Shares 109

217-GARY-MARCUS-SANDBAGGED-yt

Interview examines mainstream psychology’s approach to near-death experience science.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Gary Marcus author of,  Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind.  During the interview Marcus explains why he’s skeptical of near-death experience science:

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I’m also very, very skeptical of [Near-Death Experience Science]. It doesn’t make sense to me, to be honest. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the stuff that I understand about how the brain works, which leads me to believe that something is likely being misinterpreted. I can’t promise that and I haven’t read every word on it…

Alex Tsakiris:   Have you read any word on it? Have you read any of the leading researchers out there?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I’ve read a few words here or there but it doesn’t make sense to me. It would be like you asking me have I read anything on astrology. I mean, I know about astrology but I don’t see the causal mechanisms.

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, but it’s not really astrology. You’ve got Parnia at Cornell, you’ve got the University of Virginia researchers. You’ve got a lot of pretty well-respected people who’ve studied it for a long time and are publishing… Bruce Greyson and all those folks…

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I don’t doubt that there’s a phenomenon that needs to be explained but I doubt that the explanation is that the brain is not part of the experience that’s being processed. I cannot conceive of how that would be true.

Alex Tsakiris:   But isn’t that where it gets interesting? These guys are coming at it strictly from a medical standpoint and saying, “Look, the guy died on my table and then told me what happened during resuscitation.” That’s a medical mystery that defies explanation in our current paradigm. Isn’t that where we start?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   A more parsimonious explanation is the guy wasn’t really dead on the table. There was more stuff happening in the brain than you realize. It’s parsimonious because it fits with everything else we understand about the brain. Otherwise you have to invent a new causal mechanism. I’m not saying that that’s wrong, but I think the standards for doing that need to be high.

(continued below)

Dr. Gary Marcus’s Webpage

Click here for YouTube version

Click here for forum discussion

Play It 

Listen Now:

Download MP3 (29 min.)

Read It:

Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and as you just heard, my guest today is Dr. Gary Marcus.

Now this is one of those interviews that requires a bit of an explanation, not so much for the content of the interview but for why I would even choose to interview Dr. Marcus in the first place. But that explanation should really come at the end, and that’s where I’ve put it. So for now, here’s my interview with Dr. Gary Marcus:

Today we welcome NYU psychology professor and best-selling author, Dr. Gary Marcus, to Skeptiko. Dr. Marcus is the Director of the NYU Center for Language and Music, which is a nice fit with his recent New York Times best-seller, Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age. Dr. Marcus, I should mention, also has many impressive scientific publications to his credit, but he’s one of those guys who also writes about psychology and consciousness for the rest of us in places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker, where he blogs about neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Marcus, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Thanks very much for having me.

Alex Tsakiris:   You’ve written several fascinating books dealing with brain science and, I guess, consciousness. Prior to Guitar Zero you published Kluge, and you published a couple of interesting posts on The New Yorker that you sent me, one titled “The Riddle of Consciousness.” Why don’t we start there? Can you tell us a little bit about the riddle of consciousness?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, it’s not one of these riddles where we know the answer, I’ll tell you that much. What I tried to do in that piece was to simply lay out some of the issues, starting in the context of the question about whether babies have consciousness, which is very salient to me because I have a young baby who’s five months old.

Alex Tsakiris:   Congratulations, by the way. Is it your first?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   It’s our first. As it so happens, there was an article in Science News pretty recently doing an experimental study trying to get at whether babies have consciousness. So I used that as a stepping-off point to look at how you might measure consciousness, what it might be, and whether you can study it in a lab, whether anybody knows what it is.

I didn’t take a strong stand, I should say, and I don’t have a strong stand myself. I think I said somewhere in that piece that I’d written about 30 pieces for The New Yorker on all kinds of things, ranging from quantum computation to God and Super Mario. I think that consciousness is probably the one that I’m the least certain about. I’m known for taking strong views on things and that’s one where I’m not really sure what the answer is.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great. I think that’s a fun area to probe. It’s something that you haven’t settled one way or another. Consciousness is something we’ve really dug into a lot on this show and have had the opportunity to speak with some leading consciousness researchers. You mention in your article Dr. Christof Koch, who I think is quite well-known in this field.

Here’s what I want to try and probe a little bit and that is the general trend that I’ve found in this area of consciousness. These very mainstream guys are pulling back a little bit from this one-to-one reductionism between mind and brain. Koch, in that interview, actually says, “I take the point of view that ultimately consciousness is something real; it’s ontologically distinct.”

I understand you’re up in the air on this, but where do you come down on this issue? Is everything that we are, our deepest longings, the love that you feel for that little new-born of yours, is everything just brain-firing? Are we biological robots? Or is this consciousness ontologically distinct, perhaps? Any thoughts on that?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Two parts. The first is I’m with Christof, although your quote doesn’t quite reveal it, in thinking that whatever the answer is, it is biological. It is about how our brains work. I would maybe broaden that to say there could be things beyond neurons firing that we don’t understand about the physiology of the brain, but I’m pretty confident and I think Christof would agree. We were actually on a panel on consciousness last week. We’re in pretty strong agreement that whatever it is, it’s a property of the brain.

Now, what kind of property it is of the brain is a different question. What the ontological status of it is an open question. How you get from neurons to understanding consciousness is very much an open question. But I don’t see a lot of room for some alternative that doesn’t have something to do with the physiology of the brain.

Alex Tsakiris:   Perhaps I’m over-reaching with “ontologically distinct,” although I have to say in that interview I think he’s making a step in that direction, more than he maybe even realizes. Let me push this just a tiny bit further. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Jeffrey Schwartz, the UCLA research psychiatrist who authored the book, You Are Not Your Brain.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   No, I’m not.

Alex Tsakiris:   He came up with a very interesting little experiment that I think probes this in another way. He’s a psychiatrist, obviously, and he deals with a lot of patients who have OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He set up an experiment where he had these people do a mind-based meditation. He did an FRMI before and then after they did a series of meditations. He found that their symptoms were somewhat relieved, but he also found that their brain had re-wired. Neuroplasticity in action. He came to the conclusion, as the title of his book suggests, that this self-directed neuroplasticity leads us to no other conclusion, that somehow, in some way we don’t totally understand, you are not your brain. Your mind is forming your brain. Any thoughts on that?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   He sounds a little bit confused to me, actually. Of course, I haven’t read the book but I don’t understand how that kind of evidence leads to that conclusion. My understanding is that the mind is essentially a property of the brain. In fact, maybe a better way to say it is it’s a different level of description of what the brain is doing. So your mind is coinciding with your brain.

You could make allowances, for example, for things like you have a set of nerves in your stomach and that contributes to your intellectual state. So if you really want to push it, you probably want to say your mind is a property of your central nervous system. But I don’t see how arguments about, for example, the brain being plastic in some way, with the nervous system being plastic in some way, takes away from the general conclusion that the thoughts that you have, for example, all emerge as a function of the things that your brain is doing.

Alex Tsakiris:   I think he points out an obvious chicken and the egg question we have there. Is mind forming and shaping brain or is brain forming and shaping mind? And if they’re interactive, which they clearly are, we do have the chicken and the egg. Which comes first, the mind or the brain?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, not if they’re different levels of description. You can, for example, talk about the action of a boulder at a chemical level or you could even go down to the particles. You could have laws about geology. These things would all be true. They would just be different perspectives on looking at something at the same time. Some of these generalizations, the ones from geology might be more useful when you’re talking about boulders than the ones that come from chemistry but that doesn’t mean that chemistry doesn’t hold with boulders. It just means it’s easier to talk about things like erosion as you talk about the boulders. But they’re all true at the same time.

I think of the discussion about the mind is basically being like the discussion about psychology. Discussion about the brain is basically the province of neuroscience. But they’re just two different views, two different perspectives on the same thing. We can come back to consciousness in a second. So it’s not that one happens before the other but rather they happen at the same time. They’re always at the same time. We can talk about them in more comfortable ways using one vocabulary or the other.

It’s not very helpful at the moment—maybe someday—to talk a whole lot about individual neurons when you’re talking about whether you’re hungry or whether you think it would be interesting to walk across the street to see a concert that’s playing there. It’s easier to talk about these things in terms of psychology rather than referring to specific sets of neurons. But when you want to go across the street to see that concert, there’s some set of neurons firing or doing something that correspond to that. It’s not that you have the thought and then the neurons fire.

Alex Tsakiris:   I guess the point I’m making, and I understand you’re on the other camp, but there’s a growing number of people that are putting a big “maybe” on what you just said. There’s a potential that we could look at things the other way and that there is this mind and it is fundamental and the brain is somehow being formed by that mind or interacting with that mind in a way that keeps the consciousness fundamental.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I think that’s an odd view but I’ll tell you what I think might be plausible in those parts. If you want to talk about consciousness in particular, our conscious awareness takes time to happen. So you see something and it takes a matter of 100 milliseconds or a couple of seconds maybe, depending on the context, before that percolates into your consciousness. So there are processes in the brain that take time.

Before those things happen you may not be consciously aware of them. That’s the closest I can come to accepting the kind of view that you talk about, which is to say that a certain aspect of your mind, perhaps lots of aspects of your mind, are in some sense the output of processes that happen in your brain. I don’t think that they’re really separable, per se, in that way. It’s just that certain reflexes take longer than others.

Alex Tsakiris:   I get what you’re saying. I don’t want to totally probe these areas that you haven’t looked at at all but most of the people I’ve talked to in the consciousness research field, including Christof Koch and Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona—are you familiar at all with his work?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   A little bit.

Alex Tsakiris:   When you talk to those people one thing that comes up, a hot topic, is near-death experience science. Clearly there are these medical people saying near-death experience is happening and there’s no brain activity and that suggests this same thing that we’re talking about, that somehow consciousness is more than mere brain activity.

As a matter of fact, when I asked Hameroff on this, this is the quote that he gave me. After having reviewed the near-death experience research and being, I think, favorably impressed with it he says, “I’ve been asked if it’s possible that consciousness can exist outside the brain. In the case when the brain has stopped being perfused and the heart has stopped and so forth, I think we can’t rule that out.”

If you read the full quote he’s kind of dived into the near-death experience research and I think is generally accepting of the medical mystery that it is. Is this something that you feel is relevant at all to your work or to these questions of consciousness?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I should say that my core research isn’t in consciousness so I should be careful about what I say my work is. I think that any kind of alternative experience is potentially relevant to understanding consciousness. I think that the whole field suffers for a lack of independent ideas on what consciousness is. You can, for example, imagine doing various kinds of experiments where you run brain imaging or something like that and then you say, “Well, is this consciousness or not?” It depends very much on what your measurement of consciousness is.

For example, you might want to do those experiments by comparing cats or monkeys or something like that to human beings. You look at this brain area and then you say, “And the cat is more conscious or less conscious,” but we don’t really have an independent way to say that. Christof  Koch is, for many reasons, persuaded that animals are conscious, but not everybody is persuaded. I think it’s an open question because we don’t have a machine or a measure that decisively answers that.

When you want to tell me that someone with a near-death experience is conscious at a particular moment when their brain appears not to be functioning, we need to know a little bit more about what it means for the brain not to be functioning. We also need to know more about why we think the person’s actually conscious in that moment. I mean, for example, the person is reconstructing afterwards, believing that they were conscious and they weren’t in that moment.

I would take the position that you’re not conscious when you’re asleep. Again, there’s reason for people to argue about that. I would take the position that you’re not and you do some reconstruction after the fact about what you might have been doing while sleeping. Maybe that’s the same thing going on there.

Alex Tsakiris:   I don’t want to push that too far because I’m not sure that that’s an area you’ve looked into. Of course, the published research on that suggests otherwise. It suggests that it isn’t reconstruction because there are these memories during a time of resuscitation when the brain is severely compromised. So what I hear you saying is what you’re interested in, and I read this in your New Yorker post, is this idea of measuring consciousness.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, there I wrote a somewhat skeptical piece. Christof Koch, who I have a lot of respect for, and Giulio Tononi, have this interesting measure. It’s really Tononi’s first, called “phi,” that is supposed to be a measure of how conscious you are. At least that’s what they purport it to be. In my most recent piece in The New Yorker, I went through what I understand the measure to be. The measure itself is pretty complicated.

And then some reasons why I’m not sure that it’s actually picking up consciousness as opposed to some other things. So you can have a measure but not know what your measure is for. They have some arguments for why the measure might reflect something about consciousness. Particularly the measure is about integrating information, among other things. They have this pretty hard to calculate measure of how integrated information is and they say the more the information is integrated in the particular system—and I’m not going into all the details—the more conscious that system is.

To first approximation this seems okay because for example, it predicts that a digital camera, or at least the CCD sensor in it is not conscious. A cat might be somewhat conscious. A human being would be more conscious. The CCD doesn’t integrate any information of the right sort. The cat integrates some, and a person presumably integrates even more. But I’m not sure that it actually makes the right predictions in general. It might actually be more like a measure of intelligence than a measure of consciousness, per se.

Alex Tsakiris:   Dr. Marcus, why don’t you tell us what’s going on with you in your lab and also any upcoming books you might have?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, the next book I have is going to be called, The Future of the Brain, and it’s going to be an edited collection. I’ll be doing the editing with Jeremy Freeman. We have contributions by a lot of eminent neuroscientists like Christof Koch. Koch and I are going to write the Afterword together. That’s going to be a really exciting book that will be out in April. So that’s my next book.

Lab-wise, I just published a paper in Nature with Ofer Tchernichovski and Dina Lipkind, looking at how songbirds acquire their vocalization patterns and suggesting that there’s actually something in common between the songbirds and human children.

Alex Tsakiris:   Anything else we might want to touch on before we wrap things up?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   No, that’s all. Thanks very much for having me.

Alex Tsakiris:   I didn’t want to push that NDE stuff too much because that’s not your thing, right? Near-death experience?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, I’m also very, very skeptical of it. It doesn’t make sense to me, to be honest. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the stuff that I understand about how the brain works, which leads me to believe that something is likely being misinterpreted. I can’t promise that and I haven’t read every word on it…

Alex Tsakiris:   Have you read any word on it? Have you read any of the leading guys out there?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I’ve read a few words here or there but it doesn’t make sense to me. It would be like you asking me have I read anything on astrology. I mean, I know about astrology but I don’t see the causal mechanisms.

Alex Tsakiris:  Yeah, but it’s not really astrology. You’ve got Parnia at Cornell, you’ve got the University of Virginia guys. You’ve got a lot of pretty well-respected people who’ve studied it for a long time and are  publishing. Bruce Greyson and all those folks.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I don’t doubt that there’s a phenomenon that needs to be explained but I doubt that the explanation is that the brain is not part of the experience that’s being processed. I cannot conceive of how that would be true.

Alex Tsakiris:   But isn’t that where it gets interesting? These guys are coming at it strictly from a medical standpoint and saying, “Look, the guy died on my table and then told me what happened during resuscitation.” That’s a medical mystery that defies explanation in our current paradigm. Isn’t that where we start?

Dr. Gary Marcus:   A more parsimonious explanation is the guy wasn’t really dead on the table. There was more stuff happening in the brain than you realize. It’s parsimonious because it fits with everything else we understand about the brain. Otherwise you have to invent a new causal mechanism. I’m not saying that that’s wrong, but I think the standards for doing that need to be high.

Alex Tsakiris:   I hear you, but who would we go to to ask that question? We’d go to cardiologist Pim van Lommel, the guy I told you published in The Lancet, who works with patients on that table. Or we’d go to Sam Parnia, who is the world-wide expert in resuscitation. Those are the people we’d go to, so if they become convinced…

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Well, I would sooner go to a neuroscientist than a cardiologist, actually.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, in terms of knowing the state of…

Dr. Gary Marcus:   Of the brain. There may be things about brain function that we don’t understand. So even if the heart is not pumping there may be things that are allowing some neural function for some period of time to continue. There’s also the possibility, as I mentioned…

Alex Tsakiris:   Awesome. Great. Tell us what it is. There’s a mystery there that seems like we’re not probing. Okay, so you postulate that that’s possible.

Dr. Gary Marcus:   I’m not probing it. It’s not my field. But that doesn’t mean nobody’s probing it.

 

Thanks again to Dr. Marcus for joining me today on Skeptiko. So as I mentioned at the beginning, you might be wondering why I would interview Dr. Gary Marcus. Well, the reason I did is because I think this is the kind of dialogue that is so often missing among these conversations and interviews that we have about these big-picture, important scientific issues. It is messy. It is a little bit uncomfortable. I get that. I also get that my positions, i.e., that scientific materialism has been falsified, that mind equals brain is a joke and it’s contradicted by so much data out there, I get that that’s not the mainstream view.

Gary Marcus, even though I think he has his head in the sand, is representative of the mainstream view. So I do feel that it is my obligation to reach out and engage with people like Dr. Marcus and have this dialogue in at least a somewhat non-confrontational way, a meeting in the middle kind of way. That’s what I sought to do.

But if you’ve listened to this show you know that often doesn’t work out. I mean, we are talking about challenging power and challenging worldviews and that’s often very unsettling for folks, as was the case with Dr. Marcus. You could hear it in the tone of his voice as well as the content of what he was saying. As is often the case in these kinds of interviews where there’s a little bit of heat during the interview, I often find that the follow-up is just as interesting and sometimes even more interesting than the interview itself. And that is the case with this one. Let me share with you what happened after the interview. I think it’s very telling.

I sent Dr. Marcus an email, thanking him for the interview and sending him some links, some references. I sent a link to Bruce Greyson, who is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and who has studied near-death experience probably more than anyone. He’s published for over 20 years. Many, many peer-reviewed, highly respected articles have been published by him on near-death experience. He’s one of the co-authors and editors of The Handbook of Near-Death Experience, a very scholarly compilation of some of the best research that’s been done. So I sent him that.

I also sent him a link to Dr. Sam Parnia. Again another highly respected academic medical person who’s published in this field and as you know, has changed his position. He was initially more skeptical of near-death experience but was overwhelmed by just the body of evidence to saying that it is suggestive that the mind equals brain kind of paradigm that Dr. Marcus so supports and is so much at the core of Dr. Marcus’s belief system, Parnia has come around and said, “Hey, that’s just not the way that it is.”

So here was the reply that I got from Dr. Marcus. First, he suggested that the quote from Greyson that I sent him was actually consistent with what he said, that impaired cerebral profusion does not equal a complete cessation of brain function. Okay, you’ve heard this a million times from the near-death experience skeptics and that is, “Hey, we don’t know. There still might be something going on deep in that brain that could explain the near-death experience.” Of course that’s complete nonsense and I pointed that out to him in the following email, which I’ll get to in a minute.

His second point, I thought was interesting because obviously after our interview he did a more thorough search of Skeptiko and he said, “I felt a little bit sandbagged in that the interview was too far from my areas of expertise.” Folks, go look on his blog on The New Yorker and see if you really think this is far from his area of expertise. It’s not. He’s just ducking for cover.

Then he concludes by saying, “I think the best thing to do is to shelve the interview completely. I hope that you’ll respect my wishes.” Well, respectfully Dr. Marcus, I cannot respect your wishes and I am publishing the interview, along with my response to those rather silly comments that you made there.

So first, this is the email that I send him back. I said, “Regarding Greyson, his conclusions, as the result of his 20-plus years of research in the field of near-death experience, are the opposite of yours, i.e., consciousness survives/exists in brains that are dead/severely compromised.” That is Greyson’s conclusion, by the way. Then I added, “I don’t think you’re in concurrence with his findings. Are you?”

Secondly I added, “Regarding being sandbagged, come on. I can hardly imagine how I could have given you more to prepare for this interview.” I sent him everything; I sent him not only links to all the previous shows but I highlighted direct links to some of the shows that I thought would be most relevant. I outlined questions for him, topics, all that stuff. For him to dig up this idea that he was somehow sandbagged is just preposterous. But then, I’ve heard that so many times by now that it doesn’t really faze me.

I added that, “Moreover, I don’t think that you came off poorly in any way. I mean, you came off as kind of dogmatic about this mind equals brain paradigm but then, that’s the status quo view.” Then I added a link to Steven Schwartz’s book on neuroplasticity since he’s shown that self-directed neuroplasticity can change your brain, but then we’re left with this chicken or the egg question of which came first, the brain or the thought? It’s a question he never really answered in our discussion so I thought I’d bring that up.

But, of course, that was the last I was to hear from Dr. Marcus. Despite my questions he chose to end it there with hopes that this whole thing might just go away. But I don’t want it to go away. In fact, I want to dig deeper. The best way for us to dig deeper is to continue asking questions. So let’s ask a couple of questions about this interview.

I’m just going to focus on one that has to do with the clip that I pulled out to introduce this interview, Dr. Marcus’ claim that the most parsimonious explanation for near-death experience is that there was more going on in the brain during resuscitation than the doctor realized. What do you think about that as an explanation for the near-death experience research and for all the science that we have on that? I think I know your answer but since a highly-respected guy like New York University’s best-selling author, Dr. Gary Marcus, has pushed that forward as his explanation, I think it deserves to be hashed out here on Skeptiko.

So the place to do that, of course, is on the Skeptiko website at www.skeptiko.com, where you can leave a message right on the Comment section or click over to the forum where there’s usually more activity and you can join with others in this discussion. While you’re there on Skeptiko, be sure to check out all of our over-200 previous shows. You can subscribe on I-Tunes. You can tell as many of your friends on Facebook and your blogs and everywhere else about this episode and other episodes of Skeptiko. I hope that you do that.

I want to let you know that I’m working on a number of interesting shows coming up. Kind of a whole batch of them here so they might come out a little bit faster than they have while I get caught up. I’m looking at different areas and exploring different things, and hopefully that will lead to some interesting shows, both for me and for you. I hope you do stick around for all of that. I appreciate you listening and I appreciate you joining me on this journey and helping me in my journey. The audience really has, more than I can ever express, and I’m very grateful for that.

Until next time, do take care and bye for now.

Shares 109

Comments

comments