Monday, 23 March 2009

God in the Lab

On one of the Glorantha lists, I recently commented that I seem to be able to attend skeptical meetings more often than I manage to get any gaming in this days. And so it seems, since I've only had gaming session this year so far, yet I have attended two skeptical meetings.

The latest was titled "God in the Lab", and it was about scientific studies into the basis of religion. One of the talks was about religious analgesia, in which Catholics had reported feeling less pain while viewing a picture of the Virgin Mary (together with some brain scans that showed they were indeed, Not Making This Up). I wasn't terribly clear of the point of this; certainly the researcher wasn't trying to claim that they had actually been divinely protected. Basically, so far as I can tell, viewing the image put them in a frame of mind where they felt comfortable and protected, and that was reflected in their psychological and physiological perceptions of pain. One suspects the same could have been achieved with other comforting images, that were not necessarily religious - but apparently, nobody has done that study. Getting ethical approval for studies that involve electrocuting people probably isn't all that easy...

Two of the other talks had a fairly similar theme, although addressed from different angles. They both concluded that children have an innate tendency to believe in gods, and in the separation of mind and body. It is intuitively "obvious" to most people that the mind and the body are different things - that, for example, "I" want to do something, but "my body" won't let me. While the specifics of beliefs in the nature of the soul vary widely, the broad ideas behind what properties a disembodied spirit would have are remarkably consistent across different cultures. One could, of course, equally attribute this to "and that's because disembodied spirits really do have these properties" as much as to "this tells us something about the way our brains deal with the world."

Similarly, children naturally attribute the natural things about them to purposeful design, regardless of their religious upbringing (or lack thereof). And these things remain as holdovers even into our adult lives. For example, a three year old child has no conception that other people do not know what they know - in essence, they assume that everyone is omniscient, at least about things they know themselves. As they grow up, it's not so much that they have to be taught that God is an omniscient being, but they have to learn, as their brain develops, that everyone except God isn't. (An interesting aside here, though not brought up in the talk, is that chimpanzees are, so far as I know, the only other animals demonstrated to be able to pull off this trick - essential if one wants to, say, lie...)

These sorts of things, I think, explain why religion is so ubiquitous... although they have nothing directly to say about whether or not it is true. The remaining talk addressed another reason: that some people have religious experiences in which they personally contact the Divine. Now, often this in the form of mystical experiences, in which one feels at one with the universe, or the Godhead, or whatever it may be, and loses a sense of self. But this particular talk was about the more extreme form of experiences, in which God, or a guardian angel, or whatever, speaks to the person. These experiences, it seems, are virtually identical phenomenologically to psychotic episodes, save for the crucial difference that they are positive and life-affirming, rather than deeply unpleasant. But the underlying processes in the brain do seem very similar (although clearly there must be some difference, and these things probably lie on a continuum from clinical insanity to religious revelation).

In particular, brain scans conducted while people were hearing such voices showed the same activity whether they were psychotic or experiencing something benevolent. Indeed, I found it interesting that the scans look very similar to those of people simply asked to imagine hearing a voice - that is, the brain areas for interpreting speech light up, while those for actual sound do not. The difference being that, when you imagine a voice, centres of the brain associated with planning and taking action light up immediately beforehand, but in the psychotic and religious experiencers, the voice interpretation areas just light up on their own, without any prior warning. It's also worthy of note that anti-psychotic medication seems to be able to dampen these positive experiences as well, in those that experience both - although, for ethical reasons, one can't really try them out on people whose experiences are only ever positive, and aren't, therefore, mentally ill in some way.

So, a pretty interesting day, and one which gives some food for thought. Lets see if I can get another gaming session in before the next Centre for Inquiry meeting, though...