SNR Episode 17 - Stretching Things
BBC website summarising the Horizon documentary "The Secret You"
Video clip of the final experiment, about decision making.
Article appearing in the Student Journal of Science and Mathematics, Montgomery College, outlining the scientists at the forefront of investigation into cellular memory. As you'll see from the websites listed below, some of these professionals make much of their scientific qualifications and specific findings, while at the same time promoting and making money from broader theories about consciousness and spirituality for which they do not have reviewed or peer verified evidence.
Candace Pert's website
Gary Schwartz' website
Paul Pearsall's website
Extract from the abstract of an article written by Gary Schwartz and Paul Pearsall, which appeared in the March 2002 edition of the Journal of Near Death Studies.
UK newspaper Daily Mail, an article from 2006 about William Sheridan, a heart transplant patient whose talent for drawing improved significantly after surgery. Unfortunately, the images were no longer available, so I found this link:
with samples of William Sheridan's artwork before and after the transplant.
***With special thanks to the Shrink Rap Radio discussion forum for their help. Please visit the Shrink Rap Radio website - www.shrinkrapradio.com - to hear the best know psychology podcast hosted by David van Nuys, PhD.
Hello and welcome to episode seventeen of “The Naked Soul”. I'm Heather Gout. I must apologise to anyone who was not able to download a programme or whose subscription seemed to stop working. Around the end of November there were some network problems at Podbean.com, and as a result I had to republish the most recent shows to make them accessible on iTunes. I haven't yet checked to see whether any older episodes were affected. If you haven't been able to download or stream a particular show, whichever way you choose to get it, please leave a comment on the website, which is at snrpodcast.livejournal.com, and I will look into it.
A couple of things have got my attention in the last months of 2009. In mid-October the BBC televised a short documentary hosted by the mathematician Marcus de Sautoy, and titled “The Secret Self”. It was an interesting compilation of experiments designed to test how humans become aware of the outside world and how we form our concept of Self. I probably would have missed it, because I don't keep up with television as well as I do other things. But thankfully, a colleague at work had seen the show when it was aired and told me early enough, so that I could watch it using the BBC's online player. He was really excited by what he'd seen, particularly one experiment. You can view a clip from this part of the programme on YouTube, and I have put a link on the The Naked Soul website, but in case you are not able to view it for whatever reason I'll describe how the experiment was set up.
The host, Marcus de Sautoy, was going to be put inside a NMR or nuclear magnetic resonator, which could transmit images of his brain to remote monitors where researchers could record his neural activity. His eyes were covered, and his ears were plugged. He was given two remote control units, one to hold in his left hand and one in his right. And once they moved his head inside the resonator, he was asked to press the buttons on either these units as he chose – how often he pushed either button was entirely up to him. After a few minutes of this activity, he was taken out of the machine, had his eye and ear protection removed, and was taken to see the images that had been saved on the remote monitors. And the researchers could demonstrate that, six seconds before his finger pressed his chosen button, a particular cluster of neurons in a very small area in the centre of his brain activated. And depending on which neurons fired, the researchers could predict which button would be pressed before Marcus performed the action himself.
If you are able to watch the video, you'll see how shocked Marcus is by the result, which he interprets as proof against the existence of free will. I was underwhelmed, to say the least, and a bit annoyed, if I'm honest. It seemed to me that very broad conclusions were being drawn from very specific data, and probably I was annoyed because, at the same time I watched “The Secret Self” I happened to be doing research into another phenomenon that also has to do with our sense of identity. You may have heard of it. It's the theory of cellular memory, which postulates that our recollections and personal preferences are not just stored in our brains but also in other organs, particularly the heart. The evidence, at present, comes from the recipients of donated organs. These transplant patients have reported that post-surgery, they experience cravings they never had before, relive memories that aren't theirs, and even show ability in areas where before they weren't particularly talented, such as painting.
When I first heard about cellular memory, I was interested because I had been wondering whether the brain was a closed cognitive system, the way we've usually regarded it, or whether instead, it is just the principle organ of a larger system. If cellular memory did exist, the only thing I felt it might 'disprove' was any dualistic view that the mind was entirely a different entity from the body. And it would open up more questions about the nature and boundaries of consciousness – just open them up, -- not necessarily indicate where investigation might need to go from there, if it could go anywhere at all.
Then I went on the internet, to find out exactly what was known about cellular memory and who was doing the research. And what can I say about that? This is the point where I don't know how to describe what I found without seeming to insult the professionals who associate themselves with the theory. I almost think you should go to the same websites I visited and judge for yourself, so I've included them in the usual notes I put on snrpodcast.livejournal.com.
To get started, I read an article that appeared in the student journal of science and mathematics at Montgomery College, Maryland, published in 2003. It gave me names of the main scientists looking into cellular memory, people like Dr. Gary Schwartz, Dr. Candace Pert and Dr. Paul Pearsall. I went to each of their websites, all three, and all three times I had a moment of uncertainty. For example, when I typed in the URL that was supposed to belong to Gary Schwartz, PhD, the Harvard trained psychologist, I thought I must have made some mistake. I thought I must be looking at the website belonging to a different Gary Schwartz, because the homepage was promoting three books about sprituality and healing, and the site was too colourful, full of philosophical quotes and more New Age in style and presentation. The same happened with Candace Pert's site and Paul Pearsall's – lots of pretty rainbow colours and chakra diagrams and books about feeling God or scarier, scientific evidence for God.
But because I'd made up my mind to read what they had to say about cellular memory, I ignored my discomfort and went exploring within those websites. I could only find a brief mention of the transplant cases on Paul Pearsall's site, but that didn't include any data. I couldn't find references to any peer reviewed articles they'd published on that subject. What I could have obtained, quite easily, were their numerous books expounding their theories about mind and body health, which made unwavering claims to the effect that science could demonstrate things I was pretty sure science could not.
That's how my research started. So you can see it wasn't going very well, and then along came Marcus de Sautoy's documentary and this simple experiment that was supposed to be so shocking and prooving that there was no such thing as free will, and that all our decisions are made six seconds before we're conscious of making them. Oh God. Well all right, I'm a postmodern girl and I shouldn't have to be told that pure objectivity is a fiction. We experience everything through some kind of personal filter; every reaction is going to be a subjective, personal one. Fine. But should that justify going off the deep end? Just because objectivity is an unreachable ideal, should we just give up and not even try to modify the worst personal bias or careless extrapolation?
Let me talk first about the so called 'decision making' experiment. I cannot see how the researchers who conduct it could conclude from the results that all our decisions are made prior to our conscious awareness, or without its involvement. The task they gave Marcus de Sautoy was simple – yes, I think I could use the word mindless to describe it – mindless button pushing. There was no wrong way to push those buttons; there was no penalty or reward attached to the choices, nothing to make choosing the least bit complex. A human infant or an animal with a much simpler brain could have successfully carried out the button pushing, and who would be surprised if the part of the creature's brain that activated turned out to be something equivalent to the region the researchers identified in Marcus de Sautoy's brain? It's not news that we brought much of our animal brain with us as we evolved, and I hope it's no insult to animals to say that only an animal brain would be needed for this experiment. It hasn't disproved the existence of free will; it's just a demonstration of the sensible use of cognitive resources. Naturally the subconscious would take care of such a straightforward task, in the same way it carries out so many other motor skills like walking and driving, so we don't have to think consciously about them, so that our conscious mind has the freedom to deal with the more complicated stuff.
And it seems that, in a similar way, the advocates of cellular memory theory want to take their evidence, which is thin on the ground to begin with, and popularise the idea that they have proved the continuation of consciousness after death, or that our subconscious mind is actually our body.
Why does this happen? This is what really unnerves me, how so often science is pushed and stretched to try and get it to reach past the place where it actually is, past the actual findings of the actual data. It just smells of desperation, like all we really want is quick answers. And not just that, but that we want to make sure they are the kind of answers we like.
While I was preparing this script, I gave the cellular memory theory one last chance. I went to the discussion forum for “Shrink Rap Radio”, the best known psychology podcast, and asked Dr. David Van Nuys PhD, and other participants if they knew about any research on cellular memory that hadn't been conducted by someone with established beliefs about the nature of consciousness. No one had any new names they could suggest. Dr. Van Nuys kindly ran a search on the Psychinfo database and found one paper authored by Gary Schwartz and Paul Pearsall, printed in the March 2002 edition of the Journal of Near Death Studies. The entire paper is accessible to the general public for a fee of thirty four US dollars. But I was able to read part of the abstract for free. It still made me curious, but at the same time wary. I'll quote portions of it, but again I've posted a link to this abstract on the website, so please have a look for yourself:
The paper begins, “It is generally assumed that learning is restricted to neural and immune systems. However, the systemic memory hypothesis predicts that all dynamical systems that contain recurrent feedback loops store information...” Systemic memory hypothesis seems to be the formal term Drs. Schwartz and Pearsall use for cellular memory. I was interested to note that they do not make a statement to the effect that their research has led them to a hypothesis, but that their hypothesis would predict a certain result from any data gathered. I wasn't able to determine from the abstract how many patients took part in the study, only that it included ten heart or heart-lung recipients, and that the outcomes were measured by transcripts of taped interviews. They state unequivocally that “the effects of the immunosuppressant drugs, stress of surgery, and statistical coincidence are insufficient to explain the findings”, and without reading the full paper I couldn't comment.
I was a struck by their assertion, “Sensitive transplant patients may evidence personal changes that parallel the history of the donors.” I wanted to know how they determined the existence of this sensitivity, or lack of it. How could they be sure that an organ recipient who didn't experience any personal change was less sensitive than one who did? What exactly were they less sensitive to, and how could that be measured?
There you have my dilemma. I love the edges of science, the stuff we wish we could explain like the nature of consciousness. But I don't think we should rush things. I don't think it's wise to start anticipating the end of an investigation before all the facts are in. And I know it's hard to wait, and I know it's hard to give space to the idea that we might die and still not know what we actually were, what the Self actually was, or is, if it continues to exist after the body and brain stop working. This has always been our problem, mortality. I hate it – everybody hates it. But by now we should be aware of it to the extent that we could maybe, hopefully know when it is seeping into our search for answers and, well, getting in the way.
I write this as another year is dying, and since my birthday falls in January I also get a little closer to the end of whatever it is that I am. Sometimes I can feel better about that if I consider the idea that I have always been changing, since I was conceived and before. Microscopic amounts of random material came together to make me, and since then I've been losing cells and making new ones and that hasn't been so bad. Death would mean that the stuff which happens to be 'me' at that point in time would be free to go and become other things. That isn't so much an afterlife as a constant, never stopping process of change, during which there was an period of awareness called me. I don't have an explanation for the awareness, but if there is a well organised, spiritualist afterlife of the kind Gary Schwartz believes in, I'll get that answer soon enough. I won't need to stretch science to try and grasp it, prove it, or use scientific credentials to bring more credibility to the whole idea. If it's there, it's there.
I'd like to close by thanking the members of Shrink Rap Radio's discussion forum for their help preparing this show. If anyone listening isn't already subscribed to one of Dr. David van Nuys' podcasts, I am going to make a shameless for both Shrink Rap Radio and Wise Counsel, which he hosts. These are in depth interviews with psychology professionals, covering not only the history of our study of the mind, if you're a novice and need an introduction to the subject, but also investigates the most recent developments and theories. You'd be hard pressed to find this kind of material anywhere else, so do check it out. Go to www.shrinkrapradio.com and sample one of the podcasts. That's what I did, and it only took one to convince me to subscribe.
Hopefully 2010 will bring fresh material, because at the moment I don't have a clue what I'm going to talk about in February's show. I will have to wait for inspiration. So until then, thank you for listening and I hope you'll join me again to find out...next time.