Why Proof of Heaven Does Not Prove There’s a Heaven.

The state of the universe.
Oct. 23 2012 12:05 PM

Heaven Help Us

Another “Harvard brain scientist” finds faith and tells the world.

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There are some minor differences between Alexander and Bolte Taylor. For one thing, he's the better stylist. (Perhaps he availed himself of a holy-ghost writer?) For another, his spirituality is tilted more toward Christianity. Though he likes to use a generic, oriental name (Om) for the God he finds inside his head, his story ends at the altar of a church, tears running down his cheeks as he takes communion. Bolte Taylor, for her part, started doing neuroscience to understand why her schizophrenic brother thought that he could talk to Jesus Christ. (Presumably it wasn't because he had meningitis.) Her own sense of the beyond leans away from Western monotheism, and relies instead on a pseudo-secular, tech-inflected mysticism. At the end of her famous TED talk, which has now been viewed almost 10 million times, she breaks down in what must be crocodile tears while promising a universe of connected consciousness, one of compassion and of peace.

But the similarities between their stories, and their public presentations, are far more striking. Like Alexander, Bolte Taylor makes a point of credentialing herself as a Harvard scientist, and a brain specialist to boot. It's this priestly status that makes their nutty stories of enlightenment seem like something more profound—brain-based facts. Bolte Taylor frames her insight in the witless mumbo-jumbo of left-brain/right-brain pseudoscience; Alexander needs the magic of his "inactivated" cortex. Either way, a fuzzy bit of neuroscience is brandished as a notary seal to authenticate some metaphors about quantum physics or other science-y illumination.

If only insight were so easy! As it happens, Bolte Taylor isn't quite a "brain scientist," in the sense of being someone who is actively engaged in research. She has a Ph.D., and did complete a post-doc in a Harvard lab, but she stopped writing research papers early in her career and never took a tenure-track position. She's more a performer and an educator than a scientist, giving public lectures and singing songs about biology with her guitar. That's not to say that public education is not a splendid and important task, but only that it might be wise to study the credentials of those who claim their membership in the holy neuro-priesthood.

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The same goes for Alexander, whose long list of scientific publications is almost exclusively devoted to the technique of neurosurgery. In other words, he hasn't spent much time in formal research on the function of the brain, let alone the deeper questions of cognition or higher consciousness. And while he did spent many years working at Harvard hospitals, I'm not sure what that says about his status as a "brain scientist," or if that designation would mean anything at all.

Even if these two were on the faculty of Harvard, or if they'd won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, what platform would they have for expounding on the secrets of the universe? We've now grown so enamored of the brain that the mere mention of the thing eliminates the need for further clarity. The blinding power of neuroscience has been invoked in recent years by marketers and pollsters, by trial lawyers and self-help authors, and now our faith in brain-based explanation has reached its logical conclusion. It's become its own religion. In the middle of her TED talk, Bolte Taylor hoisted up a hunk of pickled neural tissue and waited for the audience to respond with oohs and aahs. She worked it in her hands like a charismatic preacher would, while the spinal cord dangled like a snake.

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