Beware of Maya from Contemporary Neuroscience.

by metacognizant

The soul is an illusion. The mind is an illusion. Free will has shown to be false. Many individuals have heard statements such as these, and those individuals often don’t know how to respond to such claims. The discipline of neuroscience is breathtaking. The scope that it covers coupled with the explosion of information coming out on a daily basis can be absolutely overwhelming for someone not capable of devoting quite a bit of time to the discipline, and so statements such as the ones I opened with get pushed to the back corners of our minds–along with them, they bring a lingering, festering doubt about the beliefs that we hold dear.

In this blog, I want to address something that comes up in Louis J. Cozolino’s book, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, and that I’ve seen in different words quite often elsewhere. Let me preface this entry by saying I’ve found Cozolino’s book fascinating. It’s extremely well-researched, provocative, and best of all helpful–and the strides that he’s taken to integrate two different disciplines (neuroscience and psychotherapy) is nothing short of admirable. In addition, Cozolino writes the section that I’ll be discussing specifically from a therapeutic perspective. He uses this information and incorporates it into what he views are the reasons for successful psychotherapy. He cannot be shamed for doing this.

Unfortunately, much of Cozolino’s science and argumentation in this section is misguided. He steps slightly into the philosophy of mind, and he puts a full foot into the domain of the implications for consciousness based upon certain neuroscientific findings. In these areas, he seems to be deficient. Additionally, again, I have seen these statements often repeated by a wide variety of atheists–and typically, those who disagree with this stance are left scrambling to come up with a weak but feasible answer. I hope to help those in that position to go beyond a weak but feasible answer and be ready instead to give a robust reply. I will address Cozolino point by point in this entry. By doing so, I also address the larger audience that holds to materialism as a philosophy of mind. Here’s Cozolino’s text that I want to address:

Beware of Maya

We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are – Anais Nin

Let’s begin by taking a look at some of the illusions of consciousness through which we construct reality. The first is that our conscious awareness comes together at some specific location within our heads and is presented to us on a screen. This Cartesian theater–an homage to Decartes’s articulation of mind-body dualism–creates the subjective illusion of self as a nonphysical spirit inhabiting the body as opposed to being one with it [citation: Daniel C. Dennett (1991), Consciousness Explained. No page numbers are given in citations from this author]. This spirit, some religions believe, can leave the body upon death, go to heaven, or occupy a new body in the next life.

A second illusion is that our experience occurs in the present moment and that conscious thought and decision making precede feelings and actions. In fact, our brains react to internal and external stimuli in as little as 50 milliseconds, yet it takes more than 500 milliseconds for conscious awareness to occur [no citation is given here, but this is uncontroversial]. During this half-second, hidden layers of neural processing shape and organize these stimuli, trigger related networks, and select an appropriate presentation for conscious awareness [citation: Jaak Panksepp (1998), Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions]. Although we tend to think of our brains as processing information from the environment, the vast majority of the input to the cerebral cortex comes from what is already inside the brain. And because our senses are shaped by experience, they are also silent contributors  to the construction of reality [citation: James J. Gibson (1966), The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems].

The projection onto the screen of our Cartesian theater is actually generated within the hidden layers of our neural architecture prior to conscious awareness. This leads us to assume that the world of our experience and the objective world are one and the same. We also tend to believe that we have all the necessary information we need to make choices. In truth, we often have little or no access to the information or logic upon which we base our decisions. In addition, we possess a powerful reflex to confabulate in the absence of knowledge [citations: Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 1293-1295; and, Lewicki, P., Hill, T., & Czyzewska, M. (1992). Nonconscious acquisition of information. American Psychologist, 47, 796-801]. What we call intuition is likely the result of rapid and unconscious processing that can be so surprising to us that it is often attributed to occult knowledge or psychic powers.

A third illusion, which relies on the first two, is that our thoughts and behaviors are under conscious control [citations: Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automacity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-479; and, Langer, E. J. (1978). Rethinking the role of thought in social interaction. In J. H. Harvey, W. Ickes, & R. F. Kidd (Eds.), New Directions in Attribution Research (Vol. 2, pp. 35-38)]. This hubris leads us to consistently overestimate the role of authority we have over an outcome, while underestimating the role of chance, unconscious influences, and outside forces [citation: Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210]. So although we may feel as if we are at the wheel of our lives, it might be more accurate to say that most of us are trying to steer our lives with the rearview mirror.

Wow. If all that Cozolino has stated is true, then our deep-seated beliefs are patently false: there is no life after death, and we are not worthy of praise or blame for our moral choices. It’s not the purpose of this blog entry to critique any of Cozolino’s citations for his arguments. Though I would certainly like to, it would be prohibitively long. Instead, I’ll critique each of the three “illusions” he presents.

The First “Illusion”

The first illusion that he presents starts off with the presupposition that dualism is, in fact, false. No justification is given for this stance. Indeed, it is as Mark C. Baker has noted of contemporary neuroscience, “It is my strong impression that the soul question is almost never investigated as a hypothesis… Many popular science books about the mind give the impression that the research project has already been carried out, and that the Soul Hypothesis stands completely refuted…. [I]n virtually every case the research starts by presupposing (usually implicitly) that the soul plays no essential role in the matters under study. And all of us are strongly prone not to see (or not to report) what we do not expect or imagine that we will see” (The Soul Hypothesis, 2011, p. 75). Now, some might say that the evidence given in Cozolino’s later statements works backwards in order to justify his original assertion. That may be the case, and I’ll address Cozolino’s later statements momentarily.

Is it truly the case, though, that if substance dualism is true, then we are merely “inhabiting” our bodies–as Cozolino puts it–somewhat like a hand inside of a glove, rather than one with our bodies? What Cozolino views as substance dualism is not what substance dualists advocate. Instead,–as neuroscientist Mario Beauregard puts it–on substance dualism, “Mind and brain are integrated and interdependent” (Beauregard, M. (2009). Effect of mind on brain activity: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy and placebo effect. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 63, 5-16; quote from p. 14). Indeed, dualist philosopher Charles Taliaferro states that “[i]t is in virtue of your bodily life, the functioning of your brain, that you can think, reason, reflect, and have emotions, sensations, desires, exercise memory, imagination. Your mental life depends on your breathing with your lungs, your heart’s pumping blood, and so on. It is this overall biological composition that delimits our genera and species identity as Homo Sapiens” (Taliaferro, C. (2001). The Virtues of Embodiment. Philosophy, Vol. 76, No. 295, pp. 111-125; quote from p. 117). Embracing substance dualism does not lead to the bizarre doctrine that one views life from some Cartesian theater. This is a straw man. A proper substance dualism views the person as an integrated whole. It is not the purpose of this blog to defend interactionism; suffice it to say that dualism does advocate a unified person.

The Second “Illusion”

Cozolino’s second neuroscientific demystification of conscious awareness is a little more realistic; and a little more unsettling to first learn of. His point can be strengthened by studies carried out by Benjamin Libet, et al., which showed that conscious experience of a stimulus occurs sooner if it’s presented to a patient’s hand than it does even if a stimulus is presented to that patient’s somatosensory cortex 150 milliseconds before the stimulus is presented to the hand (Libet, B., Wright, E. L. Jr., Feinstein, B., & Pearl, D. K. (1979). Subjective referral for the timing of a conscious sensory experience. Brain, 102. pp. 193-224; accessible online). That is, when a stimulus is applied directly to one’s somatosensory cortex and followed very quickly by a touch stimulus to the hand, an individual reports experiencing the hand stimulus first. I have written on the fact that the brain is in part responsible for creating our experiences elsewhere, as well as how our brain is responsible in part for our perception of time here. That our brain backdates information to synthesize a coherent perception of reality should not be news to readers of this blog. But it’s worth noting that because our brains work in tandem, we hardly live “in the past.” We are social creatures to our core, and we ought not to forget that. While our brain backdates information received from an acquaintance, our acquaintance’s brain also backdates the information that he has received from us. Because of this interpersonal biological harmony, we are able to live our lives largely unhindered by the fact that we do not process information as it occurs. Despite all of its complexities, the human brain is beautifully simplistic when it comes to pragmatic living.

This leads us to Cozolino’s conclusion from these observations: “In truth, we often have little or no access to the information or logic upon which we base our decisions. In addition, we possess a powerful reflex to confabulate in the absence of knowledge [aforementioned citations]. What we call intuition is likely the result of rapid and unconscious processing that can be so surprising to us that it is often attributed to occult knowledge or psychic powers.” I agree that much of our decision making is unconscious–a point I will address under the next section–though this is hardly anything new, and, from my experience, thinking that the unconscious plays no role in decision making is not any sort of illusion that a typical individual holds; just mentioning the word “instinct” to an individual is enough to evoke the truth of this concept. As for our tendency towards confabulation, it is well-known that humans create narratives through which they explain reality in order to maintain a sense of sanity. This is hardly new information. Narratives, like all other factual statements, can be examined, and one can come to a better grasp of truth by doing so. Finally, that intuition is simply the result of an unconscious computational heuristic is rather uncontroversial; indeed, in philosophy intuition is often disregarded as it is held in precisely this light. With this, we turn to Cozolino’s next statement on consciousness.

The Third “Illusion”

Cozolino contends that we can now be certain that our thoughts and behaviors are not under conscious control. He provides little more reason to accept contention than the success of his first two arguments about the illusory nature of consciousness. Truly, if our thoughts and behaviors are determined by unconscious neural substructures, then we have no conscious control over them at all.

However, Cozolino’s conclusions ignore our own previously made decisions. Our brains are remarkably complex, and each novel experience produces synaptic changes which form memories–both implicit and explicit–and through which we record our prior decisions in a given situation. This deserves to be emphasized: the choices that we’ve made in a given situation are stored for ease of information-processing. In addition, it’s likely that signals from mirror neurons also encode what we ought to do in any given situation: when we see someone we want to be like react to a given situation in a certain way, we internalize their decision and make it our own in the future (cf. V. S. Ramachandran, 2011, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, chp. 4).

Infants and young children cannot perform actions in ways that adults can. Instead, through imitation and trial and error they learn what they must do to accomplish any given task. Where at first, performing a given task did not come easily, eventually the child is able to perform that given task automatically. Even adults develop through this principle. Think, for example, of learning to serve a tennis ball. Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve had no prior tennis experience. To learn to serve the ball, you are told–step by step–what to do. Every move that you make you’re aware of in the attempt to align your movements to the instructions given on how to properly serve the ball. From the tiniest details, such as the position of your wrist on the racket, to the forceful swing down and the fluid following through, you purposefully direct your body so as to properly serve a tennis ball. Eventually, however, as your tennis abilities grow, less and less thought goes into the serving of a tennis ball. A point is reached where there is no conscious effort whatsoever in the positioning of the differing parts of your body; you simply serve the ball, and that’s the extent of the thought that action receives. Finally, a professional tennis player can serve the ball faster than the brain can bring what it’s doing to conscious awareness, and so the serve that was once meticulously refined and labored to correct on a point-by-point basis has truly become automatic. The sum of all those corrections we’ve made over the past to our tennis serve–the choices we’ve made on what works–have become encoded in implicit memory and are unconsciously executed whenever we have a broad volitional desire to serve the ball.

It is my contention that all of our past choices become encoded in implicit memory, and they are re-acted in any given situation where the prior stimulus once again presents itself. This does not mean that we are predetermined to always engage in our past choices. In another series of experiments, Benjamin Libet has shown that electrochemical activity occurs in our cerebral cortex–allowing us our choice to be made–prior to us having voluntarily chosen to do any given action (Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. L., & Pearl, D. K. (1983). Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential). Brain, 106. pp. 623-642; accessible online). This is certainly consistent with my thesis that our previous choices are encoded in implicit memory and unconsciously activated when presented with a similar stimulus to the one that we first made our choice in. What shows that we do not necessarily need to repeat past choices  is the fact that individuals can abstain from acting upon this readiness potential, resulting in a different choice and thus a different outcome than those individuals who acted immediately upon their readiness potentials. (Konttinen, N., Landers, D. M., Lyytinen, H. (2000) Aiming Routines and their Electrocortical Concomitants Among Competitive Rifle Shooters. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 10, pp. 169-177).

This begs the question: why would our mental lives be so convoluted–using hidden neural networks and unconscious processing–just to allow us to make decisions and experience everyday life? The answer comes from the fact that our brain functions as the Goliath of information-processing, and our consciousness functions as an executive manager. The world is filled with information; information that–were we to attend to it all–would overwhelm us and leave us no room for thought. Science writer Tor Norretranders has summarized the research on the “bandwidth” of consciousness, and states:

The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second–at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness (Norretranders, 1999, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. p. 125).

Norretranders illustrates his math elsewhere and gives citations to back this statement up further. If our consciousness were to be attentive to the vast amount of information flooding in through our senses, the force of that torrent would be enough to capsize any rational thought–there would simply be no time to deliberate upon important matters when one’s attention is both absolutely fixated on the irrelevant and overwhelmed by the immense amount of irrelevancies. It is for this reason that the brain, in all its beauty and complexity, unconsciously and automatically (again, based upon our own past decisions or the decisions of others we want to be like) filters out irrelevant stimuli and presents our conscious awareness with the pressing matters that need a decision made. By acting as an executive manager and not a day-laborer, the mind is able to issue volitional commands that are then carried out by the now-automatic unconscious information-processing capabilities of the brain.

All this shows that while the brain does play a part in constructing reality, it is not the whole picture. Even though the brain can constrain our perception of reality, our experience is so much more than those constraints. To have a holistic conception of a human person necessarily involves more than neural networks. After a discussion on how the philosophy of mind bears on the disciplines of psychotherapy and psychiatry, psychiatrist Bradley Lewis states:

[I]dentity theory…is unable to address essential human features of intentionality, consciousness, and autonomy, i.e., free will. Intentionality is the quality of having content or “aboutness,” consciousness is quality of self-awareness, and autonomy is the ability to make undetermined choices.

These essential human features make up our common sense and our psychodynamic understanding of ourselves. Without these features we would have to change our entire way of seeing ourselves and our dynamic psychotherapy would be impossible. We need intentionality in psychotherapy because it is only through the content of our patients’ thoughts and feelings that we can help them derive meaning; we need consciousness because it is primarily through introspection that we get access to our patients’ inner world; and we need autonomy because unless our patients have the option of doing things differently there is no point to the therapeutic endeavor. Consequently, psychiatry cannot rely solely on neuroscience [so long as neuroscience “has a conceptual foundation that is based on an incomplete theory of mind and brain: identity theory” pp. 85-86] as its basic science without creating a conception of people devoid of essential human features and without eviscerating its psychotherapeutic capacity (Lewis, B. (1994). Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48, No. 1. pp. 92-93)

Lewis’ thoughts are strengthened by the fact that psychotherapy–which, according to Lewis, is devoid of any productive capacity on identity theory–produces structural changes in the brain. As neuroscientist Mario Beauregard states, “the mental functions and processes involved in the various types of psychotherapy exert a significant influence on the functioning and plasticity of the brain” (Beauregard, M. (2007). Mind Really Does Matter: Evidence from Neuroimaging Studies of Emotional Self-Regulation Studies, Psychotherapy, and Placebo Effect. Progress in Neurobiology, 81, pp. 218-236; quote from 232–cf. 225-227; accessible online).


This entry is not primarily an apologetic for dualism. For those who might be interested in such a thing, I recommend The Soul Hypothesis, ed. by Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz. Instead, this entry is a polemic against those in neuroscience asserting that we are merely physical beings due to some experimental and empirical evidence. While we don’t live in a Cartesian theater, the substance dualist does not claim that we do; while we may not experience the world exactly as it is in both time and form, that does not mean that we do not truly interact with the world; and while we don’t exercise conscious control over every decision, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t already made our decision in the same situation in the past or that we don’t have the power to stop our decision in the present. I hope to have shown that these evidences do not imply that the soul is an illusion; rather, the human soul is a lively option to consider as an integral part of our holistic composition.