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The New Science of Consciousness: Part 1

By Laurie Nadel, Ph.D.
Author of
Sixth Sense: Unlocking Your Ultimate Mind Power

The term “new science” was first introduced in 1964 by the late Nobel neuroscientist Dr. Roger Sperry (1913-1994). It is based on the premise that your consciousness -- your point of focus which can be compared to a cursor on your computer screen --can create physical effects in your brain as well as the other way around.

Like most great ideas, the core concept of the new science is simple, but its ramifications are staggeringly complex. Although as few as an estimated 5 percent of scientists accept its basic tenets, the new science is taking hold in the behavioral and social sciences, particularly in cognitive psychology, which emphasizes the importance of such abstract mental processes as intuition, insight, and visual intelligence over external behavior.

Whereas behaviorists believe that they can treat behavior without addressing the mental state, cognitive psychologists say that mental states organize and control behavior.

Evolutionary theorists working in biology and related sciences are beginning to accept the new science, too. Because it believes that consciousness can cause physical change, the new science is also referred to as “the consciousness revolution.”

Mainstream scientific thought is based on three primary assumptions:

  • Objectivism, which believes that the universe and everything it contains can be quantified.
  • Positivism, which believes that only that which can be physically observed is real.
  • Reductionism, which, as its name indicates, reduces phenomena into smaller elements.

The consciousness revolution differs radically from reductionist scientific thought because it contains the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Not the Physics of Consciousness

Much has been written about “the physics of consciousness,” which applies the quantum theories of subatomic physics to attempt to explain mental phenomena, including intuitive perception and synchronicity. Such sophisticated interpretations are helpful to those who understand quantum mechanics, but those in the vanguard of the new science believe that, ultimately, physics cannot explain mind -- including its intuitive aspect -- because mind cannot be quantified, physically observed, and reduced.

For example, Bell’s Theorem of Nonlocality is often cited by New Age teachers as an explanation for the occurrence of intuitive phenomena in which no sensory-based precedents are apparent. Bell’s Theorem states that two electrons that are joined and then separated from each other will vibrate at the same frequency even when they are in different locations. Many people who teach New Age philosophy cite this as scientific evidence for the belief that minds, too, can vibrate at the same frequency when physically separated.

However, physicist John Stewart Bell, who developed his theorem in 1964, did not intend for his theorem to be applied to mental phenomena. In an interview published in Psychological Perspectives, Bell said, “I was never so ambitious as to assume that such a comprehensive description would also cover the mind. There is clearly some fundamental difference between mind and matter. If science is sufficiently comprehensive at some point in the future to discuss both those things intelligently at the same time, then we will learn something about their interaction.”

The majority of those working in the hard sciences (physics and chemistry) would challenge Bell’s open-mindedness, because they are committed to the positivist, objectivist, and reductionist model of reality.

The new science, on the other hand, rejects the use of quantum physics to explain the mind because it does not believe that everything can be explained in physical terms. That belief is, in itself, a revolutionary idea.

In looking at mind in all its complexity as a biological fact, the new science asks us to reexamine our own thoughts, feelings, values and beliefs, and to take them seriously as agents of change. Dr. Sperry believed that “the new beliefs are a way out of our human predicament.”

Dr. Sperry's Consciousness Revolution

“When you walk down the street, your atoms and molecules don’t tell you where to go,” said the late Dr. Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for discovering the cognitive complementarity of the left and right hemispheres of the neocortex, known as the “left and right brains.” I was privileged to have been granted an interview with him in 1988. He despised journalists and made it clear that he was making an exception for me because I agreed not to ask him any questions about the Nobel Prize or the research that led up to it.

During our interview, he used this analogy to illustrate one of the main differences between the new science and reductionist scientific thought. “Neuroscience says it can explain all brain functions without reference to conscious mental states. The new science says that this is not true and challenges the old view,” said Dr. Sperry, who noted that in the 1950s and 1960s, neuroscientists “wouldn’t be caught dead implying that consciousness of subjective experience can affect physical brain processing.” In fact, in 1966, the prevailing prevailing mindset of neuroscience was described by British scientist Sir John Eccles, who wrote, “As neurophysiologists we simply have no use for consciousness.”

When Dr. Sperry began his pioneering research into the brain he accepted the traditional view that all brain functions could be explained in terms of neuron and biochemical activity. But over the years, he gradually reevaluated his own position. For the final 25 years of his life, he argued that his colleagues needed to redefine their own perspectives to include the assumption that mental states and experiences can have a controlling effect on the brain’s physical functions.

His theories have been proven in the laboratories of microbiologists Dr. Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion) and Dr. Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief). Years ahead of his time, Dr. Roger Sperry maintained that consciousness, ideas, feelings, values, intention, hunches, gut feelings, and beliefs could be considered emergent properties of the physical brain. He observed, “When the brain is whole, the unified consciousness of the left and right hemispheres adds up to more than the composite properties of the separate hemispheres.”

So strong was his belief that the study of consciousness had wider ranging implications for science than the study of hemispheric functions that Dr. Sperry broke ranks with many of his colleagues to write and lecture on the new science. He said, “I gave up the right and left brain because it didn’t compare in the implications. My colleagues thought I defected to philosophy and humanism, a scientist gone wrong.”

Downward Causation

In seeking to define how the mind functions in terms of what he calls “downward causation,” Dr. Sperry ventured into new scientific territory. Put simply, downward causation means that the more highly evolved properties envelop and control the less evolved components.

For example, if you decide to drive somewhere, your decision can activate a chain of events that will cause your car to move, according to the principles of downward causation. Seen from the perspective of upward causation, it is the movement of gasoline molecules that causes the engine to work, thus causing your car to move. It is important to remember that both of these perspectives are accurate and that they are complementary. One does not exclude the other.

Microdeterminism, which sees events in terms of upward causality, is a valid scientific methodology. However, traditional science explains all phenomena in terms of upward causation and does not factor in downward causation when, in fact, both processes are at work simultaneously.

Dr. Sperry used an airplane in flight as an example of upward and downward causation. Reductionist science can break down the elements of an airplane flight in terms of molecular and atomic activity.

But reducing an airplane flight into molecules and atoms fails to take into account the role of the airplane’s electrical circuits or the timing of its engines. In other words, there must be some organizing principles at work for the airplane to work. They cannot make it fly. Macrodeterminism says that the molecule is master of its atoms and controls them,” said Dr. Sperry.

Subatomic physics cannot explain how the airplane’s circuit plan is designed. That is done at a higher macrolevel. Likewise, the circuit design in your brain is a complex, sensitive system in which your point of focus, train of thought, or other mental event affects the timing of the neurons.

In conclusion, your molecules do not decide to take you for a walk.

When I made that comment to Dr. Sperry, he laughed. “That’s true. But you cannot go for a walk without them.”

“The New Science” is excerpted from Dr. Laurie Nadel’s Sixth Sense: Unlocking Your Ultimate Mind Power with Judy Haims and Robert Stempson (ASJA Press). Copyright@2007, Viking Rain, Ltd. All rights protected.

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