The 2016 annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) was held last week at Azusa Pacific University, near Pasadena, California. The program and abstracts of the talks are available on line.
A general theme of the meeting was “Brain, Mind, Faith.” Here I will describe in some detail a plenary talk by a Stanford neuroscientist, and also mention briefer takeaways from some other presentations related to the brain/mind area. At the end, I’ll provide links to videos of ASA 2016 talks on other, non-psychological topics.
Plenary Talk by William Newsome: Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith
Bill Newsome is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford and director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, and co-chaired the U.S. Brain Initiative proposal. His research is aimed at understanding the neuronal processes that mediate visual perception and visually guided behavior. The abstract reads:
The “central dogma” of neuroscience is that all our behavior and mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self—is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain. Neuroscience “explanations,” therefore, tend to account for mental phenomena such as thought, emotion and belief in terms of the basic elements of cellular communication within the brain—action potentials, synapses and neuromodulation. Such mechanistic accounts, which appear increasingly powerful, have been cited as evidence that “folk psychological” explanations of behavior—including beliefs, values, and faith—will be replaced ultimately by deeper and more accurate neuroscientific explanations.
In contrast, I argue that the deepest and most accurate accounts of behavior necessarily involve multiple levels of explanation. Within neuroscience itself, the best explanations are inherently multilevel, appealing simultaneously to behavioral, circuit-level, cellular, and genetic insights. Outside the domain of neuroscience proper, human behavior depends additionally on multiple levels of social and cultural organization and insight. Each level of explanation complements and corrects, but does not replace, the others. More than ever in our world, beliefs, values and faith matter.
The video of the presentation can be downloaded. Start from the ASA home page and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. Scroll down through the list of presentations to get to the “Newsome, Bill” entry. His actual talk starts about 33 minutes into that video, following various organizational announcements. The slides for this talk can also be downloaded.
The first part of Prof. Newsome’s presentation is a tour of some of the recent advances in neuroscience. The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, with 100 trillion synapses connecting them. Our understanding of this circuitry is growing rapidly, but we have much to learn as to how cognition, emotion, memory, and action are generated by these circuits and networks.
A traditional technique for mapping the circuitry in, say, a mouse brain is to take thousands of very thin, physical slices, and examine them under a microscope, describe what is seen on each slice, then try to relate the trends from slice to slice. This is very laborious. The task of circuit mapping has been accelerated by at least an order of magnitude by the “CLARITY” technique from the Deisseroth lab at Stanford, published in Nature, 2013. In this approach the neurons are fixed in place with a gelling technique, then the opaque lipids in the brain are dissolved away. This leaves just the neurons visually exposed in all their interconnected glory. Different stains can be applied to highlight different classes of neurons. Prof. Newsome showed a brief but impressive video clip (which is displayed in the video link for this presentation), optically scanning in and through a whole mouse brain, zooming in and out on the bundles of neurons. Here is a screen shot of a zoomed-in view of a brain section:
Another intriguing video clip he showed was the neuronal activity in a zebrafish brain (Ahrens, et al., 2013). The fish had been genetically manipulated to modify the neurons, such that they each emitted a brief fluorescent flash from calcium when they fired. We could see flashes here and there, and occasional big waves of activity moving through the brain and down the spinal cord. A static image of that brain fluorescence in a relatively quiescent state is shown below. The faint blue outline is the fish’s head. The brain shows as gray. The spinal cord goes off to the right.
Another new technique is “optogenetics”. This was also developed, in part, in the Deisseroth lab at Stanford. Here, light-sensitive molecules are introduced to specific types of brain tissues. An optical fiber can then be inserted into a spot in the animal’s brain, allowing stimulation of these sets of neurons. This can be done with a more or less freely-moving animal, so we can observe the effects of neuronal stimulation on behavior. An optically-rigged mouse is shown in the slide below.
Prof. Newsome showed a video clip of an experiment in the Anderson lab at Caltech (from Cell, 2015) in which a male mouse was rigged to optically stimulate certain cells in the medial amygdala. These cells are hypothesized to be involved in aggressive behavior. This mouse was behaving in a friendly fashion towards another mouse in his cage. When the light stimulation was switched on, he suddenly started attacking the other mouse. When the light was switched off, he immediately went back to being friendly.
Prof. Newsome noted that when he showed this video to a group of non-neurologists at Stanford, one of them remarked that this was “the most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life”, since it showed so dramatically the raw neural substrate of behavior.
Deep brain implants of electrodes to stimulate specific human brain areas have been reported to give some improvement or relief for a variety of maladies, such as Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and severe depression.
In some brain surgeries, the patients are kept awake so that the doctors can judge from their responses exactly where the surgical probing or tissue removal is taking place. The slide below derives from a study of these phenomena. The purple region towards the front is the premotor cortex, and the yellow and orange areas towards the back are parietal motor regions. When patients were electrically stimulated in the purple region, their limb would twitch or move, but the patients would deny having moved their limb. If the patients were shown that their limb was moving, they would say something like “I am not doing that – you guys are making that happen.” Conversely, when the orange or yellow regions were stimulated, the patient would report “I feel the urge to move my hand”, or even “I did move my hand”, even though they had not in fact moved their hand. Somewhere between these two regions of the brain may lie the secret of voluntary motion, and Prof. Newsome is optimistic that these functions will be mapped in the not too distant future.
This all leads to consideration of the “central dogma” of neuroscience, which can be stated as: “All of our behavior and all of our mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self— is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain”. This dogma is the working assumption of essentially all practicing neuroscientists, but it naturally raises a number of concerns, such as the freedom of the will. The second part of the presentation focused on these issues.
Prof. Newsome discussed several different treatments of freedom and the brain. A common view among his colleagues might be termed “bottom-up determinism”. This is the notion that all behavior emanates from the grinding of neuronal gears deep in the brain, and our conscious explanations of our behavior are merely rationalizations. Some thinkers, such as John Polkinghorne, propose that quantum processes in the brain, with their inherent indeterminacy, create space for freedom of thought. (In the Q&A session, however, Prof. Newsome noted that neurologically relevant molecules are too big for such quantum effects to be significant). Another view, common among laymen, is that freedom of choice means that my choice is uncaused, i.e. it cannot not be dependent on a biological process. He rejects all of these approaches, for reasons that he fleshes out later in the talk.
The view he favors is “self-determination” or “autonomy”. By that he means, “My behavior is caused, at least in part, by my beliefs, values, memories, goals and aspirations. Conscious, rational thought plays a causal role in my behavior.” He conceded that most of his behavior is likely due to influences of which he is not aware. However, he does not think that is the whole story. A key issue is, what counts as a “cause”?
The discussion then delved into philosophical definitions of causation and of reductionism. There is a tendency to view “lower” or more “fundamental” explanatory levels as being truer and more real and more causal. Chemists view biology as just applied chemistry, physicists see chemistry as merely applied physics, etc. However, the higher-level conceptualizations are just as valid, and are meaningful in ways that are not captured by the lower-level explanations. The most fundamental level of description of, say, his presentation that evening, might be to define a quantum wave function for all the atoms comprising him and the room full of people. But someone examining that wave function would know nothing of meetings or people or presentations.
To think of human behavior completely in terms of neuronal circuits, to the exclusion of conscious impressions, beliefs, and values, is an impoverished and incomplete approach. It does not work in real life, and does not describe what neuroscientists actually do. Bottom-up causes are important, but explanatory relevance runs both upward and downward.
Neuroscientists find it useful to work at multiple levels of explanation, and to relate those levels as appropriate. They often work in terms of “systems”, where the parts of a system are organized together to exhibit the phenomenon under investigation. From Carl Craver (2007): “Systems explanations involve showing how something works rather than showing that its behavior can be derived from more fundamental laws.”
One example of bi-directional causality comes from the study of long-term spatial memory, e.g. how a mouse remembers its way around a maze. Such memories seem associated with the hippocampus region of the brain. Changing the maze, and thus the mouse’s experience of the maze, leads to physical changes in the neurons of the hippocampus (top-down causality), while physically damaging the hippocampus affects the spatial memory (bottom-up).
Another example of bi-directionality is cognitive behavioral therapy. This involves changing a patient’s beliefs and patterns of interactions. This top-down approach has been found to be about as effective in treating depression as prescribing pills which modify neurotransmitters and receptors (bottom-up). The best approach is for doctors to combine these two treatment modalities. Thus, beliefs, aspirations, values and other high-level mental states do matter.
Some of the most important questions in life depend on beliefs and values, and are not susceptible to scientific proofs. For instance, someone in declining health may face the question: is it better to live or to die?
Another common question is: Should I marry this particular person? You can rationally think about this from various angles, but in the end you have to make a faith-based decision and take the plunge or not.
Prof. Newsome closed by noting that the religious quest bears similarities to the marriage example. There are various sources of evidence that one can draw on, including one’s direct experiences and the testimonies of other seekers through the ages, but the evidence is not compelling in a scientific sense:
Faith, accompanied by commitment is essential. Risks are high. Simply put, this is the human condition. It is life, and our most consequential decisions in life have little or nothing to do with science.
For everyone, the real question is: Is there an ultimate source of meaning and value in the universe? If so, what is it?
Simon Peter addressed Jesus with these words, “And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) While Peter had some initial grounds to respect and follow Jesus, the cognitive order here indicates that fuller understanding only came after faith. In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis wrote of how his faith perspective made better sense out of his observations of life:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else. (The Weight of Glory, 1942).
Plenary Talk by Justin Barrett: Contemporary Trends in the Science of Religion: Adaptationist and Byproduct Theories and Their Implications
An experimental psychologist, Justin Barrett taught for five years at Oxford, and is now with Fuller Theological Seminary. He has authored several books on the psychology of religion. The psychology of religion was the broad topic of his presentation, which can be downloaded from the ASA site as described above, i.e. start from the ASA home page and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings.
He discussed, for instance, how children and adults come to believe (both rightly and wrongly) that “agents” are active or are lurking nearby. Having a mental “agency detection system” can be an asset for alerting oneself to, for instance, a crouching tiger or a hidden enemy. This same type of thinking can lead to belief in unseen spirits. Thus, some psychologists view religion as a byproduct of such agency detection systems. Another view of religion is that it serves an evolutionarily useful adaptive function, such as signaling commitment to a group and commitment to not cheating on social contracts.
Some have viewed these proposals (that the human mind has a natural disposition to believe in God or gods) as somehow discrediting religion. Prof. Barrett devoted the second half of his talk discussing why this is not the case. First, as pointed out long ago by William James, all of our states of mind have some sort of basis in the physical processes of our brains. This is as true for atheism as it is for theism. Second, as noted by Plantinga, it is quite possible that God allowed an innate propensity for religious belief to develop in human beings in order to facilitate such theistic believing. Finally, the belief-forming faculties at work in forming religious beliefs are fundamentally the same as the belief-forming faculties involved in forming non-religious beliefs. A wholesale attack on such faculties leaves no ground for trusting the accuracy of any belief on any subject.
Takeaways from Other Talks on Brain/Mind/Faith
I will summarize a few other presentations on this topic from my notes. There were other talks on brain/mind subjects which I did not attend, and of course these presentations did not purport to resolve all the philosophical questions of consciousness and responsible agency.
Theological Implications of the Gut-Brain Axis, by Clayton D. Carlson
There are about ten times as many non-human cells living on and inside of us (mainly in the large intestine or gut) as there are cells in our body. The mass of these microbiota is about three pounds, or about as much as your brain. Studies have shown that the nature of human microbiota can exert significant effects on digestive, cardiovascular, and even psychological health. Thus, we should view ourselves not as just having an individual body, but as a community of organisms.
A study in mice showed that germ-free mice, raised to have no bacteria in their guts, exhibited abnormal social behavior (avoidance, excessive self-grooming), which normalized after microbiota were introduced to them. (I recall hearing elsewhere about various other studies in humans that seemed to show some dramatic improvements for depression and for autism upon altering the client’s gut microflora, but I do not find these in my notes here).
There are several plausible pathways by which gut microbiota can impact psychological health. The vagus nerve transmits sensations from the gut to the brain. Presumably sensations, even subtle ones, of intestinal distress or bliss can impact one’s mental state. Also, the microbiota release a variety of chemicals which are taken up by the bloodstream and make their way to the brain. Some of these can affect the levels of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, and so has implications for helping with depression. Short-chain fatty acids are also made by the microbiota, and can affect the blood-brain barrier membrane.
While caesarian section births, infant formula, and antibiotics can be very beneficial, it should be recognized that they can disrupt normal transmission and flourishing of gut microbiota. The speaker opined that most over-the-counter “probiotic” capsules contained a rather limited set of bacteria. VSL-3 probiotic apparently has a broader, more effective mix of bacteria .
Diet can affect the microbiota. One study showed that when elderly patients were put on a low-meat diet, their brain volume increased and mental functioning improved (I could not tell from my notes if these brain changes were definitively linked to changes in gut flora). When queried as to his personal practice, the speaker said that he eats a banana every day, to provide extra amounts of inulin. This is a type of sugar that supports the growth of a certain type of desirable bacteria in the gut.
Nondeterminism and Plasticity: The Role of Bidirectional Brain-Behavior Relationships in Sanctification, by Nahanni Freeman
The first two paragraphs of the Abstract for this talk read:
Theoretical models of sanctification imply behavioral, affective, cognitive, and relational flexibility, and appear inconsistent with deterministic views of mind-body relationships.
New evidences from epigenetics, psychoneuroimmunology, and studies of placebo effects, as well as traditional findings regarding neuroendocrine, dendritic, and neurotransmitter modifications in response to psychological variables, highlight the malleability of the central nervous system in response to both internal and external environmental change agents.
A number of examples were given of how various experiences or practices resulted in measurable changes in brain cells. These could be positive or negative experiences. A study with deprivation of maternal contact led to permanent changes in the hippocampus of lab rats. In human subjects, meditation increased gray matter in the brain, and an 8-week course in lovingkindness meditation resulted in increased antibody production in the immune system.
Studies ( e.g. Sorenson et al, 2011; Koenig, 2008) showed that religiosity was associated with positive health factors such as reduced heart rate, reduced strokes, better immune system outcomes, and 7-14 year longer lifespans. Religious beliefs and practices may provide an enhanced sense of unity and coherence, which can reduce anxiety and mitigate chronic stress responses.
Positive health effects, including psychological health, can be observed from the administration of placebos. This again demonstrates the plasticity of the brain in response to experience and suggestion. Placebos are more effective with symptoms which a patient is consciously aware of, such as pain, rather than with more purely physical issues like blood sugar.
The Abstract suggests that these observations of top-down or bidirectional effects may “weaken neural identity theory and material monism, yielding intriguing compromises between mind-body interactionism and emergentism.” More complete notes and references for this talk are available from the speaker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mirror Neurons, Empathy, Intersubjectivity and the Second-Person Perspective with Implications for the Problem of Consciousness, by Mihretu P. Guta
Studies show that “mirror neurons” in human and other primate brains fire when an individual performs an action like reaching for an object in a goal-oriented manner, and likewise fire when he or she sees someone else performing that same action. Some neuroscientists have taken this to mean that mirror neurons are the seat of “action understanding” or of empathy or of inferring the intentions of others. But other scientists have thrown cold water on these grandiose claims, on a number of grounds.
In any event, neurons are not consciousness. The speaker cautioned against falling into the “mereological fallacy”, of confusing the properties of the parts (the neurons or the brain) with the properties of the whole (e.g. the conscious human being). 
Computational Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity: Implications for Christian Belief, by Daniel Dorman
Computational neuroscience covers a wide range of specific subjects, ranging from modeling the biochemistry of signaling between specific cells to simulating high-level cognitive processes such as decision-making. The speaker described several recent advances in neural modeling.
The “Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network (Spaun)” model by researchers at Waterloo was published in 2012. An accessible description, with videos, is given here.
Spaun comprises about 2.5 million virtual neurons, organized similar to brain neurons, and is attached to a camera for visual input and a robotic arm for behavioral output. This is a top-down, functional approach to brain modeling.
The Blue Brain Project is more of a bottom-up approach. It seeks to model, in a biologically realistic fashion, the specific neural structure of part of a rat brain. This project by Swiss researchers using supercomputers has been in play since 2005, with the size and complexity of the model growing with time.
Some futurists have claimed that, since mental activity is just a big set of calculations, one could conduct the same set of calculations in a digital computer and obtain the same effect; thus we could create fully-conscious computers or have our conscious life continue after physical death by transferring our thought processes to a supercomputer.
The speaker cautioned that these schemes overlook the fact that human mental functioning is physically embodied, in a brain which is part of a body. It is not at all clear that having a giant digital or analog model of 100 million neurons firing would actually create consciousness. Interestingly, the Christian view of our ultimate destiny is not be a ghostly spirit, but to have our intelligence to be re-embodied in a resurrection body.
Other Presentations Available On-Line
As previously noted, the currently-available talks from this 2016 meeting can be accessed for downloading by starting from the ASA home page and clicking through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. To give an idea of the diversity of presentations, I’ll paste below a screen shot of the first two dozen or so presentations listed. This list may change as more items are added. The symbols show whether video and/or audio and/or slides are available. 
There are many fine presentations here, but I will just call out the three plenaries which I have not already discussed. Roger C. Wiens of Los Alamos, in Exploring Mars with Curiosity: A Scientific and Spiritual Journey, described the science and the technical and political drama behind the successful implementation of a remote chemical measuring device which was part of the “Curiosity” Mars rover which landed on the surface of Mars in 2012. Roger also shared some personal crises that arose along the way and how he resolved them. There are great slides showing parts of the rover and aspects of the hair-raising landing. The ChemCam instrument developed by Roger’s team, which shoots a laser beam at rocks to discern their chemical content, shows as the circular opening in the box atop the mast which sticks up above the Curiosity rover in this self-portrait on Mars.
Ted Davis, a historian of science at Messiah College, described the people, the decisions, and the larger societal forces in play during the formative years of the American Scientific Affiliation, in The Creation and Evolution of the ASA in Historical Context. The founders of the ASA aimed at forming an organization of evangelical scientists who would bring the best science to bear on matters relating to Christian faith, in order to advise ministers and other Christian workers. In general, the ASA does not take official stands on controversial issues, preferring instead to be a forum where Christians can present different views and respectfully discuss these issues. I could see this policy in play in this 2016 meeting – while (I believe) the leadership of ASA generally accepts human evolution from other primates, two talks at the meeting were by representatives of the Reasons to Believe organization, which accepts an old earth but rejects human evolution.
In Imag(in)ing a Brighter Future for Healthcare, Audrey Bowden shared her personal journey which eventually landed her at Stanford as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. She also described some of the work she does in developing techniques to obtain high-resolution visual images of what lies several millimeters below the surface of the skin or the external surface of organs within the body. Sophisticated sensors and computations take information from the back-scattering of light from subcutaneous layers and process it to form an image of what lies beneath the surface. This technique holds promise for better diagnosis of skin and other cancers, along with applications in ophthalmology, dentistry, and art preservation. She is bold and articulate about her faith. While she works hard and prays for wisdom in her scientific work to improve human health and extend lifespan, she notes that Christians have an even brighter personal future for healthcare, which is to be ultimately in the presence of God with no more tears, pain, or sorrow.
 Some anecdotal reports I saw on VSL-3, e.g. comments on Amazon, indicate perceived relief for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. They also note that it needs refrigeration to maintain potency (so it must be shipped with cold packs), and dosage should start small.
 Mereology is the study of parts and the wholes they form. In neurology “the mereological fallacy consists in attributing to the parts of an animal the psychological predicates that correspond to the living acting human or animal as a whole. Therefore, attributing psychological predicates to the brain [e.g. “The brain perceives…”] involves falling into the mereological fallacy.” (Baldara Rosas, 2014)
Another discussion of the mereological fallacy is found in this book review .
 See here for my write-up of last year’s ASA conference. One talk summarized there which dealt deeply with mind/brain issues Jennifer Gruenke’s “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”.