The Spiritual Brain

I tried. I really, honestly, sincerely tried. I’ve been struggling with this book, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, for the past week and a half, and I’ve finally decided it’s not worth the effort. It’s just about completely unreadable.

The writing is aggravating. It is constantly broken up with strings of quotes — 3, 4, 5, or 6 at a time — that are just plopped out there to speak for themselves, and often the authors don’t even bother to address the points brought up in the quotes. It’s like, presto, John Eccles said it! Or Steven Weinberg said it! Or some random guy on the internet said it! It begins to wear on the reader, and you start to assume you can just skip over the stupid quotes, and then they refer to something in one that you need to know to understand what the heck they’re talking about. You just can’t trust that it’s only filler, even though it is 95% of the time.

Trust is a big problem here. Look, this is a book that advocates pure woo, that the brain is some kind of receiver for supernatural forces, and it quotes Carl Sagan in several places. Carl Sagan would not have been on their side. Quote the man to argue against him, but don’t quote him to pretend that his remarks bolster your argument—yet that’s precisely what the authors do. The reader quickly learns suspicion, that since they’re quoting out of context on the material we already know, maybe everything else is suspect, too.

And then there are the errors…stupid, piddling errors. Can you tell what is wrong with this paragraph from the book?

The average neuron, consisting of about 100,000 molecules, is about 80 percent water. The brain is home to about 100 billion such cells and thus about 1015 molecules. Each neuron gets 10,000 or so connections from other cells in the brain.

Even my slow and sluggish brain, numbed by a preceding volley of quotes from B.F. Skinner, Ray Kurzweil, Gerald Edelman, and Francis Crick, responded to that with rising incredulity. 100,000 molecules? Total? What? That can’t be right. Visions of clathrin complexes, chains of microtubules, actin filaments, and neurofilaments spun through my head, and then I hit the comment about 10,000 synaptic connections to a single cell and wondered why the authors didn’t see the obvious: you mean there are about 10 molecules, total, for each synapse? That’s complete nonsense. You can’t even make the contents of a single synaptic vesicle with that.

And when I noticed that 105 molecules in 1011 cells would mean a total of 1016 molecules, and they couldn’t even get the basic math in their own estimate right, I had to put the book down and leave it to rot for a few days.

What was the point of this calculation? Merely to generate incredulity that a bunch of big numbers could “produce our identities”. The paragraph went on, after a two-page interruption of a section on “The Brain as a Complex Computer” in big gray boxes with quotes from Steven Pinker, Mark Halpern, and Richard Selzer, to explain that “Within each neuron, the molecules are replaced approximately 10,000 times in an average life span. Yet humans have a continuous sense of self that is stable over time.”

AAAAAAIEEE. Yes? So? The function of the neuron and the brain is not tied in any way to the single molecules of which it is made, but the pattern and identity of the bits and pieces. I could re-shingle the roof of my house, strip out the drywall and replace it, and replace the floors, but it would still be my house — bits would be shinier and do a better job of keeping out the rain, but it would still be the same place. Heck, if I were made of money, we could replace the wiring and plumbing and much of the framing, jack it up, remodel the basement, rotate the whole house 90°, and put it back down. As long as we redid it piece by piece, there’d never be an instant where I’d say, “this is not my house.”

Oh, and I don’t believe that number “10,000″. In fact, I don’t believe any numbers in the book anymore.

It doesn’t help that this dull nullity of a statement is then followed by a quote from Dean Radin that is supposed to help us recognize its importance.

All of the material used to express that pattern has disappeared, and yet the pattern still exists. What holds this pattern, if not matter? This question is not easily answered by the assumptions of a mechanistic, purely materialistic science.

Uh, yes it is. An intact brain and a brain that has been run through a blender are two different things, even if they do contain exactly the same molecules. The organization of the brain is the important element; you can swap out components gradually while still retaining the order…and order and organization are not supernatural properties. This isn’t that hard to understand.

The subsequent quotes from Steven Pinker, Thomas Huxley, Francis Crick, V.S. Ramachandran, Jean-Pierre Changeux, Michael Lemonick in the next page and half don’t help either. Nor do the quotes from Daniel Dennett, Tom Clark, and Steve Pinker (twice) on the next page. (Steve Pinker is very popular in this book. He ought to ask for a cut of the royalties — he seems to have written whole paragraphs for the authors.)

You get the idea. The format of the book is to throw out some briefly stated “fact” about the awesome power of the brain which the authors purport is unexplainable by natural processes, followed by hammering the reader with the weight of multiple authorities in quote after quote, and it doesn’t matter whether said authority actually supports the issue in contention…toss ‘em out there! In fact, reading this book is quite comparable to my previous example of running a brain through a blender. Your brain. Beauregard and O’Leary are the motor. The blades they’re spinning are semi-random quotes from any damn source lying about.

I skimmed ahead. Later, they cite near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences as evidence for an external source for the mind, and credulously state that psychic powers like telepathy and telekinesis are real. There is a longish chapter (Many quotes! Blocks of text with biographies of Carmelite nuns!) That describes fMRI studies of nuns experiencing, they say, mystical feelings of various intensities. The results: their brain activity during these episodes is complex, therefore the materialists are wrong when they assign simple causes (which is news to me; who thinks mystical brain states would be simple? Raise your hands) and that the “hard problem” of consciousness won’t be solved by materialists. Who will solve it?

But that hard problem ceases to be a problem once we understand the universe itself as a product of consciousness. We might expect living beings to evolve towards consciousness if consciousness underlies the universe. Consciousness is an irreducible quality.

We are all in the middle of a Great Floating Galactic Brain! All we have to do is realize that everything is conscious, and the problem of consciousness goes away! It’s a variant of the “goddidit” answer so dear to creationists: “godisit”.

I set the book aside again to decay a bit for a few days, in the forlorn hope that the cosmic consciousness would infiltrate my cranium and give me the power to cope. But then, this morning, I read a review of the book by Bryan Appleyard.

You have to understand something here. I utterly detest Bryan Appleyard. He’s a fan of Intelligent Design; as an interviewer, he’s a pretentious twit; he didn’t like Steven Berlin Johnson’s Mind Wide Open (a book I’ve used in my neurobiology class before) because it treated the mind as “the deterministic workings of mere chemistry”. He seems like the male British counterpart to Denyse O’Leary, with ideas that would be perfectly aligned with each other. I dreaded the possibility that they might meet, fall in love, and together hatch a swarm of anencephalic pod-children who’d all go to church three times a day. If there was one reviewer on the planet for whom this book was written, it’s Bryan Appleyard.

And he gives it a critical review.

Sure, he goes rah-rah over the anti-materialist spirit of the book, and he clearly wants to like it — most of his review ignores the work and consists of sniping at scientists, which is typical Appleyard — but then he says that their “conclusions are speculative” and “evidence is patchy” and that the religious experiences described are not “demonstrably different in kind from anything encountered in material science” (“None of which devalues the overall message of this book,” he then says, which is again classic Appleyard. Who needs solid evidence?) And he also highlights the clumsy pattern of cobbled-together quotes that characterizes the writing.

Whoa. Bryan Appleyard has reservations about the book. That tells you how bad it has got to be. If you show your new baby to your sister, and she doesn’t scrunch up her face and say “OOOH, she’s cute widdle one!” but instead starts talking about the miracles plastic surgery can do, you know you’ve got a really ugly baby. This book is one ugly baby. It’s the baby that would inspire your sister to get her tubes tied to prevent the possibility of repeating your mistake.

Don’t buy this book. Stick your brain in a blender first. If you want a short, safe feel for what the whole thing is like, Beauregard has an article online (it opens with a quote, but only one, thank Waring), but I’ll say nothing more — I’ve read half his book, a sufficiently painful experience. Fortunately, Shelley skewers him with a sneer. Read that instead.

Shelley also uses the word “crackpottish,” not me.

I disagree. That pot ain’t cracked, it’s pulverized and powdered. It’s a smear of dust. It’s gone to the Great Kiln in the Sky. It’s a non-pot. It has ceased to hold soil. It is soil. You could point a gentleman to the spot with the pot, and he’d have to use his imagination—and even at that, the best he’d be able conjure up in his head would be a loose pile of gravel. You know the phrase, “He hasn’t got a pot to piss in”? That’s this pot. This pot is fractured, splintered, split, shattered, blown to flinders, smashed, demolished, obliterated.

So no, I’m not going to make the mistake of calling this a work of crackpottery.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 3, 2007

    Thanks PZ, better your brain through the blender than mine. :-P

    I think we will need a new description for this one. “Quote bomb”[*] is taken, so I will go with:

    Weapon of Mass Quotation.

    [* I learned a new expression today: "someone being quoted because they're having a discussion. Quote bombs are quotes which spread the page and are quoting like 5000 things." **]

    [[** Redirected through tinyurl since ScienceBlogs refused the board link. @#$! spam filters.]]

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    October 3, 2007

    Oh, and this:

    But that hard problem ceases to be a problem once we understand the universe itself as a product of consciousness.

    So the IDC neuroscientist isn’t satisfied with explaining the mind? The same old irreducible strategy.


    I don’t now of any specific site for skeptic analyzes of soul woo. The worst socio-political movement to threat science or society lately has been creationism. But it could be a good idea, as the web increases exposure to pseudoscience and woo.

    Meanwhile, there are a few specialized sites that have material and link lists.

    If parapsychology is on your mind, you should probably try CSICOP directly, but their site was down when I write this.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 3, 2007

    Being generous, this means that Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary estimate that their own brains have average masses of 0.37 ?g, each.

    This response brought to you by the WayForward machine – predicting creationist drivel until 2387. And I, for one, welcome our cephalobot overlords.

    Better yet, anyone who thinks telekinesis is real, raise my hand.

    ROTFLMAO! We have three new Molly nominees!

    (How many people have I promised to nominate for Molly in the last week?)

  4. #4 Michael
    May 17, 2008

    I’m a Christian, and I’m even thoroughly disgusted by how invalid and sloppy this book is. Please don’t think that all Christians are mindless cave-dwelling, sun fearing primitives because of this person (and many, many other quacks who seem to own pens). Well, okay, a lot of Christians are (don’t get me started on Catholics) but at least there is one right here who believes in some higher being named “God” AND evolution AND in a biologically functioning brain.

  5. #5 Steve Dutch
    May 17, 2008

    “The average neuron, consisting of about 100,000 molecules, is about 80 percent water. The brain is home to about 100 billion such cells and thus about 10^15 molecules. Each neuron gets 10,000 or so connections from other cells in the brain.”

    Lots of sources list the composition of the human body. One source lists a 70 kg person as containing 2700 moles of O, 1300 C, 7000 H, 130 N and 25 each P and Ca, giving about 6.7 x 10^27 atoms. Using the generally cited figure of 200 trillion (2 x 10^14) cells in the human body, that’s about 3.4 x 10^13 atoms in a typical cell. How you tally the molecules I haven’t a clue, since there are dissolved ions, most are water (3 atoms) and some are DNA (billions). A 1-kg brain would have about 10^26 atoms. Guesstimating an average of 10-100 atoms per molecule (lots of water and ions but some far bigger molecules) we’d have 10^24-10^25 molecules in a brain or (using 100 billion neurons per brain) about 10^13-10^14 molecules. Doing all that with only 100,000 molecules would really be Intelligent Design!

    I’ve used this information as the basis for some student exercises. One interesting consequence is that if you use typical ionic radii and calculate the volume of all the atoms, the human body is about 2/3 interatomic space. Think about it. It’s mostly fluid – there has to be a lot of void space. So next time someone says you’re not all there, they’re right.

  6. #6 Helena
    May 17, 2008

    Oh PZ! using ‘critical’ to mean ‘unfavorable’! Isn’t that like saying evolution is just a theory?

    But that little mis-step aside, I’ve seen general allusions like the one here to those brian-scans of Carmelites in ecstasy, but never seen a refernce to the actual publication nor any follow-up research. Can anyone left reading the post at this late date point me in the right direction (I would prefer the actual peer-reviewd jounral citation rather than some place on the web unless a PDF has been put up).