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National Educational Radio, in cooperation with the University of Chicago, presents a short series of lectures designed to initiate a new discussion on the nature of man, his place in the universe, and his biological, intellectual, and social potentialities. This lecture, the fourth in the series, is entitled, Brain, Mind, and Humanist Values. Our speaker is Roger W. Sparey, Hickson Professor of Psychobiology at the California Institute of Technology. Here now is Professor Sparey. What are the major impacts from the humanist standpoint of the developments that have been taking place in the sciences that deal with mind and brain? Well, at first glance, the record achieved by the brain behavior sciences during the past half century must seem to the humanist to read less like a list of contributions and
advancements than it does a list of major criminal offenses. And the accusations that anti-science can raise in this area are not exactly trivial. For example, before science, men had reason to believe that he possessed a mind that was potent and full of something called consciousness. Our modern experimental objective psychology and the neurosciences generally would divest the human brain of this fantasy, and in doing so would dispense along with the conscious mind most other of the spiritual components in human nature, including the immortal soul. Before science, man used to think he was a spiritually free agent, possessing free will. This tells us free will as just an illusion and gives us instead causal determinism where
there used to be purpose, purpose and meaning in human behavior. Science now shows us a complex biophysical machine with positive and negative feedback composed entirely of material elements all obeying the inexorable and universal laws of physics and chemistry. Thanks to Freud, plus an assist from astrophysics, science can further be accused of having deprived the thinking man of his father in heaven along with heaven itself. And Freud's devastating indictment is said by many to have reduced much of man's formalized religions to little more than manifestations of mass neurosis. Times inner self and his heritage haven't fared much better. Thanks to Darwin and to Freud again, man now enters this life, not trailing clouds of glory
as the poet once had it, but trailing instead clouds of jungleism and bestiality and full of carnal impulses and a premature predisposition to the edipus and other complexes. The confining veneer of our civilization has seemed to be superficial and when it rubs thin or cracks, the basic animal within quickly shows. Well these and related lesser onslaughts on the worth and the meaning of human nature tend to add up one item reinforcing another to yield a pretty dim overall picture that is hardly heartening to think about and mostly in science we don't. Darwin rejection of science by humanist thinkers for other roads to truth is not incomprehensible and for the scientist himself the picture puts a bit of a test to his credo that it's
better to know the truth however ugly and to live accordingly than to live and die by false premises and illusory values. While speaking as a brain researcher now and not too familiar with matters ethical and philosophical and hence in a position to speak with open conviction on these, I find myself and my hypothetical working model for the brain to be in marked disagreement with many if not the majority of the foregoing implications and also with that whole general picture of human nature that would seem to emerge from the currently prevailing objective materialistic approach of the mind brain behavior sciences. When we're led to favor the implications of modern materialism over the older idealistic values in these and related matters I suspect we've been taken that science has soul society in itself as somewhat questionable bill of goods.
Now there won't be time to present the whole story behind these statements and I'll try instead to concentrate selectively on what seemed to be the central most issues involved here hoping that if the central foundation of the materialist view can be undermined that the resultant crumbling in the upper structures will become evident. Now most of the disagreements that I refer to in this connection are found to revolve around or to hinge either directly or indirectly upon a central point of controversy that arises in the following question is it possible in theory or in principle to construct a complete objective explanatory model of brain function without including consciousness in the causal sequence.
If the prevailing view in neuroscience is correct that consciousness and mental forces generally can be ignored in our objective explanatory model then we come out with materialism and with all its implications. Conversely if it were to turn out that conscious mental forces do in fact govern and direct the nerve impulse traffic and other biochemical and biophysical events in the brain and hence do have to be included as important features of the objective causal sequence. We then come out in the opposite pole on the side of mentalism and with quite a different and more idealistic set of values all down the line. We deal here of course with the old mind body dichotomy the age old problem of mind versus matter. The issue of the spiritual versus the material on which books and books have
been written and philosophies have foundered ever since thinking man started to look at his inner world and question its relation to the real world. We deal here also of course with what is second to none in lecture material if what you seek in your audience is hopeless confusion or deep sleep. First briefly now the case against consciousness and mind as raised by today's objective experimental psychology, psychobiology, neurophysiology and the related disciplines. The best way to deal with consciousness or introspective inner subjective experience in any form they tell us is to ignore it. Inner feelings and thoughts cannot be measured or weighed they can't be centrifuged or photographed, chromatograph, spectrograph or otherwise recorded or dealt with objectively by any scientific
methodology. As some kind of introspective private inner something accessible only to the one experiencing individual they simply must be excluded by policy from any scientific model or scientific explanation. Furthermore the neuroscientist of today feels he has a pretty fair idea about the kinds of things that excite and fire the nerve cells of the brain. Cell membrane changes, ion flow, chemical transmitters, pre-imposed synaptic potentials, sodium pump effects and the like may be on his list of acceptable causal influences but not consciousness. Consciousness in the objective approach is clearly made a second rate citizen in the causal picture.
It gets relegated to the inferior status of one an inconsequential byproduct or two an epiphenomenon this is a sort of an outsider on the inside or most commonly consciousness is described as just an inner aspect of the one material brain process. Science can see the brain as a complex electrochemical communications network full of nerve impulse traffic and other causally directed chemical and physical phenomena with all elements moved by respectable scientific laws of physics, chemistry, physiology and the life but few investigators are ready to tolerate an interjection into this causal machinery of any mental or conscious forces. So this then is the general stance of modern science and out of which comes today's prevailing
objective mechanistic materialistic, behavioristic, fatalistic, reductionistic view of the nature of mind and psyche. This kind of thinking is not confined to the laboratories and the classrooms of course it leaks and spreads and though never officially imposed on the societies of the western world we nevertheless see everywhere we turn the pervasive influence of creeping materialism. Well once we have materialism squared off against mentalism in this way I think we must all agree that neither is going to win the match on the basis of direct factual evidence as the facts simply don't go far enough to provide the answer or even to come close. Those central most processes of the brain with which consciousness is presumably associated
are simply not understood. They are so far beyond our comprehension at present that no one I know of has been able even to imagine their nature. Now we're speaking here of the brain code the physiological language of the cerebral hemispheres. There's good reason to believe that this language is built of nerve impulses and related excitatory effects. In nerve cells and fibers and perhaps also in those glial cells that are said to outnumber the nerve cells in the brain by about 10 to 1. To eat probably be safe in the further non-committal statement that the brain code is built of space show temporal patterns of excitation. But when it comes to even imagining the critical variables in these patterns that correlate
with the variables that we know and inner conscious experience we're still hopelessly lost. Furthermore, the central unknowns directly associated with consciousness seem to be rather well-cushioned on both the input and the output sides of the brain. By further zones of physiological unknowns, our explanatory picture for brain function is reasonably satisfactory for the sensory input pathways and the distal portion of the motor outflow. But that great in-between realm starting at the stage where incoming excitatory messages first reach the cortical surface of the brain is still today rates that familiar nickname the mysterious black box. To conclude that this whole gap in our explanatory picture can be filled with no reference to
conscious mental or psychic forces if nothing else at least goes well beyond the facts into the realm of intuition and speculation. So it's a curious paradox that the objective, materialist doctrine and behavioral science which tends to be identified with a rigorous scientific approach is in fact found to rest on an unsupportable mental inference that goes way beyond the objective evidence and hence is a structure founded on the cardinal sin of science. One can still find here in the literature a modicum of some final perhaps last right respect paid to the psyche as for example in the open acceptance by the famous neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington of the possibility of the coexistence of two separate phenomenal
realms in the brain. Or in the conclusion of the very eminent neurosurgeon wild or penfield that nerve impulses and spirit are two separate things and that the one will never explain the other. Or in the stand of Karl Rogers humanist of the year for 1964 well known psychotherapist and long time university of Chicago professor at least to the former professor. His contention that man's inner experience must be recognized as well as the brain mechanism of objective psychology in the two very different realms he sees a lasting paradox that with which we all must learn to live. But even the dualists are quite prepared to go along these days with the conviction held by most brain researchers up to some 99.9% of us I suppose.
Yet conscious mental forces can be safely ignored in so far as the objective scientific study of the brain is concerned. And in what follows I plan to line myself up now with the 0.1 or so percent minority in support of a stand that also goes beyond the facts but it's a position that to me seems both stronger and more appealing than those that we've been outlining. In my own hypothetical brain model conscious awareness does get representation as a very real causal agent and rates an important place. In the causal sequence of brain events where it appears as an active operational force any model or description that leaves out conscious forces according to this view is bound to
be pretty sadly incomplete and unsatisfactory. The conscious mind in this scheme far from being put aside as by product epiphenomenon or inner aspect gets located front and center directly in the midst of the causal interplay of cerebral mechanisms. Here it becomes top man on the totem pole of causal forces. Mind and consciousness in this scheme are put in the driver's seat as it were they give the orders and they push and haul around the physiology and physical chemical processes as much or more than vice versa. It's a scheme that puts mind back over matter in a sense not under or outside or beside it.
It's a scheme that idealizes ideas and ideals over physical chemical interactions nerve impulse traffic or DNA. It's a brain model in which conscious mental psychic forces are recognized to be the crowning achievement of some 500 plus million years of evolution. Well along about this point even my humanist supporters begin to wonder about the juxtaposition of their speaker to his rocker. And I even have to reassure myself somewhat recalling that in this general approach has held up in my thinking for quite some years now extending back even prior to the onset of senility. Well we're ready now to look at the opposing argument in favor of mentalism. The argument that says that ideas and other mental entities push around the physiological
and biochemical events in the brain. The argument is simple and goes like this. First we contend that mind and consciousness are dynamic emergent pattern or configurational properties of the living brain in action. Now one can usually get plenty of takers on this first point including among them even some of the tough-minded brain researchers as for example the outstanding Neuronatomist CJ Herrick who was long a professor at this university. And secondly the argument goes a critical step farther and insists that these emergent properties in the brain have causal potency just as they do everywhere else in the universe. And so there we have the simple answer to the age old enigma of consciousness who hasn't said that nothing so simple is yesterday's solution nothing so complicated as tomorrow's
problem. But let's spell this out a little further since this whole subject has been at times a bit complicated. To put it very simply it comes down to a question of who pushes whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the cranium or to use an old university of Chicago expression it's like straightening out the pec order hierarchy among intracranial causal agents. There exists within the cranium a whole world of diverse causal forces and particularly there are forces within forces within forces as in no other cubic half-foot of universe that we know.
At the lower most levels in this system we have those local aggregates of some thirty or so you it's hard to keep up with them types of sub-nuclear particles interacting with great energy all within the neutrons and protons of their respective atomic nuclei. Now these chaps of course don't have very much to say about what goes on in the affairs of the brain we can pretty well forget them because they're all firmly trapped and kept in line by their atomic overseers. The atomic nuclei and associated electrons are also of course firmly tied up in turn. The various atomic elements are molecule bound and they get hauled and pushed around by the larger spatial and configurational forces of the whole molecule. Now we're talking here about a shift of attention, a turn of thought, a change of feeling
or a new insight and so on. To make a long story short if you keep climbing upward in the chain of command within the brain you find at the very top those overall organizational forces and dynamic properties of the large patterns of cerebral excitation that are correlated with mental states or psychic activity. Now here we're getting close to the main issue to proceed further and for purposes of illustration. Let's look now at a specific example of one of these mental entities. For simplicity let's take just a simple elemental sensation. And instead of the old philosophers favor at the color red, the philosophic and geographic locus of which seems sometimes to be in some doubt.
Let's use another example, the sensation pain. To be more specific let's say we're talking about pain in the fingers and thumb of the left hand. And let's pin it down further to pain in the left hand of an arm that was amputated above the elbow some months previously. The recall that the suffering caused by pain localized mentally in a phantom limb is no easier to take than if the limb were still there. It is easier however with this example to infer where our conscious awareness really resides. Now in regard to this pain the contention is that any groans it may elicit in our patient or any other response measures that may be taken as a result of the pain sensation. Our indeed caused not by the biophysics chemistry or physiology of nerve impulses as such but
by the pain quality the pain property per se. And this brings us then to the real crux of the argument. Other excitations are just as common to pleasure of course as to pain in the same applies to any other sensation. What is critical is that unique patterning of the excitation that produces pain instead of something else. And it's the overall functional property of this pain pattern as a pattern that is critical in the causal sequence of brain affairs. Now many of you will note the reliance throughout here on the emergent concepts of Morgan and the corresponding configuration and field concepts of Gestalt Psychology. The Gestalt School in Psychology and Philosophy went wrong only when they moved into the brain
and tried to carry their pattern properties direct from the outside world and sensory surfaces into the cerebral cortex. The central emergent conscious force within the brain as visualized here is not a simple surrounding envelope of volume property or any other kind of isomorph as they tried to make it. It is seen rather to be a functional pattern that has to be worked out and conceived in entirely new terms, that is in terms of the functional circuitry of the brain, in terms of what is still the unknown brain code. Above the simple pain and other sensations in brain dynamics we find of course the more complex but equally potent, forces of perception, emotion, reason, belief, insight, judgment,
cognition and all the rest. In the onward flow of conscious brain states, one state calling up the next, these are the kinds of dynamic forces that call a place. It is exactly these overall mental forces that direct and govern the inner impulse traffic including its electrochemical and biophysical aspects. When trying to visualize the mental properties as described it's important to keep in mind that all of the simpler, more primitive, electric, atomic, molecular, cellular and physiological forces remain present of course and they all continue to operate. None has been cancelled but these lower level forces and properties have been superseded
and encompassed as it were by those forces of successively higher organizational entities. In particular remember that for the transmission of nerve impulses all of the usual electrochemical and physiological laws still apply at the level of the cell, the fiber and the synaptic junction. And further remember that that proper function in the uppermost levels always depends on normal operation at subsidiary levels. Near the apex of this command system in the brain, returning now to more humanistic concerns, we find ideas, man over chimpanzees has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed the causal potency of an idea or an ideal becomes just as real
as that of a molecule, a cell or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and devolve new ideas and they interact with these and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains and thanks to tell star et cetera and far distant foreign brain. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in total a burst wise advance in evolution on this globe far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet including the emergence of the living cell. In the proposed scheme, the interplay of psychic and mental forces though accessible like the interior of the earth only indirectly at this date becomes in principle a proper
phenomenon for scientific investigation aside from problems of complexity and adequate technology there would seem to be no great obstacle in principle to an eventual objective understanding and scientific treatment of mental phenomenon.
The Chicago lectures
Roger W. Sperry, part 1
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University of Chicago
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Roger W. Sperry, California Institute of Technology: "Brain, Mind and Humanist Values"
Series Description
This series presents lectures given at University of Chicago, focusing on the nature of human beings, their place in the universe, and their potentialities. The lectures were also published in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, beginning in September 1965.
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Producing Organization: University of Chicago
Speaker: Sperry, Roger, 1913-1994
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 65-40-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:40
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Chicago: “The Chicago lectures; Roger W. Sperry, part 1,” 1965-10-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2023,
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APA: The Chicago lectures; Roger W. Sperry, part 1. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from