Tag Archives: brain

Tom Wolfe kicked off a mainstream understanding of brain imaging that challenged faith

The recently departed writer wrote a 1996 piece for Forbes ASAP, a magazine supplement to Forbes, entitled, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.”

When I read it back then, Wolfe’s reporting on the nascent field of brain imaging seemed to have big implications, which was exactly his point: “…anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty–first–century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.”

Since then, “neuroscience” has exploded within something like a popular consciousness as brain-scan findings and their possible implications are served by journalists to mainstream audiences. I guess I did just that in my last post about brain scans and beliefs. (When you’re not an expert, you just quote experts.)

So I’m grateful to Vaughan Bell for writing this February 2016 piece in the Guardian, republished this week after Wolfe’s passing: “Did Tom Wolfe’s bold predictions about human nature come true?” Bell gives a quick overview and assessment of Wolfe’s 1996 predictions. I especially liked this sentence from Bell’s second paragraph:

An interest in neuroscientists—brain geeks—must have seemed like an enthusiasm for paint salesmen to much of the mid-90s public but Wolfe saw a genuine cultural subversion emerging from the field.

To what extent has “genuine cultural subversion emerg[ed] from the field”? Read all of Bell’s essay to find out.

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‘Subliminal Perception: Just How Fast Is The Brain?’ – Neuroskeptic

Scary:

Psychologists and neuroscientists are fairly skeptical of any grand or sinister claims for the power of subliminal advertising or propaganda, but on the other hand, many of them use the technique as a research tool.

So what’s the absolute speed limit of the brain? What’s the minimum time that a stimulus needs to appear in order to trigger a measurable brain response?

In a new study, Swiss researchers Holger Sperdin and colleagues say that they’ve detected neural activity in response to images presented for just 250 microseconds – that’s 1/4 of a millisecond, or 1/4000-th of a second.

(via Subliminal Perception: Just How Fast Is The Brain? – Neuroskeptic, a Discover Magazine blog)

So your brain could respond to a stimuli even when you are not conscious of the stimuli.

The case for an intangible mind or soul

In my previous post, I questioned the existence of the “heart” in the context of Christianity. I’m not talking about the blood-pumping organ here but rather something that is more like the central desiring and imagining aspect of a human. I questioned the existence of the “heart” by excerpting a newspaper article about the experiences of a man who suffered permanent brain damage following the removal of a tumor. The details of the man’s life, before and after surgery, seemed to leave little space for the “heart” to operate without a brain (or little space for a “heart” to exist without specific brain circuits). However, I also included a link to Alvin Plantinga’s review of Thomas Nagel’s new book, which critiques “materialistic naturalism” from an atheistic perspective.

I didn’t intend to slam the door too strongly on the possibility of an intangible element of humans, only to question to quick-and-easy assumptions of Christianspeak, which is shot through, for good or ill, with the language of Platonism and Cartesian dualism.

If there’s an easily understandable counterpoint to materialistic naturalism, it appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post site, written by Kelly Bulkeley, who has a PhD in psychology and is tagged as a “psychologist of religion” and a “dream researcher.”

Bulkeley focuses part of his post on the book A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology. The otherwise excellent book, in Bulkeley’s opinion, falls apart in the final chapter, when Zeman opts against mind in favor of brain. Bulkeley writes,

In the preceding paragraphs, Zeman acknowledges that philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn and David Chalmers have raised devastating critical questions about physicalism that he cannot refute.  Yet he decides to accept physicalism anyway, based on what he calls a “hunch,” a strong “intuition,” and something he “suspect(s)” about the crypto-religious beliefs of those who do not accept physicalism. 

Bulkeley makes some interesting points. Read his entire article here.

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making

I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.

Creating religious experiences in the lab; is your experience of faith all in the brain?

In this video, Michael Shermer dons the “God Helmet,” and neuroscientists explain the experience.

Does your brain make you evil?

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Image via Wikipedia

Last night, I started to watch (and recorded for later) the Discovery Channel’s series Curiosity, specifically episode 12, entitled, “How evil are you?”

For this episode, the Discovery Channel picked a fitting host: Eli Roth, the director and producer behind envelope-pushing horror movies Cabin FeverHostel, and Hostel: Part II.

I watched the earlier minutes of the program when Roth interviews a neuroscientist who once researched the brain scans of numerous murderers.

The neuroscientist — Dr. James Fallon of the University of California, Irvine — says each of the violent criminals have similar characteristics in two parts of the brain, one being above the eyes, the other being an area on the side of the brain.

How far do you take these results?

At very least, it seems that problems in two parts of the brain make a person more likely to commit a violent crime. Do these problems undermine an individual’s ability to choose right instead of wrong? Is a person born with these brain problems any more responsible for his condition than someone born with dyslexia?

 Related articles

Brain research and your spiritual life; of bad habits and religious rituals

Bad habits tend to involve things we do with our bodies, but spiritual and religious cures tend to involve intangible, unseen things like prayers, beliefs, and will-power.

Habits are developed, maintained, and broken in the brain, according to this research from MIT.

The spiritual and religious cures that deal exclusively with intangible, unseen things ignore the full picture of human nature.

The spiritual and religious cures seem to be dualistic, making the body like oil on top of the mind’s or spirit’s water.

The assumption is if the mind or spirit gets right, the body will get right, too.

Is this dualistic view orthodox? Difficult to answer. In Christianity, the believer is promised a resurrected body.

Can we really overcome a bad neural pathway in the brain without directly engaging the brain? Tough question. God does seem to empower some people to overcome temptations.

No matter how you answer those questions, consider this: if our bodies engage with material things for bad habits, our bodies should also engage with material things for good habits.

Good rituals, and habitual engagement with good symbols, might not replace a bad habit, but rituals with good symbols would be better than no bodily engagement at all. (Along those lines, see my argument in favor of Montessori-based Christian education here.)

What starved senses in a man who can only think of his body as engaged in the bad, and only think of some intangible part of himself as engaged with the good.

How does this non-material, non-biological view of change track with the Incarnation? If flesh and bone is, in and of itself, sinful, how could He who knew no sin have taken on flesh and bone? I think “flesh” would include the brain.

As researchers interviewed for this MSNBC article said, humans can strengthen good habits.

Imagine Christian spirituality this way: At the bottom, we have natural law, or the moral law that C.S. Lewis describes in an appendix to his book The Abolition of Man. This is the moral law that seems to have been consistently intuited by humans throughout history. However, it is also a moral law that we all, to greater or lesser degrees, have violated.

At the top, we have God’s help, God’s power that enables people to do truly good things and overcome selfishness. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book Heretics, the only requirement for selfishness is to have a self (which is why “education” in information and basic knowledge won’t make better people).

At the bottom, the moral law. At the top, God’s help.

Here’s what’s in middle: family traditions, ritual practices, ceremonies, liturgical celebrations — the habits and cycles, associated with Biblical stories and Christian symbols, that write new neural pathways into our brains.

As noted in the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, good changes in the brain are possible.

Let me jump back to a wide angle on this topic: I seriously doubt that Christian evangelists and apologists can adequately engage the world without some understanding of brain research. What makes us human? What’s the norm for being human? What do we assign to the intangible, unseen realm that is actually tangible, if located in the dark cave of the skull?

While my hope is in the free gift of the New Covenant, I do not believe that God controls everything we become. As it turns out, as humans, as biological beings with brains, at least part of who we are, at least part of who we make ourselves to be, depends upon what we do. We can be staunch believers in that New Covenant and still have no pattern of life or practice that associates with Biblical patterns or Christian symbols.