Ginger Campbell – Podcasting Neuroscience

January 09, 2009

Ginger Campbell, M.D., is an emergency physician whose long-standing interest in philosophy and science motivated her to begin podcasting in 2006. While her Brain Science Podcast focuses on neuroscience, her other show, Books and Ideas, often explores the intersection between science and religion. She is also the founder of, which is a site devoted to promoting science through podcasting.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Ginger Campbell recounts how she first got involved in science podcasting, and why she focuses on neuroscience as her topic. She discusses the impact of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s work on both her intellectual pursuits and her views about atheism and religion. She talks about the trends in neuroscience that may suggest the brain can be “trained” with products such as Brain Age on Nintendo’s DS Lite, or that one’s diet can increase one’s intelligence. She describes “neuroplasticity,” and how new brain imaging technologies, such as advanced fMRIs, show that our daily actions can impact specific parts of the brain. She explores the implications of neuroscience for religious belief, and why she has at times resisted the idea of atheism. She shares her reactions to the “New Atheists.” And she discusses the increasing attacks on neuroscience from Creationist activists because of what it implies about consciousness, free-will and the existence of the soul.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 9th, 2009. 

Welcome to Points of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’m happy to have Ginger Campbell on the show this week. She’s an emergency physician whose longstanding interest and philosophy in science has gotten her into podcasting beginning in 2006, while her Brain Science podcast really focuses mostly on neuroscience. Her other show books and ideas often explores the intersection of science and religion and topics that we’re interested in on point of inquiry. She’s also the founder of Science Podcasters Dot org, which is a site devoted to promoting science via podcasting. Ginger Campbell, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hi, D.J.. I’m really honored to get to be on the show today. 

Well, I’m glad that you’re on. First of all, let me congratulate you on your podcasts. It’s one of our favorites in this household. Tell me how you got into it. Your look. You’re a very busy doctor. You’re in the emergency room. Have this crazy schedule. Yet you’re also host to one of the most popular science podcasts out there. How’d that happen? 

Well, it happened because I fell in love with podcasting as soon as it appeared on iTunes. I bought an iPod early on to put audible dot com books on it because I have a long commute of about 90 miles one way. So when they put a podcast on iTunes in the summer of 2005, the first show that I heard I think was either the signal or Skeptic Kaldi, I can’t remember which. And I just love the form. And immediately I wanted to do something in podcasting, but it took me a while to come up with a good idea. I was listening to a show that called The Sci Fi Show and it became clear to me that there was a lot of misunderstandings about neuroscience and had an opportunity to do a little book review for that show. And that kind of at that point, the bug bit me and there was no turning back. 

Okay. Two things there, Ginger. In the couple few years that you’ve been doing the Brain Science podcast, number one, is it paying off in terms of science education or is it just talking to the same people who are already into this stuff? That’s one question. I have another question about brain science as your topic. We’ll get to that in a sec. 

I’m not sure whether I know the answer to that. I think it’s probably a little bit of both. People come to my show from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sometimes it’s people that are affected by certain medical condition and they’re looking for information, which is really not what my show is aimed at. But because there’s no shows out there really hardly about the brain, they find mine and then they get interested in it. And then I have college students who will write to me and say, well, now I’m really turned on to neuroscience. I think I want to go to graduate school. So I think from that standpoint, it’s attracting new people to the field of neuroscience. As far as whether it’s attracting people to science, I honestly don’t know the answer to that. 

Mm hmm. About neuroscience specifically. You don’t have a background and it’s not your medical specialty, but you chose it just because you saw a need to correct misunderstandings about it. Or is it. I guess I’m asking, is there something more about neuroscience that attracts you to it as opposed to, say, astronomy or biology or any of those other things? 

Absolutely. Because neuroscience is the thing that most touches on what it means to be human. The way that I got into it was that I have had a long journey of being interested in many different topics and fairly late in life. I got interested in philosophy, Western philosophy because of Jennifer Michael Hecht book doubt. And that led me to reading a lot of philosophy, which led me to the area of philosophy of mind, which was I when I discovered, gosh, all this stuff been going on in neuroscience since I got out of medical school that I hadn’t been paying attention to. So I started reading a lot of neuroscience. So that’s how neuroscience happened. And then when I when I did one book review, I realized that there was so much material. One of the things about doing a podcast is you’ve got if you want to do it on long term, you’ve got to have ideas from some people. You know, their shows are in ruts because they they’re too narrowly defined and they really have to sort of run out of material. 

Right. Always talking about another reason why ghosts don’t exist or something like that. 

Well, or let’s face it, as much as I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there haven’t been any new episodes in a long time. 

So I realize that the topic was one that would have. Oh, and the material. And also from my reading, I realized that it was on the verge of just really breaking out into a very exciting period. I still think we’re really still on the edge of that. 

And so the more you learn about the brain and here’s the point, this is the answer to the question, why neuroscience is the topic. Are the more you get into brain science. The more you get the point that the mind is only what the brain does. And these big questions you’re talking about in philosophy, freewill, the soul, even questions about ESPN, parapsychology, questions about who we are, identity, the self memory, all these questions, they all come front and center in in your zeroed in on them because of your focus on neuroscience. 

Yeah, but I have to say that I, I personally disagree with the definition of the mind is only what the brain does. I think that the mind is a combination of what the brain does in interaction with the body and the world. 

Fair enough. And there’s epiphenomenal ism and other things. 

No, I don’t think the minds of epi phenomenon. I’m I, I think it’s I hate to use the word emergent because that that word is misunderstood. But what I mean is that the mind is a it’s the next level up of what you get when you combine what’s going on with the brain, the brain’s interaction with the body and the world. 

Understood. You’re still saying that as a naturalist there’s nothing magical. Exactly. 

One of the coolest things to me about the neurosciences, the kind of most fascinating to me and maybe this is a little quackery, the stuff that’s coming out of cognitive neuroscience, the kind of borders on self-help. It’s this kind of train your brain movement. Ginger, do you bind to those claims that what mental exercises or die can actually change your brain, make you smarter, stave off Alzheimer’s? All these other claims coming out of the self-help neuroscience movement? 

I think it’s a mixed bag. The most important message that is meaningful is the idea of neuroplasticity, the fact that our brains can change. They’re not like set in concrete. Once we reach 21 or something and there is lots of evidence that exercise makes a difference to brain function as far as what you eat. I think the evidence in that area is very weak. And as far as doing certain mental exercises for your brain, that’s another area where the evidence is mixed. There’s a lot of people out there selling stuff that hasn’t really been scientifically tested. Brain age is the one that comes to mind for me, worse than the Nintendo DSR game. 

Right. And do you have it? We we went through our little kind of addiction to that. And I went around congratulating myself that I’m a lot smarter than I used to be. But who knows if that’s true. 

I think the evidence for brain age is very poor. I mean, there are programs out there that are attempting to do scientific validation. But most people and I only look at this kind of very on a very superficial level, it’s not the area that I focus on. It seems like a lot of people are out there jumping on the bandwagon to sell stuff, which is typical that they haven’t really gone through rigorous testing, of course. That’s not unique to this particular field. I mean, some even unique to the self-help field. Mm hmm. I am going to be doing an interview with Michael Merzenich, who’s the founder of Posit Science, who is one of the heads, one of the programs that’s actually had some scientific validity. I’m gonna be interviewing him later this month. No, I’ll be able to talk to him about that issue because it is an issue that that neuroscientists are concerned about. The main principle I think people can appreciate is that it seems to matter that you do something that’s new and different for you. In other words, if you just work the crossword puzzle every day, that’s good for you. But that’s probably not going to stave off Alzheimer’s disease and learning new skills. It probably doesn’t matter as much what the new skill is as it does stretching and challenging your brain to do that. One of my guests that I had early on, Dr. Alkan on Goldberg, told me that he intentionally would do things on the computer, that he had younger people in his office, that they could do them for him. But he felt like it was important to do those things himself so that he would continue to challenge his mind. 

Ginger, about neuroplasticity, Fmr Eyes and and other imaging techniques are really proving to us scientifically that the actions in our daily lives can actually impact specific parts of the brain with what you’re learning week after week from the show that you host. Does. Does it make you live your life differently, like, you know, taking all this stuff about neuroscience into account? Are you are you more cautious about some things you do regarding your brain or are you seeking out other kinds of behaviors? You just talked about mixing things up a bit to keep things fresh. You know, cognitively, once I learned that the brain was the consistency of cottage cheese and that inside the cranium, it was very sharp and jagged. I felt like never leaving the house without a helmet on or something. 

Well, I guess it probably hasn’t changed my behavior that much just because I’ve always been a person who liked to exercise. So being aware that exercise is just as important to my brain as it is to my body didn’t really change my behavior all that much. And I’ve always loved to learn a thing. So both of those those principles are ones that just kind of reinforce behavior I already had. And what it has done is the stuff that I’ve learned about what goes on outside of our conscious awareness has made me more aware of why people act the way they do when it doesn’t seem to make. We have a lot of habitual behavior that becomes almost like on autopilot, and that’s kind of what I’m talking about. For example, we can jump to conclusions about people that we don’t really know if we don’t consciously stop ourself and say, you know, that’s just me jumping to a conclusion. It’s not really based on what I really know about that person. 

So we’re hardwired to draw wrong conclusions, sometimes were hardwired to maybe be xenophobic or to be short fuzed or, you know, all the other things that you might not like about people. It might just be coming from their hardwiring in their brain. 

I’m reluctant to ever attribute anything to strict hard wiring. I’m kind of one of those people who, when it comes to the nature versus nurture argument, tends to come down in the middle. I think that most things are a mixture of how we were wired and our life experience and the fact that our life experience can feedback into how we’re wired is very important because it means that we can change a lot of those behaviors. 

That’s the point with neuroplasticity. 

Yes. But we also we can’t change the fact that we have some of that wiring there that might make us react a certain way before we stop and think. So, for example, to expect everybody to have no trace, even at a very deep level, no trace of racism is probably an unrealistic goal. A more realistic goal is to make people aware that we have these tendencies and try to stop and think before they do something they might regret. 

What’s the biggest news that you see on the horizon in the brain sciences? Is it that we’re gonna make real strides against Alzheimer’s or maybe that the technology, the future will let us download our consciousness into computers? What are you looking most forward to in the field? 

Well, if you’d asked me that a year ago, I definitely would have said neuroplasticity. We still have just barely tapped what the what the implications of that are and how to turn that into practical information that is going to touch on things like treating Alzheimer’s disease. I am not that familiar with the research on Alzheimer’s disease, per say. I know that there is a lot of stuff going on at the micro and even molecular biology level that is going to be tied into what’s going on at the systems level in neuroscience. At this year’s big neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., which was attended by over 30000 scientists, the president, the Society for Neuroscience said she felt that the story for the future was circuits. And what that means is that there’s multiple levels going on in the nervous system and everything is interconnected and beginning to learn how to put those pieces together from a systems approach is going to be big. Also, more interdisciplinary work is going to be very important in the future. 

And that’s true for all the sciences. 

Yeah, but it’s especially true for neuroscience because it really can’t advance without using tools from other fields. For example, if you look at Eric Candelas, Nobel Prize work, he’s a famous researcher in memory. He benefited from work that was going on in the people that were doing genetic things in mice and figuring out how to knock out genes and see what happens. Neuroscience needs the other other fields, and there’s a need for more communication between the branches within neuroscience, such as, say, psychology, versus one of the more, you know, hard science versions of neuroscience. 

I want to turn to religion for the Roumain. More of our conversation. You’re a scientist, you’re deeply interested in the implications of the brain sciences for how we see ourselves. What we know about human nature. Most scientists conclude that these implications are atheistic implications. Yet for the longest time we were talking off air. You kind of resisted the idea of Athie ism. 

I mean, I don’t think it was a conscious resistance. I think for a long time I didn’t really consider the position that I had reached, which was I started to think of myself as a Buddhist, which Buddhism doesn’t necessarily imply any God person depending on the kind of be right. 

The version of it that I was interested in really wasn’t God oriented. And one of the things that appealed to me was that it wasn’t God oriented, because I had realized that there was just no way that I could buy into the Judeo Christian God anymore. And believe me, I tried. 

You told me that Jennifer Michael Hecht book dout actually helped you embrace your identity as an atheist. 

Yes. And I have to say the timing was important because I read that book right when it first came out, I think, and I was at a point in my life I must out. Besides trying the Judeo Christian version, I also tried various New Age versions of reality along the way. And I’d finally reached what I considered to be something of a dead end. And I was in a very much of a searching place when I read Hecks book. And she she traces the story of various people who basically doubted whatever was the dogma of their time. And many of them would have in their time or even now been considered atheist. And she did it in a way that made me see that that could be a position that actually had its own community, that it wasn’t a position of loneliness, that it was. I could feel a sense of connection to all those people in history who also hadn’t been able to embrace whatever everyone else around them was, just accepting as the truth. 

Aren’t the new atheists kind of doing the same thing? They’re speaking to a community. They’re saying, hey, it’s all right, come out, come out wherever you are. There are a lot of other atheists out there. You can be part of a community. Somehow it seems like the new atheists aren’t resonating with you like Hecht did. 

Well, first of all, when I read Hecks book, I did not know anything about that movement. That was before I became aware at all of the skeptical movement. So, yeah, the problem that I have with what I call the radical atheists is I think that some of them are as intolerant as the fundamentalists that they’re attacking. Mm hmm. And also, I think that going out and trying to convince everybody that that God doesn’t exist is an unrealistic goal. 

I grant that some of the initial optimism of the new atheists, you know, Dawkins, for instance, thinking that, yeah, he would be able, with sheer force of argumentation, persuade believers that they’re wrong. Yeah, that might have been overly optimistic. 

Still, don’t you think it’s good for nonbelievers, for skeptics, humanists, atheists, whatever, to have smart voices out there representing their point of view, spokes people who actually are not afraid to speak out, people who are allowed in and, you know, kind of confronting culture because no one else has before. 

Absolutely, I mean, change never happens from the people like me who to get along with everybody. 

It happens from the people that are willing to rub people the wrong way and be a little extreme. I just have a problem myself with self identifying with that. And I found recently wanting to go back to calling myself an agnostic just to make it clear that I personally don’t have any problem with people having their own beliefs or any desire to change anyone else’s beliefs. 

So you’re an atheist, but you wouldn’t call yourself an agnostic because you want to draw a distinction. Let people know that you’re not one of those atheists. 

One of those angry atheists. 

Yeah, I guess that’s true. And the other thing is, because that extreme viewpoint has. Whether it’s fair or not, a sort of an arrogant slant to it. It’s like we we know for sure. And really, you know. We don’t all we can say is based on the evidence that we have. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t have enough evidence to tell anybody else what they should believe is what I’m saying. And also, from a neuroscience standpoint, belief is not under conscious control. That’s one of the things that. That is very important. I think that the most important book I read last year was Robert Berton’s. On being certain. And, you know. That’s the reason why when two people look at the same information, you and I might come away and say, well, obviously God doesn’t exist and another person will say, yes, but I still believe in God and I’m OK with that. Mm hmm. 

Well, there’s so many things I’d love to talk with you more about regarding that topic. You know, the harm that belief might bring. Is it all right to just live and let live? Is there a role for argumentation when in effect, people are just going to believe whatever they believe? And, you know, all our huffing and puffing might not do anything about it. Lot of things to touch on. But what I want to focus on now is just before we go is kind of the intersection of what we were talking about before your interest in neuroscience. You’re bringing it to new publics and your views about religion. Well, they kind of intersect when you look in the culture wars. There’s kind of a stealth movement right now of believers, kind of anti atheists against neuroscience. 

What I’m pointing to is that rather than focusing just on evolution and biology, the intelligent design movement seems to be turning to neuroscience because of its atheist implications. 

Yes. And I think that that’s something people really do need to be aware of. Now, I’m not the person who who noticed this. I’ve just read about it and realized that that it looks like there’s some evidence that they’re going to take a very stealth attack here because they learned their lesson from what happened at Dover. You can make sure that there’s no obvious connections when there’s no attack. Materialism and say materialism. Persay leads to AP ism. Persay leads to evil. And I think that. Scientists in particular need to be aware of this and be ready to combat it before it gets out of control. 

What’s their beef with neuroscience? That that if you take the scientific view of the brain of the mind, then that means there is no soul, maybe no freewill. 

What’s what’s what scares them about neuroscience? 

Well, I think if you took what we’ve got, we haven’t found any sign of any kind of supernatural soul. And we’re explaining more and more things with the brain that we’re always assumed to have to have some kind of spiritual explanation. And so that’s threatening. Hmm. Until maybe 20 years ago, maybe 30 consciousness was completely off limits to neuroscience. It was assumed by the neurosciences themselves that it was not something that could be studied and therefore that area. It was kind of like the olden days, you know, when the church got everything except science and spiritual matters were going to be separate. But now, once science starts looking at consciousness, it’s getting into an area that people have very strong feelings about and their whole world views, their faith commitments are wrapped up in their notions about consciousness. Yes. Because most people think that consciousness has some relationship to their their soul. If they believe in a soul, at least I think so. It’s hard for me to totally put my self in the other position. 

Well, especially because you’re so steeped in the sciences. 

But I don’t personally I don’t feel threatened at all by the idea that there’s no separate soul. But I guess if I was really vested in the idea that I had to have some piece of me living after I’d die, I might be pretty vested in it. 

Well, and it’s not only kind of the the afterlife questions, which obviously a lot of people care about, but here and now life questions like if I don’t have a soul, if if I’m just, you know, just physical. If my brain gives me the illusion of a of a self, do I really have freewill or am I just an animal? 

I mean, you hear arguments coming from the other side. 

I don’t want to sound to Culture Warrior about this, but where they zero in increasingly on neuroscience saying if you believe science’s view of the brain, then you can’t believe that you have freewill, that you can make moral decisions. Instead, you’re just kind of a an animal who’s determined to just live out your life getting what you want. Taking having no regard for other people. In other words, their picture they draw from neuroscience is rather bleak and dark and and kind of scary to someone who wants to believe that God exists and and people are good or can be at least saved. And that all can be right with the universe. 

Yeah. And unfortunately, there’s people on the non believing side that I think sort of buy into that. In fact, that’s the reason why one of the things that I’m intending to focus on my Brain Science podcast in the next few months is on that very subject, because I think it’s important to show that the scientific evidence actually doesn’t lead in that direction. But that’s an ungrounded fear and that’s going to be a big focus for me in the coming year, because I think it’s an important issue. 

Right. Research coming out of the neurosciences right now suggests that maybe were born to be good. Maybe that there are neurological determinants that make us social prosocial behavior and care about other people and and that it’s not just either God and souls exists or on the other hand, people are rotten and selfish and mean. There’s kind of a scientifically valid third option that says God may not exist, but we do exist. We can care about people. And and all of it is consistent with what we know about science. 

Absolutely. And that’s another example of where the interdisciplinary nature of science becomes very, very important. Mm hmm. 

Ginger, I really appreciate our conversation. I’d like to let our listeners know that if you want to enjoy another show on science subjects, you can’t do better than the Brain Science podcast, which you can find through our website point of inquiry, dot org. And Ginger, you actually have a second podcast, right? 

Yes. I have another show called Books and Ideas, which I started out to be just whatever I wanted to talk about, but has really turned into a pro science show, although it goes off on personal topics from time to time. I just got done with a two part interview of Nobel physicist Frank. We’ll check and you can find that at books and ideas. Dot com Jim Underdown. 

That’s great. Thanks again for being on the show. Ginger Campbell. 

Thanks, T.J.. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Plíhal. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.