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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Rewriting the script: We change our religious memories

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Everyone knows that memories can fade with time. But not everyone realizes that in “refreshing” memories by remembering them, they risk distortion. This has implications for how people construct their identity. Focusing on religious identity, psychologists R. David Hayward (University of Michigan), Joanna Maselko (Duke University Medical Center), and Keith G. Meador (Vanderbilt University Medical Center) found that people would accurately remember their childhood religious behavior but would alter their childhood religious identity so that it matched their present religious identity.

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Forgiveness and health: It’s complicated

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Happy couple

Most religions preach forgiveness. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs, and not letting things go leads to poor spiritual health (according to such religions). While scientists cannot test claims about spiritual health, they can test physical health. Can forgiveness lead to improved health? Researcher Michael McFarland (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues posed this question, and found that forgiveness does positively correlate with health over time. [Read more...]

Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 2

Pensive scientist

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Having learned more about how everyday people handle the so-called “religion-science” conflict, psychologist Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and philosopher of religion Aku Visala (University of Oxford) now aim to use their data to critique and inform the standard philosophical approaches to this issue. Philosophers typically, at minimum, categorize religion-science approaches in three ways: conflict, independence, and reconciliation. Legare and Visala find that so few people actually adhere to the first two that only reconciliation plausibly coheres with human cognition.

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Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 1

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Man of Science with Religions

Talk of the “religion and science conflict” sets a trap: one quickly winds up pontificating about abstract objects as if they were real without any grounding in reality. “Religion” becomes a monolithic abstract entity, whose adherents all behave in the same way, and ditto for “science.” In hopes of looking at the religion-science conflict empirically, psychologists Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and Aku Visala (University of Oxford) take a psychological approach, concluding that scientific explanations do not replace religious ones. In Part 2 of this post, they critique the standard religion-science discussion.

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Does God accept the real you?

Punk priest

Nicholas C. DiDonato

In the West, the concept of God has a wide range of meanings, including a supernatural person-like agent, an impersonal force, pure actual being, beyond being, and many more. Thus, in applying psychology to one’s perception of God, psychologists typically limit themselves to the first conception. Still, the results can be fascinating. Psychologist Bart Soenens (Ghent University, Belgium) and colleagues applied the study of interpersonal relationships to religiosity and found that how one perceives one’s relationship with God affects whether one approaches religious claims symbolically or literally.

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Do you believe in magic? Seriously.

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Magic

No self-respecting defender of science would admit to believing in magic. Science has surpassed magic by providing real explanations. Yet, when put in the right situation, even these defenders betray an affinity for magic. Psychologist Eugene Subbotsky (Lancaster University, United Kingdom) has compiled a series of studies to argue that belief in magic begins in the consciousness of children (who explicitly accept it) and then persists by living in the subconscious of adults (who explicitly deny it).

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How are religious values passed down through families?

Nicholas C. DiDonato

For the most part, it seems that religious parents raise religious kids, who in turn pass down this religion to their kids, and so on. While genetics may very well play a role in facilitating this transmission, the transmission itself must come from social interaction. Focusing specifically on how grandmothers pass on their religious values to their granddaughters, psychologists Denise Lewis, Desiree Seponski (both University of Georgia), and Thomas Camp (Samaritan Counseling Center) found that granddaughters learn religious values from their grandmothers through role modeling, indirect communication, and “just knowing.”

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Meditation may enhance introspective accuracy

Connor Wood

In the 17th century, John Locke argued that the only proper objects of scientific study were the primary qualities of matter – crisp measurements such as size and location. He and other thinkers thought that qualities such as color or temperature were too subjective for science. After all, I might think an apple was red, while you could call it orange or pink…but we’d have to agree on the measurement of its diameter! Hard measurements thus came to dominate scientific discourse, while subjective experiences were dismissed as irrelevant. But now, a group of Canadian researchers thinks that meditation might change this equation.

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Atheism: a personality profile

Jonathan Morgan

religion_atheism

For half a decade, the cognitive science of religion has sought the evolutionary origins of religious belief. This burgeoning field has some deep and convincing explanations, but it may also stigmatize atheists as aberrations of evolution. Now, psychologists are countering this stigma by tracking the personality traits that naturally facilitate atheism. Their work gives us a personality profile that neutralizes atheism as one of many expected worldviews in any healthy, diverse community.

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