Dr. Stephen Braude – your memories aren’t in your brain|318|

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Philosopher and parapsychology researcher Dr. Stephen Braude sees fatal flaws in the “memories stored in brain” model.

photo by: Scott Huettel

Today we welcome Dr. Stephen Braude to Skeptiko. Dr. Braude is the former chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is also past president of the Parapsychological Association and is currently the editor in chief of the excellent Journal of Scientific Exploration.  He’s the author of several great books including one that we’re going to talk about today because it pulls together many of the ideas Dr. Braude has been working on over the years: Crimes of Reason: On Mind, Nature, and the Paranormal

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s go back to memory trace for a minute because I want to make sure that I properly characterize what you’re saying… Is memory stored in the brain?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I would say no. I’d say the whole idea of storage is a mistake. It’s a mistake to treat memories as kinds of things, like they’re objects. I think it’s still acceptable to say that the expression of memory is something mediated by neurophysiological processes. But to say it’s mediated by it doesn’t mean to say it’s explained in terms of it.

Alex Tsakiris: How can neuroscience get this so wrong?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I wish I had a good answer to that. There’s something really seductive about the idea there has to be this trace left within us otherwise it looks like magic; that we’ve got this causation over a temporal gap.

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Read Excerpts From Interview:

skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3Alex Tsakiris: Let’s go back to memory trace for a minute because I want to make sure that I properly characterize what you’re saying. If at the end of the day, the idea of memories being stored in the brain is incoherent [and] logically incomplete, what does that say about neuroscience? I made some assumptions about what I think it means about neuroscience because I’ve spent a great deal of time battling this neuroscience nincompoopery and reductionistic mind-equals-brain [idea]. Maybe we’re saying something different. What do you think that says about neuroscience’s understanding of memory?

Dr. Stephen Braude: If memory can’t be explained in terms of traces left behind in the brain or some other physical location–

Alex Tsakiris: Is memory stored in the brain?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I would say no. I’d say the whole idea of storage is a mistake. It’s a mistake to treat memories as kinds of things, like they’re objects. I think it’s still acceptable to say that the expression of memory is something mediated by neurophysiological processes. But to say it’s mediated by it doesn’t mean to say it’s explained in terms of it.

Alex Tsakiris: Explain what you mean when you say ‘mediated’. And explain why that explains those really cool fMRI pictures we see on the science news site.

Dr. Stephen Braude: To express memory we need a functioning organism. So you can impair the organism. You can destroy the physiological integrity of the organism. You can affect the ability to exhibit memory behavior, but it doesn’t follow that memories are stored from that. It’s one thing to say that we need a functioning organism to remember. It’s another thing to say there was an actual trace or an ability to remember–a mechanism for remembering in the human organism.

Alex Tsakiris: How can neuroscience get this so wrong?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I wish I had a good answer to that. There’s something really seductive about the idea there has to be this trace left within us otherwise it looks like magic; that we’ve got this causation over a temporal gap.

Alex Tsakiris: It does, and it is. Let’s use that word magic to segue into your long history of exploration and research into parapsychology. What is really at stake, it seems to me, is the quote-unquote “scientific worldview” giving way to a “magical” quote-unquote worldview. And I think I’ve heard you make the case; and I’ve had some other [people] on the show who’ve made the case if we’re really going to be honest, we have to opt for the magical worldview from our perspective. If we’re just going to pick one or the other, given how little we understand the further we dig into how things work, the magical worldview seems [to be] a better fit for what we’re observing than this quote-unquote “mechanistic, scientific, reductionistic” worldview. What do you think about that?

Dr. Stephen Braude: There are two things going on here: one is a plea I would make over and over for a methodological pluralism in science. That is, as Aristotle recognized a long time ago, different domains of investigation require different methodologies; different kinds of explanation; different modes of explanation; different assumptions. As far as the particularly magical worldview is concerned, there we’re using magic maybe in a different sense. My favorite example usually has to do with psychokinesis. So suppose I can move a compass needle a millimeter just by thinking about it. It’s a very small step from doing that to making somebody drop dead by thought alone. So the existence of any psychokinesis at all, even if it seems to be minimal, forces us to take seriously this kind of worldview that we usually associate–and usually condescendingly–only with so-called “primitive” cultures. It’s a worldview in which thoughts can have all sorts of malevolent or lethal consequences in which we’d have to take responsibility for a range of occurrences we’d just as soon be bystanders for.


Alex Tsakiris: How do we look at science, and how do we look at science’s ability to really move us forward in two dimensions–the one dimension I think we’re all comfortable with is from an engineering angle. We think science can make progress and we can measure it.

Dr. Stephen Braude: And it does. Our iPhones work.

Alex Tsakiris: Our iPhones work. From a meaning angle, I think we’re a lot less confident. Most of us have in a way given up on the idea that science is really going to move us toward greater meaning; greater understanding of who we are and what our world is really all about. Do you have a comment on that?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I think when you take a sufficient bird’s eye view and look at the history of science it has moved us forward in lots of ways. That doesn’t mean it’s moving in a straight line. I believe that science can get off track from time to time; but I think when you look at human progress it looks like we have evolved, we have progressed. We do understand more than we did before.

Alex Tsakiris: What do you think about when you say that? What are your thoughts about what we really understand more?

Dr. Stephen Braude: We certainly understand more in the sense that we’ve gained increasing control over our environment. And we can produce such things as iPhones and make better equipment.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Other people counter that in saying shamanistic cultures living in the Andes had a better, deeper understanding of the true connection they had with their environment. And that what we’ve done is create this out of control system that seems to be headed towards destroying our environment completely. You’ve heard all those arguments. Do we have this illusion of progress when we’re really declining at a rate that’s pretty scary in a lot of respects?

Dr. Stephen Braude: I think mechanistic science has its virtues but the mistake is to suppose that it has to be the complete picture. The Shaman might have some insights as well and they can coexist.


Alex Tsakiris: Tell me why you think the burden of proof for survival of consciousness is so high (in your mind)? I flip around to the other side and say, if we’re going to say we really don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to consciousness–we don’t know when it begins. We don’t know when it ends. We don’t know what’s necessary and sufficient to cause it. We’re really in the dark about consciousness. So if we look at the natural history of consciousness throughout time, almost every culture has come to the conclusion that consciousness survives bodily death, and we have some connection to our ancestors. That’s the data. Then if we look at the current data, we have after-death communication; spontaneous after-death communication; induced after-death communication; assisted after-death communication; [they] all point in the same direction. So why, in your mind, is the burden of proof on the survival of consciousness still so high and not achieved despite all that data?

Dr. Stephen Braude: Because those various sorts of evidence, although can point in the direction that you mention, can also point in some other directions which I think proponents of the survivalist hypothesis haven’t taken seriously. The main one is the living agent PSI hypothesis–the idea that it’s the psychic capacities of living human beings that simulate evidence for survival. And there are really two sources of trouble–one has to do with a whole bunch of aspects of normal human functioning or better than normal human functioning that advocates of survival don’t take seriously. We don’t really understand what human abilities are. We don’t understand what’s going on in cases of prodigies, savants, or even just the latent human capacities that are illicited in good dissociative states: in cases of multiple personality, or in cases where under hypnotic regression people behave in very creative ways and display dramatic creativity that they might not have been capable of displaying otherwise. So we know for example, in cases of hypnotic regression that people have not been genuinely regressed. Martin Orne a number of years ago did some very interesting experiments in regression. He hypnotized one person and ostensibly regressed him to the age of six, and then asked him to write down the sentences he uttered. The person wrote in very child-like handwriting but correctly spelled all the polysyllabic words that no six-year-old would know. So what we’re getting there is dramatic creativity that was elicited in a hypnotic state. Unless we start taking that kind of stuff seriously we really don’t know what’s going on in cases that seem to suggest survival.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but if we do take it seriously we still don’t know what’s going on. We really don’t.

Dr. Stephen Braude: That’s exactly right. There’s too much that hasn’t been looked at carefully. And one of the frustrating things about trying to mount a scientific case for survival–and this is the conclusion I reluctantly came to when I wrote Immortal Remains–it’s really hard to decide where the scales are tilting in the direction of survival. It depends on what day you ask me which way I think it’s going to go. I think there are some very emotionally compelling cases. Absolutely. But if you really want to say have we ruled out the viable competitor hypothesis, I’d say we haven’t conclusively done that. We don’t have a slam-dunk case of survival that makes it really irrational to opt for anything else.


Alex Tsakiris: Everyone pushes for the final answer. So maybe [Rupert] Sheldrake overreached in trying to give the final [answer]. Instead of just saying, okay, here’s how the landscape works. We might want to move in this direction of these pattern overlays. I don’t have a clue for how that works [but] that doesn’t make for anything that’s going to get you published so any thoughts on that dilemma?

Dr. Stephen Braude: First of all, I know what my abilities are to some extent. I know I’m pretty good at this critical activity that I engage in. I don’t particularly feel that I have gifts in theory construction as much as I do in theory destruction. But I’d like to think I play an important role in the overall ecology of it. Some people think that theorizing is as easy as lying and I think theorizing is actually very difficult.

Alex Tsakiris: Because people like you are out there right? You have to make it difficult.

Dr. Stephen Braude: I’d like to think I’m playing a valuable role in the process but I may not be the person to push forward. I think it’s actually very difficult to push forward, and to do so successfully. So, I’m content with that role.


Alex Tsakiris: The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. There we go again. We’re back in the domain of the spiritual. What do you make of that? What is the good and the bad? What’s your best guess at what that playing field–what that terrain is like? Is there a hierarchical order to consciousness? To me that seems inescapable from the data. The data [suggests] that there is some kind of hierarchical structure. There is good and bad. As soon as we put it in that dimension we have God because at the top of the pyramid is the ultimate good.

Dr. Stephen Braude: I’m not sure I’m ready to follow you there. My interest has been trying to get some sense of what the natural history of PSI is. Until we understand what role psychic functioning is playing in life–what its natural domain of expression is, we have no idea what it is we’re trying to bring into the lab. We can study memory in laboratory situations because we have some idea of what memory is doing in real life situations. But we don’t know what ordinary psychic functioning is like–whether it’s like athletic abilities that can only be studied in real life contexts. Until we have a real grip on what PSI’s natural history is–until we have some idea of what role it’s playing in everyday affairs, whether it’s messing with traffic lights or exacerbating a despised colleague’s arthritis; or just hiding our socks. We have no idea.

Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. But I have to pull you back to that good or bad because you’re the one that brought it up. So there’s good and there’s bad, and we recognize it as such. We can try to pull it apart and all the rest of that but we recognize it. How does that not suggest a hierarchical order of consciousness? We’ve just laid out those dimensions. Doesn’t it at one end of that spectrum, however we’re going to describe that, we wind up describing [and] I’m not a religious person in the least, but we wind up describing something that religious traditions throughout time have described as something like God. That to me seems inescapable but not to you?

Dr. Stephen Braude: No. I wouldn’t opt to hear for a full-fledged ethical relativity, but what we regard as good or bad may just be relativized to our limited perspectives on what’s needed at the moment. Sometimes good things are painful. Sometimes surgery might be necessary…

Alex Tsakiris: Genocide, torture, kidnapping…all the really bad stuff [exists]. I think we have a really easy time saying that’s bad.

Dr. Stephen Braude: That’s why I’m not opting for a full-fledged ethical relativity. I think there are some things that are genuinely bad. Can we agree on what those bad things are? That’s a tough one. Does it actually lead to God…?

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