Mind-Body Connections: How Does Consciousness Shape the Brain?

Moderated by Dr. Elie During

Dr. Mario Beauregard
Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz
Dr. Henry P. Stapp
Dr. Esther M. Sternberg

The mind-body problem has traditionally been framed as a conundrum concerning the relation between two seemingly incompatible substances—corporeal and spiritual. Indeed, the elusive nature of consciousness itself certainly does not render it a good candidate for reduction to a physical basis. Noting that physical theories alone would be compatible with the absence of consciousness, popular philosophical arguments have long highlighted the fact that an adequate theory of consciousness requires more than mere brain physics can provide. In short, there is something more to our minds than meets the eye in brain imagery.

Today, advances in our knowledge of the underlying physics of consciousness seem to point to an entirely new paradigm based on a renewed view of mind–brain interactions. Various considerations derived from research in quantum physics and brain dynamics, the immune system, cognitive behavior therapy, and neuroplasticity suggest that mind-body connections do in fact work both ways, and that in important respects the mind, by re–gearing attention and emotion, can effectively shape or "rewire" the brain, thus substantially affecting one's mental and physical health.

The issues investigated by physicists, physicians, and neuroscientists raise a spectrum of profound questions, such as that of the compatibility of free will and moral action with the "scientific" view of the world. More generally, they lead us to ask and examine in what sense the knowledge and practice of mind-body connections suggested by these new insights can affect our sense of selfhood and agency, as well as shed new light on our understanding of the practical implications of various disciplines of attention such as meditation, self–suggestion, and ethical awareness.

Beyond the Brain: The Experiential Implications of Neurotheology

Moderated by Dr. Elie During

Dr. Mario Beauregard
Dr. Bruce Greyson
Dr. Andrew B. Newberg
Dr. Christina M. Puchalski

As explorations into the neuropsychology of religious and spiritual experience provide new insights into the neural mechanisms underlying the interplay of consciousness, volition, and emotion, the central question remains: to what extent does the mind transcend its neural basis? Conventional wisdom holds that assemblies of neurons must account for consciousness, and, by extension, for all subjective facets of lived experience. Yet, current research in the neural correlates of deep meditative states, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and the way in which spiritual beliefs influence health outcomes allow us to frame the problem afresh by side-stepping the philosophical traps of the mind-body problem.

Is the sense of a transcendent reality merely an illusion caused by brainstorms, or is it indeed the very notion of transcendence that is capable of affecting brain activity? While the debate continues, recent scientific investigations into mystical experience have compelled us to modify in important respects our view of the nature of the self, and, more generally, of consciousness and lived experience. One striking conclusion derived from research into the neuronal underpinning of such experiences is that their correlation with brain activity is remarkably consistent across various cultures and faiths, thereby suggesting universal patterns of spiritual and moral experience, a "common core" belonging to humanity as such.

What, then, are the pragmatics of this emerging field of neurotheology? How are we to interpret and understand forms of awareness that reach beyond ordinary sensory or object-oriented consciousness? How does the notion of conscious states independent of brain or bodily activity play out in concrete terms for the people involved? How do near-death experiences, as well as less dramatic but nonetheless spiritually transformative episodes witnessed by health professionals, affect the way people perceive reality and ascribe meaning to their lives? The panelists will draw upon their expertise to address these challenging lines of inquiry raised by contemporary explorations into the fringes of brain and consciousness.

Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness

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