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Figure 1. "I Think, Therefore I Am" is the famous quote of Descartes, emphasizing that the existence of a person depends on the thinking thing, not the body.   [Adapted from: Wikimedia Commons]

The mind-body dualism asserts that the mind and body are distinct and separable. They can exist on their own. Conscious perception of a scene is imprinted in the mind, not the brain. A similar view was first appeared in the "Theory of Forms" by Plato (~ 370 BC). However, the modern version of the mind-body dualism is usually credited to René Descartes (1596 – 1650). His famous quote, "I Think, Therefore I Am", emphasizes that the existence of a person is not determined by the body, but by the thing that can think. This thinking thing is the mind. Thus, as long as a person's mind remains functioning, the person continues to exist, even after the body has died. This view gives the hope of eternal life. We know that the body cannot exist forever. Suppose the mind and body are inseparable, the mind would vanish as soon as the body stops working. In this case, the eternal life would be impossible. Over the last several decades, near-death experiences (NDEs) have provided strong evidence for the mind-body dualism.

Near-Death Experiences

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are the experiences described by dying patients after they were rescued. NDEs typically occured when a person was in deep coma, clinically defined as brain death. Yet, the person could still "see" the events that doctors and nurses were trying to revive him or her (Long, 2014). Even more amazingly, the blind can also have NDEs. They can see surrounding objects at near-death despite visual impairment that causes blindness. Dr. Kenneth Ring has collected 31 case reports in his book: Mindsight: near-death and out-of-body experiences in the blind. As suggested in the title, the sighting at near-death may not go through the visual nervous system, but directly via the "mind".

Bruce Greyson has dedicated to the study of NDEs for decades. He wrote (Greyson, 2003): "A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.” Other NDE scholars also have the same views (van Lommel, 2014). They are generally in the camp of Cartesian dualism as NDEs have provided strong evidence that the mind and body are separable. Further details on NDEs and conscious perception will be discussed in later chapters.

Criticism of Contemporary Scientists

In contrast to NDE scholars, many neuroscientists do not believe in the Cartesian dualism. They still hold the view that the mind should vanish immediately after the brain stops operation. This view is best represented by Dinesh Bhugra, President of the World Psychiatric Association from 2014 to 2017. In the article, "Descartes' dogma and damage to Western psychiatry", he and his colleague wrote:

"René Descartes described the concept of mind-body dualism in the 16th century..... We believe that his dogma has caused tremendous amount of damage to Western psychiatry. This dualism has created boundaries between mind and body but as we know they are inextricably interlinked and influence each other."

To my knowledge, Descartes never said that mind and body could not influence each other. In fact, Descartes explicitly postulated that the pineal gland should play a key role in the mind-body interaction (see Chapter 3).


Author: Frank Lee
Last updated: 2020-09-28