A new theory for why Buddhist meditation makes us feel good

Connor Wood

Meditation

Booze. Cigarettes. Gambling. The human brain is vulnerable to all sorts of addictions. And thinking might be one of them. That’s right – in many Buddhist texts, the endless stream of rumination that runs through the mind of the average person isn’t merely a distracting habit, but a genuine addiction that befuddles the intellect and inhibits spiritual development. In a new article, a leading neuropsychologist makes the same claim – that we’re all addicted to daydreaming, and that the neurology of our addictions is the same as that of addiction to drugs. What’s more, certain forms of Buddhist meditation may release the brain’s chemical hold on itself, releasing us from our addictive daydreams. [Read more...]

Want to understand religion? You’ve gotta have a body.

Connor Wood

AI

A few times a year, a group of scholars, scientists, and industry people gather in Manhattan as part of a Sinai and Synapses working group, and I’m privileged to be one of those folks. Last week, as part of a working group meeting, I and the other members of Sinai and Synapses were treated to a fascinating talk by an expert in religion and technology, Noreen Herzfeld. Herzfeld’s talk focused on bodies – on the difference between simulating cognition using abstract 0s or 1s and actually having fleshy, full-body experience of the world. I can’t think of a better angle from which to tackle questions of religion and science. [Read more...]

Why Are There Atheists?

Connor Wood

Why are there atheists? This isn’t just a rhetorical question – much scientific research into religious belief over the past couple of decades has concluded that religious belief is culturally universal, and arises from cognitive and cultural defaults that are persistent across societies. Many academics, especially in the humanities, might reject such universalizing claims, but the fact remains that religious beliefs and practices are found in all human societies, very nearly without exception. Clearly, there is something basically human about being religious. So does this mean that atheists are freaks? One psychologist says “Nope.” Instead, she gives evidence to show that atheism is a perfectly expectable outcome of basic – and natural – personality differences between individuals. [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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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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How the brain escapes the self

Connor Wood

Religious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

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Journal articles on scientific study of religion available online this month

Connor Wood

RBB Cover

In 2011, Wesley Wildman, contributor to Science On Religion here at Patheos.com, made an agreement with Taylor & Francis to start publishing a new academic journal, Religion, Brain & Behavior.  The journal’s mission was to provide a centralized venue for the most insightful, methodologically sophisticated, and academically valuable research in the field of the scientific study of religion – a field that’s seen rapid, even explosive, growth in recent years. Since then, Religion, Brain & Behavior has became, in scholar Michael Blume’s words, “THE cutting-edge journal for evolutionary studies of religion.” So we decided to post about the fact that Taylor & Francis is making articles from Religion, Brain & Behavior free for online access and download through the month of February.

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Are autistics less religious? Yes.

Connor Wood

Autism

Religion is often characterized as a human universal – researchers claim that nearly every society  boasts some form of religious belief. But it’s also no secret that individual people often vary dramatically in their levels of religious belief. You might be a Bible-believing Christian, while your neighbor – who speaks the same language, eats at the same pizzeria, and enjoys the same movies – is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. So where do these religious differences come from? A new research paper claims that the answer might lie in people’s ability – or lack thereof – to imagine the mental states of others.

[Read more...]

Muslim prayer may increase alpha waves in the brain

Connor Wood

Prostration

The religious brain is hot stuff right now. Publications as diverse as Science and Newsweek seem to be gaga about how meditation affects the frontal cortex, how praying soothes the amygdala, or how religious belief affects the psyche. But there’s a catch to all this excitement: nearly all the research focuses on either Christian or Buddhist forms of religious practice. Where are the other religions? A team of researchers from Malaysia recently helped to answer this question by studying how Muslim prayer affects alpha waves in the brain, and their results show a profound connection between mind and body.

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God spot in the brain? More like God spots

Nicholas C. DiDonato

God_spots

Neurologists have long wondered whether a particular part of the brain can help explain a person’s experience of God. Stanley Koren and Michael Persinger, for example, famously developed the “God helmet,” a device that stimulated what they called “the God spot” and so induced its wearer to feel the presence of God. (Interestingly enough, the device had little effect on the popular atheist writer Richard Dawkins.) However, neuropsychologists Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass (both University of Missouri) challenge the plausibility of the “God spot,” arguing that spirituality involves many areas of the brain.

[Read more...]


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