Metaneuroscience: From Self to Neuroself, Part 7


I am a psychiatrist, and many patients come to me with the same question: do I need therapy or medication? In asking this they have zeroed in on the central unanswered question of western philosophy – or, to use a fancy-pants historical term, The Enlightenment. Reduced to brass tacks, that question – which is normally framed as a question about the mind-brain difference, is this: what is the difference between words and molecules? Which is to say, what is the difference between the word “Prozac” and the molecule that the word describes?  Writ large, this becomes the difference between “you” as a self and “you” as a body. And it’s that difference that makes my patients ask their question.

Most are disappointed to hear that having a medical degree doesn’t help me to answer it.  I know what words to say, and what molecules to give, but my training hasn’t told me what their relationship is.  If anything, it has taught me that mainstream science has no idea what their relationship is.

Thus in being expected to answer this question, I am being tasked with solving an impossible problem: to convert into a single currency the capital of two countries geared for eternal war.  Words and molecules are simply not designed to be compatible ways of looking at the human being.  They are, in fact, designed to be incompatible.  And this has been true for the duration of the age of reason known as the Enlightenment – which we have been stuck in, now, for four hundred years. No shrink can change this fact.

Though it may seem melodramatic to say, I think of my patients as being the vanguard of a cultural seachange that I expect will sweep – or at least seep – through western culture over the coming century.  It won’t be a paradigm shift – at least not a scientific one, the only field that term was really designed for.  For as I explain below it won’t have any implications for experimentation.  But it will be a metaphysical shift; it will signal a change of heart, and a change of vision.  It will mark the end of mind-brain dualism.  It will mark the end of seeing words and molecules as being “different things.”  And that way of seeing will require a sort of metaphysics of neuroscience.  I think of it as metaneuroscience.

For word-molecule dualism is not an intrinsic property of the universe.  On the contrary, we currently believe that the universe is what its name implies – one thing.  Not two things.  One.  Which means that word-molecule dualism is itself a metaphysical framework.  For my patients to throw it over in favor of a non-dualistic vision won’t require any change in the methods of modern science.  The “methods” sections of all our science articles will stay the same.  No, it will only require a change in the way we interpret our results – it’s just the “discussion” sections that will evolve.

Metaneuroscience – if we make it accessible – will be great news for my patients and, therefore, me.  It will mean that the background theories whose endless moral rivalry motivates my patients to agonize over the choice between therapy and medication will be resolved.  Their question will become merely practical: which treatment works better – talking about Prozac (and why you aren’t taking it), or Prozac itself?  And they will have a single, unified way of measuring “betterness.”  Right now they don’t.

In my view, the psychiatric revolution we’ve seen in the past sixty years -where diseases once thought incurable became treatable with anti-psychotic, anti-manic, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications – has exposed the pivot point on which the Enlightenment metaphysic will soon turn.  Before medication we merely talked about mind-brain dualism – as we had done for centuries.  That was one thing. It was idle chatter, and diverting, but not, ultimately, pressing.  For this reason we debated at our leisure.

But the advent of medications suddenly made dualism a practical problem in people’s lives – and one that needed to be conceptually resolved before they knew what road to walk down.  Medication allowed us suddenly to act out our confusion – and yet acting out is a marvelous way for forcing resolution of indecision – as anyone who has ever tried to walk forwards and backwards at the same time has found out.

The war of medication against talk therapy has put exquisite pressure on the Enlightenment’s separation of mind and matter.  Psychiatric patients, the most sensitive members of our society, who have been calibrated by fate, circumstance and nature to detect even the slightest tremors in our public metaphysic, have in consequence been asked to decide the answer to the greatest question in modern culture.  I’ve been listening to them try to work this out for over a decade, and this blog is my effort to help out.  I’d like to help them decide what the relationship between words and molecules, self and brain, really is.

In order to figure out how to get treatment, my patients need to move beyond the experience of being “selves that have brains.” For this dualistic experience – as I emphasized last post – is compromised by internal contradictions and omissions, and my patients can’t stand it – at least, the metaphysically sensitive ones can’t.  As the preceding five posts have outlined, this problem is insoluble using the current metaphysic.  Indeed, I have argued that a lot is at stake, because the current metaphysic is propping up the whole Enlightenment project – democracy, capitalism, the whole shebang.  It’s not just confined to psychology.

To recap briefly, I argued that the Enlightenment model of the self cannot be located – even in principle – in the brain.  And the Enlightenment model of the brain cannot – even in principle – explain the existence of the self.  Further, this vexing set of complementary problems will not be solved through experimentation: empiricism is not the answer.

The next posts – and indeed this blog as a whole – presents a non-empirical answer that works.  It’s what I call the Neuroself framework, and at its core it assumes that what we have been calling the self for all these years is “really” the information that is stored in the electromagnetic field of your brain.  And single electromagnetism is what we colloquially call light, the Neuroself framework boils down to the idea that you are light.

Though I can’t have missed that many mystical religions over the years have said the mind is light, I don’t actually know what they were talking about.  None of them, to my knowledge, knew of the existence of the electromagnetic field – at best they knew of energy ripples in that field that we today call photons.  The Neuroself models steers clear of making connections to any religious system.  Simply from the standpoint of science, however, the model has a singular advantage: it explains the relationship of words to molecules.  They are the same exact thing.  They are both information, and that information – as is all information – is communicated in light. Naturally this simple concept does away with the problem of mind-brain dualism.  It doesn’t solve it, by the way.  It doesn’t explain how the brain makes the mind.  It simply does away with the question – it eliminates it.

The reason it eliminates it is the same way the Catholic Church eliminated the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It doesn’t answer it.  It simply says that the question never made any sense.  Mind and brain can’t be separated because information and electromagnetism – light – cannot be separated. Basically, then, the Neuroself framework solves the biggest metaphysical problem of the Enlightenment by saying it never existed. And that, I think, will give rise to the new framework that will eventually dominate our thinking.

According to this model, the you who is reading these words right now is not some mysterious weightless and locationless substance – the rather unscientific position taken by modern philosophy.  Nor is it a mindless brain, the rather implausible position taken by modern neuroscience. Rather it is what physics already knows is the single most important feature of the universe for human beings – the one we already know to carry every bit of information we’ve ever absorbed or created, and furthermore to bind every atom and molecule in our body together – the electromagnetic field, known colloquially as light.

To claim that you are light is, in mainstream science, a rather wacky thing to do – people are accustomed to such ideas in mysticism, but not neuroscience.  There is therefore the temptation in some to scoff me out of time – though scoffing is not, itself, an established scientific method. But please know that the idea does not violate the established facts or methods of science.  It doesn’t support them either.  Rather, it simply does not interact with them.  It’s pure metaphysics  – and all it does is replace the metaphysics we’ve been using up til now. The scientific method – conjectures followed by efforts at refutation – isn’t changed.

Unlike actual New Age claptrap, the Neuroself framework neither suggests nor challenges any scientific theories. It makes no testable hypotheses. If anything, it aspires to be a sort of intellectual Switzerland.  It presents a metaneuroscientific framework for thinking about the relationship of self to brain that hovers over, without altering, modern science. You might think of it as “Empirical Metaphysics,” which is to say, a metaphysical system derived from empirical findings and therefore dependent on them.

But rest assured: at no point will you read anything about light, electricity, or brains that is not either well established or, alternately, well known to be unknown.  And where I discuss gaps and mysteries in the scientific framework, where new ideas might be useful, I will be quite explicit that these new ideas merely plug conceptual holes with pure speculation, and should not be confused with actual science.  I make nothing up – I just point out our continued uncertainty. Moreover, you should not expect there to come a time where any of the ideas presented here will lead to novel scientific experiments that will “prove” the model right or wrong.  There won’t.

Metaphysics are not avoidable.  The particular metaphysical system one subscribes to is a matter of choice. But the philosophy of science is quite clear that science cannot function without metaphysical preconceptions.  Everyone from Kant to Popper has pointed this out.  There is no point in priding oneself on avoiding metaphysics – one can’t.

Given the inevitability of metaphysics, I propose the Neuroself variety. It’s a practical metaneuroscience that helps patients figure out how to handle what we currently call the mind-brain problem as it announces itself in everyday psychiatric dilemmas – such as whether to smoke pot, drink coffee, get drunk, take prozac, go for therapy, divorce your wife, quit your job, and so forth.  You know, real life decisions.  It helps them convert all their choices into a single currency – the currency of information.  And with this single currency it is easier – if not actually easy – to figure out the cheapest path to happiness.

The downside of the Neuroself framework is that it strays from the beaten path.  It implies that your mind is information, that that information is written in the electromagnetic field of your brain, and that because physics knows that the electromagnetic field pervades the universe, the universe is, as a whole, conscious as well.  The field in your brain – which thinks, right now, that it is “you,” is  just “more conscious” that the field a foot to your left – thanks to the remarkable informational sculptures that your brain can carve in it.  But this is not a boundary, and thus any hope of us being what the Constitution calls us – individuals – is gone.

I say this is a downside if one of four things is true of you: you are an atheist, you believe in God, you believe that you exist as an individual in a hostile world, or you believe that that hostile world is physical.  For the Neuroself framework implies that the entire universe is conscious and continuous, contains no individuals, no personal God, and is not cold, heartless and pointless.  The Neuroself framework comes down firmly on a clear position: the universe is an idea, thinking itself through.  Privacy, immaterialism, materialism, freedom and equality – none of these exist at the level of the human being.  They only exist at the level of the whole shebang.

The upside of the Neuroself framework – what one gains for giving up the core ideas of materialism, individuality, and either a cold dead universe and/or God – is its internal consistency and its completeness.  In this it is superior to mind-brain dualism, which by general consensus is incomplete – and, as I have tried to show – internally inconsistent.

But – and this is crucial – in the end internal consistency is not a scientific principle.  It is an aesthetic one.  And so, in all the follows, please remember that I offer nothing more than what my eye beholds as beauty.

7 thoughts on “Metaneuroscience: From Self to Neuroself, Part 7

  1. Peter,

    You are an inspiration to me. I am currently working on my BS in Psychology, hoping to continue with a Phd into computational neuroscience. I want you to know that your concept of ‘Neuroself’ is such a deep abstract bit of metaphysics that I didn’t think I would ever grok it entirely. I’ve read and re-read this series 2-3 times over the last week and I think I’ve finally wrapped my head around it. Dualism is limiting our progress psycho-socially, and thereby our progress as a species! All I can say is, “Wow” Thank you for your work in the field, and perhaps one day we will run into each other as colleagues!

    ~Cyrus

    1. Thank you – please keep checking in and chiming in as you go along. Students are in a special position of understanding what is hard to understand and what they don’t know – please stay in touch! Peter

  2. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” 
             
               — Albert Einstein

  3. Absolutely love your writing. Brilliant and hilarious. Scientific gonzo-style.

    Concerning the content, would you say that your concept of the “neuroself” is part of the literature that views consciousness as a quantum event?

    1. Thanks! yes, let’s have more gonzo journalism. Love the term. As I will get to eventually, I think – and most physicists would say the same -that all information in the universe is transmitted, ultimately, by photons or those wierd things called virtual photons that are actually quantum somethings we’ll never see b/c they exist below the Heisenberg limit. All of that happens within the EM field. So I think it’s safe to say that the *contents* of consciousness are quantum. What consciousness itself is I really don’t know. As a proxy, I think of it as the EM field.

  4. i love this. though if you can explain a bit more regarding privacy not existing at the level of the human being? i thought you said the self is private, therefore it owns itself therefore causing itself

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.