Neuroscience, meet religion. Religon, this is neuroscience. Don’t get comfortable though. Your friends probably won’t like seeing you together.
An article in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has the daunting title, Augmenting Immune Responses to Varicella Zoster Virus in Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Tai Chi. Subscription is required, but news outlets are reporting on the study’ results: summed up, Tai chi is linked to better immune response in seniors.
I’ve often thought Tai Chi would be a good component of physical education programs in public schools. Unfortunately, associations with ‘flaky, new age Chinese spirituality’ would probably scuttle attempts to implement them. Perhaps science about the benefits of Tai Chi could use some framing.
Therapies which seem to have close allegiances with religion do not have much scientific credibility. But perhaps neuroscience can change this by showing how spirituality, faith and religous beliefs interact with the nervous system.
Richard Davidson is perhaps the worlds first neurotheologist, and gained fame from his controversial collaboration with Buddhist monks. His studies of how meditation affects the brain and immune system might help explain the Tai Chi study.
Pop over to Neurophilosophy Blog for more details about Davidson’s work. An earlier post there reminded me the word neurotheology was coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 novel Island, as well as the strange connection between epilepsy, magnetic fields, and religious experiences (although this has proved difficult to replicate).
On that last topic, have you ever wondered, has Richard Dawkins ever had a religious experience? If so, pop over to Plonka’s blog. It has a cute description of how a documentary producer introduced Dawkins to Michael Persinger, who tried unsuccessfully to induce a religious sensation in the famous atheist.
Quite apart from testing the convictions of nervous atheists, there are a host of interesting questions that neurotheology might answer. Since the connection between ethics and religion is so intimate, should we expect connections between brain regions involved in moral decision-making, and brain regions involved in thinking about god? I’d be interested in seeing the results of investigations into the brain science of ‘faith’, which is a peculiar form of thinking that seems to permit us to protect beliefs by shutting down critical inquiry. It would also be interesting to see how willingness to take things on faith is associated with how the brain allows us to experience trust in authority figures.
As might be expected, people are interested in this because of the traditional hostility between science and religion. Hence the CNN item, Are humans hard-wired for faith? which profiles another neurotheologist, Andrew Newberg. (Hat tip: Women’s Bioethics Project)
It is a short piece, containing the expected quotes by research subjects, researcher and some interdiscipliinary flavour in the form of anthropologist Scott Atran. Strangely, no comments were solicited from religious leaders. As any mainstream audience is likely to include a significant proportion of religious people, the item instead tried to soften the implication that the research supports atheism.
To be sure, religion has the unparalleled power to bring people into groups. Religion has helped humans survive, adapt and evolve in groups over the ages. It’s also helped us learn to cope with death, identify danger and finding mating partners.
Today, scientific images can track our thoughts on God, but it would take a long leap of faith to identify why we think of God in the first place.
Even if the social and psychological effects of religion provide a net benefit, the last paragraph’s reference to a ‘long leap of faith’ makes no sense. I’ll chalk it up to a journalist using word-play to end the item with the suggestion ‘science can’t know everything’.
Note: The CBC evening news is reporting religous literacy in Canada and the USA is declining. Check today’s podcast. They have parked this interesting story towards the end of the ‘cast.