Sunday, September 02, 2007

Last Year Around This Time: Scientists Locate the "Secular Spot" in the Brain

Since the seer's catalogue has become unmanageable -- over 700 posts now -- I think I'll start the habit of looking back at my posts from exactly one or two years ago (when we reach that millstone next month), and deciding what is worthy of a second look.

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


Gagdad Bob said...

Hmm... the link doesn't work anymore. To fully appreciate the essay, you have to see that it's almost word for word the same as the linked one.

Mizz E said...

Just so you can appreciate Bob's satire.

julie said...

How many SoCal Raccoons felt that? I'm awake now...

jwm said...

I, for one. Picture Sylvester the Cat clinging to the ceiling with his claws.

BTW- won't adequate doses of lithium simulate that nihilistic, secular rush?


will said...

>> . . . simulate that nihilistic, secular rush?<<

I'm getting that watching C Hitchens on C-Span as we speak.

julie said...

Imagine the cognitive dissonance that would be generated to actually feel that rush - a sense of wonder and amazement that there is no god - and other people believe that there is no god, too! Wow - what a thrill that must be. What joy must leap in the secularist breast, what revelations must appear to unfold as master Hitchens preaches about the glory and majesty of atheism. It must make them want to praise - well, er, someone? Hitchens? to know that it's all a big coincidence, a simple blip in the cosmic eye, soon to be extinguished. Ah, happy thoughts.

cousin dupree said...

You wanna take it outside, HItchens?

will said...

In some ways, Hitchens is probably a decent fellow . . . or was . . . BUT: He was known even in his college days as a guy who would go out seeking arguments for the simple sake of arguing, of exercising his intellectual prowess - in other words, he long ago succumbed to the pride of intellect, which eventually resulted in his being an open and ready vehicle for the dark forces that seek to sow chaos in the world.

And that, to say the least, pretty much obviates whatever gift he had to offer the world.

ximeze said...

Ok, I'm sitting here completely stunned. Was soooo looking forward to getting riled-up by 3hrs of Hitchens and......


One look at those dead eyes & that caved-in defeated posture..... can't believe I'm gonna say this....

I feel SORRY for him

Not one shred of ire could he elicit, no umph on my part to counter anything he had to say.

Lots of words there, but no There there - poorbaby.

I R A Darth Aggie said...

parallel looniverse

*snork* I really need to glance over your posts more regularly. Looniverse is too good a word to pass up.

Smoov said...

Like all alcoholics Christopher Hitchens is deeply unhappy. The vehemence with which he attacks God tells me there is a strong liklihood he will experience an epiphany and become a believer.

Either that or die alone of cirrhosis.

debass said...

OK Walt,
I got a couple more pictures up.

cousin dupree said...

Oh yeah. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

walt said...

Thanks, Debass! Keep 'em coming, as you can!

jwm said...

I know what you mean. CH always strikes as a sad little man. On a similar note, last week Dennis Prager had Howard Zinn on for an hour. As I listened to Zinn lay out his pathetic worldview (everything rotten is America's fault) all I could picture was the hunchback from the movie 300. I saw a withered, twisted soul who could bolster his ego only by denigrating the Good the True, and the Beautiful. These people would be pitiable except that they do real damage.


Van said...

Afraid my wife has an odd view of labor day weekend - has had me laboring all day with the carpet cleaner. Groan.

The interesting thing that came out of it though, was that I had Tivo'd Peter Hitchens CSPAN interview from 10/2000 last night, and Christopher Hitchens interview from today, and watched them back to back while sipping (slurping) beer for my aching back.

Peter Hitchens book was 'The Abolition of Britain', and for two brothers, they are as dissimilar, as they get - Peter, the younger brother, being a Conservative, while having a similar incisiveness.

Peter managed to keep his intelect in concert with his Reason, whereas Christopher's Intellect has trod his Reason into that somewhat mishapen image JWM mentioned.

Van said...

Heh, case in point in the tale of two Hitchens,

"Christopher is an atheist. I am a believer. He once said in public: 'The real difference between Peter and myself is the belief in the supernatural. I’m a materialist and he attributes his presence here to a divine plan. I can’t stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith.'
I don’t feel the same way. I like atheists and enjoy their company, because they agree with me that religion is important."

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Van said...
Afraid my wife has an odd view of labor day weekend - has had me laboring all day with the carpet cleaner. Groan.

I feel for ya Van.

I had to take the trash out, wash the dishes and make kimchi (TW to Walt and Mizz Vicki!).

TW for the kimchi recipe, of course.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Ximeze said:
Lots of words there, but no There there -

Aye. Pathetic really.

At least his brother Peter seems to have a bit O sense. (TW: Van- good link).

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

JWM said...
I, for one. Picture Sylvester the Cat clinging to the ceiling with his claws.

You too? I also pictured the invariable failing of the ACME products Wile E. Coyote purchased (no doubt made in China).

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"They also found an increase in certain types of electrical activity associated with survival and sympathetic arousal ("fight or flight," or "publish or perish")."

Ha! Good one, Bob!

BrianFH said...

Technically, they didn't find a "secular spot", more like an un-spot. A lack of excitation. Which begs the question about whether the excitation is pro-survival or merely a relic of ancestral animism.

Just sayin', just to be fair.