Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

How placebo, mescaline, and being buried alive prove that you have a Mind

This book is a summary of all the scientific studies that have been done on the placebo effect, neurofeedback (thinking about your disease can help cure it), hypnosis, ESP, near-death experiences and much more. The author is a neuroscientist and the book reads like an exciting textbook on abnormal psychology. Here’s just a taste of the amazingly bizarre studies:

  1. people walked into the hospital with canes, were given a fake surgery, and played basketball afterwards.
  2. Tragically, a person was accidentally told they had a tumor and they died several days later. Turns out they did not have a tumor at all and should not have died.
  3. In a major depression meta-analyses, 75% of all positive results were because of placebo effect.
  4. A study of London taxi drivers found "compelling evidence that the brains of adults can, indeed, be physically changed by knowledge" (68). The dahlia lama once said “in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead” and Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power.” So go to your local library and expand your brain with knowledge. :)
  5. Indian researchers tested a Yogi’s claim that he can stop his heart and survive. They sealed him in an underground pit for 8 days. He stopped his heart for the middle five days and came out alive. The same Yogi, in a study at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas, stuck a long, unwashed sail-maker’s needle through his bicep with no pain, bleeding, or infection.
  6. In a study of women with breast cancer “the best single predictor of recurrence of cancer or death was the mental attitude of each woman” (100).
  7. “at age fifteen, John could barely move without causing painful fissures in his ‘black armour plating’”. He had a horrible skin condition known as “fish skin disease,” which made him an outcast. After trying everything, he tried hypnosis. It worked. “The improvement was startling: it ranged from 50 percent on his legs and feet to 95 percent on the right arm…One year after…John had become a normal, happy young man” (110).
  8. In one Harvard study, psilocybin (the ingredient in magic mushrooms) was shown to occasion mystical experiences. In a later study “two-thirds of the participants who received psilocybin rated it as either the best experience of their lives or within the top five…[they described] larger state of consciousness…unity of all things…two months after the study, 79 percent of them reported moderately or greatly enhanced well-being or satisfaction” (203).

But there’s more. The author is not only a neuroscientist, but a spiritualist, perhaps an experimental drug user like Timothy Leary, an eastern religion meditation-type, a “cosmic consciousness”-quantum-reality-new-age-type. He has come to believe that we have a mind that is separate from the body, that the fundamental nature of the universe is mind-or-consciousness, and that our brains act as a filter on reality, a “reduction” that gets in the way of experiencing the “unity of all things.” Not that any of this is bad. I think any metaphysical interpretation of reality is valid so long as it doesn’t promote hatred or violence. After all, nobody really knows what’s beyond our perception of the world.

My only problem with this book is the author’s word “prove.” That’s a strong word, perhaps too strong for an immaterial, metaphysical entity such as Mind. And he doesn’t do the best job doing it. He says: look at all the cool stuff the mind can do! The skeptic replies: look at all the cool things the brain can do! That’s it; the argument stops there. Two different interpretations of the same studies, the same reality. With metaphysics that's just the way it is.

In other words, the conclusion of the book—“that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions can greatly influence what is happening in our brains and bodies” stands on solid ground. Even a materialist scientist would agree, provided that by “thoughts” we simply mean another part of the brain (one part of the brain, thought x, influences another part of the brain, hormone y). But this book wants to go further and say: therefore, there is a Mind separate from the brain. Sure, there might be. It’s all a matter of interpretation, as Life of Piteaches.

How do you interpret these studies?


Brain Wars
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