Last Year Around This Time: Scientists Locate the "Secular Spot" in the Brain
I know that for me, when I find a blogger I like, I appreciate it when they occasionally repost older essays, because it's often just too daunting to go through their entire archive. This one is from September 2, 2006.
Dr. Sanity sent me this interesting link about the neurology of religious experience.
Meanwhile, in a parallel looniverse:
Imaging Study Shows that Atheistic Experiences Trigger a Network Within the Brain
Neuroscientists have identified a network of brain regions activated when people feel the illusion of being "skin-encapsulated egos" separate from the rest of reality. Artificially stimulating the brain in this way, they say, might allow people to have atheistic experiences without disbelieving in God themselves.
Lead author Rufus T. Firefly at the University of Feedonia says that he wanted to know what was going on in the brain during materialistic, secular or atheistic episodes because of his own personal experiences. During such moments, people have the illusion that they are separate from the source of being, and may feel existential anxiety, absence of ultimate meaning, and even a sense of absurdity.
Firefly and his colleague, Dr. Otis Driftwood, recruited 15 secular scientists from academia, slid them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and asked them to fully relive the most meaningless moment in their lives.
As a comparison, the scientists also relived a schizoid experience in which they brooded over their sense of being isolated and detached from other people.
The researchers found a collection of brain areas that were less active during the recollected autistic and schizoid experiences, they report in Neuroscience Letters. An area of the prefrontal cortex which is associated with problems of childhood attachment, for example, appeared less active during the schizoid memories.
The team also saw particular inactivity in regions thought responsible for the association of emotional feelings with the rest of the reality (the "poetic module"), which not only explains the perception that the scientists had become separate from the ground of being, but their persistent inability to get a date on Saturday night. They also found an increase in certain types of electrical activity associated with survival and sympathetic arousal ("fight or flight," or "publish or perish").
Earlier studies have suggested that such experiences might originate in one specific part of the brain. Work with autistic patients who are incapable of religious feeling has suggested that a hypertrophied region in the temporal cortex, dubbed the “secular spot” or “materialistic module,” could be largely responsible. There has been controversy over experiments suggesting that stimulating this area of the temporal lobes can induce the illusion of materialism.
The "Madalyn Murray O'Hair Switch"
Dr. Firefly says that it is already possible to use machines to mimic the type of brain activation that atheists experience. "It's feasible to bring people into such a state where the mind is reduced to such machine or robot-like experiences." This research might eventually be used to undo the deleterious mental and physiological health effects that various studies have linked to the absence of religiosity, he suggests.
But many secular scientists and people with materialistic beliefs would be opposed to such an idea because it suggests that the philosophy of scientific materialism is just "junk metaphysics," a stubborn but ultimately superstitious illusion rooted in our evolved nervous system, says Dr. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, professor of applied voodoo and witchcraft and an authority on authoritarianism at Dawkins College in New York.
"I don't know what useful information can be gleaned from this study," Wagstaff says. "Just because we have an advanced diagnostic technique doesn't mean we should use it on anything that comes to mind," he says. "People's beliefs are sacred, even if they're technically profane."
However, his colleague, Professor Hackenbush, says that neuroscientists are keen to explore the brain activity that underlies atheism because... because... because they have nothing better to do, and there’s a lot of grant money involved.
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. --J.B.S. Haldane