Thursday, September 30, 2010

Seeking God in the brain

Here's an article from The New England Journal of Medicine briefly reviewing "the neural underpinnings of . . . religion." The article concludes (emphasis mine):
Nonetheless, as imaging technology and associated cognitive testing become ever more sophisticated, we may be able to discriminate ways in which religious and creative sensibilities relate to one another and to brain areas that mediate emotions that are deranged in psychiatric illness. Whether any of these advances will provide the answer to the cerebral basis of religion, if one exists, is anybody's guess.
So for people like John Loftus and the other authors of TCD to definitively claim there's a neurophysiological and psychological basis to religious belief based on fMRI studies and the like is premature at best. Judging by the article, medical science is divided on the issue (to say the least).


  1. "premature" doesn't begin to describe it :-D
    John Cleese

  2. An oldie but a goodie. Thanks, Doug!

    (BTW, I recall we posted the same a few months ago.)

  3. In the city where I live, our University has a rather good research "Centre for Brain & Mind". They do very good functional MRI research. I had the opportunity to speak to the director of the centre in casual conversation, so I asked him about the name of the institute which I found curious.

    I asked him what the difference was between Brain and MInd. He replied like a true physicist/engineer one was real and the other imaginary. So I asked him to clarify; was one physical and the other metaphysical?

    Although he seemed surprised, he agreed that, that description was equally appropriate. So I asked further, if Science by definition restricts itself to the physical universe through its requirement to test hypothesis against observation, how a scientific research institute could claim to be studying the mind which was clearly outside of that realm.

    He couldn't answer, so I followed up with one last question. Was there evidence the mind existed.

    Hesitantly, and with his voice lowered, he indicated that indeed there was.

    When the brain thinks, when the brain processes information, blood flow patterns to the effected part of the brain changes, and these changes can be imaged using functional MRI (fMRI), no surprise.

    When someone thinks of playing tennis, or remembering a word, or retrieving a memory, some specific part of the brain kicks into gear, and this can be imaged very precisely. But here's the kicker ..

    Something works against the natural processes of the brain, and is able to suppress the brain's ability to do this. For example, if you were asked to clean a toilet, an unpleasant task, the brain doesn't want to think about the task, perhaps it wants to go play baseball.

    Yet both the process of forcing the brain to think about something it doesn't wish to, or the process of suppressing the brain's desire to simply go do something else, is also evident in fMRI and no proton spectroscopy (or other imaging methods to determine brain physiological function) has yet uncovered the cause of this.

    This scientist indicated quietly to me that although the common unspoken view was that it was evidence of 'mind', scientists discouraged each other from moving towards or adopting obvious philosophical (metaphysical) language, and accordingly avoided considering probable philosophical explanations even if they explained things well.

    The presupposition that all apparent brain activity have a purely physical cause, could not be questioned or departed from.

    That was all that was said. The scientist is not a believer, but I believe what he said to me was frank and honest (and quite revealing)