The Mind Science Foundation, founded 50 years ago by San Antonio oilman, philanthropist, and adventurer Tom Slick, is one of those San Antonio giants hiding in plain sight. In science, a hypothesis isn’t much good without the means to test it, and MSF has been the lonely financial vanguard of the science of consciousness, underwriting researchers struggling to understand how that inscrutable gray matter between your ears in turn sparks the maddening, singular personality that puzzles even you, when you bother to think about it. Fresh off a 40-day trip around the world attending conferences and meetings on brain mapping, the enculturated body, and brain-wave synchrony, MSF Executive Director Joseph Dial is ready to explain what Slick’s vision has wrought in 50 years, and where this pioneering field, once accorded the academic status of voodoo, might take us in another five decades.
Can you give us a preview?
I think one of the most exciting things — and actually Dan Rather just did a report a few months ago with the Dalai Lama on this — and that’s neuroplasticity ... neuroplasticity is the flexibility of the brain, or its ability to change. And so one of the things that we have discovered — we used to think that really happened in early childhood; then it was discovered that there was another period in adolescence, but as it turns out, the brain has an ability to change throughout your life — it’s less in adults, but it’s still enough that we can begin to utilize things other than just pharmaceuticals to resolve problems that people might have, like ADD/ADHD, OCD. And some people even believe in 50 years, just about anything that’s a dysfunction in the brain we’ll be able to solve by six to eight weeks of concentrated guided imagery, meditation, or maybe you sit in front of a computer and you have a series of sounds, touch sensations, and exercises that you go through — so we can really, by stimulating the senses, eventually learn how to change parts of the brain, and of course this would be really significant for people like stroke victims, or people who have brain damage, say, coming back from the war in Iraq.
One of the things that I think is interesting about the foundation, and I’m certainly guilty of this, too, is that you forget that it’s here, and you forget how much it does.
For me, I see visually, and I see two verticals. The A vertical is this theoretical quest that we’re on to solve the biological basis of consciousness. But the B vertical, and those are always connected for me, is what can our research do for the person in the street. And so that’s why we fund ADD/ADHD, autism, coma and impaired states of consciousness ... And I guess just having grown up on a ranch in South Texas, I want to make sure we pull something out of the ivory tower and give a socially relevant result with the work that we’re doing that helps people.
One of the things I often think about is young childhood nutrition ... I think we still don’t fully understand what the long-term implications are of malnutrition when a child is very young.
And I think that’s one of the crucial things: The neuroplasticity research is teaching us that, in essence, your mind is flexible and malleable, and I think we’re going to become more and more aware that not only the nutrition that we give to our children, and the formal education, but the informal education, the things that society allows its children to be exposed to as they grow up, you literally as a parent and a society are sculpting the brain of that child by what you expose them to.
That becomes a terrifying thought, actually.
It really does ... especially for parents who are like, look, when you go over to Johnny’s house, I do not want you to play Grand Theft Auto. ...
I think we have to be highly aware as adults, but also for children, of what we ingest. For instance, if you walked into somebody’s house, and their house was messy, and you walked into their garden, and their garden was all overgrown with weeds, you’re going to say, these people aren’t doing a very good job of taking care of where they live. But it’s the same thing with the brain, only we just ingest everything that comes along. There needs to be more of an understanding that your brain is what you think about.
And I think of it in terms of those critical-thinking skills ... what do you do with students to put those critical-thinking skills in place?
To me, one of the key things that we need to be teaching is to question authority, to think for yourself. Don’t accept immediately what you see on televison, don’t accept immediately what an authority figure tells you: Think for yourself. Use your own brain to put the pieces together and make a decision whether this is right or this is wrong, or it’s beneficial or it’s harmful.
You know, I can’t tell you how happy I am in this election year to hear that the Mind Science Foundation is backing a good liberal position.
`Laughs.` ... I really think that if we could just teach that one thing ... don’t accept at face value what comes to you, and that kind of touches on what I was saying earlier: You don’t have to read everything in the newspaper, you don’t have to look at everything on TV, you don’t have to be exposed to the video games. You don’t have to accept what culture brings to you. We should be teaching our children to critically discern what they’ll let into their mind and what they’ll choose not to. There’s my soapbox. •
2058: The Future of the Human Mind
6:30pm lecture and Q&A
$15; $5 senior, military
Pearl Brewery Stable
312 Pearl Parkway