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

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