A defense of deviation

Tikkun asks:

The evolving and growing complexity of the human brain allowed our ancestors the ability to question, wonder, and consider new possibilities—to be creative. Life altering advances were the result. Is unconditional adherence to dogma (whether religious or secular) at odds with this evolved capability and our full potential as creative beings?

Read it all. The either/or dichotomy being offered here feels a little dogmatic in and of itself, but the article is intriguing, nonetheless. (Hat tip aldaily.com.)

Searching for God in the brain

Does religious belief have origins in neuroscience? Can we pinpoint the location of a mystical experience? Using the tools of modern neuroscience, several scientists are attempting to explore the biological origins of faith:

The doughnut-shaped machine swallows the nun, who is outfitted in a plain T-shirt and loose hospital pants rather than her usual brown habit and long veil. She wears earplugs and rests her head on foam cushions to dampen the device’s roar, as loud as a jet engine. Supercooled giant magnets generate intense fields around the nun’s head in a high-tech attempt to read her mind as she communes with her deity.

The Carmelite nun and 14 of her Catholic sisters have left their cloistered lives temporarily for this claustrophobic blue tube that bears little resemblance to the wooden prayer stall or sparse room where such mystical experiences usually occur. Each of these nuns answered a call for volunteers “who have had an experience of intense union with God” and agreed to participate in an experiment devised by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Beauregard seeks to pinpoint the brain areas that are active while the nuns recall the most powerful religious epiphany of their lives, a time they experienced a profound connection with the divine. The question: Is there a God spot in the brain?

The spiritual quest may be as old as humankind itself, but now there is a new place to look: inside our heads. Using fMRI and other tools of modern neuroscience, researchers are attempting to pin down what happens in the brain when people experience mystical awakenings during prayer and meditation or during spontaneous utterances inspired by religious fervor.

Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine—a new discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual neuroscience”—not only might reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them happier, healthier and better able to concentrate. Ultimately, however, neuroscientists study this question because they want to better understand the neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives of so many. “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures,” Beauregard says. “It is as important to study the neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.”

Read it all here.

Chimps, humans and notions of fairness

Apparently it is "Science Sunday" here at The Lead. But bear with us, this story too has a connection to faith. It turns out that one of the characteristics that distinguish humans from chimpanzees (our closest relative) is that we have inherent notions of fairness--and chimps do not.

In a recent experiment announced in Science, scientists at the Max Planck Institute found that chimpanzees act as economic maximizers, but humans do not. The Economist describes the experiment:

Economic theory has contrived a species it calls Homo economicus—a “rational maximiser” who grabs what he can for himself. But, curiously, he makes no appearance in the ultimatum game, a classic economics experiment.

In this game, two players, a proposer and a responder, divide a reward. It could be a cake. It could be cash. It could even be a bunch of grapes. The game is so named because the proposition is an ultimatum. The responder can either accept the division or reject it. If he rejects it, both players receive nothing.

Homo economicus would accept any division in which his share was not zero. But that is not what happens. Scores of studies have run the ultimatum game across cultures and ages. Universally, people reject any share lower than 20%—apparently to punish the greed of the proposer. People do not act like Homo economicus. Instead, they are the arbiters of fairness.

To find out if chimpanzees share this sense of fairness, Keith Jensen and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, designed a way for chimps to play the ultimatum game. Their version started with a pair of trays far from the players' cages. Each tray had ten raisins divided in different ways between two pots—say eight and two, or five and five. One chimp was allotted the role of proposer. He could choose one of the trays, pulling it by way of a rope just halfway to the cage. The other, the responder, could then choose to pull on a rod, bringing the tray close enough for both to get the raisins, one pot for each. If the responder chose not to pull the tray closer within a minute, the offer was considered rejected, and the game concluded.

The result, which Dr Jensen reports in Science, is that chimps are simply rational maximisers—Pan economicus, if you like. Though proposers consistently chose the highest possible number of raisins for themselves, responders rarely rejected even the stingiest offers.

This is a telling outcome. A number of researchers in the field of human evolution think that a sense of fairness—and a willingness to punish the unfair even at some cost to oneself—is humanity's “killer app”. It is what allows large social groups to form. Without it, free-riders would ruin such groups, because playing fair would cease to have any value. Dr Jensen's previous experiments have shown that chimpanzees are willing to punish actual thieves. But his new data add weight to the theory that the more sophisticated idea of fair shares, which underpins collaborative behaviour, appeared in the hominid line only after the ancestors of the two species split from one another.

And another set of experiments using this same game ahve found a genetic basis for our sense of fairness:

As they write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bjorn Wallace of the Stockholm School of Economics and his colleagues have shown this by playing the ultimatum game with twins. They used the classic trick of neutralising the effect of upbringing and exposing that of genetics by comparing identical twins (who share all their genes) with fraternal twins (who share half).

Each twin of a pair played the ultimatum game, both as proposer and as responder. Dr Wallace found, in the case of identical twins, a striking correlation between the average division that each member of a pair proposed and also between what they were willing to accept. In other words, their senses of what was fair were similar. No such correlations were seen in the behaviour of fraternal twins.

Besides showing that a sense of fairness has a genetic basis, this result also raises a question: why should the sense of what is fair be so variable? It may be that in a population of the fair, the unfair prosper while amongst the unfair, the fair are better off. The result would be an equilibrium in which various attitudes to fairness do just as well as each other. But why, exactly, that should be the case is a subject for another day's research project.

Read it all here. You can learn more about the chimp experiment here, and more about the twin experiment here.

Many Christian apologists--most notably C.S. Lewis (and more recently Francis Collins) have argued that our unique human innate sense of morality is itself evidence of the existence of God. Do these recent experiments suggest a biological explanation for this innate "moral law"?

The science of temptation

Religious leaders have always known that human beings, despite our best intentions, can and will be led astray by temptation. A recent journal article offers some reasons why:

As human beings, we have limited resources to control ourselves, and all acts of control draw from this same source. Therefore, when using this resource in one domain, for example, keeping to a diet, we are more likely to run out of this resource in a different domain, like studying hard. Once these resources are exhausted, our ability to control ourselves is diminished. In this depleted state, the dieter is more likely to eat chocolate, the student to watch TV, and the politician to accept a bribe.

In a recent study, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto Scarborough and colleague Jennifer N. Gutsell offer an account of what is happening in the brain when our vices get the better of us.

Inzlicht and Gutsell asked participants to suppress their emotions while watching an upsetting movie. The idea was to deplete their resources for self-control. The participants reported their ability to suppress their feelings on a scale from one to nine. Then, they completed a Stroop task, which involves naming the color of printed words (i.e. saying red when reading the word “green” in red font), yet another task that requires a significant amount of self-control.

The researchers found that those who suppressed their emotions performed worse on the Stroop task, indicating that they had used up their resources for self-control while holding back their tears during the film.

An EEG, performed during the Stroop task, confirmed these results. Normally, when a person deviates from their goals (in this case, wanting to read the word, not the color of the font), increased brain activity occurs in a part of the frontal lobe called the anterior cingulate cortex, which alerts the person that they are off-track. The researchers found weaker activity occurring in this brain region during the Stroop task in those who had suppressed their feelings. In other words, after engaging in one act of self-control this brain system seems to fail during the next act.

These results, which appear in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, have significant implications for future interventions aiming to help people change their behavior. Most notably, it suggests that if people, even temporarily, do not realize that they have lost control, they will be unable to stop or change their behavior on their own.

Read it all here.

The politics of dignity

Stephen Pinker writes in The New Republic:

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called "therapeutic cloning" that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what's not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it.

Read it all. Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.

The laying on of hands

NPR Morning Edition recently had a story on the benefits of human touch. Not that there was any news in it, but it summarizes some of the science:

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Can faith reduce pain?

Smithsonian Channel's new video proposes that religious faith can reduce pain:

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