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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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.

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Religious beliefs affect neural self-processing

Connor Wood

Nerve cellIt’s one of the most basic human experiences. The world and I are different things – the world is out there, and I’m looking out at all the action. But this division might not be so strict for everyone. Researchers in China have discovered that people from different cultures show distinctive patterns of neuronal activation when asked to think about themselves. Specifically, Tibetan Buddhists do not exhibit the typical brain activity associated with concepts of a self. This suggests that religious beliefs directly affect not only our neurology, but our fundamental experience of the world.

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