Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Neurotheology and gender

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

A few years ago I attended a talk given by two Zen masters, one male, one female. The man, going first, retold and analyzed some ancient Chinese koan in very Zen master-like fashion. The woman, when her turn to talk came, just sat there silently for a while, then burst into tears. Regaining her composure a bit, she sobbed, “I’m just so happy that I can be here with you all. It brings my practice to life.” She went on to share with us her personal relationship with that zen community, and the frustration she felt at having only blunt, dualistic, verbal tools at her disposal to communicate her insights with us, then cried some more. Finally she flopped over and leaned into the male master sitting at her side, throwing her arms around him.

We all have similar experiences in our own religious traditions of the difference between what men and women take from the religion, what they emphasize.

We know almost as little about the neuroscience of gender as we do about the neuroscience of religion. But perhaps we can overlay our sparse knowledge of the two fields to generate some new insights.

For instance, what are the neurotheological implications of the well-known research concerning the relative size of the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH-3), showing that it’s more than twice as large in men as in women (and homosexual men)? Could this be related to the hypothalamus’ role in the fear response, and thus connected to the informal observation that men’s relation to religion is more often one of “fear and awe” than women’s “love and compassion”?

To build robust neurotheological models, we need every clue we can get. Hopefully our expanding understanding of the neurological differences between the sexes can be one fruitful source of such clues.

Neurotheology research plan (I): motor system

Friday, May 6th, 2005

One high-level hypothesis that should be part of a neurotheology research plan is this: religious practices such as meditation give rise to persistent neurological changes. Although most studies to date have focused on neurological changes during meditation, research such as Lutz et al supports the existence of long-term changes.

One way to verify such persistent changes is to examine the motor behavior of adherents. For instance, Zen masters demonstrate an intriguing economy of physical movement. In his voluminous treatment of neurological aspects of Zen, Austin spends a mere half-dozen pages discussing this topic, noting that there are three different occasions when forms of what he calls “behavioral enhancement” occur: two after peak and absorption experiences, the other more gradually as training progresses. He infers that the use of the subjects’ frontoparietal, basal ganglia, and cerebellar systems are “integrated, graceful, and efficient.” He goes on to outline a research plan:

The objective studies necessary will have begun long before by careful recordings of the subject’s baseline performance skills. Later, these will be compared with the same person’s skills immediately after major absorptions and kensho, respectively, and then repeated during subsequence years of follow-up studies as the subject moves further along the path.

Such ambitious longitudinal studies would, of course, be a major undertaking.

In my research, I would attempt to define and measure efficiency of motor functioning. I would propose neurological mechanisms (additive or subtractive) through which mental training might affect biokinesiology. I would design imaging experiments to build on these hypotheses. It would be important to understand taxonomies of religion-based meditative practices and map out differences in their neurology. And I would build computer models to validate the plausibility of those mechanisms (this subfield known as “computational neurotheology”).

Our subjects need not be limited to meditators from the Buddhist school. One interesting possibility is to study the effect of meditation on various motor impairments; down the road one might hope for results useful in dealing with Parkinson’s or apraxic disorders. Christianity has a rich tradition of meditation-like mental training and prayer practices, which should also be integrated into this research.

A small amount of research exists on this topic, much of it on Transcendental Meditation (see an excellent searchable bibliography at the “Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation” site):

  • Warshal D., Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Technique on Normal and Jendrassik Reflex Time. Perceptual & Motor Skills 50:1103-6, 1980
  • Robertson DW, The Short and Long Range Effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique on Fractionated Reaction Time. J Sports Med Physical Fitness 23(1):113-20, Mar 1983 (link)
  • Williams, L.R., and P.G. Herbert, “Transcendental Meditation and Fine Perceptual Motor Skill.”, Perceptual and Motor Skills 43, no. 1 (1976): 303-309.
  • Williams, L.R., and B.L. Vickerman, “Effects of Transcendental Meditation on Fine Motor Skill,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 43, no. 2 (1976): 607-613.
  • Wood, C.J., “Evaluation of Meditation and Relaxation on Physiological Response during the Performance of Fine Motor and Gross Motor Tasks,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 62, no. 1 (1986): 91-98.
  • Wood, C.J., “Meditation and Relaxation and Their Effect upon the Pattern of Physiological Response during Performance of a Fine Motor and Gross Motor Task,” Dissertation Abstracts International 44, no. 5-A (1983): 1378.
  • Blasdell, K.A., “The Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Technique upon a Complex Perceptual-motor Task,” in Scientific Research on the Transcendental Meditation Program: Collected Papers, Vol. 1, eds. D.W. Orme-Johnson and J.T. Farrow. New York: M.E.R.U. Press, 1977.
  • Jedrczak, A., M. Toomey, and G. Clements, “The TM-Sidhi Program, Age, and Brief Tests of Perceptual-motor Speed and Nonverbal Intelligence,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 42, no. 1 (1986): 161-164.
  • Rimol, A.G., “The Transcendental Meditation Technique and Its Effects on Sensory-motor Performance,” in Scientific Research on the Transcendental Meditation Program: Collected Papers, Vol. 1, eds. D.W. Orme-Johnson and J.T. Farrow. New York: M.E.R.U. Press, 1977.
  • Telles, S., B.H. Hanumanthaiah, R. Nagarathna, et al., “Plasticity of Motor Control Systems Demonstrated by Yoga Training,” Indian Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology 39, no. 2 (1994b): 143-144.

Quantum consciousness

Thursday, May 5th, 2005

In Mapping The Mind, the book I reviewed here earlier, the author gives Sir Roger Penrose a page to describe his theory of quantum consciousness, based on “tubules” within brain cells:

The human body contains structures called microtubules—tiny tubes that are especially prevalent in nerve cells. Those in brain cells could, I propose, give rise to a stable quantum state that would bind the activity of brain cells throughout the cerebrum and in doing so give rise to consciousness. Such a state could not be replicated in a computer…I have a strong feeling that it is obvious that the conscious mind cannot work like a computer.

Penrose’s thesis is set out most clearly in his book Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Conscousness . Perusing the reader reviews on Amazon, the one that stuck in my mind accused Penrose of an elementary syllogistic error: “the mind is strange, quantum things are strange, therefore the mind is quantum.” Another asks why tubules in cells in the foot do not generate consciousness.

I would add that the brain not being computer-like, an assertion with which I agree, does not imply that the brain uses some particular mechanism just because it is also not computer-like. Overall, though, I am not qualified to pass judgment on Penfield’s theories, even if I had read his books, which I haven’t. But given our lack of progress in understanding consciousness it certainly seems worthwhile to keep an open mind. And quantum consciousness certainly, in theory, could explain phenomena that more physicalist approaches could not.

Penrose’s collaborator in this consciousness research is Stuart Hameroff. By coincidence I just happened to run across an interview with him on the The Holy Grail, an offbeat blog worth reading if you’re interested in pyramids, life after death, and that sort of thing. Excerpt:

The Penrose-Hameroff quantum consciousness hypothesis proposes that quantum computations in microtubules inside the brain’s neurons convert pre/subconscious possibilities (manifest as dream-like quantum information) to particular information (choices, perceptions) by a type of quantum state reduction, or collapse of the wave function. The reduction itself – an instantaneous event connected to the funda-mental level of reality, as suggested by Penrose – is a conscious moment. A sequence of such moments gives our stream of consciousness.

Religion in the minimally conscious

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Donald Herbert, a fireman, suffered brain damage during a fire, was in a coma for 2½ months, then emerged into a period of “faint” or “minimal” consciousness, where he stayed for more than nine years until “waking up” and reconnecting to his family and friends on May 2, 2005.

“Minimal consciousness” is defined as being aware, but unable to communicate.

See MSNBC report.

Damaged brains like Herbert’s have provided us with many clues about neural functioning (perhaps to the extent that we are overly dependent on that type of analysis). Neurologists will be certainly studying him in an attempt to understand what mechanism could account for his recovery. (Three months earlier, he had been started on a cocktail of three medicines usually used to treat Parkinson’s, ADHD and depression, intended to stimulate neurotransmitters.)

Our interest, though, is neurotheological. How did Herbert’s brain damage, his period of minimal consciousness, and his recovery affect his religiosity, if at all?

We know that loss of consciousness occurs in epileptic seizures, which in turn have been tied to religious or pseudo-religious experience.

In Herbert’s case, as the neurons in the higher levels of his brain were regenerating and weaving themselves together for nearly a decade, while he lay in bed mutely watching TV, finally reaching the critical mass necessary for the restoration of consciousness, did they also recreate the cortical pathways necessary for religious belief and experience? Is Herbert more or less religious now than he was before his accident?

Church of the Holy Laser

Wednesday, April 13th, 2005

I enter the church and take my seat among the faithful. The priest flips a switch, and the chapel is bathed in a sea of multicolored lasers, sending the worshippers into a deep, healing, unified, spiritual state.

That is the science fiction future a neurotheologist would invent based on the intriguing research reported in the latest issue of Cell Magazine, in a paper entitled Remote Control of Fruit Fly Behavior.

Dumping the awkward electrodes and transcranial magnetic stimulation devices of the past, the researchers implanted a rat gene into a fly, programmed to function only in the neuron of the fly, and to turn itself on only in the presence of a chemical called ATP. They then engineered a “caged” version of ATP which would not affect the neuron unless released by a flash of ultraviolet light.

Zapped with a laser, the re-engineered flies, even after being cruelly decapitated, jumped up and started flapping their wings (the neuron in question was not in the brain, but a “fiber neuron” extending the length of the fly’s body).

In the church of the future, then, baptism will be your injection with the bioengineered God-genes. Sacrament will be the priest placing on your tongue the drug that activates them. Prayer will be soaking yourself in the ultraviolet light that brings them to life.

See also An Off-and-On Switch for Controlling Animals? in the NYT.

J. Smith’s visions neurotheologically implausible?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2005

“From Joseph’s descriptions of his experiences, he does not fit the pattern neurotheologians believe they have found for ‘religious experiences.’”

That is the conclusion of Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin, two Mormon scholars from BYU, looking at Joseph Smith Jr.’s 1820 vision of God and Jesus, in an article entitled Is Spirituality all in your Head? The article also provides a very simplified but serviceable overview of neurotheology. Continuing:

Joseph did not claim to have had a sense of transcending time and space, but claimed to have seen two real beings. Would Joseph’s brain have demonstrated the same patterns scientists found with meditating Buddhists or praying nuns, or would his brain functions have been substantially different? And what, we wonder, would they discover about the brain functions of some of us during our weekly Sunday meetings?

God and the limbic system

Monday, April 11th, 2005

In Phantoms in the Brain, V S Ramachandran (left) devotes one chapter to the God question. His treatment is notable for its crisp articulation of the problem:

Do our brains contain some sort of circuitry that is actually specialized for religious experinece? Is there a “God module” in our heads? And if such a circuit exists, could it be a product of natural selection? What sorts of Darwinian selection pressures could lead to such a mechanism? Many traits make us uniquely human, but none is more enigmatic than religion—our propensity to believe in God or in some higher power.

Ramachandran focuses on patients with temporal lobe epilepsy who have “religious” experiences and fixations, not of the “Jesus bleeding on the cross” nature, but rather ones of religious ecstasy, divine light, and ultimate truth.

The author muses on the fact that the limbic system, where this type of epilepsy is focused, is responsible for emotional response. He proposes and rejects a couple of hypotheses (well, OK, he does not reject the hypothesis that God is actually visiting these people). Unfortunately, he seems to have largely run out of the clever, simple experiments we have come to rely on him for. Eventually he is reduced to proposing that we do the undoable: a “Godectomy”, where the patient’s temporal lobe is removed to see if that shuts down the mystical experiences.

In fact, Bear and Fedio (1977) conducted a study in which they used self report measures given to temporal lobe patients to categorize the characteristics of what is called temporal lobe personality. They came up with religiosity and sense of personal destiny among other traits. They also found that once these patients had temporal lobectemies all of these symptoms decreased (reference).

The rest of the chapter is an interesting, but not entirely relevant meditation on the theory of evolution, including the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace, who, unlike Darwin, thought evolution could not explain the advent of advanced human capabilities like being able to do math, which developed far in advance of there being any selectional advantage associated with them, and invoked Providence as the explanation for such capabilities.

Our author’s admirably restrained conclusion is:

There are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics…we are still a long way from showing that there is a “God module” in the brain that might be genetically specified.


Late Pope: Buddhism sucks

Tuesday, April 5th, 2005

Our condolences to our Catholic brothers and sisters on the death of their leader John Paul II, and congratulations on his being posthumously annointed the foremost human being of the 20th century.

The late Pope had a reputation as an intellectual, and a bridge builder. So is it safe to assume he had a learned, mature appreciation of Buddhism? Hardly. His thoughts on Buddhism are at the level of a gross caricature, belying his reputation as a thoughtful scholar.

In his 1995 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, His Holiness commented (emphasis in the original):

…it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East—for example, techniques and methods of meditation…

Note how the pontiff limits his concern to Westerners adopting such “traditions”; he apparently does not feel all the Asians believing in them are worth worrying about.

The Pope goes on to reveal his ignorance by claiming fallaciously:

…the Buddhist tradition…[has] an almost exclusively negative soteriology…the “enlightenment” experienced by Buddha comes down to the convicition that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality…

The dearly departed Holy Father then proceeds to debunk the theories of a relationship between Christian mysticism and eastern religions:

Saint John of the Cross does not merely propose detachment from the world. He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite onesefl to that which is outside of the world—by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God…Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end…

The Bishop of Rome continues in a highly chauvinistic and nearly racist vein. He credits Christianity with giving Western civilization its “positive approach to the world”, and, astonishingly, attributes the achievements of science and technology to “Judeo-Christian revelation”.

Luckily, we don’t have to worry too much about this. The Pope saves us the trouble of having to seriously consider his ideas on the topic by making his ignorance of the area so blatantly obvious.

Religious cognition and the brain

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

It’s fine to say we’ll study the relationship between the brain and people’s belief in God, but what is the nature of this belief in God whose relationship with the brain we are trying to study? That is the topic of the intriguing field of religious cognition.

I ran across the work of Nicholas Gibson, a PhD student at Cambridge. He notes that traditional survey-type research into people’s beliefs in God suffer from the problem that people give the answers they think they are supposed to, so instead he’ll borrow methods from cognitive psychology. One of his research projects included an experiment where subjects were timed in identifying whether certain words were most characteristic of God, mother, or self. He found that “religious” people answered “God” more quickly than others. His conclusion was that

…Evangelical Christians have a greater efficiency of processing with regard to God….a large, well-organised store of readily accessible information about God.

From a psychological perspective that might be an adequate conclusion, but our question is what is the neurological basis of this efficiency in processing, the well organized nature of the knowledge, and its ready accessiblity?

Life without purpose

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

After grabbing a deputy’s gun and shooting her and a judge in a courthouse, a bad guy in Atlanta took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment. The plucky girl, unfazed, whipped out her copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, read to him from it, and informed him that God had a purpose for his life (in his case, the purpose apparently being to go to prison to spread His word there, although it seems like he had been on his way to prison anyway, whether or not that was God’s purpose for him. even before he shot the judge to death). He accepted her teachings on the spot, turned himself in, and voila, America has another 15-minute folk hero like Todd Beamer.

Eager to learn more, I visited the book’s website. I’m still a little unclear on the details but “God” is involved. Our purpose as humans seems to be to find His purpose for us (yes, I know that’s a bit circular), glorify Him (he’s apparently a little short in the glory department), or to move on past this little mortal phase to something more interesting.

That got me thinking about what the “meaning” of “purpose” is (or was it was the “purpose” of “meaning”?).

In my case, there’s a big Green Rabbit that also apparently may have a purpose in mind for me, and I’m trying to figure out: is it God or the Rabbit? I’m leaning towards the Rabbit, since there’s strong circumstantial evidence it’s him. Otherwise, why would He (the Rabbit) have made me think of him in the first place?