Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Evolving Your Brain" some interesting and inspiring science with an unneccessary spin

My review of "Evolving Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind", (author Joe Dispenza).

Interesting neuroscience, inspiring message, and some old philosophy in new clothes

Overall I enjoyed reading this book, although I did find it somewhat misleading regarding the scientific "paradigm" it offers and the minority philosophical points underlying it, and I was disappointed that there was not more practical applications of the author's interesting model.

My take on this book was almost the opposite of many of the other reviewers here who were either so impressed by the fact that someone would try to sue use science to support "free will" or so dismayed by the amount neuroscience in this book. Neither of those things seems that impressive to me. There *is* a lot of neuroscience here, and much of it is better than average (for a popular non-technical book anyway), but there is also some crude and I think poorly thought out philosophy as well. And the ironic thing for me was that the principles the author espouses for change are pretty mundane and don't really require either the neuroscience or the "consciousness precedes matter" philosophy.

The reasonable principles include such straightforward suggestions as envisioning your end point to organize action, using deliberate shifts of attention to change direction, using rehearsal to change habits, identifying destructive habits of thought, take responsibility for change, and make well-being a priority. Great ideas, but they don't really need the intro to neurosci or quantum physics in my opinion.

Brain science would have been more appropriate if the author had gone into more details about how we make decisions, showing how to influence the thinking process (e.g. see The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research 3rd Edition, (Howard)), but he avoids *that* sort of research, probably because it would dilute the philosophical message of "free will" that the author seems very concerned with promoting. If there are causal influences on thought, then it doesn't seem so free afterall, the opposite of the rhetorical message of this book.

The author does a pretty good job most of the time selecting and deriving pertinent lessons from neuroscience data and he gives some optimistic and realistic applications for how we can and do change ourselves sometimes. Where there is practical advice given, most of it seems very good to me, which is why I like this book overall and gave it a fairly good rating as inspirational self-help that tries hard to be scientific. As such it may for many people turn out to be a nice corrective to the scientific pessimism they find from many old school medical and psychological experts who are overly deterministic in their prognoses. I guess that's why so many reviewers seem so taken with this book, it does have an element of hope in it dressed in science, and we are more used to getting skepticism or pessimism in scientific treatments.

The author and I both seem to agree that we *can* change ourselves and influence our healing processes deliberately to some degree by rewiring our own nervous system in places, and we both also respect and commit ourselves to scientific causal models. We also both seem to be "compatibilists," people who beleive that our sense of free will and scientific determinism can be adequately reconciled. That far, I liked this book. We may disagree on the limits of self-change in practice in some specific spots, but I think the basic concept of self-healing and self-change is sound and welcome.

However the author also seems to have struggled with the philosophical problem of "top-down causation" at some point and I don't agree with or like the resolution he came up with. The whole concept from the start begins with the idea that thoughts trigger all sorts of physical things that have lasting effects. The author spends a lot of time in the book giving detailed examples of this. I have no problem with that, although it should be mentioned that this is not something new, it has been pretty well documented for decades by other authors, e.g. The Healer Within: The New Medicine of Mind and Body (Locke) and Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing: New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis (Rossi).

The problem with this particular book that I didn't have with those others is: where did the thought itself come from and what is its manifestation in the brain? That's where the author mostly just hand waves the brain mechanisms and defers to the ancient archaic version of "free will" as something that floats free of physical reality through some obscure unspecified quantum mechanical rationale. Why does he need this stretch to point out that we can change ourselves? I don't think he does.

The way thoughts themselves arise is one of the most important and interesting aspects of brain science, and still largely a mystery. The author's good but selective review of neuroscience mentions "free will" a lot but never all the wonderful data that has been accumulated regarding how we make decisions or where our perceptions and misperceptions of "free will" come from. Free will, in the sense that it actually exists and is worth seeking, is not something that escapes the brain and then reprograms it as the author claims, it is a result of that same remarkable brain, even if not entirely understood. At least that is a more interesting and promising line scientifically than hand waving about quantum weirdness and how "thoughts" as disembodied entities cause things to happen in the body. From my perspective, the illusion that makes us feel as if thought has to be non-physical is addressed well in: The Illusion of Conscious Will (Wegner) and Freedom Evolves (Dennett).

This "new paradigm" of the author is actually more philosophy and pop science speculation than hard science I think. It isn't terrible by any means, or impossible, and he isn't alone in considering it, but it is not really a new scientific model at all in any interesting experimental sense. It has been around for a while and has had a small, marginal, but dedicated following outside of mainstream science (and more broadly in popular media).

The author applies the problematic "consciousness is prior to matter" philosophical stance and then at the end of the book he throws in the traditional idiosyncratic interpretation of quantum physics to make the point more "scientific." To be fair, this view is reasonable philosophically and more to the point, I suppose may help non-scientists better appreciate human potential for change, which seems to be the author's primary overriding goal. But personally I think it is a technically completely unneccessary and misleading way to resolve the issue raised by top-down causation. For details on the philsophical issues, Jaegwon Kim's books are particularly helpful, such as: Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem and Mental Causation (Kim).

"Top-down causation," is the problem of how the mind, as a product of the brain, can then turn around and influence the body. I would say that this is a problem of how some aspects of brain function can influence others. The author instead joins those modern day Cartesians who evade the scientific problem with philosophy by making "thought" something outside of the physical world that causes things to happen in the physical world. Yes, I agree with the author that whatever a thought is in the brain does cause other things to happen in the body, but I disagree with him that it requires a weird non-physicalist take on consciousness and quantum mechanics to achieve this in principle. I particularly don't like that he claims this is some sort of new scientific paradigm. It is an old philosophical idea. There's a nice account of the difference between this intuitive view and the scientific worldview in: The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (Flanagan).

This idea is certainly considered seriously by some philosophers, especially those who feel it is impossible to solve "hard problems" like qualia with physical explanations. But there is very little science here that applies to these ideas unless you really stretch and squint an awful lot at a few marginal experiments that could just as well be interpreted in other ways.

More importantly, the book doesn't really have as much in the way of practical ideas as I would have liked. The "science of changing your mind" should actually have a lot in it about changing your mind, rather than just explaining why it should be possible to change your mind.

So I don't think this was pioneering science because of its unneccessary odd digressions of philosophy and quantum physics, and I don't think it is a good how-to book, but I think the author makes a good case from neuroscience for the possibility of changing ourselves. I did find some value in the author's general model of how we change, but that would have made a better article than a book.

If the author had taken his model of change and neuroscience references and applied them to many practical examples rather than using them to promote an idiosyncratic underlying theory, this would have been a superb book in my opinion.

As it is, it is a better than average "alternative science" book. A worthwhile spiritual and also practical message combined with a mixture of real scientific and also very idiosyncratic models.

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