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Publications Book Reviews
Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century
Reviewed by Diane Hennacy Powell, MD on June 1, 2007
“The authors of this book emphatically do not believe in ‘miracles,’ conceived as breaches of natural law . . . these seemingly anomalous phenomena occur not in contradiction to nature itself, but only in contradiction to what is presently known to us of nature . . . they not only invite, but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.” The authors’ statement summarizes the major intent behind this book.
Although any complete theory needs to be able to account for all associated phenomena, twentieth-century academic psychology developed its paradigm while ignoring anomalous phenomena: out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, psi phenomena, visions of deceased relatives, mystical experiences, automatic writing, stigmata, and cases suggestive of reincarnation. Instead, psychology teamed up with the nascent fields of neuroscience and artificial intelligence to derive a Computational Theory of the Mind (CTM) in which the mind was reduced to being the byproduct of a highly sophisticated, biological computer—the brain.
Irreducible Mind skillfully argues that CTM is empirically false and provides detailed documentation of what CTM cannot explain. For example, CTM never addresses how consciousness could arise from the brain, and anomalous experiences suggest otherwise. CTM can’t even account for some of our everyday experiences, such as volition, or free will. CTM is a theory that reflects its origins rather than the richness of human experience.
This 800-page tome is the result of a collaborative effort of six authors whose qualifications enable them to provide an authoritative and comprehensive review and analysis of the relevant literature. Principal authors Edward Kelly and Emily Kelly are both in the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia. Edward Kelly has a background as an experimental parapsychologist and as a neuroscientist using high-resolution EEG and functional MRI. Emily Kelly worked with the recently deceased Ian Stevenson on cases of “the reincarnation type,” near-death experiences, apparitions, and mediumship.
A CD of F.W. H. Myers’s hard-to-find, two-volume classic, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), is included with the book. The authors describe Myers as the “neglected genius of scientific psychology” whose work influenced them, as well as the Harvard psychologist William James. Myers’s contributions are discussed throughout the book and continue to be of tremendous relevance today.
Both Myers and James regarded the brain as something that limited our experience of consciousness rather than something that generated it. Some of this perspective came from studying anomalous phenomena, but it also came from the study of clinical phenomena such as hysterical symptoms: for example, blindness, anesthesia and/or paralysis that had no anatomical cause and were curable by suggestion or hypnosis.“This apparent ability of the hysteric’s subliminal consciousness to initiate and control, at some level, physiological processes that are normally beyond conscious control seemed to Myers to be a gain rather than a loss of function and to have important implications for an understanding of the relationship of mind and body.”
Myers also looked at genius, which he believed to involve access to deeper subliminal or "unconscious” levels. To Myers, the subliminal was something that was restrained and could be released in all of us as a result of adjustments in the permeability of whatever it was that regulated its expression. More than one hundred years old, his theory is entirely in keeping with recent research on autistic savants.
The book’s title refers to the need for psychology to recognize that the mind cannot be understood by reductionistic, materialistic science. It is written primarily for advanced undergraduate and young graduate students in fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy, who have sufficient backgrounds to understand its arguments yet are new enough to the field to still have an open mind. The book will also be a valuable addition to the library of all serious students of consciousness, particularly if they are interested in understanding the mysteries of the mind.