Does the Mind Exist?
Does the mind exist if you can’t measure it? What is consciousness? Why are we here? These questions make for good goop water cooler talk (see our special issue on The Other Side), and while there may be no definitive answers in this realm, our perspective on the mind and consciousness has shifted considerably after working with Jay Lombard, a board-certified neurologist and author of The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul. (In goop Health attendees: You’ll have the chance to see Dr. Lombard live at summit next week.)
Lombard’s background and medical experiences make his ideas particularly compelling. The clinical cases he explores in his book on the brain/mind split (a woman who completely dissociates from who she is, a man who thinks he is pregnant) are…mind-blowing. Now in private practice, Lombard previously served as the chief of neurology at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, where he led the stroke unit. He’s also the co-founder and chief scientific officer and medical director at Genomind, which specializes in genetic testing to improve neuropsychiatric conditions.
Much of his current work focuses on the potential to reverse neurodegeneration—i.e., neuroregeneration. “Whatever you believe has consequences—and shapes your life and relationships,” says Lombard. What’s worth believing in? If you’ve ever grappled with that question, keep reading for Lombard’s illuminating (and life-affirming) take on faith, the subjective, and the unknown.
A Q&A with Jay Lombard, D.O.
What does the debate about how the mind works boil down to?
From a neuroscience perspective, the essence of the ongoing debate is: Is the mind purely biological, or is the mind a meta-biological process? Most neuroscientists are strict materialists, and believe there is no such thing as mind at all—that mind is an epiphenomenon of biological processes (in other words, it’s all biology.)
“And that’s where the fulcrum of this debate actually is—how do you know something exists if it’s not measurable?”
A small minority hold fast to the idea that the mystery of consciousness is something beyond neurochemistry and neuroscience. It’s very elusive to describe what mind is, once you remove yourself from the biological debate.
Why do most neuroscientists remain strict materialists?
There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Neuroscientists, like all scientists, are quantitatively driven. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Since you can’t measure mind, you can’t quantify mind—so by definition, it’s not physical. If it isn’t physical, then either it doesn’t exist and is just an illusion, or we have to establish that there is a reality that we can’t measure. And that’s where the fulcrum of this debate actually is—how do you know something exists if it’s not measurable?
How do you make that leap?
I think when we are honest as physicians and scientists, there is more mystery than reality in our existence on every level. The amazing thing about the human brain is the intense desire to know itself. There’s always going to be an inability to understand some of the most fundamental questions about reality, but we just don’t want to accept that there will always be an unknown.
This debate dates back to the early 1900’s and the quantum era, when physicists like Einstein and Heisenberg were exploring the tools we have to measure objective reality, and realized that there is a point where humans can never transcend their subjective assessment of reality. It’s impossible. There is no way out of that matrix, if you will.
“I think when we are honest as physicians and scientists, there is more mystery than reality in our existence on every level.”
Neuroscience is now finding itself at the same position, a hundred years later: People like Deepak Chopra, who are on the forefront of talking about neuroscience as a leap into the quantum era, have tried to explain consciousness using quantum models.
Where does faith, or holding the space for it, factor in?
It’s hard. I think we all grapple with this question.
I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time—a really great guy, super ethical, nice, just like the perfect citizen of America. He had developed a series of severe illnesses one after the other and his mom and daughter had also received serious diagnoses. I had known him as a very religious, spiritual guy. “I heard one of your interviews over the summer, when I was in the hospital,” he said to me. “What a bunch of nonsense you’re talking about.”
When I asked him about being soured on the spiritual side of life, he said, “If God is supposedly benign, I can’t believe what I’ve had to go through. Why am I suffering so much? I still believe in God, but I don’t believe in a personal god.” We didn’t talk much further than that, but this stuck with me.
When you believe anything, it’s a leap of faith. Think about it—we have no proof that tomorrow morning the sun is going to rise. We don’t! But we can base it on the predictions of the past. For the last hundred billion years, the sun has risen in the east and set in the west, but there’s no way we can ever validate what’s going to happen in the future. It’s all predictive. It could be 99.999 percent, but it’s still predictive. We’re operating on a belief-based system, always.
Once you realize your entire operating system is belief-based, it gives you freedom: You are responsible to believe what you choose to believe. Whatever you believe has consequences—and shapes your life and relationships. That’s something I think none of us fully want to be accountable for. It is so much easier to say, “My life is broken because my ex-wife didn’t appreciate me,” or whatever we may use as our rationalization for why our reality looks the way it is.
“Once you realize your entire operating system is belief-based, it gives you freedom: You are responsible to believe what you choose to believe.”
When I come back to this question—how do I hold onto faith as a scientist?—I think the real question to ask is: How do we even understand what faith is? Faith is the operating system for everything we do in our lives, whether we think it’s objective or not, we’re all operating on belief systems in one way or another.
It comes back around to accepting the unknown then?
We all have to question what we believe in. People tell me they don’t believe in God, for instance. I say, well, what’s your definition of God? White bearded-guy in the heavens? So many of us have this very anthropomorphic idea of what we think a creator should be, or is. I think the reality is there is a complete state of unknowable-ness that we are humbled by. In science, the more humbled I am by the brain and its mysteries, the better I am as a scientist. As opposed to believing that whatever assumptions I have about the brain’s functionality are invariably correct. Accepting the unknown—and realizing that the unknown is for us to shape—is both an awesome responsibility and very scary thing to accept. And that’s true in every facet of life, not just in science.
What do you think is the next big discovery in the mind/brain space?
I think we’re at the cusp of having the capability to begin two movements—both are exciting but also scary.
One is neuroregeneration, the ability to regenerate damaged or dying brain tissue. That’s a lot of the clinical work and research I’m involved with right now. How do we help to give the blind vision, or reverse Alzheimer’s disease? When I came out of my neurology residency back in the mid-90’s, the first talk I gave was a keynote at a conference where I was talking about neuroregeneration. I could barely say a word without getting snickering from the audience; there was total disdain for the concept. In my lifetime, that concept has gone from an impossible theory—damage is irreversible—to the acceptance of the idea of regenerating brains, or parts of the brain.
“Believe in the inherent value of subjectivity. That you, as a subject, are as valuable as any other subject, and that you can’t put a number or figure on that value.”
The other trend that I think is more frightening, and perhaps less inspiring, is the irrational exuberance for artificial intelligence, what the potential capabilities of artificial intelligence are, and what that means for us socially and as a human species. We can start to think about consciousness being reduced to binary points of decision-making—and that becomes a very dangerous construct of reality. I’m afraid we, as a society, are slipping into paradigms of thinking about consciousness in such a computational way, reducing the inherent value of subjective experience—saying that subjective experience doesn’t matter. When we say mind doesn’t exist, we’re saying subjective experience doesn’t exist, either. We have no souls. That’s my biggest fear of trends we’re seeing in AI—the subjective human mind is being considered as a sort of organic computer.
What’s the counter to AI?
The put-back is very simple: The value of subjective experience should never be discarded just because we can’t measure it, whether it’s belief or something we can’t “prove or disprove,” doesn’t mean it’s any less real than things we can measure. There is more to our life and consciousness than just biology and materialism. Whatever that means—we don’t know—but we certainly need to respect it. It is sacred.
Believe in the inherent value of subjectivity. That you, as a subject, are as valuable as any other subject, and that you can’t put a number or figure on that value. We are inherently, intrinsically, valuable—without any further objectification or quantification of what that actually is.
Dr. Jay Lombard is a board-certified neurologist and author of The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul. Now in private practice, Lombard previously served as the chief of neurology at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, where he led the stroke unit. He’s also the co-founder and chief scientific officer and medical director at Genomind, which specializes in genetic testing to improve neuropsychiatric conditions.
Related: What Is Consciousness?