27 November 2007

Just Born that Way?

I would laugh at you, except I understand that you were born to believe silly things like that. Like what? Like Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, for example. Or Peak Oil. What about divine creation of the earth and all life? Have I stung you yet? Intelligent Design. Democracy. Monogamy. God or the gods. The true path. Do you believe?

Do you want to know the funny part? No matter how much I may laugh at your silly beliefs, chances are that some of my beliefs seem just as silly to you or someone else just as intelligent as you or I. Whether or not we "believe" does not depend upon our IQ or our level of emotional maturity. It has to do with how our brains are put together--how we think right out of the box. We are born to believe.

At least, that is what neuroscientist/physician Andrew Newberg says in his book and lectures, Born to Believe.
As the field studying the biology of religious experience advances into the next millenium, continued improvements in our abilities to study the brain coupled with better methods of measuring the subjective state of religious experiences will refine our understanding of the mystical mind. However, the ideas presented in this book represent the most up-to-date knowledge and the most complete synthesis of information currently available. The first installment will thus consider several basic principles of brain function as it relates to human experience, and in particular, religious experience.

...The causal operator permits reality to be viewed in terms of causal sequences. This operator seems to have played a significant role in the development of human science, philosophy, and particularly religion. In its basic function, the causal operator tends to impart a sense of causality on all of the events that we observe. Thus, this operator forces us to question why we are here, why does something work the way it does, and what created the universe. In all of these, and in every other instance, we want to know what is the cause that lies behind every event that we experience. Thus, we would suggest that it is the mind or brain itself that is designed to seek out causality. Our brain functions in such a way that it tries to find the cause of all of the things it experiences. If this is the case, then it is a biological necessity for us to seek out causality. Furthermore, there is evidence that our drive to determine causality may be present even as early as infancy. The causal operator has often led to the development of myth formation and in particular, religious beliefs. Religions, in general, offer an answer as to what ultimately causes things to happen in this universe -- power sources, gods, and in the high religions -- God.

The quest to understand religion and mysticism through the lens of science goes back decades.
Scientists and scholars have long speculated that religious feeling can be tied to a specific place in the brain. In 1892 textbooks on mental illness noted a link between “religious emotionalism” and epilepsy. Nearly a century later, in 1975, neurologist Norman Geschwind of the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital first clinically described a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes, large sections of the brain that sit over the ears. Epileptics who have this form of the disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading Geschwind and others, such as neuropsychiatrist David Bear of Vanderbilt University, to speculate that localized electrical storms in the brain’s temporal lobe might sometimes underlie an obsession with religious or moral issues.

Exploring this hypothesis, neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, asked several of his patients who have temporal lobe epilepsy to listen to a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while he tested the intensity of their emotional reactions using a measure of arousal called the galvanic skin response, a fluctuation in the electrical resistance of the skin. In 1998 he reported in his book Phantoms in the Brain (William Morrow), co-authored with journalist Sandra Blakeslee, that the religious words, such as “God,” elicited an unusually large emotional response in these patients, indicating that people with temporal lobe epilepsy may indeed have a greater propensity toward religious feeling.

The key, Ramachandran speculates, may be the limbic system, which comprises interior regions of the brain that govern emotion and emotional memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. By strengthening the connection between the temporal lobe and these emotional centers, epileptic electrical activity may spark religious feeling.

To seal the case for the temporal lobe’s involvement, Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically stimulating that large subdivision of the brain. So Persinger created the “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s surface.

In a series of studies conducted over the past several decades, Persinger and his team have trained their device on the temporal lobes of hundreds of people. In doing so, the researchers induced in most of them the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe.

... University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and his late colleague, Eugene d’Aquili, have pointed to the involvement of other brain regions in some people under certain circumstances. Instead of artificially inducing religious experience, Newberg and d’Aquili used brain imaging to peek at the neural machinery at work during traditional religious practices. In this case, the scientists studied Buddhist meditation, a set of formalized rituals aimed at achieving defined spiritual states, such as oneness with the universe.

When the Buddhist subjects reached their self-reported meditation peak, a state in which they lose their sense of existence as separate individuals, the researchers injected them with a radioactive isotope that is carried by the blood to active brain areas. The investigators then photographed the isotope’s distribution with a special camera—a technique called single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT).

The height of this meditative trance, as they described in a 2001 paper, was associated with both a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which encompasses the upper back of the brain, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which resides behind the forehead. Because the affected part of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence during meditation underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is charged with attention and planning, among other cognitive duties, and its recruitment at the meditation peak may reflect the fact that such contemplation often requires that a person focus intensely on a thought or object.

Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues documented something similar in 2002, when they used fMRI to scan the brains of several hundred meditating Buddhists from around the world. Functional MRI tracks the flow of oxygenated blood by virtue of its magnetic properties, which differ from those of oxygen-depleted blood. Because oxygenated blood preferentially flows to where it is in high demand, fMRI highlights the brain areas that are most active during—and thus presumably most engaged in—a particular task.

Davidson’s team also found that the Buddhists’ meditations coincided with activation in the left prefrontal cortex, again perhaps reflecting the ability of expert practitioners to focus despite distraction. The most experienced volunteers showed lower levels of activation than did those with less training, conceivably because practice makes the task easier. This theory jibes with reports from veterans of Buddhist meditation who claim to have reached a state of “effortless concentration,” Davidson says.

...Brain scans alone cannot fully describe a mystical state, however. Because fMRI depends on blood flow, which takes place on the order of seconds, fMRI images do not capture real-time changes in the firing of neurons, which occur within milliseconds. That is why Beauregard turned to a faster technique called quantitative electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the voltage from the summed responses of millions of neurons and can track its fluctuation in real time. His team outfitted the nuns with red bathing caps studded with electrodes that pick up electric currents from neurons. These currents merge and appear as brain waves of various frequencies that change as the nuns again recall an intense experience with another person and a deep connection with God.

Beauregard and his colleagues found that the most prevalent brain waves are long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep, consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state. In work that has not yet been published, the scientists also spotted even lower-frequency waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and the temporal lobe that are associated with meditation and trance. “We see delta waves and theta waves in the same brain regions as the fMRI,” Beauregard says.

...Inducing truly mystical experiences could have a variety of positive effects. Recent findings suggest, for example, that meditation can improve people’s ability to pay attention. Davidson and his colleagues asked 17 people who had received three months of intensive training in meditation and 23 meditation novices to perform an attention task in which they had to successively pick out two numbers embedded in a series of letters. The novices did what most people do, the investigators announced in June: they missed the second number because they were still focusing on the first—a phenomenon called attentional blink. In contrast, all the trained meditators consistently picked out both numbers, indicating that practicing meditation can improve focus.

Meditation may even delay certain signs of aging in the brain, according to preliminary work by neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues. A 2005 paper in NeuroReport noted that 20 experienced meditators showed increased thickness in certain brain regions relative to 15 subjects who did not meditate. In particular, the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula were between four and eight thousandths of an inch thicker in the meditators; the oldest of these subjects boasted the greatest increase in thickness, the reverse of the usual process of aging. Newberg is now investigating whether meditation can alleviate stress and sadness in cancer patients or expand the cognitive capacities of people with early memory loss.

Artificially replicating meditative trances or other spiritual states might be similarly beneficial to the mind, brain and body. Beauregard and others argue, for example, that such mystical mimicry might improve immune system function, stamp out depression or just provide a more positive outlook on life. The changes could be lasting and even transformative.

Certainly, if we are born to seek the transcendent, it is plausible that doing so constructively could be beneficial to our immune, neurological, and endocrine systems. Rational spirituality is almost certainly good for us. Even "irrational spirituality", like the "irrational" optimism of Seligman, may be good for us is some cases. The pessimist and the depressive may be more rational, in many situations, but are they more constructive and helpful--more functional?

Our brains cannot know and understand everything about those things we think about and care about. So we are forced to "bluff"--to believe. The fact that we often take our beliefs a bit too far may be regrettable. But it is certainly very much human. We are born that way.

More on Newberg's research and ideas here,here, and here.

Update: Lubos Motl comments on the fact that we take science on faith too.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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