 1988.

IV. Extent of this effort.  This being a work in progress, I hope not to intrude very much on your learning conventional or, as I sometimes call it, "party line," neuroscience.  For this reason the bulk of my forays into ecological neuroscience will be done in this forum, separate from the material presented in the classroom.   Even here my effort will only be partial, providing what I hope will be brief, but coherent, glimpses of an alternative way to conceive of somatosensory, somatomotor, and visual processing.  I do not expect that time will permit my developing process approaches to the neurobiology of hearing or to consideration of higher functions.

References and Notes

<1> Source: http://www.msnbc.com

Tapping the Power of the Placebo
Sugar pills are potent medicine when taken in the right spirit. Can we put them to practical use?

Howard Brody, M.D., Ph.D.

NEWSWEEK   August 6, 2000 — It looked like a medical miracle, and in a sense it was one. Before undergoing experimental brain surgery for her advanced Parkinson’s disease, the patient was so stiff she could barely take a step. A month or two later a TV news magazine filmed the same woman striding easily across the room. The miraculous part is that her operation was a sham.

Clearly the mind can heal the body when bolstered by hope and expectation.

As part of a study of fetal-cell transplantation, researchers had placed her under anesthesia and drilled holes in her skull—but they hadn’t placed any new cells in her brain. Her dramatic improvement was due entirely to the placebo response. The study concluded, in fact, that patients receiving the sham procedure benefited almost as much as those who had live fetal cells implanted in their brains.

For decades, the placebo response has been dismissed as the last resort of quack doctors who had no real treatments tooffer, and the fantasy improvement of gullible patients with imaginary illnesses. But the placebo response is finally coming into itsown as the subject of serious scientific study. In one recent experiment, kids given a vanilla scent with their asthma medicineeventually started responding to the vanilla scent alone. Clearly the mind can heal the body when bolstered by hope andexpectation. The question is whether we can consciously exploit the power of placebos. I believe that we can.

Researchers have identified several of the pathways linking mental states to physical health. We know, for example, that calming thoughts slow the production of harmful stress hormones. Mental states can also modulate the immune system and trigger the release of internal painkillers known as endorphins. Physicians may someday manipulate these systems mechanically, by stimulating the nerves that control them. But until then, sugar pills and sham surgeries are not the only tools at our disposal. Virtually anything that sends a patient one of four messages—someone is listening to me; other people care about me; my symptoms are explainable; my symptoms are controllable—can bring measurable improvements in health. In one study,Canadian researchers followed people who had recently approached their family physicians about headaches. The patients who said their doctors had listened closely to them also reported getting more relief, and the difference was still measurable a yearafter the visit.

Just as good physicians send these healing messages to their patients during every office visit, we can learn strategies to send them to ourselves. One strategy is to examine the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about our illness. Stories are powerful tools, for when we create a narrative about something, we feel we have explained it. In states of sickness, we tend to focus on what might go wrong and how little we can do for ourselves. Such stories can actually worsen the illness, by fostering feelings of dread and helplessness. But they’re not the only scenarios we can construct. I once had a patient who suffered from severe, frequent migraines. He was between jobs at the time, and had begun to fear that his headaches had made him unemployable. When he looked closely at his “headache he found that he was making the migraines worse. At the first twinge of pain, he was constructing a panicky theory about how he would soon be totally incapacitated. Once he had learned to reassure himself that he could handle his migraines, they became less debilitating. He soon started a new job, and after a year at work he had lost only one day of work to his headaches. In states of sickness, we tend to focus on what might go wrong and how little we can do for ourselves.

Tapping the placebo effect is not always as easy as talking to yourself. Sometimes the best strategy is to join a patient supportgroup, where you can share your story and learn from those of people in the same predicament. In a now classic study conducted at Stanford during the 1980s, psychiatrist David Spiegel showed that breast-cancer patients assigned to a support group lived an average of 18 months longer than those receiving standard care, even though their breast cancer had metastasized before the study began. If we look at the group’s activities—members listened to each other, cared for each otherand worked together to understand and manage their symptoms—its success is not surprising. These activities send the very messages that engender the placebo effect. Whether you join a support group or not, you can get more out of medicaltreatment by pursuing a sense of control.

Whether you join a support group or not, you can get more out of medical treatment by pursuing a sense of control. More than20 years ago researchers taught a group of nursing-home residents how to make more choices in their daily lives. For the next year those who received the control training enjoyed better health, and lower mortality, than residents who didn’t get the training. In another study, researchers taught patients with various chronic illnesses how to be more assertive in their dealings with physicians. In one center after another, groups of “in-charge patients showed less disability than their untrained peers. Anyone can apply these strategies to achieve better health. That’s why sugar pills are such powerful medicine. The power lies not in the pills but in ourselves.

Brody teaches family practice and medical ethics at Michigan State University, East Lansing. His book The Placebo Response: How You Can Release Your Body’s Inner Pharmacy for Better Health, was recently published by HarperCollins.

<2> For example, see David Ray Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts, SUNY Press, 2000; Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

<3> More information about the earth's climate cycle and the growing need for our society to begin taking it into account can be found in "The Nature of Things According to Process Philosophy" and at my Website (http://david8.home.mindspring.com/Website).  The National Academy of Sciences has just released a new book calling attention to this looming threat: Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises. The deal is quite big and quite simple: "Civilization, use it or lose it."