Dr. Donald DeGracia, NIH Medical Scientist Talks Yoga and Consciousness |388|


Dr. Donald DeGracia, breakthroughs in cell research and a deep understand of the yoga/consciousness link.

photo by: Skeptiko

I have an interview coming up in just a minute with Dr. Donald DeGracia from Wayne State University School of Medicine. Don is a brilliant guy. His details of his day job are way over my head as he’s doing some very advanced research on stroke victims, and cell death, and he’s received grants from the National Institute of Health grants and all of that good stuff.  And he has a totally different approach to it, a non-linear approach. 

But, what you’ll hear in this interview is that none of that stuff really matters much because what Don’s about is something much deeper… it has to do with spirituality, the nature of consciousness and the connection to yoga.

Of the hundreds of people that I’ve interviewed, Don is one of my favorites, particularly because you won’t hear about him in a lot of other places. You won’t see a lot of interviews with him, he’s not out there pumping books, he gives his books away for free, and his thinking is just imaginative, unique and he’s not afraid to tell it like it is.

So, it’s an interview I really enjoyed doing, I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Alex Tsakiris: So, we already told folks you’re there at Wayne State University, in the department of physiology, you’re a professor, but you have this secret life, you have a couple of secret lives, but one of your secret lives is you’re really into comics and you’re wearing your Comic-Con… What t-shirt are you wearing there?

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Black Panther.

Alex Tsakiris: There we go.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: That’s the original Black Panther for all the Black Panther fans out there.

Alex Tsakiris: You have comic street cred, you don’t shy away from it, but you also have this other secret life of a yogi, and I think that is so cool and we relate to each other because I’m a yogi, and anyone’s a yogi who says they’re a yogi, you know? I had a guy…

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Effectively, yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, well it’s true. I had a guy on the show recently, and the guy was a total, in my opinion, a total pretender in terms of this, kind of, deeply spiritual, kind of, wise kind of guy. So, we kind of got into it a little bit and I said, “Yeah, I’m a yogi,” and he goes, “What kind of yogi? What’s your heritage, what weekend retreat did you go to?” kind of thing, and it’s like, “No man, yogi is a state of mind. It’s a philosophical shift, anyone can be a yogi,” right? Once you’re a yogi, you’re not a yogi anymore, because it transcends that, but I kind of don’t want to get too…

Dr. Donald DeGracia: No, I agree with that completely, yeah, it’s totally a state of mind. Yeah, that’s one of the awkward things about when I talk about yoga, because people ask me what I do, do I practice meditation and things like that. I do Yama and Niyama, that’s what I do, because I’m not advanced enough to do meditation.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, explain that.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: It’s the truth.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s awesome.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: It’s the truth.

Alex Tsakiris: Explain that.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well, you know, in both, What is Science? and in The Yogic View of Consciousness, I define Yama and Niyama as the reading, writing and arithmetic of yoga. Right? So, if you can’t do reading, writing and arithmetic, you can’t do anything in the real world and if you don’t have Yama and Niyama you can’t do yoga. Like for example in Yama, you have like celibacy is one of them, which is one of the more drastic ones, but being unselfish, being non-harmful, things like that, make up the list of the Yama’s.

And then the Niyama’s is like, studying the spiritual scriptures, meditation, things like that, and what they really amount to, is that Yama is, when the world itself loosens its grip on you, right? It’s all designed to help you loosen your grip on the world because… I mean there’s background to this, it’s kind of hard to throw it in out of the blue, you have to… And this is what, I think, when you say you’re just a yogi, anybody can be a yogi with a state of mind, well, it starts at realizing that the world isn’t what it seems to be, and you start to question it, and you start to wonder, “What the hell is going on? What is this all about?” And once you get to a certain level of sophistication, you realize the world is not really something you can grab on to, right? Doubt, you just start to feel doubt, you really do become skeptical. Right? So, your title of Skeptiko is really quite apt to the whole enterprise.

(continued below)


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Read Excerpts:


Alex Tsakiris: Let me fast forward a bit, because once of the ways that I think what you’re saying will resonate with people, is the word arrogance, that you just used a minute ago, or ignorance when it comes to the part of science, and I like the way that you put it, is it’s not so much that they’ve created this obviously flawed model of reality being outside, but that they’ve turned it into an echo chamber where they really believe this shit themselves, this bullshit, and it becomes a dogma.

So, their naivety was getting past the “shut up and calculate”, which is useful for building certain things, but then turning it into a religion, scientism and saying it’s really true. But the way you contrast that, I love the way that you say, “Humanities are bitter.” So, the humanities sit over there, and they say, as you point out, “Well at least we understand that there is such a thing as culture, society, human beings.”

Dr. Donald DeGracia: And idealism, right? I mean the ideal of philosophy is now squarely in the humanities, it’s no longer a part of science. And, so yeah, these people, they’ve been pushed out of the center because through most of Western history, the humanities were the center, right? The study of language, the study of arts, the study of philosophy and science was just a side brand, and then over the last…

Alex Tsakiris: But now we say, “Hey philosophy department, where’s your fricken iPhone? Where’s your iPhone? Show me your iPhone, you haven’t given me anything.” So, they’re bitter.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: That’s right. Yeah, and you know, the scientist just has an attitude of, “I don’t care what you have to say, you could walk off the roof and gravity will pull you to the ground and kill you, just like it will everybody else, so shut up.”

That’s kind of the scientist attitude, and it has, it’s made humanities very bare, because they’re no longer the center of the action in the world, right? Because our whole world is driven by science and technology now.

So, these people, what have they done? They’ve lost their mind, they’ve literally gone insane, and you can see this beginning at the turn of the century with Russell, Bertrand Russell. For me he’s the beginning of the insanity of philosophy. That guy, I just really don’t like him very much. He failed at everything he did. He failed at the math he made up, he was a bad philosopher. He literally just asserted that idealism is wrong, because up to around the year 1900, idealism dominated philosophy, because it’s inarguable. If you did it then you can’t argue with idealism, but Bertrand Russell just said, there’s some quote of him that I read, where he said, “I just felt so liberated to run through the green grass of the field, realizing that green grass is real.” It’s like what is this? It’s emotionalism, it’s like it’s a stupid emotionalism and the dam broke and stupidity became synonymous with philosophy.

Then, you had post-modernism, structuralism, philosophies are dominated, up until now, where it’s just absurd beyond belief, you know? What philosophy has become is a joke, it’s a real insult. If the scientists are an insult to their heritage, then modern philosophy is an even bigger insult to its heritage, and we’re just in a mess right now, it’s like a Gordian Knot and it just needs to get [unclear 00:30:22] really.

On a certain level though, this is the beauty of putting all this in the context of yoga, because when you learn yoga, this comes back to the Yama and Niyama, this is just the way of the world, it’s always rocking back and forth, there’s always stuff erupting and blowing up, and going round and around, and that’s just the way of the world. Yoga is about turning away from that, looking in, trying to find that center, trying to find the source of all of this stuff, and not… You just turn your back away from that for a while, that’s a part of yoga, you turn your back on it and that’s Yama and Niyama. You know?


Alex Tsakiris: Help me out with this one Don. When you get consciousness wrong, now we’ve talked a lot about science and some people call it science bashing, I don’t consider it that way. I wrote a book a couple of years ago, Why Science is Wrong about almost everything, and the basic premise was that, if you get consciousness wrong in the way you’re describing it, then it’s hard really to get much of anything right. Talk about that.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Yeah, and I’ve read it, it’s a great book Alex. [unclear 00:40:08].

Alex Tsakiris: Thank you.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: So, make sure you put that on your shelf.

Alex Tsakiris: I will, I absolutely will, but expand on that point, because it’s frustrating for me to have to explain to people, even people I really like and respect like Rupert Sheldrake, Cambridge biologist, but just recoil again at the idea that science is wrong about almost everything. No wait, they’re right about lasers, they’re right about…

Dr. Donald DeGracia: They’re wrong about all of it, you’re right. Then it comes back to Kant, see, we can only go back to Kant because Kant said it, everything that appears to be outside of us is actually in our mind. So, if we don’t understand how our mind works, we really don’t understand how those things work. And this is why we’re faced with this shut up and calculate paradigm of quantum mechanics, because now, all of a sudden, we’re confronted. Ever since the quantum mechanics in the 1930s, we’ve been confronted with the fact that, whatever this transcendental thing is that Kant was talking about, is nothing at all like what our senses perceive the world to be. Our senses are perceiving some very narrow, very narrow window, into what it really is. So, that right there should cause everybody to be highly skeptical about realism as a viewpoint. But yeah, for sure.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s pound on that a little bit further and I want to draw people’s attention to some of your writings. One is an excellent article you wrote for Edge Magazine, which is a publication of the journal for scientific exploration. And you wrote an article about Beyond Neuroscience. You’re really saying all the same things, but it’s interesting that when you apply it to a different field, like neuroscience, and you say, “Hey, beware of all those pretty pictures that you see on your FMRI, because you may be interpreting them differently than they really are.”

It helps people, I guess, maybe get a little bit closer to what you’re really talking about here.

So, if you can, break that down in terms of Beyond Neuroscience, because we sure do love neuroscience.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Sure, so okay. First thing to say is that article was written as almost a little precursor of the book, of The Yogic View of Consciousness. It was a follow up to that SSE topic that was put up on the internet, which also was a precursor to the book.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s up on the internet, but I just had to repost it because you had it like unlisted or private, or something like that, no one could find it. I downloaded it and re uploaded it, and we’ll talk about it.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Really?

Alex Tsakiris: That’s why no one could find it.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Oh wow, I didn’t think it was private. Anyway, so yeah, it all comes back to Kant. So, everything we perceive with our senses, the idea is, if you assume that the transcendental, there is something outside of our mind, if you make that assumption, you can’t assume that whatever that is has the same form as it is in our mind. So, when we perceive something in our mind…

I actually address this in The Yogic View of Consciousness, and I show as an example a holograph.

Okay, so a holograph, you’ve seen a 3D holograph right? It looks like something, Louis Armstrong playing his trombone or whatever in 3D, but if you look at the holographic plate that floors that, it just looks like this weird, kind of semi-beautiful pattern that has nothing to do with it, it’s just this weird abstract pattern floored on the holographic plate. But then if you do certain manipulation to that holographic plate it produces a holograph of Louis Armstrong.

So that’s a good metaphor to try to understand the length between the transcendental and the actual appearances in our mind. So, we see Louis Armstrong in our mind, but in the real world of the transcendental, it’s more like this abstract thing, that we’re only getting a certain angle, a limited concept of.

Alex Tsakiris: So, but now introduce neuroscience, because what I hear you say is, neuroscience takes the joke and extends it one level further. They say, “No Don, we have this nice picture here of your mind, just look at it on the computer screen, and that is your mind, that’s not just your brain, that is your mind.”

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well don’t forget I’m highly… I have a PhD in this stuff, so if you want to go there, you’re like asking for a fight.

Alex Tsakiris: What I want you to try and do for folks, is connect them to why it’s so attractive to look at those FMRI’s, why it’s so alluring, and why it’s complete nonsense.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well yeah, so in this advanced neuro course, I give a lecture on brain blood flow and lack of blood flow, which is ischemia, which [unclear 00:45:10]. But their exercise is they have to criticize, I give them some highly detailed brain anatomy literature to read and they have to explain why the FMRI’s are so unbelievably crude and what their fundamental flaw is.

The flaw itself is that there’s this concept called Block Design or Subtraction Design, and the idea being that, here’s a standard FMRI experimental design, where, let’s say you want to study what parts of the brain are involved with reading. So, what you’ll do is, you’ll put somebody in the FMRI machine and you’ll show them just images that don’t have words and that will activate the eyes and the visual part of the brain and then you’ll show them just words which activates the eyes and the visual parts of the brain, plus the language part. Then they’ll take the scan they get in the first instance, which is just visual activation, and subtract that from visual plus language activating, and then the difference they get is, they then say those are the language parts of the brain.

Once in a while it kind of works, but in general it does not work, and the reason it does not work goes back to this thing of non-linear. See, when you just add two things together they’re assuming they’re linear, and when you subtract them they’re assuming you’re linearly adding language to the other. So, you can’t do that.

Alex Tsakiris: Why can’t you do that? Why can’t you do that? Break that down.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well because the system is inherently non-linear, that’s why. But here’s the even better thing, so somewhere around 2002-2003ish…

Alex Tsakiris: But hold on, back up there one second. The system is inherently non-linear.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Non-linear means that you can’t just add things together, they don’t just simply… It’s not two plus two equals four, it’s more like, you’ve got this item and you add this item to it, and now it’s like, instead of twice the effect you get four times the effect.

Alex Tsakiris: So why is that FMRI, I want to belabor this, why is that FMRI inherently non-linear? Explain that.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well the FMRI measures blood flow in the brain, okay? It’s measuring the flow of blood, and first off, and this is another part of the exercise, the question of how losing the neurons links to blood flow, that’s not been solved. There’re several theories about it and the students are expected to learn those. They have the form of this ABC kind of thing, you’ve got to learn these different molecules that interact and so forth, and that in itself is flawed, because that assumes a linear sequence of events at the cellular level. And part of the anatomy…

There’re actually some really good people in the field that write very intelligent articles, and I have them read one, like this is an amazing thing that even blows me away.

If you take one square millimeter of bone tissue, it has something like close to a million neurons in it, some several kilometers of [unclear 00:48:05], just unbelievably densely packed. And that unit, one square millimeter is a typical voxel of current MRI technology. So you’re averaging across that whole thing, across a million neurons. What does that mean? At least temperature we understand theoretically because it’s just molecules beating off stuff, but when you’ve got a million neurons interacting and you’re averaging across all of that, what does that mean?

Alex Tsakiris: So, we can return to your analogy about the cell, and the cell is a city. So we can say, well that city is no more or we can say that city is still functioning, but if you were inside the city, it would make a really big difference if the city up and moved to another place, or if it got hit by an atomic bomb, or it got hit by some plague or something like that. All those things would be very different. So, there’s an analogy here like with the FMRI too.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well in the use of MRI, we got a million cells in that volume of one voxel, one unit of that in it. So now, we’re dealing with a million cities. What happens when you have a million cities interacting? You’re getting the sum signal coming out, but that in fact has to do with the magnetization properties of blood, that’s the basis of the FMRI signal, right? We have hemoglobin and that’s a magnetic substance in our body, and you’re altering the FMRI [unclear 00:49:35], then alters its magnetization, and you’re getting this magnetic signal back out of the machine.

So, what the hell? We’re talking about this unit of a million things and you shot this big magnetic pulse into it, or actually radio frequency that changes the magnetization, then you get the magnetic output, and yeah, it’s literally voodoo, it’s literally voodoo, and if the students don’t recognize that, you get a very bad grade on my exercise.

It’s propaganda, it’s a matter of just like logically going through this, because if you’re a scientist and you’re really trying to reveal the mechanism of a function, that’s your goal, right? You can’t just fluffy arm waving stuff, and so it’s a very strict, strong exercise, and they need to explain how…

And the other thing too…

Alex Tsakiris: But hold on, jump in there for a minute and return to a point, because it’s nice to kind of really fully understand the pluses and the minuses, because it can be useful in some situations. But it’s again returning to the shut up and calculate thing, let’s not forget what we’re assuming when we use that.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well FMRI is pretty good for diagnosing certain types of medical illnesses, that’s the one thing that you can say. There’re clear places where you get microscopic damage in the brain that you can detect with that technology. It’s really good for diagnostic purposes.


Alex Tsakiris: But here’s the point in all of that, so that’s my little story. But the point is, when you start reading Yogananda, and you read the first 30 pages, for most of us, especially with any kind of grounding in Western realism, we’re blown away by the miracles. I mean is this guy for real? Talking about manifesting things, meals right in front of him, by location of people, shape shifting.

So, this is a real guy, Yogananda, we have pictures of him, we have people who still remember sitting with him, people who recount seeing miracles, maybe not of that magnitude. But what are we to make of the yoga miracles we hear, that kind of challenge our understanding of how reality works, but more importantly for our discussion, how consciousness works? Do you have any thoughts on that Don?

Dr. Donald DeGracia: What I fall back on, from my own experience, because I got into all of this through theosophy. Actually, do you want to hear my experience? I was thinking about this, I don’t think I shared this with you.

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: This is pretty amazing. So, when I was a kid, my dad used to take us to the local flea market on the weekend and we’d just look around at all the junk and stuff. I was in high school, so probably 15 or 16 or something.

One time we were there and there was a guy with a table set out and he had all these books, and I loved to read, even back then. So, I went up and looked, they were weird, they were like How To Do Telepathy and Astral Projection and all this weird stuff, and the guy just looks at me and goes, “I think this one’s for you,” and he gives me a book on how to astral project, and I’m like, “That’s weird.”

So, we go out to the car to go home and I look at the thing, and I’m like, “What is that?” I’m like, “I don’t know, it’s some stupid shit,” and I threw it out the window, literally just threw it out the window. The irony just never left me, because it was only within a year or two after that that I started to have my astral projection.

So that’s pretty wild, huh?

Alex Tsakiris: It’s pretty wild but you’ve got to follow it up with the story of the first astral projection.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Oh seriously? Yeah, I don’t know if I ever shared that with you. So, yeah it was totally spontaneous, I had come home from school and I used to take naps when I’d come home from school. I’m lying there taking a nap, next thing you know, I wake up and I’m like spinning around the periphery of my bedroom, like the wall, the upper wall, where the ceiling meets the wall, literally spinning. I was terrified, yet at the same time I was like, “What is this?” My curiosity dominated over the terror. I felt this abstract feeling of terror, but it was just like, “What the hell is going on? What is going on?” And then boom, I woke up.

That was my very first experience, and then it happened a second time, and the second time the terror was still there but it had much less of an effect on me because I had recognized what had happened.

But, both of those happened in high school and I totally forgot about both of them. Then I went away to college, and you know with college you get into all the funny stuff. So, I ended up meeting this girl and she gave me [unclear 01:01:19] book about the astral plane.

I read it and he talked about going to this plane next to ours, and I just made the connection, I’m like, “That must’ve been what I did in high school.” Like, “Somehow I can naturally go there by myself.”

And me and my bud, my roommate, we set up this little contest, because he read the book, he was into the stuff too, and it was like, “Well let’s see who can go there first.” And we would just, like whatever, I would practice, he would practice, and we’d try to see if we could get back there and I ended up getting back there pretty quickly and that was the start of my whole adventure into working with astral projection or lucid dreaming, whatever you want to call it.

But most of that happened when I was in college.

Alex Tsakiris: And Don, maybe you should point people to the book you wrote.

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Yeah, DO_OBE. So, that’s up there with my other book on dondeg.com, you can download it, and it actually explains the method that I use, that shows exactly how I do it. I developed a method that’s very reproducibly worked really well. It turns out, in retrospect, it was the same method that Stephen LaBerge described as, a wakened lucid dream, or a wild, as he calls it. The exact same method.

Alex Tsakiris: So back to the question, and I’m sure you’ve thought a lot about this. What does the reality of that extended consciousness realm, that you tapped into, and we can only assume some of these yogis tapped into as well, what does that say more broadly about our understanding of consciousness as we experience it on a day to day basis?

Dr. Donald DeGracia: Well one thing it says is a lot of what consciousness is, is invisible to our immediate awareness. We’re just not conscious of it, it’s unconscious, yet it conditions our consciousness. Like I spend a lot of time in the book talking about that, so you might want to use the word filter, right? But these are things that effect how we perceive the world and how we act. Like where do creativity and inspiration and things like that come from? Right? These are the current, the undercurrent and the cave that filter off and effect our day to day behavior, our moment by moment behavior.

I give the example in the book of [Kekule 01:03:53], discovering the structure of benzene, right? And look at the impact that had on the world. In a way, you might think maybe that’s a slow-motion example of some of these, what you’re calling yogi miracles. Right? Maybe these yogis who become…

I just presume that in general they’re telling the truth. Of course, there is a bunch of fakers and posers and stuff like that, but there’s this ancient tradition that’s lost in the midst of human history, we can’t even say how old the yoga tradition is. I find it hard to believe that it would last this long if it was all BS, right?


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