March 31, 2009

Bloody Brains

I did tell you that I liked brains, but rather than losing myself in the effevescent and vibrant beauty of neurons or brainbows, we rarely get the chance to see a real live fleshy bloody spongy brain. And so I came across this fantastic specimen:

That's a ventral (upside down) view of a fresh brain before processing at the Allen Institute. The folks there are engaged in an impressive project ("Allen Brain Atlas") to map the entire brain with all its individual neurons so as to aid future neurological research. Call it a "Neural Genome" if you like. It's due for completion in 2012, after which it is expected that the constructions of our neural networks will be discovered, analysed and explained.

Fresh brains have to be collected soon after the donor's death, else nucleic acids beging to work and dissolve the cell membranes. Researchers have a limited window in which to cut the brain into slices and photograph each of them before and quickly packing them away in ice for storage before future RNA analysis.

Read Jonah Lehrer's article at Wired, and view the full gallery of images.

(Thanks to Mo for the tip.)

March 27, 2009

So Gay, So Very Gay

ResearchBlogging.orgIt's unbelievable what's uncovered sometimes. A recent survey of British psychologists and psychiatrists has uncovered that a sizeable amount have attempted to "convert" homosexual patients or clients to heterosexual orientations!

It's a well-known axiom that (biological) homosexuality is an orientation that cannot be changed, what to speak of the scientific consensus on the matter, and what do you think might happen if any such changes are encouraged? Psychological harm and damage.

After all, what is "normal"? Anyone with even a layman understanding of psychology and/or neuroscience will know that definitions of normality are as subjective as one's colour preferences. And when you have a discriminating society that is ever-willing to ostracise on the slightest grounds of anything perceived as different, it isn't that hard to imagine how seriously this counts as psychological abuse especially concerning a topic so fundamental to someone's 'personhood' as sexual identity.

Annie Bartlett and her colleagues sent postal questions to members of the British Psychological Society, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in which they were asked to give their views on "conversion treatment" and to describe up to six patients they may have treated accordingly. Of the 1328 examinable anonymous responses received, a flabbergasting 17% reported having assisted in reducing, changing, suppressing their gay or lesbian desires. Of these 17% (222 practitioners), 159 of them (72%) thought that a "service" should be available for homosexuals who wish to change their orientation.

Am I missing something here? Did I suddenly enter the Twilight Zone and wind up in Iran or something? This is England 2009! And it was back in 1973 that homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), so why are these attitudes still prevailing in psychotherapeutic practice? Do old habits die hard? Because of the anonymous nature of the survey there is no information provided as to the average age of the sample, even when the authors selected a random sample of responses from the members of each organisation. Even though only 4% (55 respondents) of the total sample said they would consider therapy to change patient orientations upon requests for such therapy, it is much more worrying that the aforementioned 17% have actually attempted to do so. Considering the absense of compelling evidence that patients can even be successfully treated, trying to force or encourage such a change can only heighten and intensify the emotional conflicts that homosexuals may undergo (due to peer pressures, etc.) and cause lasting psychological damage.

This study appears to follow on from earlier 2004 research (also by the same authors) in which an oral history of homosexual patients was gained. 29 homosexuals who had received treatment for their "disorder" were interviewed about their experiences, which revealed a nominal amount of coercive and peer pressures and also resulted in lasting emotional distress.

What can I say? It's sad that these professionals appear to have no real knowledge of social identity issues. And I'd hate to be cynical, but what's the betting that serious conflict of interest issues are responsible for this grave failure of psychotherapeutic services? The type of conflict of interest that arises from personal convictions and beliefs?

Bartlett, A., Smith, G., & King, M. (2009). The response of mental health professionals to clients seeking help to change or redirect same-sex sexual orientation BMC Psychiatry, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-244X-9-11

Smith, G., Bartlett, A., & King, M. (2004). Treatments of homosexuality in Britain since the 1950s--an oral history: the experience of patients BMJ, 328 (7437) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.37984.442419.EE

March 23, 2009

The "Cancer Faith" Study

ResearchBlogging.orgAn interesting study released earlier this week attracted the attention of many bloggers and commentators. It's basic premise is that religious patients with advanced cancer are more likely to opt for aggressive end-of-life treatment. In other words, the more religious they are, the more likely it is that they will place less faith in God and more faith in medical treatment and technology. Let's analyse:

Andrea Phelps and colleagues acknowledge that religion and beliefs account for a high amount of coping strategies employed by patients with advanced cancer, as it affords them a sense of "meaning, comfort, control, and personal growth while facing life-threatening illness." Rather understandably, positive strategies are employed that highlight God's "loving care" rather than the negative strategies that view the condition as "divine punishment", which are said to be uncommon. Aside from simply coping with disease, faith is said to be a major factor in medical decisions; Other research in similar areas found that after oncologist recommendations it was faith that was said to be the second most important factor in deciding the course of the treatment, and also that 68% of a sample of a thousand individuals explicitly stated that their faith would guide their medical decisions if they experienced a critical injury, with 57% believing that a divine cure could be obtained in the case of medical incapability to resolve the issue. So while there is evidence that religion is associated with a preference for receiving intense treatment, Phelps and her colleagues wanted to find out whether patients who relied heavily on their religious faith were more likely to receive intensive medical care, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation or being placed on a mechanical ventilator, before death.

The study was longitudinal, and recruited 345 patients (out of a total of 941 eligibles) from 2003 up till 2007, and were interviewed (at baseline) in either English or Spanish by Yale students, with follow-ups until their deaths. Demographic (ethnic) considerations were accounted for due to the diversity of religious beliefs, and typical measures were undertaken in order to code beliefs accordingly. To avoid selection bias, patients were not told that religion/spirituality was the focus of the study. Other measures of coping strategy were employed; most curiously, patients were asked to rate how much their religious beliefs were supported by the medical staff (doctors, nurses, even hospital chaplains!) and those who rated it highly were coded as having support for their spiritual needs. I can understand chaplains, but what are doctors and nurses doing to support patient beliefs? Did this occur in a sympathetic/empathising context just to keep the patients' spirits up? The study doesn't mention.

Here come the brief stats: 79% stated that religion helped them to cope to a moderate extent, while 32% endorsed the statement that it was the "most important thing that kept them going". 56% engaged in daily prayer or meditation. Positive coping strategies were correlated highly with being black or Hispanic (p < .001). Patients with higher levels of religious coping were younger, less educated, less likely to be insured, less likely to be married, and were more likely to be recruited from Texas (!!) than those who had negative styles of coping. Overall, patients with 'high' religion preferred medical interventions such as being put on a ventilator, resuscitation, transport to the Intensive Care Unit, approved 'heroic' measures by doctors to save lives, than those with 'low' religion. They also didn't think much of advance care planning, Do-Not-Resuscitate orders, making a will or giving anyone power of attorney over their affairs. Even after controlling for other alternatives, 'high' religion remained a significant predictor of preference for life-prolonging measures.
This appears to be the first study to directly examine the influence of religious beliefs on medical care, and although the authors acknowledge that further research ought to be undertaken in order to understand why they wield such a strong influence, this is still an interesting collection of facts. Among the usual disclaimers about the drawbacks of the study, Phelps et al. say something quite interesting: "Religious copers may choose aggressive therapies because they believe that God could use the therapy to provide divine healing, or they hope for a miraculous cure while intensive medical care prolongs life." And again, "religious copers may decide to undergo therapies with high risks and uncertain benefits because they trust that God could heal them through the proposed treatment." Huh? Does this make sense to you? It strikes me that the hope for a divine intervention and it's timely arrival would occur at a time convenient for both medical staff and the patient, instead of leaving it to literally the last minute? The authors haven't submitted the RCOPE scale with their paper that was used to define beliefs, but I'm guessing that it didn't include any questions about fear of death? Perhaps that is an idea for future research: analyse patients' preference for intensive medical care at end-of-life and find out the extent to which it is mediated by fear of death! Duh.

I'm not trying to be deliberately sarcastic because I know that this is a sensitive issue that is especially painful for those who have experienced cancer, or know someone who has suffered it and died etc., but those were really silly things Phelps said. It may be that patients themselves articulated such things in their interviews, but we can never know unless we look through the data. Sensibility returns when other research is cited suggesting that patients do not seem to understand what a DNR is (perhaps due to cultural/language barriers) or thought that it ws morally wrong to institute one (if they think it is God's decision for their "time to die"). It is also noted that believers tend to think illness as a "trial" from God, and it is possible that they deliberately opt to endure further suffering and this might explain their enlisting of life-saving measures.

However, at the end of the day, the study is clear on one thing: terminally patients with high religiosity prefer intensive life-saving care over and above all other forms of coping strategies or medical treatment, and that the decision to opt for this type of care is influenced and mediated by religiosity. The authors pre-empt criticism of misinterpreting their findings as evidence of religiosity accounting for insecurity and/or crises of faith which may lead to the opting for aggressive care, by saying that it cannot "completely account" for the observed associations. Why not? By their own admission they controlled for other eventualities including self-acknowledgement of having a terminal illness and it made no difference at all to the overall results, and only further research can look deeper into the reasons as to why this takes place, but it is understandable if people look to the obvious inference.

For more on this topic, please visit Respectful Insolence.

Phelps, A., Maciejewski, P., Nilsson, M., Balboni, T., Wright, A., Paulk, M., Trice, E., Schrag, D., Peteet, J., Block, S., & Prigerson, H. (2009). Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care Near Death in Patients With Advanced Cancer JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 301 (11), 1140-1147 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.341

March 19, 2009

Science Blogging Needs YOU!

Daniel Brown over at BioChemicalSoul.Com is an extremely passionate biologist. He also runs one of the best biological science blogs out there. He's just written up a great essay on the merits of science blogging, how it can help you, how it can help others, and how you can just generally benefit from the whole cornucopia of citizen journalism.

So head on over there and find out how YOU can become a Science Blogger!

March 17, 2009

Further Thoughts On 'No More God Spot?'

ResearchBlogging.orgRegarding my previous blog of a few days ago, discussing the recent research by Kapogiannis et al. (2009) on the psychological and neuroanatomical framework of religious belief they've provided, I had some further thoughts on the study that I'd like to delineate. But first, just a quick note. Some may wonder whether my treatment of the issues reveal a sympathy in me for affairs religious and/or that I might be a - shock horror! - a Creationist (ID) infiltrator. I'm putting that to bed right now: I am NOT an IDiot! :-)

I am simply aware that there may be many in my audience who are religious, and so I treat the subject neutrally as I see no need to offend. But then again, some might take offence at my describing ID proponents as 'IDiots' as I just did above, and before I know it I'll be wallowing in qualifications and disclaimers and everyone'll have forgotten what I came to say. Blah blah, this is my space in the end. In seriousness, however, a neutral attitude is the best attitude to take. To be properly academically trained in matters scientific means to maintain a neutral - and yet sceptical - attitude. Apart from the fact that it helps you save face at a later date when your assertions turn out to be wrong ("Oh well I was always neutral about it anyway"), it is really the only position you can take with any measure of comfort given the extremely fast pace at which scientific research is being carried out and announced. Maintaining an attitude of scepticism is also important as it helps promote an attitude of critical thinking, which itself helps to spot numerous errors in studies (if any) as well as gaps and drawbacks in any research by which further endeavours can plug up.

That said, the Kapogiannis study is being touted by some as "proof" that religious faith is "deeply embedded" in the brain which is "programmed for religious experiences". You know this is a media article when you hear the word 'proof', for only they can give masterclasses in sensationalist articles and headlines. However in my last post I showed that it isn't quite that simple. I spoke of the earlier "God Spot" research that I encountered in 2004/2005 and how this new study seemed to contradict the idea of a single spot in the brain that mediated almost all religious feeling.

I also mentioned how I had not kept up with the research specifically investigating this "God Spot" and that this represents a gap in my knowledge that I'll have to catch up on. (By the way, if anyone has any good links to sites or papers I can read, it'd be appreciated.) But from what I recall of it, God Spot research mainly focused on the capacity of the brain that enabled sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy to have regular spiritual experiences in the form of "religious visions", which we know as visual hallucinations. In the wider context of the limbic system, it was thought that various elements of the limbic architecture combined together along with amgydala and hippocampal functions (and vague links to the autonomic nervous system, ANS) in order for a visual hallucination to be produced. To me, it seemed like a workable theory that explained several instances of the physiological and emotional phenomena that sometimes characterises the incidence of deeply held faith. However, there are obvious gaps in this argument: Not all temporal-lobe epileptics are religious, and also, not all religious people are temporal-lobe epileptics.

This is why I clearly mentioned that this latest Kapogiannis paper simply set out to understand how religious beliefs and feelings are modulated in "normal" brains. Indeed, you do not get many religious people going around making claims of receiving divine and prophetic visions and the Vatican ain't deluged with nominations for sainthood. Most religious people are "normal" in the sense of going to church on Sundays, scriptural study, prayer, and just having a general religious worldview that is satisfying for them. And this is what Kapogiannis and his colleagues wanted to understand: Do their brains used specialised "God Spot" circuitry to modulate all these feelings, or do they use normal processes?

That the answer turned out to be the latter option does not necessarily contradict previous God-Spot research, in my opinion. I personally find it interesting that studies take place on different ends of the spectrum; how the 'normal' and 'visionary' brains are functionally activated for religious processing.

I still don't think much of the criticism referring to the drawback of testing only 'thinking' participants, those who agreed or disagreed with the statements being read out to them, instead of analysing a 'visionary' brain. How exactly would that work? Who made such a criticism like this? Do they even know what fMRI scans involve and how difficult or expensive they are to do? Ask Andrew Newberg (MD), the guy who apparently thinks it's sooo easy to scan a brain in the middle of a religious experience that he hasn't tried to do it himself. Or has he? Looking over his website and the research papers he's come out with, I notice that most of them were written for Zygon. If you've been following my blog for a while, you'll know exactly what I think of Zygon. Now I don't want to seem like I'm unnecessarily attacking some poor guy without provocation, but it comes to something when a titan like PZ Myers doesn't think much of him either. It is incidences like this that make it so hard for genuine science to reach the public and educate their little cotton socks, because Templeton yes-men like Newberg tend to pop up when you're least expecting them and feed something silly into the public imagination which, when investigated, turns out to be an overblown exaggeration.

That is why an attitude of neutrality and scepticism is needed. It is indeed hard to maintain neutrality especially in a world where the Creationist/ID movement have drawn 'first blood' in an unwinnable war, but by being on guard through the critical examination of new research (especially hyped research) it may be possible to score a few points in the service of scientific endeavour and public education.
Kapogiannis, D., Barbey, A., Su, M., Zamboni, G., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106

March 16, 2009

A Pretty Picture

I do love brains. In fact, I love brains a lot. Heck, I love everyone's brains! And you know, when you were a kid and you wanted to buy a packet of cereal because it let you know there was a cool toy FREE INSIDE?!

It works kinda the same way with me and brains. You have this large lump of greyish white wrinkled goop that's responsible for all of your thoughts, feelings, desires, aspirations, and all of that wouldn't be complete without a look inside. So I do love looking at cool images of neurons, glial cells, and even the occasional fMRI scan once in a while. It never ceases to fascinate and amaze me.

(Neurons and glial cells)

So pretty.

March 15, 2009

No More God Spot?

ResearchBlogging.orgBack in 2005 when I was an enthusiastic undergraduate, I was amazed at the scientific knowledge that proliferated on theories of religion. After reading Ramachandran's impressive Phantoms In The Brain and gaining an acquaintance with the neurobiological structures that underly religious experience, I became aware of scientific research that was suggesting the existence of a "God Module" in the brain, a system of specialised neural circuitry that appeared to be the central mediator of religious emotions and feelings as well as other things. The evidence seemed to point towards the temporal lobes and the larger limbic system as the location of this "God Spot", as evidenced by this 2004 TIME article: 'Is God In Our Genes?' It sounded great, we were finally boiling down religion to it's essential neural components! And I'll be honest in saying that I was an enthusiastic follower of this theory.

Now I haven't followed the progress of this line of research in the intervening years, and I'm unsure as to where the research stands on that particular point, but I understand through recent developments such as a recent announcement by Scientific American that a much more lateral theory has been developed that basically says that religious feelings co-opt different brain circuits, those that are engaged in more more mundane pursuits such as politics, music, food, and so on. On the face of it, this theory makes much more sense. Religion, like many things, has many facets including contemplation, group activities, dietary requirements, social obligations, and many others, and so it stands to reason that these activites are moderated by the same neural circuits that moderate them in non-religious contexts! In fact the paper, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, claims to reveal three psychological dimensions of religious belief (God's perceived level of involvement, God's perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge) in networks that process Theory of Mind (ToM) regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery. ToM, in short, is the ability of individuals to understand their own and other people's mental states in terms of beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc. You know your own thoughts, and you know that other people have their thoughts too, because you have a Theory of Mind.

Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al. discuss the aim of their research; to define the psychological structure of religious belief and to reveal the brain areas activated by the cognitive processes involved. They give a nod to previous "God Spot" research by acknowledging how they have largely focused on the neural correlates of rather vivid and unusual experiences, sufferers of temporal-lobe epilepsy (which was mainly responsible for linking religiosity with the limbic structures), executive/prosocial aspects of religion being linked to the frontal lobes, and mystical religious experiences being linked with decreased parietal lobe activity. They mention that all these findings rarely corresponded with each other and generally didn't succeed at discovering a psychological architecture that underlies religious belief. Regarding the dimensions, the authors mention that factor analytic studies showed how the perception of God's involvement and anger are key components of belief, and this formed their first hypothesis that these concepts would quite naturally be related with the prefrontal and posterior regions of the ToM structure that deal with intent and emotion. Remember, ToM is the ability to understand one's own and others' mental states, so it stands to reason that understanding God's involvment in world affairs or his being angry for some reason or other fits nicely under ToM conceptions of intent and emotion. The second hypothesis proposed to test doctrinal knowledge being mediated by neural circuits processing abstract semantics, and that experiential knowledge engages circuits that process memory recall and imagery. The third hypothesis proposed that adoption of religious belief uses networks used in cognitive-emotional processing.

Just so we're clear, this study isn't aspiring to make any kind of statement on religious belief one way or the other. All it's trying to do is figure out whether religious belief uses "normal" neural circuits that are used for a variety of everyday things or thoughts, or whether "specialised" circuits are being used solely to process religious thoughts and ideas.

Multidimensional scaling (MDS, similar to factor analysis in concept) was applied to ratings of conceptual dissimilarity so that they appropriate correlated within the structures of the three aforementioned dimensions. They don't appear to have mentioned the use of any standardised scale measuring religious beliefs so I can only assume they created their own list of statements (can be seen in supplementary data). 26 particpants with variable levels of self-reported religiosity performed the ratings. Interestingly, Dimension 1 (D1) correlated negatively with God's perceived level of involvement (-0.994), D2 correlated negatively with God's perceived anger (-0.953) but positively with God's perceived love (0.953), and D3 correlated positively with doctrinal (0.993) and negatively with experiential (-0.993) religious content. After that, they fMRI-scanned 40 new participants and measured their brain activity while they listened to the statements being read out to them.

Excuse me for getting bogged down in the details, but at the end of the day this is what was discovered: "the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions." In other words, religious beliefs and feelings use the same brain networks as beliefs and feelings about politics, food, martial arts, music and whatever else form your hobbies and interests.

D1 indeed hit ToM circuits in order to "understand God’s intent and resolve the negative emotional significance of his lack of involvement." D2 indeed hit the more emotional ToM circuits when, considering God's emotions of love or anger, activated the same areas that respond to fear and happiness respectively. And finally, D3 engaged areas dealing with the decoding of metaphorical meaning and abstractness (doctrinal), and areas that generate memory and language-based projections of oneself (experiential).

This image shows the effect of D3 on the brain: Experiential (above) and Doctrinal (below). Activations for experiential knowledge are displayed as a spectrum whereas doctrinal activations are represented in purple. This seems intuitively reasonable; theoretical or 'bookish' knowledge of religion is localised in a small area when activated, as compared with experiential knowledge that recruits larger areas in order to 'remember' spiritual experiences, projecting it within one's mind with all of the emotion associated with the event. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it's simply a descriptive statement of what's going on neurologically under different religious circumstances. However, in assessing the overal effect of religiosity on the brain, it was discovered that religiosity is modulated in brain areas that tend to be related with stronger episodic (mainly autobiographical) memory retrieval and imagery, and suggested that the religious participants had a greater and more meaningful understanding of the religious statements that were read out to them. Hardly a surprise.

Regarding the last hypothesis dealing with the acceptance or rejection of religious beliefs, some interesting results were reported for the religious group. Disagreement with religious statements among the religious group activated anterior insulae areas commonly associated with emotional-cognitive integration, suggesting that rejection of religious beliefs involves a larger role for emotions in that process. The researchers explain away this finding as saying that negative emotions (such as aversion, guilt, fear of loss) in the religious participants may have been triggered by disagreeing with the statements, and that this could be viewed as a normal event where one encounters statements that go against one's belief system. Results were not reported for the non-religious participants, implying nothing worthy of reporting, so this activation amongst the religious must have been pretty high to merit a mention. The lady doth protest too much, methinks! ;-)

The researchers conclude their paper by relating their findings to their hypotheses and basically patting themselves on the back for a job done well. An important disclaimer relates to the fact that the measured religiosity was that of a sample of modern Western society, and the findings may differ with respect to other cultures. Quite an obvious experimental drawback but it remains to be seen whether the results will remain relatively consistent if or when replicated.

But what does all of this mean for research on the neuropsychological effects of religion? For a start, it shows rather well that religious feeling cannot strictly be said to be located in a single area (as per "God Spot"), but employs general neural circuitry. One may dream of a blissful holiday in quite the same way as one dreams of a blissful afterlife, one may respond well to smiles or bullying in quite the same way as one may respond to "God's love" or "God's anger", and one may interpret theological metaphors and relate them to one's life in quite the same way as one may enjoy reading and analysing a good piece of literature, and relating that to one's life!

Another interesting consideration relates to the evolutionary development of the brain. As the authors suggest that their findings now provide a "psychological and neuroanatomical framework for the processing of religious belief" that may be a specialised human function. Kalanit Grill-Spector, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, notes that other primates share the same brain structures although it is debatable as to whether they use them in the same capacity. Other critics note that this study simply analyses a "thinking" brain as opposed to a brain actively undergoing a religious experience. This is such a lazy methodological criticism that I wonder how it can even be considered seriously. It is facetious to think or even expect a "visionary" or prayerful brain can be appropriately analysed, difficult as the process is already, what to speak of asking others to do so. I suggest that this type of armchair logic is unsuitable and unhelpful in further understanding this already very complex topic.

The final sentence is worth a quote: "Regardless of whether God exists or not, religious beliefs do exist and can be experimentally studied, as shown in this study."

This article carries further thoughts.
Kapogiannis, D., Barbey, A., Su, M., Zamboni, G., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106

March 14, 2009

Neuroscience and the Soul

Just spotted this letter published in the Feb 27 issue of Science. It addresses matters raised by non-materialist neuroscientists the Intelligent Design lobby about mind/body duality. I'm adding it here to my blog since this issue is one in which I am likely to participate in the future and so I would like to log as many instances of this "culture war" as possible. It is a hard task, but the logic of this letter is quite hard to refute in my opinion.

Neuroscience and the Soul

Science and religion have had a long relationship, by turns collegial and adversarial. In the 17th century Galileo ran afoul of the Church's geocentrism, and in the 19th century Darwin challenged the biblical account of creation. The breaches that open at such times often close again, as religions determine that the doctrine in question is not an essential part of faith. This is precisely what happened with geocentrism and, outside of certain American fundamentalist Christian sects, evolution. A new challenge to the science-religion relationship is currently at hand. We hope that, with careful consideration by scientists and theologians, it will not become the latest front in what some have called the "culture war" between science and religion. The challenge comes from neuroscience and concerns our understanding of human nature.

Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system. This first became clear in the realms of motor control and perception (1, 2). Yet, models of perceptual and motor capacities such as color vision and gait do not directly threaten the idea of the soul. You can still believe in what Gilbert Ryle called "the ghost in the machine" (3) and simply conclude that color vision and gait are features of the
machine rather than the ghost.

However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?

By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. "Nonmaterialist neuroscience" has joined "intelligent design" as an alternative interpretation of scientific data (4). This work is counterproductive, however, in that it ignores what most scholars of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures now understand about biblical views of human nature. These views were physicalist, and body-soul dualism entered Christian thought around a century after Jesus' day (5, 6).

To be sure, dualism is intuitively compelling. Yet science often requires us to reject otherwise plausible beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. A full understanding of why Earth orbits the Sun (as a consequence of the way the solar system was formed) took another century after Galileo's time to develop. It may take even longer to understand why certain material systems give rise to consciousness. In the meantime, just as Galileo's view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value or meaning of human life.

Martha J. Farah*
Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDepartment of Psychology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Nancey Murphy
School of Theology
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, CA
91182, USA


1. M. Jeannerod, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Action (Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ, 1997).
2. M. J. Farah, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Vision (Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ, 2000).
3. G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949).
4. M. Beauregard, D. O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperCollins, New York, 2007).
5. N. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2006).
6. J. B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 2008).

March 10, 2009


Looks like the entire blogosphere is abuzz with the news of President Obama's reversal of the foolhardy Bush philosophy of restricting stem cell research. So there isn't much to say that everyone else hasn't already said, and will just join everyone in the celebrations and jubilations.

After the signing of this Executive Order, the federal funding ban is now lifted and scientist researchers will now have government support and tax dollars to carry out lines of research that will bring advances as amazing as the growing of new organs for transplantation. As for the neuroscience field, stem cells (from monkey teeth!) will achieve fabulous things such as stimulating the growth and regeneration of brain cells. In this one example, Huang et al. (2008) at Emory University implanted dental pulp stem cells from the teeth of rhesus macaque monkeys were placed in a murine hippocampus. Cells born 7 days after the implantation went on to form neurons and neural progenitor cells (NPCs), and by 30 days indications of astrogliosis were observed. Astrogliosis refers to an increase in the number of astrocytes, a type of glial cell that performs many supportive functions to the brain including tissue regeneration following injury, as well as maintenance of the blood-brain barrier. In short, monkey stem cells promoted growth, cell recruitment and maturation of of repair responses in mice brains. How great is that?!

There is already talk of stem cells being used in connection with Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's Disease. Who knows what the future will bring? Scientists have been seething that such positive and encouraging research has been stifled, if not blocked altogether, by the Bush administration's myopic and misguided view that has more concerns with, surprise surprise, political ideology and the religious right. And now, thanks to President Obama's move, research can go on and the (US) National Institutes of Health have four months to set guidelines. Not bad at all.

And what more, Obama has issued a presidential memorandum that protects scientific research from political influence. So hopefully no one will think of messing around in the future. Below is the official text of the memorandum:

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

By this memorandum, I assign to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (Director) the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes. The Director shall confer, as appropriate, with the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and offices and agencies within the Executive Office of the President (collectively, the "agencies"), and recommend a plan to achieve that goal throughout the executive branch.

Specifically, I direct the following:

1. Within 120 days from the date of this memorandum, the Director shall develop recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch, based on the following principles:
(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;
(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;
(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer
review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards;
(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;
(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised; and
(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares.

2. Each agency shall make available any and all information deemed by the Director to be necessary to inform the Director in making recommendations to the President as requested by this memorandum. Each agency shall coordinate with the Director in the development of any interim procedures deemed necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific decisionmaking pending the Director's recommendations called for by this memorandum.

3. (a) Executive departments and agencies shall carry out the provisions of this memorandum to the extent permitted by law and consistent with their statutory and regulatory authorities and their enforcement mechanisms.
(b) Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) authority granted by law to an executive department, agency, or the head thereof; or
(ii) functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
(c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity, by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

4. The Director is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.


Sounds fairly reasonable.

Believer Brains Different from Non-Believer Brains?

ResearchBlogging.orgAs mentioned in an earlier blog about my research interests, my general (research) focus relates to issues of mental health (schizophrenic symptoms in particular) and I hope to build my career in that area. A side-interest of mine relates to neuropsychological and neurophysiological effects of religion. I am by no means any kind of expert on the matter nor am I intimately familiar with the breadth of literature that already exists on the subject. I like to briefly explore this issue for my own understandings and sometimes comment on any new findings.

Considering that the neurosciences as a whole are facing a rather misguided onslaught from Creationists (not-so-cleverly disguised members of the Intelligent Design lobby), it is likely that religious issues are likely to be brought oftentimes to the table in more or less the same manner as evolution has been and is being made a meal for the irrational and bloodthirsty.

Now last night I saw an interesting article entitled: "Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers". Doesn't that sound sensational? On the face of it it sounds as if something major has been discovered when the actual fact is that brain differences exist in all of us. Glaringly obvious, it is the reason why we all are different people. The individual differences are what make us unique. It is also the reason why people who suffer traumatic brain injury in similar areas exhibit symptoms that are similar to each other, but also different. Severity of injury is also a factor of course, but everyone's neurological makeup is different and will thus respond differently. So if brain differences are found between religious and non-religious people, is it really that much of a big deal?

Generally I prefer to read the actual papers of these studies and not Internet news articles, because by analysing the methodology and results of experiments it is possible to see whether the conclusions properly interpret the data. You'd be surprised how often they don't, or at least fall into the "correlation implies causation" trap. But before I go on, here's the basic info:

Michael Inzlicht and his colleagues at the University of Toronto carried out two studies (Study 1 = 28 participants, Study 2 = 22 participants, Total n = 50) by enabling participants to complete a Stroop Task while being hooked up to an Electroencephalogram (EEG) machine in order to measure their brainwaves. The Stroop Task is a well-known and frequently used psychological measure to test reaction times. It usually consists of looking at a series of words flashed briefly on a computer screen; by pressing a button (say, 'Enter') and another (say, the space bar) you confirm or deny the colour of the word that is displayed as fast as possible. If RED is displayed, you would press 'Enter' to confirm it, and if BLUE was displayed, you would press the space bar to deny it. As you might expect, this can get quite confusing especially as the task moves quite fast so it is natural to expect errors to be made. In this way it is a good way to measure response times and then analysing the correctness or erroneousness therein in terms of the study's aims.

And as these participants were hooked up to the EEG machine, they were measuring something called the error-related negativity (ERN), which is a waveform that is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain, which is an area usually associated with regulating emotional and cognitive responses. The main difference between the two studies was that in the first, the participants were previously tested for aspects of their personality such as the need for closure, behavioural inhibition and activation, self-esteem and religious zeal; the second tested a different group of participants using a single-item measure of belief in God, an IQ test, as well as a measurement (popularly known as the 'Big 5 Test') of five prominent aspects of personality. The experimental method in both studies was otherwise the same.

To cut a long story short, it turned out that the religious participants in both studies scored a lower spike in terms of getting incorrect answers.

In other words, Inzlicht and his colleagues interpreted their data as saying religious people tend to be less anxious and less prone to error than non-religious people ("religious conviction is associated with reduced neural responsivity to uncertainty and error").

Does this make sense to you? Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. There are a number of reasons why this result could have been obtained. For a start, the authors saw fit to explicitly mention that all the participants were right-handed, which might have affected their response times in pushing buttons. Might left-handed people have fared better? That's just a tiny reason, though, but I notice that the Neurocritic has done a wonderful job of analysing it this study and has related it to an earlier study by Amodio et al. (2007), that tested for brain differences in politically liberal and conservative people. He has noted a disagreement as to what exactly the ERN represents; is it an objective or emotional response to error? Remember, the ACC is involved in mediating both cognitive and emotional responses. And also, since EEG measurements are taken via electrodes attached to the scalp, how can we say for sure if the response really originates from the ACC?

And what if the people just happened to be of relaxed dispositions and generally nice chilled-out people? A total sample size of 50 doesn't fill me with the confidence to extrapolate these results to larger populations. Epiphenom, who has also commented on this Inzlicht study, made note of another study (Santesso & Segalowitz, 2009) assessing ERN responses in teenage boys which found them to be negatively associated with risk-taking behaviours. In other words, low ERN makes you less concerned with outcomes in general. It is also associated with low empathy and the low capacity to learn from mistakes.

This doesn't necessarily mean that low ERN measurements translates to religious people being really a heartless and thick bunch (opinions vary, I know); I know plenty who are kind, caring, sympathetic, loving, and all of that. But it does make me curious as to why this effect of less anxiety/stress is found amongst religious people. I know of studies that appear to support the other end of the spectrum, that religious people tend to be more stressed, more anxious, than non-religious people. Just as this Inzlicht study has it's shortcomings, other studies have theirs' too. And as every study analyses an issue from a specific angle it wouldn't be fair to make generalised and sweeping statements. What this all means is that there are a variety of reasons why both religious and non-religious groups of people experience anxiety and stress, such as genetics and life experiences.

A Twitter friend let me know of Neuralgourmet's report (originally reported in a 2002 New Scientist article) of a study conducted by a Dr. Peter Brugger of University Hospital, Zurich, in which he found that administering doses of L-DOPA to a group of believers and non-believers to increase their brain's dopamine levels resulted in more errors being made than normal on a task that required distinguishing between scrambled and actual facial images. Dopamine is a neurochemical that plays an important role in behaviour, cognition, motivation/reward, sleep, mood, attention, learning, and many other important functions. It cannot cross the blood-brain barrier by itself and cannot directly access the Central Nervous System (CNS), and so L-DOPA is a precursor that is administered to raise dopamine levels to cross that barrier. It is used, for example, in treating Parkinson's Disease. Brugger's research showed that non-believers were more able to distinguish between the two categories of images, but the dopamine levels of believers did not have an effect on their performance. He interpreted the results as suggestive of a connection between religious beliefs and dopamine levels. Given the widespread function of dopamine in the brain, I will leave it up to the reader to decide for themselves how relevant and far-reaching these findings are.

It would be tempting to speculate such things as believers having high levels of dopamine (thus prone to religious belief) and genetics studies may or may not confirm this. But when all extraneous factors are controlled for as far as possible, what this all means for us at the end of the day is that there are a variety of complex and intertwining factors that account for the presence of religion, whether it has an effect on the brain or vice-versa. Perhaps Inzlicht himself has provided an apt way of looking at the issue; in his paper he has brought Marx up to date and termed religion as the "Xanax of the people".

One thing in this study that piqued my interest was the use of the Religious Zeal Scale (McGregor et al., 2008). I didn't realise a scale to measure zeal had been developed! I imagine it should come in handy for some specific studies; some of the questions were: "‘I aspire to live and act according to my religious beliefs," "My religious beliefs are grounded in objective truth," and the wistful "I would support a war that defended my religious beliefs."

Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, Kyle Nash (2009). Neural Markers of Religious Conviction Psychological Science, 20 (3), 385-392 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x