By Marc Barasch, published on July 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 20, 2012
Evidence that the mind and body influence each other abounds, and suggests something much stranger: that awareness isn't confined to the brain; it operates 'nonlocally,' beyond the biochemical lines between brain and, say, the immune system. This consciousness revolution is rattling the very foundation of Western medicine.
Anyone who didn't spend 1993 in a severely media-deprived locale—an Antarctic substation, say, or the lazily pinwheeling Russian space-lab—has probably heard the news: Rene Descartes, the 17th century mathematician who shaped the world as we know it, has been officially pronounced dead.
The eulogy was delivered by Bill Moyers, public television's own Piers Ploughman, via his phenomenally successful TV series and book-cum-transcript, Healing and the Mind. But in truth, the old philosophe's stiff—which had lain for three centuries in the halls of medicine like some glass-entombed Lenin—had become a bit of an embarrassment.
Immortalized in Bartlett's for his inscrutable, Popeye-like declamation, "I think therefore I am," Descartes was history's most persuasive partisan of the mind-body split, a bedrock notion of modern science. Mental events, the savant declared, occur in a separate domain from those of the flesh. Consciousness has no business in the mean streets of matter. As a result, medical science came to be dominated by a materialism so iron-clad that one 19th century theorist felt emboldened to quip that the mind's influence upon the mechanism of the body was like "the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine but cannot influence its machinery."
The problem with this is obvious to anyone who ever had an unseemly thought about their junior-high English teacher and then blushed: "The soul's passions," said Aristotle, who had it right all along, "seem to be linked with a body, as the body undergoes modifications in their presence."
By 1900, medical science had at least begun to suspect as much. Freud and Janet's investigations of hysterical paralysis provided a benchmark of the mind's power over the body. Dr. Walter Cannon discovered in the 1930s that the central nervous system controlled many bodily functions and suggested that it in turn was subject to a regulatory mechanism "which in human beings we call the personality."
Still, if anyone could be credited with shutting off the refrigeration on Descartes' mortal remains and letting the aroma of a paradigm gone bad reach science's stuffed nostrils, it is Candace Pert, Ph.D., former chief of the Brain Biochemistry Section of the National Institute of Mental Health and co-discoverer of the brain's opiate receptors. Subsequent revelations that similar docking sites for "information molecules" (or neuropeptides) were myriad as stars scattered through the bodily firmament have launched the branch of medicine known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which is busy codifying a self-evident truth: Mind and body have their hands so deep in each other's pockets it's hard to tell whose car keys are whose.
So-called messenger molecules are suddenly turning up everywhere—in the brain (particularly in the centers governing emotion), throughout the immune system, and in organs from gut to gland. Our thoughts and feelings are mediated by neuropeptides; diseases secrete neuropeptides; neuropeptides may be crucial to the healing response. What Pert proved once and for all is that brain, nervous system, and immune system, far from being incommunicado, are at this very second hunched elbow-to-elbow at the espresso bar of the Chatterbox Cafe, animatedly sharing your most intimate particulars.
I met Pert four years ago when she was in town to speak at a healing conference. I was already well apprised of the mind-body factor, having suffered a hellacious bout with cancer that was accompanied by altered states more colorful than any I'd encountered in a lifetime of Buddhist meditation. Pert was just beginning to venture forth from the autoclaved precincts of official research to more new-age venues, trying out the PNI gospel on an audience more receptive than most of her colleagues. In her flowing orange floral-print dress, slinging her pointer over her shoulder with precision rifle-drill panache, her words ricocheting in breathless spurts, she was like some hip diva of science. The next day, recognizing a kindred glimmer, we decided to play hooky from that afternoon's lectures for a picnic lunch in the mountains.
Though she may tone it down at phlegmier scientific gatherings, Pert at ease seems on the verge of autoelectrocution from a surfeit of cranial wattage. "Emotions exist in two realms," she told me between exclamations about the view from a dizzying curve that sent gravel rattling into our wheel rims. "One is the mind. The other is the realm of living matter. Of course, science expects you to dutifully exclude the soul. But I can't. The whole thing's vibrating back and forth. We're actually talking about music."
She hazarded that each neuropeptide, the first of which has burgeoned from five just a few years ago to over five dozen, may "evoke a unique 'tone' that is equivalent to a mood state." I pictured mind and body as a thousand-octave piano, with every note—from the highest glissando of altruism to the middle-C of fight-or-flight to bass-heavy autonomic arpeggios—as part of a seamless, interdigitated boogie-woogie.
Staggering stuff: What PNI has shown us is that the human being is a walking biological Heisenberg Principle, in which the observer's thoughts, feelings, and attitudes can have measurable effects on physical reality. Within the margins of its homeostatic aloofness, the "It" of our own biology is exquisitely responsive to the "I" of subjective experience.
And these responses are no mere grace notes. Hypnosis, long considered a negligible medical therapy, has been successfully employed to treat children with congenital ichthyosis, so-called fishskin disease—a genetic illness. Meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to affect blood platelets, norepinephrine receptors, and cortisol levels; biofeedback to influence phagocyte activity; mental imagery to enhance natural killer cell function in patients with metastatic cancer. In a now famous study, David Spiegel, M.D., of Stanford University showed that women with advanced breast cancer who took part in a psychological support group lived twice as long as those who did not take part, a benefit no known drug can claim.
Researchers are beginning to wonder if mind-body effects may even contribute to what physician-essayist Lewis Thomas called "the rare but spectacular phenomenon" of spontaneous remission of cancer. Researcher Caryle Hirshberg, Ph.D., a blunt, no-nonsense biochemist, is the coauthor of a near-legendary study that collates some 450 medically documented cases. This startling body of evidence—the One White Crow that disproves the thesis All Crows Are Black— suggests that such events, treated in most oncology texts as chimerical (if not unreal as a paper moon), could point to yet-unsuspected powers of body and mind.
When I spoke with her, Hirshberg, hammering on publication deadline, grumped only half-jokingly about having to write her acknowledgments page. "What am I supposed to say?" she asks, referring to her peers' initial skepticism. "Thanks for telling me not to even bother?" I mention a case the late Norman Cousins recounted concerning a San Diego woman whose cancer was so far advanced the tumor was "like a hand grenade under a thin sheathing of skin." The woman had been sent to his office at UCLA Medical School because she was resisting her doctors' urgent recommendations for a mastectomy.
Cousins thought there would be no harm teaching her a few visualization techniques. He showed her a stock mental exercise that usually succeeds in slightly raising the skin temperature of the hand. The woman turned out to be an exceptional subject: Her hand temperature shot up 14 degrees. When she returned to the hospital after two weeks of practicing various meditations, the tumor, to his amazement, had completely disappeared.
"Who knows what mind is capable of?" Hirshberg asks rhetorically. "For that matter, who knows what mind is? Certainly, it's thinking and feeling. But is mind only thinking, body only feeling? I mean, mind feels. Mind is also dreams, mind is altered states, mind is consciousness, consciousness is spirit. It's not like we scientists know.
"Maybe the Dalai Lama knows," she adds parenthetically. "I met him once, and I think if there's a light in the world, he's it. I sometimes think the kind of understanding he has is where we'll have to go to look at what we're calling PNI"
In a recent documentary, as sunlight streams in through the window from the icy, glittering peaks of the nearby Himalayas, the Dalai Lama can be seen bending over a desk, one hand pressing a jeweler's loupe to his eye, the other twirling a screwdriver in the entrails of an old-fashioned watch. "It is my nature," the exiled leader is saying. "As soon as I got a playtoy ... few minutes later, I try to open ... see what is inside." He giggles delightedly, holding the watch up for inspection, then turns shrewdly to the camera: "That's the way to learn something." He laughs again.
Try to open. See what is inside. Now imagine a whole society turning its mental jeweler's tools in the innards of the mind, investing 1,200 years in a top-priority, national Inner Space Program. For eras, while the world blustered through the age of steam, spit electricity's cold fire in the face of the night, and unleashed the railing demons of the atom, Tibetan followers of the Lord Buddha sat calmly by the flickering light of millions of yak-butter lamps, calipering the depth and breath of the soul, doing essential R&D on consciousness itself, souping up the spiritual software.
Westerners have viewed Tibetans as Mind-Body Masters on the World's Rooftop ever since French pilgrim Alexandra David-Neel secretly entered Lhasa and returned bearing stories of monks sitting in the snow, drying water-soaked sheets on their naked bodies (a feat she puckishly filed under "psychic sports"). More than a decade ago, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., best known for his best-seller, The Relaxation Response, on the medical effects of meditation, decided to investigate.
With the Dalai Lama's blessing, he wired up monks in India's northern foothills with electronic measuring devices while they performed their sheet-drying stunt. To his amazement, their skin temperature rose as much as 17 degrees above normal, even though in such near-freezing weather the body invariably routes blood from the periphery to keep core organs warm. "If an ordinary person were to try this," Benson says, "they would shiver uncontrollably and perhaps even die. But here, within three to five minutes, the sheets started to steam and within 45 minutes were completely dry."
How is such a feat possible? Benson offers that the yogis may have somehow learned to induce "nonshivering thermogenesis," a metabolic state in which the body burns so-called brown fat—a substance thought to be metabolized only in hibernating animals. But he adds, "It's difficult to understand from what source such energy is emanating. By our calculations of the amount of heat generated, there must be an energy source in the body other than the ones we're currently aware of."
Similarly, Candace Pert asked Moyers, "Can we account for all human phenomena in terms of chemicals? I personally think we're going to have to bring in that extra-energy realm, the realm of spirit and soul that Descartes kicked out of Western scientific thought."
And therein lies the rub. Today's mind-body theorists seem peering over the precipice of the world-view espoused in the droll cat-and-cockroach classic, the lives and times of Archie and Mehitabel:
"I can show you love and hate and the future dreaming side by side in a cell in the little cells where matter is so fine it merges into spirit."
The love-and-hate-and-cells stuff, which would have been difficult to swallow even a few years ago, is now fair game for any PNI investigator clever enough to design a credible experiment. It's the matter-merging-into-spirit part that's become an Olympic triple-axel skating routine on very thin ice.
"There's a great mystery of how thought is translated into material response, and PNI, even though it's the darling of the emerging sciences, hasn't shed any light on it whatsoever," remarks Larry Dossey, M.D., co-chairman of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dossey's panel falls under the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, a government entity that has appeared as suddenly as an April crocus in the courtyard of the nation's firmest bastion of biomedical research. The office's allotment of $2 million of the $10 billion NIH behemoth "the flea on the elephant, pen-and-pencil money," says director Joseph Jacobs, M.D., the superbly trained half-Mohawk Indian health-care expert tapped to helm what he calls "the Starship Enterprise"—could be used to study anything from acupuncture to herbal medicine to the antitumoral properties of shark cartilage.
But it is Dossey's panel that promises to become the Enterprise's glowing, dilithium-crystal core, for its mandate is to zero in on therapies—from hypnosis and biofeedback to exotica like therapeutic touch and prayer—where the driving force of healing is Western philosophy's most debated (and science's most derided) factor x—the human spirit.
Dossey, who grew up in a hardscrabble, King Cotton Texas prairie town where life revolved around a one-room country church, seems undaunted. In his teens, he played gospel piano for a fiery tent-show evangelist before leaving the farm for college and medical school, then served as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam. After entering private practice, Dossey found himself reading works of Eastern and Western spirituality "insatiably." He took up the practice of meditation, eventually writing a series of well-received books exploring the intersection of medicine and mysticism.
A report of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions, which Dossey coauthored, loses no time assailing the trepid with the Really Big Questions: "What are mind and consciousness? How and where do they originate? How are they related to the physical body? Why is it necessary to reintroduce mind and consciousness into the modern medical agenda?"
"Let me tell you something," confides Dossey in soft, still-detectable Texas diphthongs. "If we ignore issues of consciousness, it'll be the ruin of alternative medicine. It could wind up just being something used as ruthlessly as synthetic drugs or stainless-steel scalpels. In my opinion, the most important research activity in the entire field will be the investigation of nonlocal manifestations of consciousness."
Nonlocal manifestations of consciousness? Have we fallen off the edge of the map? The panel's report explains that "studies in mental and spiritual healing show that the mind can somehow bring about changes in far-away physical bodies, even when the distant person is shielded from all known sensory and electromagnetic influences. These events, replicated by careful observers under laboratory conditions, strongly suggest that there is some aspect of the psyche that is unconfinable to points in space, such as brain or body, or to points in time, as in the present moment."
The eye comes to a screeching halt seeing such phrases laid out, neat as you please, in an official document of the United States government. These are not the florid, metaphysical ramblings of a 19th-century occultist, but the words whispered in the side corridors of the highest citadel of American rationalism: The mind, it is rumored, has escaped the brain.
"These ideas do have a pretty high Boggle Factor," Dossey admits, but he claims the evidence is mounting. He points to the work of William G. Brand, Ph.D., senior research associate at San Antonio's Mind Science Foundation: In a typical experiment, one person—called the "influencer"—was placed in one room, while in a different part of the building a "subject," fingers hooked up to electrodes to measure galvanic skin response, settled into a chair. At randomly selected times, the influencer tried to affect the subject's electrodermal response by, for example, visualizing the subject while repeating, "Relax ... relax...." Later analysis showed that the subject's electrodermal responses had varied at the same time as the influencer's thoughts, at a rate 43,000 to one against chance.
Another of Braud's studies posed the question of whether people could affect the rate of decay of human blood cells in test tubes by thought alone. Red cells drawn from volunteers were placed in a solution with low salt content, which normally would cause them to rupture. The volunteers were told to try to mentally "protect" their own distant blood cells from harm. Astonishingly, measurements made with a computer-linked spectrophotometer revealed that nearly a third of the participants had succeeded, seemingly, in mentally slowing their blood cells' destruction. The odds here, gleaned from 64 separate sessions, were nearly 200,000 to one.
Overall, Braud has performed more than 500 such experiments, all aimed at detecting the nonlocal influence of consciousness—pure thought—on biological processes as diverse as the spatial orientation of fish, the locomotor activity of small rodents, and the brain rhythms of people. Consciousness, he has concluded, produces verifiable biological effects in distant human 'targets' as well as in bacteria, neurons, cancer cells, enzymes, fungi, mobile algae, plants, protozoa, larvae, insects, chicks, gerbils, cats, and dogs. In human subjects, these "telesomatic" effects occurred even when the target was unaware of the effort. "I very much doubt that mobile algae," Dossey deadpans, "are susceptible to suggestion or the placebo effect."
It is doubtful that the majority of Dossey's colleagues will be susceptible to his suggestion: that the mind-body revolution is leading inexorably toward a consciousness revolution—one so profound that some long-cherished scientific truisms may have to be subsumed within a much larger, much stranger framework. The heretical theses being nailed to the church door are unsettling: that mental forces can violate the laws of physical causality; that the mind's influence on the body goes beyond the biochemical links between brain and immune system posited by PNI; that there are things that mind can do that a physical brain could not. What Dossey is talking about in a fairly unvarnished way is the science—or as some would have it, the nonscience or nonsense—of parapsychology, a bastard-turned-prodigal child that may be on the verge of claiming its share of the patrimony.
It's not as if it was ever entirely scratched out of the family portrait. William James, the father of American psychology, spent 25 years examining psychic phenomena, spiritism, and religious experiences, producing a radical empiricism that respectfully made room for altered states. Freud admitted that when it came to such oddities as visions of the future, "attempts at giving a psychological explanation have been inadequate to cover the material collected, however decidedly the sympathies of those of a scientific cast of mind may incline against accepting such beliefs."
Jung, whose early work was influenced by F.W.H. Meyers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, conceived of the brain as simply a "transformer station": "In the deeper layers of the psyche which we call the unconscious, there are things that cast doubt on the indispensable categories of our conscious world, namely, time and space. The existence of telepathy is still denied only by positive ignoramuses."
But, we might ask ... so what? Say the human mind can work some inexplicable mojo on algae: It doesn't mean you can sit in a chaise lounge and mentally skim the pool clear of pond scum. But proponents say the implications are sweeping: They pertain to no less than the mind-brain connection, the mysteries of healing, and the underpinnings of Western science itself.
In a single stroke, Dossey's panel has resurrected a bete noir, a bugaboo, a haint that experimental reductionism has kept from haunting the premises for centuries: "the ghost in the machine" (as Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively called the notion of nonphysical selfhood)—a spook that, instead of vaporously passing through walls, could eventually bash in the front door of The House That Science Built.
The question devolves on this: How does attitude influence the brain, and thence the body, in the first place? In which vestibule of our gray matter, on what wetware coat hook, does the mind hang its hat? If, as Braud's experiments suggest, the mind isn't quite "inside" the brain, can it take jaunts around the perimeter? And what is that perimeter? What are the limits—and prerogatives—of consciousness?
This is far from the first time the question has come up. Every major religion claims to own and operate the sole franchise. Every world-class philosophy has mud-wrestled with it. Any surgeon who ever unscrewed the lid of the skull, peeled back the dura mater, and stared into the container of vanilla pudding said to include all the ingredients of a human being has had at least one preposterous moment of awe—and utter doubt.
Pioneering neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize for his work on the synapse, once commented that the hair-trigger sensitivity of the brain's intercellular connections suggests "a machine designed to be operated by a ghost." Eccles proposed that the way that consciousness affected the brain might be via psychokinesis (literally "soul-motion"), or the direct influence of thought upon matter. The mind might be like a concert virtuoso tickling the ivories of the brain, performing "cognitive caresses" of the cortical neurons. Fellow brain-mapper Wilder Penfield called it "the ultimate of ultimate problems." He came to believe that "the dualist hypothesis (the mind is separate from the brain) seems the more reasonable of explanations."
I recently attended a Harvard Medical School seminar on the frontiers of mind-body medicine. During the question period, a doctor from Cambridge rose from the audience and described her cardiac arrest during her own Cesarian section. She had had no heartbeat. Her eyes had been taped shut. Still, the obstetrician told her rapt colleagues, "I could see everybody in the room, hear the swearing as they tried to revive me, just as if I were standing at the head of the operating table."
"But I could see nothing was working. My brachial artery had narrowed too much to get a line through my neck. Suddenly I saw the chairman of the department, whom I had never met, reach in and through my abdomen and put his ungloved hand around my aorta. I felt a powerful surge of energy. He held my aorta in this very firm and loving way until it started to beat again." Later, she said, every detail of this account was confirmed by those who were present at her operation.
Michael B. Sabom, M.D., cardiologist and professor of medicine at Emory University, staff physician at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, was skeptical of increasingly common accounts of such out-of-body experiences, or OBEs. He set out to compare a group of heart-attack patients who had never had OBEs to those who claimed that they had. He found, to his surprise, that those who had ostensibly experienced OBEs were able to provide far more accurate descriptions of cardiac procedures, and that some were able to give highly specific, verifiable details of their own particular resuscitations.
At end of his 1982 book, Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation, he states, "If the human brain is actually composed of two fundamental elements—the 'mind' and the 'brain'—then could the near-death crisis even somehow trigger a transient splitting of the mind from the brain in many individuals? My own beliefs are leaning in this direction. The out-of-body hypothesis simply seems to fit best with the data at hand."
The NIH's Dossey told me, "How mind might operate beyond the physical brain is not comprehensible. But the inconceivable has become commonplace in fields like quantum mechanics. With phenomena like the instant, simultaneous change in the spin characteristics of photons separated by distances of light-years, what I'm calling 'nonlocal mind' is right at home in modern physics. Physicists don't have a clue how things in the quantum world can happen, but they don't question that they do. They honor the data."
Indeed, many theorists are looking to the brain-teasing, mind-twisting strange-but-true factoids of quantum physics to provide at least provisional explanations for the mysteries of consciousness. Brian Josephson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work on quantum tunneling and superconductivity, has said that evidence for apparent faster-than-light signaling in quantum physics "raises the possibility that one part of the universe may have knowledge of another part—some kind of contact at a distance." Josephson suggests that such interconnections could permit the operation of 'psi functioning' between humans, currently anathema to biomedical science.
"The fact that nonlocal events are now studied by physicists in the microworld," the NIH report adds, "suggests a greater permissiveness and freedom to examine phenomena in the biological and mental domains that may possibly be analogous."
That, according to renowned neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, M.D., is nothing but a load of Mandrake the Magician-class hooey. Edelman and colleagues at Rockefeller University's Neurosciences Institutes are working assiduously on a purely biological theory of how "higher-order consciousness" could be produced in the brain through a reflexive "bootstrapping process" of its own neuronal circuitry.
Edelman, who once planned a career as a concert violinist, sees the mind as an emergent property of brain tissue-"an orchestra without a conductor, an orchestra which makes its own music," in the approving summation of fellow neurologist Oliver Sacks, M.D. "To attempt to explain aspects of consciousness using as-yet-undiscovered physical fields or dimensions," Edelman comments acerbically, "is a bit like a schoolboy who, not knowing the formula of sulfuric acid asked for on an exam, gives instead a beautiful account of his dog Spot."
"Some very good physicists," he adds, "have reached beyond the biological facts and have supposed that [the quantum is] the answer to the riddle of consciousness. This is an off-putting way of proposing physics as a surrogate spook."
Michael Scriven, Ph.D., a philosopher of science who can recall with relish the occasion when, barely more than a graduate schoolboy himself, he argued with Einstein over "whether time could be closed as well as space," finds such dismissals a little glib. "I'm a little irked," he says in his crisp Down Under accent, "about mainstream scientists' knee-jerk reactions to strangeness, as if kangaroos can't be real because they've never seen one themselves. It's pathetic to hear Nobel-Prize winners acting like children seeing a ghost at night."
Scriven, who has been around the scientific block (he worked for the NIH in the forties and in the fifties served on the board of the Journal of Mental and Nervous Diseases), is a member of a loosely affiliated group of thinkers who are trying to come up with less reductionist solutions to the conundrums of consciousness. He refers to himself as the "Guardian at the Logical Gates" for the group (dubbed the Causality Project and sponsored by the same Fetzer Foundation that funded the Moyers series.)
"But it's also wrong to say," he hastens to add, "that just because there's something parapsychological out there, everything we know must crumble. The basis of science is so well founded, so built up layer upon layer, that this stuff is no more than a little crack at the edges of some very old, very solid monuments."
Others think, however, that the cracks could widen into a serious structural flaw. Consider Spiegel's Stanford study, where women with advanced breast disease who attended a psychological support group lived twice as long as those who didn't attend. Suppose an anticancer drug were undergoing trials, and the experimental group, unbeknownst to the experimenters, contained a disproportionate number of patients who were also in group therapy. Longer survival rates might not have to do entirely with the efficacy of the pharmaceutical, but with the patients' state of mind. Thus, even carefully designed experiments could be hopelessly, invisibly skewed.
This would be what Larry Dossey calls a "local" effect of consciousness, the stuff of PNI: a person's attitudes, emotions, and thoughts can have effects on their bodies. But Dossey and the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions go yet further, pointing to evidence suggestive of "non-local" effects: that the body may be "influenced by events occurring at a distance from the patient and outside his or her awareness."
If this is true, it could topple the tallest spire on the cathedral of science—the double-blind experiment. Science works by accounting for—and controlling—every variable and influence that could conceivably affect an experimental outcome. What if there are factors that must be taken into account that have heretofore been ruled out as theoretically impossible? For all we know, Dossey says, outcomes could be influenced "by people outside the experimental arena, like well-wishing friends or praying kinfolk. When we look back on our present era, I think we're going to be astonished how naive we were, that we actually believed we could isolate people in such a way that the influence of consciousness could be annulled."
Under his prodding, the NIH's Panel on Mind/Body Interventions has sandwiched into its report a daring call for a Task Force on the Nature of Consciousness, to comprise representatives from every discipline: psychologists, neurophysiologists, artificial intelligence experts, physicists, physicians, and philosophers. Similarly, the professionally variegated Causality Project has already been meeting for years, aiming for nothing less than a new paradigm of science. Other enclaves—with exotic names like the Bay Area Consciousness Group, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR), and Temple University's Center for Frontier Sciences—are already pins in the sketchy map of a brave new world.
A project is even underway to create an internationally affiliated group of first-class "Consciousness Research Laboratories" that would exchange data and provide replication of each other's work. All the baroque-sounding formulations that have sparked centuries of philosophical wrangling—Descartes' "radical dualism," Leibniz's "psychophysical parallelism," Spencer's "mindstuff theory"—may soon move from the Victorian armchair to the cyclotron, the petri dish, the electron-tunneling microscope.
But what species of researcher is going to risk grants, tenure, and professional repute by venturing out into the night with a high-tech jelly-jar to try to capture a flitting, hypothetical psychic quark? Typical of a new breed of what might be called experiential experimentalists, biophysicist Beverly Rubik, Ph.D., director of Temple University's Center for Frontier Sciences, has logged time on a Zen meditation cushion and also taught for three years at an institute run by Catholic mystic Father Matthew Fox. Rubik, a well-regarded hard scientist, recently attended a White House meeting on health care in her capacity as advisor to the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, where she heads a panel on electromagnetic interventions." The panel will examine everything from electrical therapies used to accelerate bone healing to a "neurobiochemical stimulator" (which, she says, "has created profound changes in animals' brain chemistry and moods"). Her passion, she says, is "how energy fields maybe including a nonlocal field of consciousness itself—interact with life."
Like a number of her Causality Project colleagues, Rubik feels her various spiritual sojourns have given her an inside track on the mind-brain puzzle. Her accounting makes it sound as if Descartes, last seen at his recent, merciful public interment, may yet shake off the clods of soil to meander among the scientific living. "I agree Cartesianism is dreadful," she muses "but there is something immaterial about who we are. Maybe we'll need to go back to Eastern mystical concepts like an 'etheric' or 'astral' energy domain."
Clearly, these ideas—particularly as they emerge from the belly of what looks suspiciously like a new-age Trojan Horse wheeled in sometime around the dawn of Aquarius—will irritate some sensibilities. "Media Blitz for Mind/Body Malarkey" blared a recent headline in a scientific-muckraking newsletter called Probe. The article took aim at what it held to be the moonier aspects of Moyers' TV series, which it called "seductively anti-medical, anti-scientific, and anti-rational." Its claim that "a campaign has been launched to radically change and spiritualize America's science-based medicine" received wide press coverage.
"It's not as if anyone's saying science is completely wrong," counters Beverly Rubik. "Conventional science is appropriate within a conventional framework. But there can be other sciences which exist outside of that box. We need multiple ways of inquiry that accord with—and I realize this will sound odd—our levels of being. Our usual practice of science is based on the lowest common denominator of human consciousness: of feeling separated from the rest of universe.
"What's missing," she says, "is attention to the inner state of the investigator. We've been pretending we're neutral, playing dead, putting our feet in concrete shoes and saying we can't jump. It's time to try on some different footwear."
One Causality Project member told me, "the study of consciousness may require scientists who are willing to risk being transformed in the process of observation." Fetzer Foundation president, Robert Lehman, concurs: "We'll need investigators who can work more according to an old medieval notion: that to observe nature's deeper secrets, you must personally strive to create 'eyes to see, ears to hear.'"
The Buddhist monks whose meditations raise their skin temperatures are not just performing a stunning biofeedback experiment but are, they tell us, practicing an inner science of compassion. The purpose of their inquiries into the body's most arcane chemistries is to transcend divisions between self and other, subject and object dualities that one Buddhist translation refers to as "primitive beliefs about reality." Similarly, physicists at Princeton's PEAR lab, whose experiments seem to indicate that mind may affect subatomic particles, have concluded there is now "a need on the part of science to soften the boundary between 'I' and 'not I.'"
The Buddhist monks, and increasingly some adventurous physicists, biologists, and doctors, represent a radical new model of science, one that does not posit inviolable distinctions between spirit and matter, perceiver and perceived. The new paradigm may well deem any models of reality that deny the intersubjectivity of existence to be fundamentally unscientific.
The glory of science has always been its commitment to "follow the data" on a quest for the unadorned, replicable, verifiable truth. But what if the data have begun leading us to a truth more marvelous than we, in our scientific "reality" of isolated egos, dead physical nature, and decoupled mind and body, have imagined?
Here at the close of the second millennium, sometime between the world-fragmenting fall from Babel and the Last Trump, we search for a unifying Theory of Everything, still ignorant—in some ways, willfully—of where we ourselves fit into the astonishing world of cells, particles, and parsecs we have discovered. Too often, perhaps, our measure of mind, body, and nature has been a little like pre-Columbian maps of a flat Earth: cutting off boundaries at the visible horizon, ignoring the Mercator projections of the soul, consigning the psyche's deeps and expanses to "Here Lie Dragons."
Medicine, once the crown jewel of reductionist scientism, has improbably opened up an unexpected vista. Its newly discovered mind-body pathways are leading to the largely unexplored terrain of the human spirit. We seem to suddenly be on the cusp of a moment foreseen by Claude Bernard, the founder of modern physiology: "I have conviction," he wrote, "that when Physiology will be far enough advanced, the poet, the philosopher, and the physiologist will all understand each other." Surely, the late Buckminster Fuller—syncretic thinker extraordinaire—would have understood. Asked where a proper investigation of the human condition should commence, he answered without hesitation: "You start with the universe."