July 5, 2008

My Research Interests

A question which I often get relates to my research interests: What are they?

They ain't as easy to explain, unlike most people, because I'm actually interested in a wide variety of stuff. But I can tell you what drove me into this field which would give an idea of the interests I currently hold.

After years of engaging in lively Internet debates with people on a variety of subjects such as science, multimedia computing, and religion, I developed a curiosity within me to try to understand what it is that makes people so annoyingly stubborn about their point of view and why they try to hold to their views even after contrary evidence is presented. A good example of this is the fundamentalist religious mind or even religious minds in general; Why do people deeply believe in God so much so that they would kill each other in his name or at least get ultra-defensive when they feel their beliefs are under threat. You could even say that some of these people are crazy. And this took place in the wider context of my developing interest into how people think. You know, the actual neurological processes involved in thinking: How does it take place? I felt convinced that a neurological understanding of the process may provide answers as to how thoughts are generated within the brain and then solidified (metaphorically speaking!) into beliefs and maintained thereby to form belief systems and internal paradigms.
I have a good neuropsychology textbook that has given me the answer to this. I expect it's easy enough to think about thinking in terms of neurons, axons, dendrites, action potentials, synaptic vesicles, nerve endings and so on, whereby the rest of (neuro)psychology largely analyses and explains how these processes act as a basis for the individual to interact with other people and situations. The sheer physicality of the thinking process is fascinating enough in that it all takes place faster than lightning speed, what to speak of the oceanlike expanse of the field in attempting to understand the depth of the multifarious interactions involved. And what happens when something goes wrong? This is the situation of those who suffer from various types of mental disorders. Think of the most sophisticated and complicated piece of electronic equipment that you have in your home and what it looks like inside; a few circuit boards and a shedload of wiring to make it do what it does, right? The brain is the most complex piece of hardware nature has ever created with a million billion wires in place. What happens if some wires are disconnected? Or plugged into the wrong port?

It's probably wrong of me to oversimplify conditions like schizophrenia and the like in this way, but a cursory understanding of the neurosciences suggests that mental disorders are often down to the concept of "faulty wiring". These conditions are also not just something that happens as a result of birth or genetics, but may also occur due to brain injury. So this is one of the reasons that sparked my interests in psychology as a whole: the process of thinking and what happens when things go wrong, and how the "normal" mind can be destabilised through stress and/or torture to slip into "insanity".

One of the first books I read as a psychology undergraduate was V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms In The Brain, for which I had to write a review. This book fascinated and deeply impressed me and I strongly recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in brain function. A certain chapter within that book acted as a catalyst for my feelings on religion and sparked an interest in the neuropsychology of religious experience, whereby I have learnt that religious feelings and associated states of bliss and ecstasy are associated with temporal lobe function. This comes in a wider context of neural correlates for every brain state, implying that religious visions and the like may be a purely neural function and not a real happening. I hope to discuss these concepts on this blog in the near future.

So those are my two main interests thus far: Mental disorders (and phenomena such as auditory and visual hallucinations) and the neuropsychology of spiritual experience.

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