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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Do Worm Experiments Add to the Case for a Human Soul?

Many think that the idea of a human soul is some old relic of an idea that has been made obsolete by modern neuroscience. But rather surprisingly the facts of neuroscience may provide a powerful rationale for believing in a human soul. The neurological case for a human soul may be concisely summarized as follows:

  1. Human minds have astonishing capabilities that we cannot account for by postulating neural mechanisms, including self-awareness, abstract reasoning, the ability to remember 50-year old memories, the ability to recall very long linear sequences, and the ability to instantly recall obscure pieces of information.
  2. Since we cannot explain such feats by neural mechanisms, we need to postulate some source of human mental functionality that goes beyond the brain, something along the lines of a soul.

The first premise above would be disputed by many a neuroscientist, but none of the things the premise mentions can actually be adequately accounted for by neuroscience. No neuroscientist can give any coherent explanation of how neurons are able to give a person self-awareness and the sense of self that humans have. When asked to explain very long-term memories such as memories that old people have of their childhood, a neuroscientist will typically mention the idea that memories are stored in synapses. But as discussed here, synapses are subject to very rapid molecular turnover and structural turnover which should make them incapable of storing memories for longer than a year. The molecular turnover in synapses is so rapid that they should be incapable of storing memories for longer than a few months. As discussed here, the architecture of brains seems to not be the type of architecture that might allow storing very long linear sequences such as humans can remember.

As for the instantaneous recall of distant memories, this is something that everyone takes for granted, but trying to explain it in detail neurologically is such a nightmare that neuroscientists rarely attempt such a thing. The main problem comes when we consider this issue: if memories are stored in the brain, how is it that someone could know exactly where in the brain a memory is stored? For example, if I say, “Tom Cruise,” your mind may recall various images of Tom Cruise. But if such images are stored in your brain, how could your brain know exactly where such images are stored? Brains are not structured in any way that allows for the location coordinates of anything to be recorded when a memory is stored. So it won't do for you to claim that you looked up storage spot number AZ4392 when you recalled what Tom Cruise's face look liked. Brains have no such coordinates. And how could you be using a coordinate, when you wouldn't know what the coordinate of a particular memory was? We never remember any brain location coordinates when we memorize things. It also will not do to claim that you scan through all your memories to get the answer, like someone leafing the pages of a book to find an answer. Such a thing would take hours, but you recall memories instantly. No neuroscientist has given a detailed plausible account of how humans could instantly recall distant memories stored in a brain. See here for more on the seeming impossibility of explaining instant memory recall through brains. 

An additional problem comes when we consider encoding and decoding. If your brain is storing memories, your brain would have to be using all kinds of super-complicated encoding and decoding schemes that would allow conceptual and visual information to be stored on a molecular level, and then translated back into concepts and images when you recall things. But it is hard to imagine how such encoding schemes could ever exist – for example, we can't imagine any encoding scheme by which you might translate the conceptually rich idea of America or the conceptually rich idea of your mother into a series of molecules. And if such super-complicated encoding schemes did exist, they would seem to be miracles of design 1000 times harder to explain than explaining the genetic code (already a nightmare for biologists to explain, even though it is pretty simple). See here for more about this difficulty.

All of these very great difficulties can be avoided through a radical idea: the idea that human mental capabilities are largely the product of a human soul rather than the brain. We can believe that our memories are mainly stored in something like a soul, rather than a brain. We can believe that our sense of self-identity and our ability for abstract reasoning (so hard to account for by the action of neurons) is also the product mainly of a human soul. There is a great deal of paranormal evidence supporting such an idea – things such as near-death experiences, suggesting human memories and consciousness can continue when the brain is totally shut down.

The main problem with such an idea is that it differs from what we have been told so often by neuroscientists. But such an idea is easier to accept if you simply remember: Nature never told us that our memories are stored in brains, and Nature never told us that our abstract concepts are generated by brains. It is merely our neuroscientists who have told us such things, and they have been jumping the gun before getting proof for such claims, being guilty of the overly presumptive dogmatism that is so common among modern scientists.

Scientists have long advanced the dogma that memories can only be stored in brains. But there is a line of experiments that challenge such a dogma. The experiments involve worms. The worms in question have an astonishing ability. You can cut off the head of one of these worms, and it will grow a new head.

In the 1950's the scientist James McConnell did astonishing experiments with flatworms. He trained flatworms (planaria) to respond to lighting cues. He then cut off the heads of the flatworms, leaving only half a worm. He was not surprised to see the tail of the worm regrow into a full worm that included a new brain. Such a thing had been observed long ago. But what was surprising was that the worms seemed to remember the learning that had previously been provided. Under the prevailing dogma of neuroscience – that all memories are stored in the brain – such a thing should have been impossible. The learning should have been lost when a worm's first brain was cut off. McConnell's research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper stated, “ It was concluded that in planaria the rudimentary brain is necessary for learning to take place but not for retention of the learned response."

More recently, scientist Michael Levin of Tufts University has replicated McConnell's findings. Spending lots of money, Levin developed a fancy machine called the Automatic Training Apparatus, designed to test flatworms in a way that would be computer-assisted and involve less subjective interpretation by humans. 


 Levin's machine

Levin's results were similar to McConnell's. The sequence he documented over and over again was:
  1. A worm was trained in some way.
  2. The worm had its head severed.
  3. The worm regrew its body, growing a new brain.
  4. The worm was then retested to see whether it remembered its previous learning.
  5. It was found repeatedly that the worm seemed to remember what it had previously learned before decapitation.

Levin published his research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper was entitled, “An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planarians and its persistence through head regeneration.”

It is impossible to explain these results under prevailing dogmas that memories are stored in brains. An article on Levin's research includes some weird speculation involving RNA molecules going from the head of the flatworm into the tail, and then migrating back into the head after the head had regenerated after decapitation. But the article concedes that this scenario is “imaginary,” and scientists haven't even maintained that memories are stored in RNA molecules.

But there is a scenario that can explain experimental results such as McConnell's and Levin's. Consider the following hypothetical scenario.

  1. All animals with brains (include flatworms and humans) have something like a soul. In the case of a flatworm, we might call this a mini-soul.
  2. Such animals store memories not mainly in brains, but mainly in souls.
  3. When a flatworm is decapitated, its brain is lost, but its soul or mini-soul is preserved, and still holds the animal's previous memories.
  4. When the decapitated flatworm grows a new brain, it is able to remember its previous learning, because it is retrieving memories not from its newly regenerated brain but from its soul or mini-soul that was never damaged.

The experimental results of McConnell and Levin are inconsistent with the idea that memories are stored only in brains, but are quite consistent with the scenario above.

Are there any other experiments hinting at the existence of a soul? Yes, but they involve not animals but human beings. The experiments I refer to are experiments involving ESP and remote-viewing. Innumerable scientific papers have been published documenting positive results in such experiments. In the case of the Joseph Rhine experiments at Duke University, we have experiments showing spectacular results that we would not expect to see merely by chance even if everyone on the planet was tested for ESP.

What do such experiments have to do with the soul? Abilities such as ESP and remote viewing are utterly inexplicable under a neurological framework. Evidence for such abilities suggests very strongly that the human mind involves some paranormal or spiritual or transcendent component that goes beyond anything that can be explained by using the nervous system and the brain. The term “soul” can be used as a vague term for such a component.

Of course, you can deny all of this if you wish to cling to materialist dogmas about the brain, and maintain that the mind and memories are 100% brain effects. But life is going to be hard for you. You must explain away or deny the worm experiments done by multiple researchers. You must explain away or deny tons of experiments showing paranormal human abilities, experiments done for more than 100 years, including experiments done at leading universities and experiments long funded by the US government. You must deny all the evidence involving near-death experiences, suggesting that human consciousness can continue when the brain is inoperative, including many cases of people verifying details of their medical procedures when they should have been completely unconscious. You must claim that memories are all stored in brains, even though there is no plausible mechanism by which human brains could store memories for longer than a year or two, given all the structural and protein turnover occurring in synapses (discussed here). You must somehow claim that memory recall is purely neurological, even though no one has the slightest idea of how a brain or mind could ever know how to find the exact location in the brain where a memory was stored. You must also maintain that somehow all our abstract thoughts are made by neurons, although no one can explain how one neuron or a trillion neurons could combine to make an abstract concept such as “life,” “universe,” or “nation.” You must also maintain that somehow the brain is constantly using a vast wealth of encoding schemes and decoding schemes that allow it to translate concepts, episodic memories and visual memories into molecular storage, even though no one has ever found such an encoding scheme, no one has ever spelled out in detail how such encoding schemes could work, and if such encoding schemes existed they would require some insanely intricate design scheme almost infinitely more complicated than the design scheme behind DNA (creating a gigantic “intelligent design” issue materialists would prefer to avoid). You must also explain away cases such as John Lorber's and these cases, which suggest that minds can function very well even when a large fraction of the brain is damaged or a great majority of the brain is gone.

Good luck doing all that without tying your prose into knots.