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    Hardwired For The Mystical?
    By Michael W. Taft | February 8th 2012 02:21 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Michael W. Taft is a student of evolution, psychology, and the capacities of the human brain. A professional researcher and writer for more than...

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    The gap between atheists and the religious seems at times to be an impossible divide, almost as if believers and non-believers come from different species. What separates the secular from the sacred? An "Ask the Brains" question on the Scientific American site recently inquired as to any differences between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person. Andrew Newberg, the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, responded that, yes, in fact, there are some small but perceptible differences between the brains of believers and non-believers. Newberg is a pioneer in the field of "neurotheology," the study of how the brain approaches faith.
    For example, the frontal lobe of the brain governs reward, attention, and motivation. In past studies, those who meditate or pray regularly seem to have more active frontal lobes on average than those who do not. Meditation has even been shown to grow the frontal lobe. Newberg's own research has measured changes in cerebral blood flow among Franciscan nuns as they prayed in a meditative fashion, finding an significant increase in activity in the frontal lobe as well.

    The hippocampus is the center of memory and navigation in the brain; recent research from Duke University shows that people who have had a "born-again" experience showed more atrophy of the hippocampus on average than the religious who didn't identify as born-again. Research also suggests that the religious brain has higher levels of dopamine (the hormone associated with motivation, reward, and dozens of other processes) than the non-religious brain. But does the belief cause the brain changes, or does the brain initiate the impulse to believe?

    The human tendency to believe in the supernatural may have its roots in the development of language, or in our capacity to assign minds and actions to others, known as the theory of mind. How it evolved is up for debate, but the ritual burial practices of our Paleolithic ancestors imply that it has been around as long as humanity itself, becoming increasingly more complex with time. The stunning cave art found in Lascaux or Chauvet seems to have served some sort of ritual purpose as well. As humanity stabilized into sedentary populations after the neolithic revolution, organized religion began to take over in small pockets of civilization, spreading as the associated cultures began to increase in influence and power. The stunning megaliths at Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000 year-old structure on a hilltop in Turkey, may even suggest that the religious impulse was instrumental in the development of human society.

    But the effects of religion may also pertain to the present day. A recent study finds that the religious tend to have higher self-esteem and are better adjusted psychologically than the non-religious. The catch? This finding only held true in countries that put a high value on religion. Perhaps for these people, the value in religion is not in having faith itself, but in the social capital that comes with it in a pious society. This finding is reinforced by research done with senior women with and without a faith-based support network. But is religion just an old-fashioned social network in a world full of new social opportunities? After all, about 15 percent of Americans identify as having no religious affiliation, and the number seems to be growing.

    All of which leads us to an interesting point, in terms of the future of humanity. As Kiwi researcher James Flynn discovered, humanity’s IQ is increasing rather dramatically. This is probably due to increased nutrition, better early education, and a much more stimulating environment. Research also suggests that the progression will slow and finally stop as it reaches its higher end—Homo sapiens can only get so smart. But this intelligence maximum would still represent most of humanity possessing an IQ on something of the order of (measured in today’s numbers) 140. In other words, someday we may be living on a planet of geniuses, assuming that we are able to provide enough food, medicine, and education.

    We also know that as IQs rise, there tends to be a corresponding rise in atheism. It seems that the smarter a person is, the less likely he or she is to believe in a god. Does this mean that humanity is destined to shed the belief in a higher power like some sort of vestigial tail? Will we become a planet of brilliant secular humanists? Nobody knows, of course, but it is interesting to note that there are some countervailing forces at work.

    Spiritual beliefs may not only help individuals survive, but there is evidence that religion plays a strong role in group survival as well. In a study of several hundred historical American intentional communities, University of Connecticut anthropologist Richard Sosis found that secular groups were four times more likely to disappear per year than groups founded on religious principles. And in a further study that focused on just the religious groups, Sosis found a direct correlation between the number of religious rules placed on members and the longevity of the group as a whole. The stricter the rules, the longer the community lasted. Strictures that were placed on members of secular communities held no such power. “Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community—what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.” 

    Might future atheist cultures be less fit than the religious societies next door? Or is there a form of belief or spiritual practice that is suitable for atheists? As Professor Newberg noted in his answer cited above, we can reap many of the benefits of the spiritual brain with mindfulness meditation, a practice suited for even the most ardent atheist. Or perhaps mythology will give way to elegant metaphysics, creating a sort of Religion 2.0, wherein authority comes from reason and philosophy instead of the supposed revelations of a divine being. Duke University philosopher Owen Flanagan recently published an article titled "Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocus," proposing that religious Buddhism dispense with all supernaturalism (such as the concepts of karma and reincarnation), and inscribe the ethical and epistemological aspects of the faith onto a naturalistic, non-theistic background.

    Throughout human history religion has helped us to understand our world and to form effective groups based on a shared ideology. Though Western society is becoming increasingly more secular, the power of a shared faith to mobilize groups is obvious from Palestine to Tibet. We may not necessarily be hardwired for mystical experiences, but we are hardwired to benefit from a robust belief system shared by our peers and a contemplative spiritual practice, even if not necessarily a theistic one. Where we're headed is unlikely to be completely sacred, but it's probably not going to be entirely profane, either.

    One option to consider: David Eagleman’s Possibilianism.


    >"Research also suggests that the progression will slow and finally stop as it reaches its higher end—Homo sapiens can only get so smart. But this intelligence maximum would still represent most of humanity possessing an IQ on something of the order of (measured in today’s numbers) 140."<

    I disagree with this 140 limit. If its true then my non-religious family is already at the evolutionary intellectual limits of mankind's potential with the low end member of the family having a 138 IQ.

    The article doesn't mention the enlarged hippocampus means more neurons to the right amygdala or lower (reptilian fear threat-emotional) brain function inhibiting critical thinking skills (and empathy for others) in the anterior cingulate cortex to different degrees in individuals resulting in lower IQs.

    The number (140) is just a guess. Obviously there are many people with an IQ higher than this currently. I'm talking about a future *average* IQ. 

    And, of course, at that point the scale will be adjusted so that the average number is 100. 

    The point is that the upward IQ curve will probably level off at some point.
    The article you linked to, "The End of the Flynn Effect" suggested that gains in IQ have already levelled off, at least in Norway. I suspect gains will continue in developing countries as their living standards improve until they reach the same level as the developed world. From this, it seems unlikely that we will develop into "a planet of geniuses" so the upper limit of human intelligence may already have been reached. This is not to deny that future technologies might find some way of improving on nature.

    Gerhard Adam
    Since when has intelligence been well enough defined that we are able to use something as vague as an IQ test to evaluate it?

    I don't accept the notion that the IQ test is a particularly meaningful metric, and to suggest that humanity's intelligence is rising in a general sense, is speculative nonsense.  I would submit that human intelligence hasn't appreciably changed in tens of thousands of years, and there's no evidence to suggest that it is on the rise today.

    The supposed "Flynn" effect is an artifact of the testing mechanism, since it is obvious that it occurs on far too short a time scale to be of any evolutionary origin.  So, despite the fact that humans love to think of themselves as striking out on the path to genius, the reality is that little has likely changed, and in fact, it may have gotten worse.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The Flynn Effect isn't evolutionary in origin. It's probably due, as I mention in the article, to the fact that most of humanity is growing up with better nutrition and better education than we did in the past (world-wide). 
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, but you then go ahead and refer to intelligence anyway.  While there is no doubt that deficiencies can result if there is inadequate nutrition, intelligence is undoubtedly an evolutionary trait that isn't going to be subject to such trivial manipulation to spawn an increase.

    That's my problem with the assertion being made here, because without having a good explanation for what intelligence is, or how it arises, we jump to the conclusion that it is increasing with no better evidence than the suspect IQ tests.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Height is an evolutionary trait also, and the trivial manipulation of nutrition affects it very directly. It's not that nutrition is effecting "evolution," it's just allowing an existing feature to either develop to its full extent or not. 
    Gerhard Adam
    Height is hardly the same as intelligence.  In physical development there is a range of genetic potential (i.e. such as a marathon runner), which can be realized with nutrition and training.  Basically the ingredients are already present to affect the change.  However, for the same thing to be true regarding intelligence, then there would have to be a "range" over which such factors can operate.  While there is little doubt that deficiencies create difficulties, there is no evidence to suggest that better nutrition (beyond that required for normal development) ever increases the intelligence.  If you examine the link provided below, you'll see that the evidence suggests that even drugs that greatly help people with deficits, do not provide corresponding improvements in healthy brains.  This is a strong argument against your claim that nutrition would be sufficient to affect such a change.

    As I said before, there is absolutely no evidence that intelligence is increasing and certainly not over the short time spans being suggested. 


    What is your evidence for believing that humans are becoming more intelligent?  I'm assuming it's more than the Flynn effect.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "While there is little doubt that deficiencies create difficulties, there is no evidence to suggest that better nutrition (beyond that required for normal development) ever increases the intelligence."

    Again, what I'm saying—and said in the article—is that education and nutrition is capable of allowing "intelligence" (let's say some aspects of brain function) to achieve the highest part of their naturally available range. Nothing more. 

    As for the "speculative" word, the article is about the future. It's by definition speculative
    Gerhard Adam
    What nutritionally has changed over the past few decades?  What has changed in the educational system?  I assume that if you're willing to argue that intelligence has improved, that you have some evidence indicating that these "contributing factors" have experienced a significant change to account for it.

    Once again ... where's the evidence?

    Unfortunately I didn't find much that related to the future, beyond the typical discussion surrounding secular versus religious belief systems, none of which really covered any new ground.  More importantly it seems that the "elephant in the room" is the failure to recognize that all human thoughts are colored by belief systems, so it isn't necessarily a matter of religious versus secular, but rather what the philosophical basis for the beliefs are.

    Of course, coupled with their role in social institutions, it isn't always easy to separate out what is relevant from what is simply persistent.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I like how you manipulate your answer to support your argument, in saying "what nutritionally has changed over the past few decades?". Obviously not much, but if you look at how human nutrition has changed over the past few centuries, then we're talking a completely different ballgame.

    I agree with the writer of the article in the sense that nutrition, coupled with education, will increase any human's potential in terms of intelligence and the application thereof in everyday life.

    We live in a world where more people (average intelligence or not), are increasingly INFORMED about what's going on in the world. Examples range from "everyday normal people" reading science sites like this just for the fun of it, to children in school being exposed to literally an exponentially significantly bigger amount of information than previous generations. Information empowers even your average person, to know more, to learn more, and hence THINK more. This to me results immediately in an increase in a persons level of intelligence (however which way you'd like to "test" this intelligence). Practice & Exercise = improvement, that includes the brain.

    Also, to admit that nutritional changes in the last 100 years alone has resulted in humans on average being taller / larger than our recent ancestors, and then in the same breath saying there's no evidence (or reason) to think it did not affect the growth and / or development of another organ present in the body (the brain), simply does not make any sense to me.

    Gerhard Adam
    You're missing the point.  The Flynn effect specifically indicates that IQ has risen over the past few decades.  Therefore, we aren't interested in centuries.  It needs to be explained within the time period of the past 20-30 years.

    Therefore if IQ has risen in that time period, then there must be evidence that nutrition or education have changed to produce such an effect.  If not, then one must look elsewhere to explain the Flynn effect.

    Also, I don't like the malleability with which people use the term "intelligence".  It seems that it suddenly becomes a substitute for "better informed" or "more knowledgeable".  It is NONE of those things.  Intelligence is innate and even a completely uneducated person would still display the intelligence that their brain is capable of.  They may lack specific knowledge, but their brain would still possess the trait we call "intelligence".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Also, to admit that nutritional changes in the last 100 years alone has resulted in humans on average being taller / larger than our recent ancestors, and then in the same breath saying there's no evidence (or reason) to think it did not affect the growth and / or development of another organ present in the body (the brain), simply does not make any sense to me.
    Once again, the problem here is that you're simply assuming that brain growth correlates with intelligence.  We already know that isn't the case, since brain size correlates to body size, but not intelligence [otherwise whales would be geniuses].

    You also have the problem that if you want to use the increase in human height as an example, then you're arguing that people in the past were shorter.  By extension, your correlation to brain size means that they were also less intelligent.  So, how far back would you be willing to extrapolate before you'd have to conclude that our ancestors were intellectual idiots if your logic were correct?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Marcel van Heerden
    Hi. I'm not saying short people are stupid at all much less people living 200 years ago. What I'm trying to get across is that human development in terms of "intelligence" (again, in whichever way you'd like to test or assess it), has increased markedly in the last 100 years, especially since the advent of the internet and the explosion of information available to most economically active people.

    No, simply knowing more than we did 30 years ago does not make us smarter, however I put it to you that human intelligence can be developed over time, by exercising that organ the brain (and it is, especially in the last 30 or 40 years or so).

    Are you saying that the chips you're delt with when you're born, are what you have to deal with for the rest of your life ? What about the first 10 years of human development, which is critical for children to be stimulated, educated, and yes, properly and healthily fed nutritional food ?

    There are various studies showing how "problem children" who struggle socially and psychologically (and scholastically), can quickly benefit simply from adopting a proper diet.

    All I'm saying is that through proper nutrition and education at a young age, during which time brain development is still taking place (I say brain development for lack of a better term), is crucial, and will result in that person being more intelligent after the fact. I say this because I believe that the brain is an organ which through proper use&exercise, can increase it's abilities.

    I think stimulation through education and exposure to information on a constant basis does in fact increase intelligence, and not only knowledge. I don't have anything to back it up with granted, but based on my limited knowledge on the subject that's the conclusion I draw.

    I think I know your point (if I may), in that your inate intelligence at birth is what you have. Feed that brain information and viola, someone seems smart. Feed someone with a lower level of intelligence at the same age the same information, and you'll have a different result. Granted, however intelligence is not simply governed or assessed based on  knowledge, it's also measured on how that knowledge is applied through reason and thought. This comes through practice, exposure, and yes, proper nutrition. Try writing a difficult exam while fasting on (let's say) cracker jacks only for a week. We don't do that, because we've learnt that proper nutrition helps us think clearer (more intelligently).

    My 2c.