New Machines for Expired Ideas • 11 July 2007

I’m looking at a headline: Brain Scans Reveal Why Meditation Works.

And thinking: Nooooo. Brain scans reveal that meditation works. A map is not an explanation.

Now that researchers have FMRI machines, there’s a boom in research on the so-called “effects” of meditation practices on the brain… or “causes” of the brain’s effects on the meditator (clearly, the research designers are confusing themselves). FMRI takes very cool pictures of parts of the brain lighting up. But that’s it. It’s cartographic–and primitive, in a sense. But since it’s new, it’s spawned literature on the “effects” of meditation—something forward-thinking neuroscientists have cared about since the Dalai Lama started talking to them 25 years ago and some innovative philosophers, economists and brain scientists set up the Mind and Life Institute.

Ok, that’s great. The new UCLA study I’m reading is typical. The scan shows that certain neurons light up when people “experience” negative emotions (produced by looking at other faces embodying negative emotions—I’m not even going to unpack the weird assumptions loaded into this research design), and that the brain’s emotion center calms down when a subject identifies and takes a distance from these represented emotions. According to one of the authors, “These findings… suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood….”

So ok, hold up.

First, the tautology problem. What’s the cause and what’s the effect here? They have essentially “discovered” that distancing yourself from bad moods… distances you from bad moods. The effect and the cause are the same. No wonder their findings are statistically significant.

Just because some neurons are involved does not make the neurons the “cause” of this whole process. They’re just part of the process—albeit the only part the researchers can quite recognize as real (and thus the one they identify as a “cause”).

The only reason the researchers think that the first phenom of mindfully identifying and detaching from an emotion is separate from the second phenom of the lights going dim in the emotion center is that they are crazy old dualists who believe thought is an gauzy ghost separate from the material “reality” of the brain. They imagine their finding is an instance of intention causing action… though any meditator could tell them that emotional experience and intention are inter-twined and mutually reinforcingSure, the meditator says: You can change your thoughts, but only after discovering how your thoughts are already changing you. One does not simply cause the other. And ultimately, thoughts themselves and the thinker’s immediate experience are not separate.

I wonder: if these scientists knew their own minds better from the inside, would the create more subtle, accurate concepts?

Second, and this is what irritates me, the main scientific excitement over this research stems from the assumption that experiential phenomena are only “real” if they have a measureable physical manifestation. Materialism 101. But thoughts and intentions are also real (I wouldn’t say they’re “things,” like The Secret says, but anyway). You can’t take pictures of intentions with FMRI machines, but on a practical, everyday, human basis, pretending thoughts aren’t real is some wicked reductionism. And that’s the thing: mind, subjectivity, interiority, thought—all these beautiful inner phenomena—do not reduce to neurons firing. Taking my cues from Bourdieu the master-synthesizer, I’d submit that the subjective (mind) and the objective (brain) sides of this picture are mutually constitutive and equally real. It’s just that you can’t take FMRI pictures of inner states per se.

The leading edge of western, and if I may, global, culture is rushing toward holistic understandings of mind-body. This shows up in social science’s sensitivity to embodiment, in athletes’ dedication to mental training, in the eastern-western culture of yoga, in the synthetic social theory that theorists of both mind and society are patching together, and in the dissipation (in certain cultural strata) of all kinds of mind-body practice.

Neuroscientists want to be a part of the revolution, as I’m seeing especially on the west coast—at places like the the UC Davis Shamatha Project, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Since they’ve got the biggest budgets and the shiniest tools, they’re likely to get an audience in defining the 21st century mind-body, but right now all they’re doing with it is advancing a new version of thought/brain dualism. This isn’t the same as reducing mind to brain, but it could easily go back in that direction.