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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Do we have free will when it comes to mental illness?

Connor Wood

Business decision

I got a tremendous outpouring of positive feedback for my essay last week on my own family’s struggles with depression. Thank you to everyone who read it and commented. Of course, no essay is perfect – many readers criticized the emphasis I put on choice, or free will, in that article. Depression isn’t a matter of choice, these critics argued. Nobody chooses to be depressed. Telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t help anything. These commenters’ challenges give voice to some of today’s most important questions: what is mental illness? What’s mental well-being? Do we have any agency in it? The answer to that last question is yes – we have agency if we exercise it. [Read more...]

Mental illness: it’s not just in our brains.

Connor Wood

Wild depression

160 years ago, runaway slaves in the American South were often diagnosed with “drapetomania” – a supposed mental illness that drove them to run away from their masters. Cures and preventative measures for drapetomania included whipping and cutting off big toes, making it impossible to run. It didn’t occur to the doctors that running away from slavery was perfectly natural. It was a lot more convenient to call it mental illness, because this took the “problem” away from the horror of slavery and placed it neatly within the individual brains of slaves. Now, with Robin Williams’s suicide last week, mental illness is again at forefront in public consciousness. But make no mistake: our ideas about mental illness still need reexamining. [Read more...]

Yes, fundamentalism is religion. And it starts wars.

Connor Wood

U.S. marine hiding from explosion

There’s a saying: no true Scotsman would ever drink Irish whiskey. Or move to London. Or put sugar on his porridge. But this saying’s not actually about Scottish people. It’s about our own willingness to play with our categories, stretching them to fit our prejudices. For example, if you claimed that “no religious believer would start a war,” current events – particularly the ISIS assault on Iraq, which has claimed thousands of lives and threatens to extinguish entire cultures – would prove you wrong. So you might backpedal: “Well, no true religious believer would start a war.” But this would be a fallacy. What’s going on in Iraq has everything to do with real religion. Fundamentalism is a real piece of the religious puzzle – and a surprisingly fragile one.

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Believing Impossible Stuff Is Dangerous. Except When It’s Awesome.

Connor Wood

Happy kid playing with toy airplane

In my last article, I dissected the study that went around the Internet claiming that children who have been exposed to religion (like swine flu) can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. Those findings were less than convincing, as I and others pointed out – because kids who had been to Christian Sunday school were virtually guaranteed to recognize the  “fictional” stories as versions of Bible narratives. So the research actually only showed that religious kids believe religious things – which, duh. Take a step back, though: the hand-wringing commentariat worried that the faithful might be dangers to society, due to their supposed disconnect from reality. But does believing impossible things, in principle, constitute such a terrible threat? Do we even want a world where people can accept only the facts?

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Informal Study Finds Bloggers Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

Connor Wood

Confused computer guy

A study that made the rounds through the TwitFaceBlogosphere last week claimed that religious children can’t distinguish properly between fantasy and reality. The Huffington Post, the Friendly Atheist, RawStory, and the Democratic Underground each chimed in, all with headlines that were some version of “Children Exposed to Religion Have Difficulty Telling Truth from Fiction.” Of course, that’s not what the study actually shows. It shows that religious children believe religious stories. But more groan-inducing than the study authors’ conclusions is how quickly so many people jumped on the middle-school “laugh-at-religion” bandwagon, without stopping to, you know, think critically.

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Nerd culture, the new aristocracy

Connor Wood

Guy on bike

I love my bike. For the most part, biking is the only way I get around Boston – which is a postage stamp-sized city geographically (albeit a very densely packed postage stamp), and so is enticingly easy to traverse on two wheels. Recently, however, I got into a little altercation with a driver who didn’t like the idea of sharing the road. As much as I wanted to throttle my four-wheeled nemesis, part of me comprehended the depths of his indignation. This tension between cyclists and drivers isn’t just a passing annoyance of each day’s urban commute. It’s a window into some of the most basic, and most difficult, realities of 21st-century social living – and, like religion, it has a lot to do with social class. [Read more...]

The Wave of the Future: Experimental Religious Studies

Connor Wood

If you don’t know about Edge.org, you should. Especially if you are a nerd. Edge is an online salon in which experts from all sorts of different fields get together (virtually, of course) and discuss important issues, from human evolution to the future of agriculture to bioethics. In a recent Edge column, influential religious studies scholar and cognitive scientist Edward Slingerland offered a fascinating look at how the academic study of religion can use experimental methods to sort out the good theories from the bad ones. If he’s right – and I’m betting my career that he is – we won’t have to rely anymore on “Just-So” stories and strongly held personal hunches when talking about religion. We can test whether our fondest ideas hold up against the harsh light of reality. [Read more...]

Is religion good or bad for the world?

Connor Wood

Praying girl

What would the world be like with no religion? While this is a question we’ll probably never comprehensively answer, it is an interesting one. Does religion contribute, on balance, to human well-being or to oppression and misery? Most people already have their minds made up on this question, but generally for ideological reasons: religious believers tend (unsurprisingly) to argue that religion does a lot of good for the world, while the vast majority of folks critical of religion come from Marxist and anti-theistic perspectives. Fortunately, ideology isn’t all we have to go on. Two researchers summarized a vast body of quantitative literature for the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and found that claims for religion’s wholesale moral decrepitude are notably exaggerated. [Read more...]

How do we make meaning of evolution? By admitting its uncomfortable truths.

DarwinHere on planet Earth, around 3.5 billion years ago, a profound miracle happened. Somehow, organic molecules began contorting themselves into self-replicating shapes. Over the ensuing eons, further miracles occurred: simple cells became complex, melding different lineages of DNA to forge the eukaryotes, of which you and I are both members. Water-dwelling animals morphed slowly into creatures with lungs, and the capacity to breathe air. Different species developed entwined, symbiotic relationships with each other – insects pollinating flowers, flowers feeding insects. But none of these miracles were miracles in the classic sense. Aside from that first eruption of living cells out of lifeless carbon, each of these developments proceeded out of Darwinian processes, under evolutionary law. The two-million-dollar question is: what does this mean for who we are? [Read more...]


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