2010 July 06 Tuesday
Anxiety Causes Religious Extremism?

Try this as an exercise: put yourself in a situation where you feel anxious. Then introspect. When you feel anxious do you suddenly find yourself wanting to fly an airplane into a skyscraper?

TORONTO, July 6, 2010 – Anxiety and uncertainty can cause us to become more idealistic and more radical in our religious beliefs, according to new findings by York University researchers, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a series of studies, more than 600 participants were placed in anxiety-provoking or neutral situations and then asked to describe their personal goals and rate their degree of conviction for their religious ideals. This included asking participants whether they would give their lives for their faith or support a war in its defence.

What do you think about when you struggle with difficult mathematical equations or proofs? Wiping out your enemies in an epic battle? Or the need for a couple of beers?

Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions. In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction.

I'm not remotely idealistic. So I'd go for the beer and think more about the potential for the beer silicon to make my bones stronger than the ability of a C4 vest to blow my bones and the bones of many others to bits. Some might fault me for my decadence.

Bottom line: Keep Muslims with bold personalities but low IQs out of Western math classes.

Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among participants with bold personalities (defined as having high self-esteem and being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.

Bold guys need to be able to excel and dominate. It is an evolutionary imperative. Should they happen to believe a religion that leads them to see car bombs as the road to success then you've got a problem if they live near you. I would tend to want to keep them in smaller countries where they can achieve higher relative status. The desire for higher status causes all sorts of problems that capitalism does not solve.

By Randall Parker    2010 July 06 10:17 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2010 April 07 Wednesday
Carbon Dioxide Causes Near Death Experiences?

If CO2 opens the gates to the afterlife then will rising atmospheric CO2 cause some people pass over to the other side? I'm just asking.

Near death experiences (NDEs), reported to include sensations such as life flashing before the eyes, feelings of peace and joy, and apparent encounters with mystical entities, may be caused by raised levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Researchers writing in BioMed Central's open access journal Critical Care investigated the unexplained events in 52 cardiac arrest patients.

Zalika Klemenc-Ketis worked with a team of researchers from the University of Maribor, Slovenia, to examine patients who reported NDEs. She said, "Several theories explaining the mechanisms of NDEs exist. We found that in those patients who experienced the phenomenon, blood carbon dioxide levels were significantly higher than in those who did not".

Of the 52 patients, 11 reported NDEs. Their occurrence did not correlate with patients' sex, age, level of education, religious belief, fear of death, time to recovery or drugs given during resuscitation. They were more common in people who had previously experienced NDEs. According to Klemenc-Ketis, "Our study adds new and important information to the field of NDE phenomena. The association with carbon dioxide has never been reported before, and deserves further study".

Now, I just know some of you reductionist scientific rationalists are going to say that CO2 causes hallucinations. But what's the fun in that? If CO2 causes the mind to merge with the spirit realm then burning coal could be the path to spiritual enlightenment. Think about it.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 07 11:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2007 April 08 Sunday
Believers In Reincarnation Make Consistent Mental Mistake

Razib of the Gene Expression blog reports on a research paper which suggests people who believe in reincarnation make systematic errors in a measurable mental task and errors in their associational memory processing may account for their belief in reincarnation.

A new paper, The false fame illusion in people with memories about a previous life (popular press summary), sheds some light on the modal cognitive processes which might account for belief in past lives which seem to be a recurring phenomenon in human culture. Researchers found that those who claimed to have past life memories made consistent and systematic errors in a particular psychological task. In short, it seems that these individuals tended to be more suggestible and prone to allowing mistakes in associational memory creep into their recollections. It seems possible then that cognitive "misfiring" opens up an avenue whereby these strange mental concepts can easily slip into the domain of plausibility (innate mind-body duality already seems to convince us about the permanence of the soul). The control group was less likely to make these mistakes, and were also less likely to believe in reincarnation, but this does not negate the general relationship and the likelihood that similar (if attenuated) cognitive processes are at work on a broad scale across human societies.

Also see the Scientific American coverage. In a nutshell: people who are asked to imagine some past event who are especially good at creating imagined images in their minds tend to convert those images into beliefs that the event actually took place. Maybe this is why Hollywood people tend to embrace impractical political beliefs (e.g. many flocked to Marxism). They think some kind of world is possible because they've imagined parts of it in their own minds and their imaginings seem realistic to them.

Human beings make a variety of recurring errors which strongly suggest the human brain has innate flaws in its design. I think one of the reasons for this is that our ancestors had to work with such fragmentary information that the brain is not designed to work with the amount of data and sorts of data needed to really make sense of the work.

Consider our limitations with mathematical reasoning and with statistical reasoning in particular. For example, the human brain has a tendency to take greater notice of two events occurring together than when only one of them occurs. Hence the brain tends to form supersitious beliefs. For example, Friday the 13th is considered unlucky by many and therefore they'll remember better when bad things happen on the 13th than when they happen apart.

Another example that I repeatedly hear from a couple of friends is the idea that famous people die in threes. They'll point to 3 famous actors who all died within the space of a few weeks. Never mind that sometimes just one or two die (or one or two that they notice). Never mind that many more lesser name celebrities die without coming to their attention or that they'll pay less attention to the lesser name celebrity deaths when they do not die near the date of a bigger name's passing. Never mind that the time period over which the famous three get tallied up can be days or weeks or that they'll ignore a less famous death when they have 3 very famous deaths to group together but will include the less famous when they have only 2 very famous to include in their set.

Think about what these results portend for future offspring genetic engineering. Some will choose genes that make their kids more rational and less likely to make mental mistakes. Others will choose genes that assure their kids will be more prone to spiritual beliefs. I expect different alleles will be found that make people more prone to religious beliefs in different ways. For example, the ideal genetic choices to make a person more prone to accept Muslim teachings will probably be quite different than the ideal genetic choices make a person prone to Buddhism.

To repeat an argument regular readers have heard from me before: I expect offspring genetic engineering Will increase the diversity of patterns in human thinking. I realize the term "diversity" has become a popular term among intellectuals to utter as a talisman against all manner of evil. But when diversity takes the form of a clash of values and a clash in understanding of the nature of the world it can and does lead to violent conflicts over which vision of society will win out.

On the bright side, offspring genetic engineering to boost intelligence will increase the ability of humans to understand reality. The general IQ boost might swamp the effect of genetic choices that enhance particular patterns of thought and belief. But then again, it might not.

Also see my posts Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism and Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable.

By Randall Parker    2007 April 08 04:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 April 06 Friday
Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism

A twins study provides evidence for genetic causes of both altruism and religiousness.

Minneapolis – April 05, 2007 - A new study in Journal of Personality shows that selfless and social behavior is not purely a product of environment, specifically religious environment. After studying the behavior of adult twins, researchers found that, while altruistic behavior and religiousness tended to appear together, the correlation was due to both environmental and genetic factors.

According to study author Laura Koenig, the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of the behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. “This study shows that religiousness occurs with these behaviors also because there are genes that predispose them to it.”

“There is, of course, no specific gene for religiousness, but individuals do have biological predispositions to behave in certain ways,” says Koenig. “The use of twins in the current study allowed for an investigation of the genetic and environmental influences on this type of behavior.”

This research is another example of the way that genes have an impact on behavior. “Society as a whole assumes that home environments have large impacts on behavior, but studies in behavior genetics are repeatedly showing that our behavior is also influenced by our genes,” says Koenig.

Famed University of Minnesota twins researcher Thomas Bouchard is one of the names on the research paper. Koenig is working with experienced twins researchers. Here's an excerpt from the paper's abstract:

In order to investigate this question, religiousness, antisocial behavior, and altruistic behavior were assessed by self-report in a sample of adult male twins (165 MZ and 100 DZ full pairs, mean age of 33 years). Religiousness, both retrospective and current, was shown to be modestly negatively correlated with antisocial behavior and modestly positively correlated with altruistic behavior.

So religious people are both more altruistic and less anti-social on average. This part is interesting. Sounds like the same genetic factors that increase religiousness also increase altruism. What does that tell us about religiousness?

Altruistic behavior also shared most all of its genetic influence, but only half of its shared environmental influence, with religiousness.

My question: Is altruism getting selected for in industrialized societies? I suspect so because religiousness is getting selected for. Also, selfish people are probably less willing to have kids due to all the work entailed.

Also see my post about previous research by Koenig: Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable

By Randall Parker    2007 April 06 10:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2006 October 31 Tuesday
Brain Scans While Speaking In Tongues

Does God take over the language area of the brain when people speak in tongues?

Glossolalia, otherwise referred to as “speaking in tongues,” has been around for thousands of years, and references to it can be found in the Old and New Testament. Speaking in tongues is an unusual mental state associated with specific religious traditions. The individual appears to be speaking in an incomprehensible language, yet perceives it to have great personal meaning. Now, in a first of its kind study, scientists are shining the light on this mysterious practice -- attempting to explain what actually happens physiologically to the brain of someone while speaking in tongues.

Would God suppress the frontal lobes while he (she?) takes over the speech areas of the brain? Or would he take over the throat and tongue while ignoring the brain?

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered decreased activity in the frontal lobes, an area of the brain associated with being in control of one’s self. This pioneering study, involving functional imaging of the brain while subjects were speaking in tongues, is in the November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the official publication of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.

Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity - by measuring regional cerebral blood flow with SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging - while the subjects were speaking in tongues. They then compared the imaging to what happened to the brain while the subjects sang gospel music.

“We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain,” comments Principal Investigator Andrew Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies, and Director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, at Penn. “Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak. Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in tongues.”

Newberg went on to explain, “These findings could be interpreted as the subject’s sense of self being taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it’s being taken over by another part of the brain, but we couldn’t see, in this imaging study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity -- looking at what actually happens to the brain -- when someone is speaking in tongues. This study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self.”

Newberg concludes that the changes in the brain during speaking in tongues reflect a complex pattern of brain activity. Newberg suggests that since this is the first study to explore this, future studies will be needed to confirm these findings in an attempt to demystify this fascinating religious phenomenon.

Maybe God suppresses the frontal lobes so that critical analytical thoughts do not question his message?

I'm guessing speaking in tongues occurs due to some neurological abnormality. If it becomes possible to fix the abnormality will anyone see this as an attempt to defeat the will of God?

By Randall Parker    2006 October 31 09:29 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (38)
2006 July 11 Tuesday
Psilocybin Studied For Mystical And Mood Effects

People chosen asked by scientists to try the hallucinatory mushroom compound psilocybin under controlled conditions experienced mood improvements that lasted for months.

Using unusually rigorous scientific conditions and measures, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the active agent in "sacred mushrooms" can induce mystical/spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.

The resulting experiences apparently prompt positive changes in behavior and attitude that last several months, at least.

The agent, a plant alkaloid called psilocybin, mimics the effect of serotonin on brain receptors-as do some other hallucinogens-but precisely where in the brain and in what manner are unknown.

What causes the change in mood? Do people feel happier about life after experiencing it in a very different way? Severe alteration of perceptions caused by a hallucinogen would not seem sufficient by itself to cause a more positive outlook. After all, a nightmare does not brighten one's outlook and scary hallucinations probably wouldn't brighten one's mood afterward either. So what causes the mood brightening? A happy hallucination? Or do alterations in feelings about self and non-self make people feel less isolated and more connected after the hallucinatory experience? Do they feel that the world makes more sense? More generally, does the change in mood come from processing the meaning of the experience? In other words, is the mood change the result of cognitive processing that interprets the experience? Or does the drug cause lasting side effects on neurons separate from the memory of the experience?

Many of the subjects found 'shrooming to be a deeply significant and meaningful experience. By contrast, I'm skeptical that a chemical compound from this universe can allow one to experience the supernatural.

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a "full mystical experience" as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects' remarks. Results of a year-long followup are being readied for publication.

Psychological tests and subjects' own reports showed no harm to study participants, though some admitted extreme anxiety or other unpleasant effects in the hours following the psilocybin capsule. The drug has not been observed to be addictive or physically toxic in animal studies or human populations. "In this regard," says Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist, "it contrasts with MDMA (ecstasy), amphetamines or alcohol."

The study isn't the first with psilocybin, the researchers say, though some of the earlier ones, done elsewhere, had notably less rigorous design, were less thorough in measuring outcomes or lacked longer-term follow-up.

In the present work, 36 healthy, well-educated volunteers-most of them middle-aged-with no family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder were selected. All had active spiritual practices. "We thought a familiarity with spiritual practice would give them a framework for interpreting their experiences and that they'd be less likely to be confused or troubled by them," Griffiths says. All gave informed consent to the study approved by Hopkins' institutional review board.

Each of thirty of the subjects attended two separate 8-hour drug sessions, at two month intervals. On one they received psilocybin, on another, methylphenidate (Ritalin), the active placebo.

I've long thought that the mind is a very flawed instrument when it comes to accurately assessing and understanding the world. Since natural selection probably selected for genes that cause us to perceive and focus in ways that enhance survival and reproduction at the expense of accuracy I can imagine that a drug could temporarily block cognitive processes that hobble our ability to assess the world accurately. So while I'm skeptical that drugs can help one see God I do think it is possible that hallucinatory compounds could help improve the quality cognitive processing.

On the other hand, improvements in mood could actually be the result of strengthened delusions about reality. I'm reminded of a study I read about a few years ago which found that depressed people had more accurate perceptions of how their co-workers evaluated them than non-depressed people. Non-depressed people tended to think their co-workers rated them higher than the co-workers actually did. Anyone recall the study? I can't find it and would appreciate a link to it.

So then does psilocybin improve mood by helping people better understand the world? Or by feeding their delusions? Or by acting like an anti-depressant drug that alters neurotransmitter levels?

I am reminded of Michael Persinger's use of electromagnetic fields to induce a state of mind in which some think they experience the divine. Though some are skeptical of Persinger's research.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 11 06:11 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2005 March 16 Wednesday
Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable

University of Minnesota at Minneapolis psychology graduate student Laura Koenig and other U Minn researchers have found in a twins study that religiousness becomes more genetically determined as we age. (same article here)

Environmental factors, like attending religious ceremonies with family, affect our religiousness as children, but genes most likely keep us attending and believing as we become adults.

A study published in the current issue of Journal of Personality studied adult male monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins to find that difference in religiousness are influenced by both genes and environment. But during the transition from adolescence to adulthood, genetic factors increase in importance while shared environmental factors decrease. Environmental factors (i.e. parenting and family life) influence a child’s religiousness, but their effects decline with the transition into adulthood. An analysis of self-reported religiousness showed that MZ twins maintained their religious similarity over time, while the DZ twins became more dissimilar. “These correlations suggest low genetic and high environmental influences when the twins were young but a larger genetic influence as the twins age” the authors state.

Participants for this study were 169 MZ and 104 DZ male twin pairs from Minnesota. Religiousness was tested using self-report of nine items that measured the centrality of religion in their lives. The twins graded the frequency in which they partook in religious activities such as reading scripture or other religious material and the importance of religious faith in daily life.

If any of the Minnesota researchers see this then what would be extremely interesting would be to collect fertility data on these men. Are the more religious men reproducing at higher rates than the less religious? Are genes for religiosity being selected for? I'm guessing the answer is Yes!

The questioning was conducted on male twins in their early 30s.

The twins, all male and in their early 30s, were asked how often they currently went to religious services, prayed, and discussed religious teachings. This was compared with when they were growing up and living with their families. Then, each participant answered the same questions regarding their mother, father, and their twin.

One of the biggest unanswered questions about the human race's future is what choices will people make once they can control the genetically controlled attributes of their offspring. Will people choose to make their children be more or less spiritual than they are? My guess is that the mild to moderately religious may choose to make their kids even more religious while those who are not religious at all will choose genetic variants that ensure their children will not be religious. Therefore the mildly religious and the people who are lukewarm to religious belief will become a smaller fraction of society while the emphatically religious and the emphatically not religious both increase in number.

Will splits over questions of religious belief widen in the future due to widening genetic divergences between the religious and non-religious? If so it will fit into a larger pattern that I'm predicting: "Children Of The Future May Be More Genetically Determined".

Also see my previous posts "On Religious Belief And Germ Line Engineering" and "Genetically Engineered Minds And Religious Experience" and "Serotonin Receptor Concentration Varies Inversely With Spirituality"

By Randall Parker    2005 March 16 04:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2002 November 29 Friday
On Religious Belief And Germ Line Engineering

On the Gene Expression blog Razib has a discussion on (among other things) IQ, scientists, and religious belief. One question is particularly interesting:

I wanted to start my series on religion discussing scientists because many of us who believe in genetic engineering and the promise of the post-human future do not think in great detail about the cultural implications on the individual level. What would changes in the germ-line imply for faith in the soul for instance? Many of us secularists might imagine that high intellectual ability will mean that religions will whither away, and the scientists with their low levels of belief serve as models. But I think close examination of the data and some analysis indicates that scientists might not be the best models, that their atheism is the product of a complex interplay of variables, and not just the result of their super-human levels of intellect (cough, cough).

I believe it will be possible to genetically engineer minds to be more prone to feel something that they will interpret as a divine presence. At the same time, I think it will be possible to genetically engineer minds that do not easily feel anything that seems transcendentally supernatural and that are extremely skeptical, analytical, intensely curious, and altogether faithless. So how will germ line genetic engineering affect people's views of the supernatural? It depends on how their minds will be genetically engineered.

While it is not yet possible to genetically engineer transcendental experiences Michael Persinger has had success in invoking the feeling of being in the presence of an other-worldly being by use of electromagnetic field wavelength patterns.

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."

If the mind can be trained to experience sensed presences then isn't it likely that genetic engineering could make the mind more easily trainable to have such experiences?

_Perceptual and Motor Skills_, 1993, 76, 80-82.


M. A. Persinger

Laurentian University

Summary. - The Personal Philosophy Inventories of 221 university students who had learned to meditate (about 65% to 70% Transcendental Meditation(TM)) were compared to 860 nonmeditators. Meditators displayed a significantly wider range of complex partial epileptic-like signs. Experiences of vibrations, hearing one's name called, paranormal phenomena, profound meaning from reading poetry/prose, and religious phenomenology were particularly frequent among meditators. Numbers of years of TM practice were significantly correlated with the incidence of complex partial signs and sensed presences but not with control, olfactory, or perseverative experiences. The results support the hypothesis that procedures which promote cognitive kindling enhance complex partial epileptic-like signs.

Again, if all these experiences described below can be induced in minds in a lab then won't they also turn out to be genetically engineerable to happen more easily in people while they carry out their every day activities?

"...The brain can discriminate and respond to different kinds of very subtle, external magnetic fields, without the individual necessarily being aware of it, except through their imagery."
"We attempted to determine if the light flashing frequency in conjunction with, that is, synergistically, a magnetic field being applied to the brain would enhance suggestibility and imagery. What we found was there was indeed a change in imagery, and that the imagery was specific to those kinds of properties that are unique to temporal lobe activity; feelings of floating, movement, certain complex visual sensations."      - Michael Persinger

"There is little doubt that the class of experiences that comprise mystical experiences in general, and NDE's in particular, is strongly correlated with temporal lobe activity....Kate Makarec and I have found that all of the major components of the NDE [near death experience], including out-of-body experiences, floating, being pulled towards a light, hearing strange music, and profound meaningful experiences can occur in experimental settings during minimal electrical current induction to the temporal region due to exogenous spike-and-wave magnetic field sources."
"The hypothesis that temporal lobe excitability is tied to these kinds of experiences goes back to the clinical literature, in which we know that there are ceratin personality and subjective experience features that are associated with electrical foci in the temporal lobe, specifically epileptic foci....We found that the normal population shows these symptoms, too, and that they appear to lie along a continuum."

"The personalities of normal people who display enhanced temporal lobe activity... usually display enhanced creativity, suggestibility, memory capactity and intuitive processing. Most of them experience a rich fantasy or subjective world that fosters their adaptability. These people have more frequent experiences of a sense of presence during which time 'an entity is felt and sometimes seen;' exotic beliefs rather than traditional religious concepts are endorsed."
     - Michael Persinger in Report on Communion by Ed Conroy

Imagine a future in which a religious war is fought over whether people should be genetically engineered to believe in the supernatural. Or imagine a war fought over which types of religiously significant mental states people should have genetic tendencies to experience.

By Randall Parker    2002 November 29 10:53 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
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