Archive for the ‘neurotheology’ Category

The Meaning of Meaning (2)

Monday, January 28th, 2013

It would be one thing if our unmet need for existential closure meant only that we had occasional unsettling attacks of meaninglessness, or a vague cloud of doubt hanging over our heads as we went about our daily lives. But unfortunately this nagging psychic unease also interferes with us just getting done our day-to-day business as normal human beings, as if we were lugging around a 20-pound sack of potatoes everywhere we went. For all the design flaws in the whole homo sapiens mind-body system that the messy evolutionary process has bequeathed to us, we basically work remarkably well. We’re endowed with well-functioning instincts and behaviors. We’re lithe. But the bag of potatoes bogs us down, gets in our way, disrupts our rhythm, saps our mojo, puts us off our game.

Then there’s a second order effect which is that our inability to find the big pattern we crave saps our confidence. We can’t find it–so maybe there’s something wrong with us! Maybe there’s other patterns we’re missing! Maybe other people have found the pattern and we’re inferior to them! This fear, this complex is yet more sand in the gears. If the basic existential pain is not sufficient motivation for us to try to do something about the problem, this negative effect on our basic functioning certainly is.


The Meaning of Meaning (1)

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Here is the theory I have arrived at. Humans are successful animals because we have developed large brains with the capability of identifying and matching patterns of many varieties. These patterns could be called concepts, or theories, or hypotheses, or just rules of thumb. The patterns can range from the highly concrete (“a chair”) to the social (“a family”) to the philosophical (“happiness”).

Evolution equipped us not only with the ability to handle patterns but also a reward mechanism for exercising it, which like other reward systems takes neurochemical form. You will know this as the “Eureka” moment when something suddenly “makes sense” (meaning you found a new pattern it fits into, or an old one, or a modification to an old one), or, less dramatically, the little satisfying mental click when something falls together.

Although it is not directly related to my overall topic here, the human inclination, or one might say compulsion, to believe in God can be tied to this neurotheoretical notion of pattern-finding and pattern-matching (and thus the somewhat unfortunate term “neurotheology”), in the sense that a belief in God again activates our reward systems for finding patterns, in this case a “pattern” or framework that ties together disparate and otherwise unexplainable things. Of course, this fundamental biological motivation that results in a notion of the supernatural is then embroidered and modulated by any number of social and political factors, and people have written entire books on the subject, but underlying it all is the human thirst to understand (in other words, find patterns), which, again, has a neurobiological basis.

Thirst in the very real sense, because reward is the flip side of desire, be it for water or anything else, and desire merely one stage on the path to addiction. Those neurochemicals sloshing around in our brains making us feel great when we have sex are also capable, by their absence, of making us sad, horny, jittery, or desperate. It is when this deprivation becomes so serious that we seek to satisfy it, even at great cost to ourselves, that we call it addiction.

Evolution made a wise enough choice in developing these mechanisms; they mostly serve us well when it comes to nourishment, or reproduction, or social relationships, or even intellectual pursuits, such as in the urge Einstein felt to discover the pattern which resulted in the theory of relativity. But what purpose is served by the deep emotional unease, pain, or even agony, that we feel when we are unable to satisfy our cravings for finding patterns, especially big patterns, or the biggest pattern of all, which is how all these other patterns fit together–the “meaning of life” (yes, patterns are essentially identical to what we call “meaning”)–even in the case where there is no pattern to be found? (The millions of people who are desperately seeking the big pattern by pursuing whatever form of religion or practice or devotion or philosophy are, at one level, hardly different from the crack addict furiously looking for his next fix. Of course, just as not everyone develops an addition to drugs, not everyone develops an addiction to finding patterns. In both cases, I suppose it is, like most other things, a matter of so-called epigenetics.

The Neural Buddhists: Neurotheology in the NYT

Monday, May 19th, 2008

The New York Times published a last week on the topic of meta-neurotheology: the context and evolution of the social discussion about neurotheology. Author David Brooks points out the huge impact that the neuroscience revolution is having and will have on our culture’s views of God, religion, and science. His main point: the direction we will take as the discussion unfolds is not towards atheism and pure materialism, but rather something he calls neural Buddhism: “new movements that emphasize self-transcendence”, based on beliefs in a dynamic self , shared morals, elevated experience, and a new concept of God .


Epigenetic Enlightenment

Monday, May 19th, 2008

“Life’s experiences add molecular switches to the genes that control our brain activity,” is the subhead on an article in a recent issue of SciAm Mind. The article presents the new field known as epigenetics , which holds that experience can cause chemical changes that boost or depress the expression of certain genes.

This is a rich potential mechanism for describing interaction of nature and nurture in general, but in particular the progress of spiritual development associated with ongoing practices such as Zen meditation. Simply put, meditation practice could have chemical effects such as attaching methyl groups to genes, which quiets the gene by interfering with the ability of the RNA-based transcription mechanism. Or it could attach acetyl groups with the opposite effect, letting the genes express themselves more easily.

This is an intriguing supplement or alternative to other explanations of the long-term effects of meditation, such as neuroplasticity, but what is the gene, or genes, in question? Such a hypothesis will be a prerequisite for experimental design in this field.

Image of chromatin created by Nicolas Bouvier; courtesy of Genevieve Almouzni, Curie Institute, Paris, France.

Numenware–the book

Friday, May 9th, 2008

2006 postings to Numenware are now available in book form for the low, low price of $19.95. What better belated Christmas present for your loved one or even yourself to read in the tub.

From the intro:

2006 was the year with the greatest density of neurotheological content on the blog, and these articles, taken as a whole, would I hope represent a meaningfully significant, if somewhat quirky, overview of the field.

Loyal readers of Numenware who read posts as they went up may have missed the discussion in the comments section, many of which are extremely informative. These comments have been included in the book, typos and all.

Buy Numenware 2006 from now . 140 pp., with an extensive (10 page) index. Digital version available for three bucks and change.

Why I Believe "Why We Believe" is Mush

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

The word must be out about what Daddy’s interested in because under the tree for me at Christmas-time were two, count ’em, two books by Andrew Newberg, MD , namely “Why We Believe What We Believe” and “Why God Won’t Go Away”. Picked up the first one and started in on Chapter 1, “The Power of Belief”. The first story was about a guy for whom a cancer drug worked when he believed it would and didn’t when he didn’t. That seems a little off-topic–the book’s supposed to be about “Why We Believe”, not “What Belief Does”, but hey, let’s give Andy the benefit of the doubt. But then he undercuts his own case by quoting estimates that such spontaneous remissions occur only one in 3,000 or perhaps as few as 100,000 medical cases. And that’s even before you’ve eliminated spontaneous remissions not associated with “belief”. Why exactly are we supposed to be so concerned with something that might, or might not, be responsible for healing some infinitesimally tiny fraction of sick people?


The End of Faith

Friday, May 26th, 2006

Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith is a critically insightful book.

He understands that at the heart of religion lies a realization about our own experience, but that that realization has been corrupted.

A particular way in which it has been corrupted, he says, is in the form of an Islam which preaches hatred and death. He makes a compelling case that that ideology represents a major threat to the entire world order. I myself am not nearly knowledgeable enough about that religion to judge his conclusions, but the case he makes is very strong.

Harris’ book resembles Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in its condemnation of “faith”, but is much more coherent and closely reasoned.

However, it fails to address a potentially key aspect of the problem: the neurological roots of people’s belief in religion.

TIME magazine on Science vs. God

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

TIME magazine had an immensely stupid article called “God vs. Science” on the cover of its Nov. 13, 2006 issue. They couldn’t even decide who the combatants were in this supposed duel. Right off the bat, they confuse science with “Darwinism” and religion with “God”. Then they make the ludicrous suggestion that science might not be able to “withstand the criticisms” of Christians.

The article does make the somewhat useful point, however, that the “debate” may be becoming more polarized (as in my opinion it should), although there are also now more “informed conciliators”, by which Time apparently means people who believe in magic but have letters like PhD after their names.

Unfortunately, Time chose not to actually report further on the subject—which encompasses minor topics such as, oh, how a scientific explanation of religious belief and experience could affect the history of the world, including Islamic terrorism. Instead, it printed a painful dialog between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins (Wikipedia), eminent genome decoder and devout Christian.

Painful because of how stupid Collins sounds. He starts off by rolling out the tired old theory about God setting the machine in motion, “activating evolution” at the moment of creation of the universe (or at least all parts of it other than Himself), but in this contorted version apparently having foreknowledge of everything including the ridiculous discussion itself. Somehow, this is supposed to reconcile God’s omniscience with free will. Of course, God didn’t want to make things too easy for us, so he hid all the clues to His existence—which is why Dawkins can’t see them! God tweaked the universal physical constants so we could exist (what were they set to before?). The existence of God satisifies Occam’s razor, since it’s such a simple explanation—God made everything! Collins accuses Dawkins of holding an “impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as ‘Is there a God?’”. But if by this he means Dawkins thinks such questions are invalid, he’s just wrong. Of course Dawkins’s view is that humans can ask such questions. He simply answers them in the negative.

But wait! Collins now zigzags and says God, instead of being the Guy that sets up the model train layout and twiddles the knobs, is actually “something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.” But if that were the case, how could we understand Him fiddling with the gravitational constant or setting evolution in motion? And then suddenly he has God not just setting things up at the beginning, but micromanaging miracles like the virgin birth, because “it was a particularly significant moment for him to do so.” Collins is also apparently ignorant of all the recent research on human ethics and altruism, continuing to flog the old notion that only God can make us ethical.

Collins concludes:

…there are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural world—the questions about why instead of the questions about how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.

So now, finally, God is reduced to the concept of all the Unknown Stuff Out There. And it doesn’t compromise Collins’ ability to think rigorously that he believes in the resurrection (but not, of course, in the creation story in Genesis; which he says cannot be interpreted “narrowly”, was not “intended as a science textbook”, and is actually “very consistent with the Big Bang”).

Collins asserts that God provides the answer to the “why” questions, presumably of the “why are we here” variety. But he never explains what those answers are, how there could be such answers, or what the nature of those answers might be.

Collins should have followed the advice he quotes St. Augustine as giving, warning against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If he had, he would have skipped this whole discussion. That would have let Time do what it should have in the first place, which is to actually report on the issue.

Book review: Contemplative Science

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge is B. Alan Wallace’s new book. It’s packed full of challenging insights.

For instance, I hadn’t realized that:

  • It was scientific materialism that was responsible for the death of millions of people under Hitler, Mao and Stalin.
  • Scientists, the majority of whom are materialists and reductionists, adamantly refuse to consider the life of the mind. (The broad-ranging field of psychology apparently doesn’t count. Anyway, a lot of psychologists used to be behavioralists a long time ago.)
  • Scientists don’t know the first thing about reality because they don’t even know what consciousness is. (Just like medieval scientists also could not explain “vapors” and “humors” and the “ether”.)
  • Scientific materialism strips our lives of meaning.
  • It also removes our free will. (And that’s one thing I insist on having.)
  • It undermines our sense of moral responsibility.
  • The more progress is made in physics, the more it proves we don’t know anything at all.
  • The fact that this scientific materialism stuff just doesn’t cut it is proved by the 80% of Americans that believe in ghosts and virgin births.
  • Voters supported Bush in 2004 because of his moral values, and not Kerry because he appeared to “stand for so little”.
  • But still, we need to find a “fresh, integrative perspective” to reconcile these two “traditions”, even though “scientific materialism is a modern kind of nature religion or neoanimism, whic had innumerable precedents int he preliterate history of humanity”.
  • The First Amendment’s establishment clause has been interpreted in an overly broad way by generations of judges.

And all that’s only from one chapter. Maybe elsewhere in the book there’s some good stuff about Buddhism, since that’s in the book’s subtitle? Sorry. We find nothing more than a mind-numbing, academic analysis of Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, that has nothing to do with neuroscience or science of any kind. (This chapter, like most (all?) of the others, apparently was cut-and-pasted from some earlier publication to fill out page count.) Maybe we’ll find out something about Zen and neuroscience? Sorry. Zen is not mentioned in the book once. Maybe we’ll learn about lots of neuroscientific research into meditation? Sorry. Wallace barely mentions the names of leading researchers and doesn’t even bother to summarize their results. Richard Davidson appears just once, in a parenthetical reference claiming that his work “shows that the idol of the brain has been toppled by empirical evidence.” Crick and Koch are brought up only to blithely accuse them of reducing consciousness to whatever science has the abililty to study, even as Wallace claims that scientists refuse to study consciousness. Perhaps we will learn about scientific theories of reincarnation memories? Sorry. We’re left with a couple of references to studies of kids who remembered past lives.

There is much that is simply stupid in this book, repetitive, superficial, or irrelevant. What is not stupid is basically wrong or at best wildly misinformed. Overall, one gets the impression that Wallace would rather be living in medieval Tibet than 21st century America; back then, there were no evil scientists and no pesky walls between the secular and spiritual.

Mystical mushrooms

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

The journal Psychopharmacology reports on a fascinating study claiming that psilocybin-induced trips are indistinguishable from “true” mystical experiences and have long-lasting, positive effects. Leading the study was Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Roland Griffiths.

60% of the 36 educated, adult participants in the study had so-called complete mystical experience, based on tests such as the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which measures feelings of internal and external unity, transcendance, ineffability, sense of sacredness, noetic quality, and mood of joy/peace/love.

One third of the participants reported the experience was the most meaningful of their life, with an additional 50% placing it among the top five such experiences.

An intriguing aspect of the study was that friends and family of the subject were also interviewed, several months after the experiment, reporting sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior.

The study was random and double-blind, but of course any study like this will have built-in assumptions. In this case the subjects were regular participants in religious or spiritual activities, which might have made them more prone to ascribe religious significance of personal meaning to the experience. They were also first-time users of hallucinogens.

In an editorial accompanying the article, Harriet de Wit notes (my paraphrase):

It may be time now to recognize these extraordinary subjective experiences. The Griffiths study is unique in applying rigorous, modern methods of psychopharmacological research and in studying the lasting, life-changing effects that have been attributed to such experiences. It will likely take an important place in the history of human psychopharmacology research. We would do well to be prepared to consider the entire scope of human experience and behavior as legitimate targets for systematic and ethical scientific

So, is this “God in a pill”? In interviews, Griffiths said answering questions of religion or spirituality “far exceeds the scope of studies like these. We know that there were brain changes that corresponded to a primary mystical experience,” he said. “But that finding—as precise as it may get—will in no way inform us about the metaphysical question of the existence of a higher power.” He likened scientific attempts to seek God in the human brain to experiments where scientists watch the neurological activity of people eating ice cream. “You could define exactly what brain areas lit up and how they interplay, but that shouldn’t be used as an argument that chocolate ice cream does or doesn’t exist,” Griffiths said.

Anticipating a common objection, the researcher noted “My guess is that there will be people saying ‘You’re looking for a spiritual shortcut’”. He stressed that the drug is no replacement for the mental health benefits of continuous personal reflection: “There’s all the difference in the world between a spiritual experience and a spiritual life.”

See Google News for other reports.

In a future post I’ll ruminate on whether psychoactive drugs can be an element of spiritual development.