The Quantum Zeno Effect "fit beautifully with what Jeff was trying to do," recalls Henry Stapp. It was clear to Stapp, at least in principle, that Quantum Zeno might allow repeated acts of attention-which are, after all, observations by the mind of one strand of thought among the many competing for prominence in the brain-to affect quantum aspects of the brain. "I saw that if the mind puts to nature, in rapid succession, the same repeated question, 'shall I attend to this idea?' then the brain would tend to keep attention focused on that idea," Stapp says. "This is precisely the Quantum Zeno Effect. The mere mental act of rapidly attending would influence the brain's activity in the way Jeff was suggesting." The power of the mind's questioning ("Shall I pay attention to this idea?") to strengthen one idea rather than another so decisively that the privileged idea silences all the others and emerges as the one we focus on-well, this seemed to be an attractive mechanism that would not only account for my results with OCD patients but also fit with everyone's experience that focusing attention helps prevent the mind from wandering.
The idea is to help patients more clearly assess the contents of their thought stream, teaching them to note and correct the conceptual errors termed "cognitive distortions" that characterize psychopathological thinking. Somone in the grips of such thinking would, for instance, regard a half-full glass not merely as half-empty but also fatally flawed, forever useless, constitutionally incapable of ever being full, and fit only to be discarded. By the mid-1980s, cognitive therapy was being used more and more in combination with behavioral therapy for OCD, and it seemed naturally compatible with a mindfulness-based perspective. If I could show that a cognitive-behavioral approach, infused with mindful awareness, could be marshaled against the disease, and if successful therapy were accompanied by changes in brain activity, then it would represent a significant step toward demonstrating the causal efficacy of mental activity on neural circuits.
Materialism, it seems fair to say, has neuroscience in a chokehold and has had it there since the nineteenth century. Indeed, there are those in the neuroscience community whose reductionist bent is so extreme that they have made it their crusade "to eliminate mind language entirely," as the British neuroscientist Steven Rose bluntly puts it. In other words, notions such as feeling, and memory, and attention, and will-all crucial elements of mind-are to be replaced with neurochemical reactions. This materialist, reductionist camp holds that when we have mapped a mental process to a location in the brain, and when we've worked out the sequence of neurochemical releases and uptakes that is associated with it, we have indeed fully explained, and more important understood, the phenomenon in question. Mystery explained. Case closed.
At least one version of quantum theory, propounded by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann in the 1930's "claims that the world is built no out of bits of matter but out of bits of knowledge-subjective, conscious knowings," Stapp says. These ideas, however, have fallen far short of toppling the materialist worldview, which has emerged so triumphant that to suggest humbly that there might be more to mental life than action potentials zipping along axons is to risk being branded a scientific naif. Even worse, it is to be branded nonscientific. When, in 1997, I made just this suggestion over dinner to a former president of the Society for Neuroscience, he exlaimed, "Well, then you are not a scientist." Questioning whether consciousness, emotions, thoughts, the subjective feeling of pain, and the spark of creativity arise from nothing but the electrochemical activity of large collections of neuronal circuits is a good way to get dismissed as a hopeless dualist.
In succeeding chapters we will explore the emerging evidence that matter alone does not suffice to generate mind, but that, to the contrary, there exists a "mental force" that is not reducible to the material. Mental force, which is closely related to the ancient Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and karma, provides a basis for the effects of mind on matter that clinical neuroscience finds. What is new here is that a question with deep philosophical roots, as well as profound philosophic al and moral implications, can finally be addressed (if not yet fully solved) through science. If materialism can be challenged in the context of neuroscience, if stark physical reductionism can be replaced by an outlook in which the mind can exert causal control, then, for the first time since the scientific revolution, the scientific worldview will become compatible with such ideas as will-and, therefore, with morality and ethics. The emerging view of the mind, and of the mind-matter enigma, has the potential to imbue human thought and action with responsibility once again.
Cortical representations are not immutable; they are, to the contrary, dynamic, continuously modified by the lives we lead. Our brains allocate space to body parts that are used in activities that we perform most often-the thumb of a video-game addict, the index finger of a Braille reader. But although experience molds the brain, it molds only an attending brain. "Passive, unattended, or little-attended exercises are of limited value for driving" neuroplasticity, Merzenich and Jenkins concluded. "Plastic changes in brain representations are generated only when behaviors are specifically attended." And therein lies the key. Physical changes in the brain depend for their on a mental state in the mind-the state called attention. Paying attention matters. It matters not only for the size of the brain's representation of this or that part of the body's surface, of this or that muscle. It matters for the dynamic structure of the very circuits of the brain and for the brain's ability to remake itself.This would be the next frontier for neuroplasticity, harnessing the transforming power of mind to reshape the brain.
Historically, the great advances in physics have occurred when scientists united two seemingly disparate entities into a coherent, logical whole. Newton connected celestial motions with terrestrial motion. Maxwell unified light and electromagnetism. Einstein did it for space and time. Quantum theory makes exactly this kind of connection, between the objective physical world and subjective experiences. It thus offers a way out of the morass that the mind brain debate has become, because it departs most profoundly from classical physics at a crucial point: on the nature of the dynamical interplay between minds and physical states, between physical states and consciousness. It ushers the observer into the dynamics of the system in a powerful way. Following quantum theory into the thicket of the mind-matter problem actually leads to a clearing, to a theory of mind and brain that accords quite well with our intuitive sense of how our mind works. In Stapp's formulation, quantum theory creates a causal opening for the mind, a point of entry by which mind can affect matter, a mechanism by which mind can shape brain. That opening arises because quantum theory allows intention, and attention, to exert real, physical effects on the brain, as we will now explore.
The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century-with the attendant attempt to analyze all observable phenomena in terms of mechanical chains of causation-was a knife in the heart of moral philosophy, for it reduced human beings to automatons. If all of the body and brain canbe completely described without invoking anything so empyreal as a mind, let alone a consciousness, then the notion that a person is morally responsible for his actions appears quaint, if not scientifically naive. A machine cannot be held responsible for its actions. If our minds are impotent to affect our behavior, then surely we are no more responsible for our actions than a robot is. It is an understatement to note that the triumph of materialism, as applied to questions of mind and brain, therefore makes many people squirm. For if the mysteries of the mind are reducible to physics and chemistry, then "mind is but the babbling of a robot, chained ineluctably to crude causality," as the neurobiologist Robert Doty put it in 1998.