Sunday, September 13, 2009

God and Brain Studies: Final Answers Still A Long Way Off.

At least that’s what I understand from the latest research I found online: Is This Your Brain On God?


There are in the links some very interesting and thought-provoking articles which I recommend reading. I’ll sum up my view. Has science disproved the existence of God? No. Has science established that the brain can affect the body in both positive and negative ways? Yes. Has science established that the brain may only be a receptacle of consciousness? No. Has science proved that consciousness can only come from the brain? No. Of course this is the default position of many scientists, including Daniel Dennett.

Other points I noted from the research is that the brain is like a sort pliable mechanism which can operate how we choose, and interestingly, our personal beliefs or general outlook on life seem to be factors in this:

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.
"In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality," Ironson says. "That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date."
"Just so I understand it," I confirm, "if someone weren't taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?"
"Yes," she says. "Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that people don't take their meds," she adds quickly, laughing. "This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above."

Can My Prayers Affect Your Body?

Ironson calls the finding extraordinary. She was one of the first researchers to connect a patient's approach to God to specific chemical changes in the body.
Of course, mind-body medicine — the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my own health — has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean my thoughts can affect another person's body?
"The answer is pretty unequivocally no," says Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Sloan notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer either had no effect, or the patients actually grew worse.
Sloan says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body — for example, through chemical changes in the brain that affect the immune system.
"There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person," Sloan says. "None. We know of nothing."
A few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question. Can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?
Or, as Marilyn Schlitz puts it: "Does our consciousness have the capacity to reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health-promoting?"


Link to above: Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

So it looks like the question of whether prayers/attitude can affect others is still an open question for some. Another interesting aspect of the research is that we can create our own spiritual experiences, and even have visions. The studies show that those who prayed for long periods had a change in brain patterns. This raised in my mind the question of religious belief. So here’s my hypothesis: Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Koreshites, Jim Jonesites, et al develop patterns of belief. In other words, they may well be experiencing something genuinely spiritual that enormously affects them, which they then attribute to the “truth” of their particular religion/belief/God man/prophet. The more they pray with this association in mind, the more intense their belief becomes, or is sustained over a long period of time. Logic doesn’t have much, if anything to do with this, and indeed, as Eric Hoffer and others have noted, such beliefs can be quite irrationally but powerfully held. It seems like we tune our brains to accept the truths we want, and over long periods of time it just becomes habit; second nature.

None of this suggests to me that God does not exist. What it does suggest is that we are free agents, and can chart the course of our lives however we wish. I think the basic message is if you want to be successful and happy in life, be positive, have a positive outlook on life, and maybe even pray or meditate a lot.

Newberg says he can't prove that McDermott or anyone else is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence.
"What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective," he says.
Then he'll compare the mystical feelings with the brain physiology.

A Sense Of Oneness With The Universe

Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.
"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."
When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."
Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.
"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.
A little theological dynamite there — but, remember, the research is just beginning.

'You Can Sculpt Your Brain'

So far, scientists have focused on people who pray or meditate for one, two or more hours a day. They think that studying spiritual virtuosos will offer clues to the brain workings of more typical believers. But now Newberg and others are turning their attention to people who want to enrich their spiritual lives, but don't have that kind of time.

And there's hope for people with jobs and kids.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says you can change your brain with experience and training.
"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym," he says. "Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."

It's called neuroplasticity. For years Davidson, who is at the University of Wisconsin, has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks who have logged years of meditation. When it comes to things like attention and compassion, their brains are as finely tuned as a late-model Porsche. Davidson wondered: Could ordinary people achieve the same kind of connection with the spiritual that the monks do — without so much effort?

I wondered that, too. And when I heard his lab was launching a study lasting two weeks, I said, "Sign me up."

It turned out I was too old for the study. But they let me see what it was about. For 30 minutes every morning, I settled into my chair to the soothing tones of a meditation CD. The voice of a University of Wisconsin graduate student urged me to shower compassion on a loved one, a stranger, myself.
The trouble came when I was asked to visualize someone I had difficulty with in life. I became surly, as I reflected on the minor tragedies in my life and the people who caused them. When I saw Richard Davidson, I didn't mention how ill-tempered I had grown.
"Is there a capacity to change my brain if I continue with this?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he responded enthusiastically. "I would say the likelihood is that you are already changing your brain."
I hope not. Others, however, were far more successful in cultivating a spiritual mind-set. Davidson couldn't tell me about the results of my study, which have yet to be published. But he could say there were detectable changes in the subjects' brains within two weeks. Another similar study, where employees at a high-tech firm meditated a few minutes a day over a few weeks, produced more dramatic results.
"Just two months' practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions," he said.
For example, they developed more antibodies to a flu virus than did their colleagues who did not meditate.


Link to above: Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality

I will conclude with an important caveat that even though spiritual experiences, prayer and meditation can be positive, and even give better mental and physical health, it may not change our dogmatic views. Paradoxically, I hypothesise that in some it may even increase intolerance because of the feeling that the person is in possession of a “one and only truth”. That feeling of superiority may even paradoxically account as a “positive” to the person. Nature is no respecter of persons in this regard. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man of the planet, but that doesn’t mean he might not also be an arrogant person (not suggesting he is). Success and a positive outlook on life doesn’t tell us much about humility, or tolerance, or just plain wisdom and common sense. People who ascend to these “spiritual levels” also tend to be eccentric or even control freaks in some cases, like David Koresh or Jim Jones. And I think most of those who know my thinking on this know that I’m not a fan of organised religion. I think it can indeed be more harmful than good in many instances, especially in the more fundamentalist religions that insist on having “only truth”. In fact any excessive devotion to a “cause” can be counterproductive, as so long and well noted by Eric Hoffer.

I’ve only given a very basic outline, with my own thoughts. The link at the top, with extensions within, is well worth reading in full. You may come up with an opinion totally different to mine.

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