Entheogens may expand possible brain interconnections

Connor Wood

Colorful brain

In the Book of Ezekiel, the eponymous prophet witnesses fantastic, even psychedelic visions: chariots in the sky, angels, the works. (Ezekiel 37 luridly recounts, for example, that the prophet sees a valley of bones that begin to reassemble themselves as he speaks.) But Ezekiel’s visions aren’t just odd. They’re profoundly meaningful, at least for the prophet. This combination of dreamlike oddness and paradoxical meaningfulness is one of the most pervasive qualities of religious – and entheogenic – experiences across traditions. Now, new neuroimaging research may help us understand one part of this picture: how psychedelic substances relax the normal patterns of connectivity in the brain, allowing for powerfully associative mental experiences.

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Awesome theories of religion, Part 2

Connor Wood

Religion is confusing, right? Why do people do these weird things, like lighting candles next to statues of gods, praying to deities with names like “Krishna” and “Jesus” and “Buddha Amitabha,” and pursuing master’s degrees in theology? Everyone has an opinion. Some people think that religion arose to explain the frightening natural world, and now that we have science to explain things, religion is obsolete. Others think that religion is a cynical tool for elites to keep the masses down. Fortunately, we don’t have to just rely on speculations. There’s a massive, growing body of literature on religion, and learning about it can help us understand what religion is and where it came from. [Read more...]

Awe increases religious belief

Connor Wood

Woman in awe at nature

It’s dawn. You’re hiking over a silent mountain ridge, gravel crunching beneath your feet. You crest the top, and you’re struck dumb by the first rays of sunlight streaming over the valley below – rich, forested, cut through by rivers. Above you, the morning’s clouds blaze violet and orange with the sunrise. If you’re like most people, the emotion you’d be feeling right about now is awe: a sense of overwhelming wonder at natural splendor, power, or vastness. From Thomas Aquinas to Ralph Waldo Emerson, many writers over the centuries have linked awe with religious experience. Researchers from California have now joined that list, uncovering some fascinating additional connections besides. [Read more...]

Is religion anthropomorphism?

Connor Wood

Emperor Moth

The verdict is in: we are our brains, roughly speaking. That is, according to modern neuroscience and cognitive science, our personalities, dreams, and experiences are all products of intensely complex interactions of the neurons in our craniums. You can disagree or agree with this claim, but nearly all experts who study the brain and mind are convinced of it. When it comes to things spiritual, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a field that tries to understand religious beliefs from within this naturalistic framework. And recently, one of the founding thinkers in CSR outlined a central claim in the field: religion is essentially about anthropomorphism, or the tendency for our brains to see persons in the world around us.

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Religion, imagination, and secret worlds

Connor Wood

Make-believe

Here, try something: Take a minute to think about one of your best friends. How did you get to be close? I don’t just mean how you met – at a party, taking Freshman Comp together, serving on the same top-secret CIA mission to Burma – I mean how you got to be friends. If you’re like most people, the chances are good that your friendship blossomed by sharing not real things, but imaginary ones. Relationships, research in anthropology and ritual studies suggests, flower best when people take part in shared, alternate worlds of imagination – subjunctive worlds that are cordoned off from reality, where our minds can play.

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Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.

Discrimination

Connor Wood

Religion makes people prejudiced, right? I mean, think about all the religious wars throughout history, or the centuries of colonial racism in the name of religion. Well, yes. But the truth is – as always – a lot more complicated. Sure, researchers have found that religious adherence predicts prejudice, especially against gays and lesbians. But another body of literature has shown that some kinds of religious belief can make people more open to outsiders and minorities. So what gives – does religion make us prejudiced and parochial, or not? The answer, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Illinois, is…yes. While religion narrows our horizons, God may expand them. [Read more...]

A friendly reminder: Science isn’t reality. Reality is reality.

Woman on bike looking at mountains

Connor Wood

Last week, I reported on a bit of research that suggested, in part, that many religious nonbelievers come to their atheistic worldviews after being convinced that science explains the world better than religion does. But despite its admittedly jaw-dropping explanatory power, science does, in fact, have its limitations. Science cannot explain or predict everything (sorry, E.O. Wilson). These limitations, however, don’t necessarily imply that atheists or agnostics should become theists. Instead, they imply that we should reside more fully in our own bodies – the subjects of the rich sensory impressions and first-person experiences that are ultimately the source of all knowledge. [Read more...]

Ritual reduces life’s noise-to-signal ratio

Connor Wood

Digital processing

Ritual: it’s got a bit of bad rap. To many in the modern world, the very word “ritual” conjures images of rote and inscrutable actions, meaningless ceremonies, dusty and lifeless tradition. In fact, “lifeless,” “meaningless,” “dry” and “rote” probably cover about 80% of what most people think about ritual. And from my extensive research (that is, hanging out and talking with people), I’ve learned that a lot of today’s young adults grew up in traditions where the rituals did seem pretty dry and purposeless. But ritual has been around a lot longer than today’s religious institutions, and it doesn’t have to be pointless. One of my very favorite anthropologists, Roy Rappaport, articulated one good reason why: ritual boosts the signal-to-noise ratio in human societies.

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Ritual bypasses conscious cognition

Connor Wood

Muslim ritual

Pretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what’s called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

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The neurology of spirit writing

Connor Wood

Closeup Of Girl Hand Writing

Mediums – people who say they can channel spirits or other supernatural beings to communicate with the living – often get a bad rap. They’re the subjects of debunking attempts, they’re accused of fraud, and most people think they’re just plain odd. But what if we deferred our judgments and tried to find out just what’s actually going on physically and neurologically in the act of channeling? A team of researchers in the US and Brazil did just that, finding that, whatever else is happening, mediums show some very unique patterns of brain activity. And even more interestingly, those patterns differ depending on the mediums’ amount of experience.

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