Questionable Motives

August 16, 2011

What do you mean our eyes don’t see?

This very short video shows why our brains, and not our eyes, see.

Our brains are also very good at tricking us. When we experience something, we try to make sense of it. What fills in the details is our brain – based on what aligns with our expectations and prior beliefs. These beliefs may or may not be based on what’s true in reality. That’s why it is so very important that we understand and appreciate that our attributions (to what we assign cause for the effect we have just experienced) may be wrong. Once we understand and accept that our attributions can be and often are wrong, we realize the importance of independent verification. This is where the method of science plays such an important role in determining reality and why we can’t arbitrarily suspend laws of nature to suit a particular faith-based belief without understanding at some level that we’re cheating. Our attributions for experiences we may not understand are not an authority for our faith-based beliefs if we are not willing to first submit them to independent verification and respect the results. When we protect our attributions from being subject to the arbiter of reality, we are allowing closing our minds to what is true (if we think it will go against what we believe to be true) and substituting belief in its place. Whatever conclusions we draw from this dishonest method to protect our beliefs has to be an untrustworthy guide to what is true in reality.

So when someone proposes some faith-based belief to be true on the merit that the person experiences something but is unwilling to submit those same beliefs to the arbitration of reality, they are not seeking what is true at all. They are really asking you to grant to them a special exemption of what is true in reality on behalf of their belief. If you agree to respect their beliefs, you are complicit in the cover-up of reality in the name of faith. This makes you an accomplice in religion’s role to respecting what’s believed to be true over and above what’s true in fact.

This is why religion and science can never be friends. The contrasting methods of inquiry cannot be complimentary ways of knowing. Because respect for what’s true in reality is subverted by the process of faith in beliefs the two must remain in conflict and contrary to their very core.

June 19, 2011

What’s that I hear?

Filed under: brain,Music,Neuroscience — tildeb @ 11:26 am

This site is way too cool not to post. It reveals again just how large an interpretative role our brains play in perceiving the world around us… this time involving the auditory sense. But are our perceptions true in fact? Is the subjective interpretation just as ‘true’ as the objective sound? Check out these ten illusions.

(h/t to WEIT)

August 29, 2010

What is prayer?

Filed under: belief,brain,Neuroscience,prayer,Science — tildeb @ 8:12 pm

Over on John Shore’s site there has been a post and commentary about prayer. All the responses have been generally positive about the important role prayer plays in the lives of many. From it being like a relaxant before bed to enjoying the benefits of talk therapy unavailable to atheists, from the suggestion that prayer allows us to become conscious of god to the assertion that it is evidence for god, the comments have been interesting but very much of a type.

So I offered the following comment, which – unlike all other posts I have made – has been awaiting moderation for a day.  Makes me wonder why. Any suggestions?

Meditative prayer with god presumes the object reality of god. When we ‘feel’ better for the exercise, we reinforce our belief that god is real. This assumption is then used to justify belief in an intercessory prayer. After all, because we know that god is real through our experience of meditative prayer and we feel different during and after praying (so the cause must be external because we cannot arbitrarily change how we feel, right?), then it is but a very small step to believing that there must be something to intercessory prayer as well, where god somehow orchestrates a kind of intentional intervention. There are many scriptural references that intercessory prayer works. But are any of these references and conclusions actually true?

Well, we know that people who believe in the power of charismatic healing inhibit their brain’s capacity to critically think by shutting down parts of their medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and we know through a meta-analytic review that there is no evidence to show any causal link greater than chance between prayer and effect. We do know that mindful meditation alters brain chemistry and improves immune function, which brings into question our assertion of the need for any external agency for mood alterations and how we feel during meditative prayer at all.

Once again, we cannot trust that what we believe is true is necessarily true unless we have some less subjective way to test it. And when we do test the claims made on behalf of prayer, what we find is that it offers us no evidence for any external agency.

May 4, 2010

What do you predict will happen?

Filed under: belief,brain,Cause and Effect,Faith,Neuroscience,Religion — tildeb @ 3:38 pm

Let’s do some predicting of our own. What do you think happens to our brains when we fall under the influence of charismatic individuals like faith healers?

From New Scientist:

To identify the brain processes underlying the influence of charismatic individuals, Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues turned to Pentecostal Christians, who believe that some people have divinely inspired powers of healing, wisdom and prophecy.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

Oh, that’s good. So what do you think the findings might be? Intriguing, isn’t it?

Let’s see:

Only in the devout volunteers did the brain activity monitored by the researchers change in response to the prayers. Parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which play key roles in vigilance and scepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say, were deactivated when the subjects listened to a supposed healer. Activity diminished to a lesser extent when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023).

Schjødt says that this explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness.

Are we surprised the brain effect is based on the subject’s preconceived notions? Only if you are a believer in supernatural agencies, I suspect.

But if preconceived notions of authority and trustworthiness are indeed what causes the effect in the brain, then studies of a similar effect of other people in authority and trustworthiness should yield the same results. Does the study’s author take this into consideration?

It’s not clear whether the results extend beyond religious leaders, but Schjødt speculates that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents and politicians.

So we wait and wonder…

March 22, 2010

Why do we believe in the supernatural? A neurological explanation…

Filed under: belief,brain,Neurology,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 10:42 am

Have you ever heard of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device? Neither have I. So what is it?

According to Justin Barrett, under certain conditions, humans commonly interpret two-dimensional, moving
geometric shapes as having the properties of causality and animacy. In other words, our brains – and our neurological response to visual stimuli in particular – come wired to seek and assign agency. This is HADD… a description of a complex neurological preference to detect agency.

Neuroscientist Steve Novella explains:

Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

Bruce Hood adds to our understanding:

We imbue agents with an essence – a unique living force, even while infants. Objects are just generic things, totally interchangeable. While agents have their own unique essence. Interestingly, children can come to view a favorite toy (a stuffed animal, for example) with the properties of an agent and will treat it like a living thing. This reinforces the notion that the distinction we make is not between living and non-living so much as agent vs object.

This biological tendency we have to assign agency where none may exist helps to explain why we seem so willing to believe in all kinds of supernatural agencies. Back to Doctor Steve:

HADD detects more than movement, it can detect a pattern in otherwise unrelated events, details that defy easy explanation, or consequences that seem out of proportion to the alleged causes. When HADD is triggered we tend to see a hidden agent working behind the scenes, making events unfold the way they do, and perhaps even deliberately hiding its own tracks.

So if we are aware that we are predisposed by our neurology to assign agency where none may exist, then what can we do to safeguard our perceptions from our imaginings? Novella is quite clear with advice on how we can accomplish this willful task:

Skepticism, in many ways, is a filter on HADD. First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed. Science and skepticism are methods for correcting or filtering out those biases. Skeptics asks themselves – is it really true. We see many patterns, but only some of those patterns represent underlying reality. We need a process to sort out which ones are real – that is science and skepticism.

February 16, 2010

Spirituality: a learned cultural attribute or a manifestation of brain hardwiring?

Filed under: brain,Neurology,Spirituality — tildeb @ 1:42 pm

A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence. The authors found, after looking at 88 patients, that those who had tumors removed from the inferior parietal lobe or the right angular gyrus, but not the frontal lobes, reported increases in thoughts and feelings that might be interpreted as signs of self-transcendence.

This of course raises the thorny issue of the relationship between religious belief and brain function – although the authors are careful to distinguish religion from spirituality. The study used questions to assess the subjects’ feelings of oneness with nature, ability to lose themselves in the moment (feel disconnected from time and space), and belief in a higher power. Those subjects with tumors removed in the areas mentioned experienced immediate increases in these phenomena, while those with tumors removed from other regions of the brain did not.

The piece that seems the least well understand at this time is the profound sense of spirituality that often accompanies these feelings of being outside one’s body or being one with everything. It is easy to understand why these would be extraordinary experiences that might compel someone to reconsider their views of reality (especially if they do not have a neurological explanation at hand). And it seems obvious that feeling one with god or the universe would lead to spiritual feelings about our place in the world.

From Neurologica

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