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Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God?
What's the Big Idea?
Our Lady of Lourdes appears 18 times to a miller's daughter collecting firewood in a small market town in France. A young woman leads an army through critical strategic victories in the 100 Years' War, claiming to be guided by divine insight. In the very first hours of the 20th century, a student asks God to fill her with the holy spirit and begins to speak in tongues.
Are these incidents case studies in undiagnosed mental illness, spiritual transcendence, or something nebulously in between?
Watch our interiew with Dr. Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in the field of neurotheology:
It's an interesting and elusive question for neuroscientists, with big implications on our understanding of consciousness. As the Nobel-prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel has said, reductionism -- the idea that a system is nothing more than the interactions between its parts -- is an extremely successful theory of biology, but as a "theory of everything," it fails to provide us with a sufficient explanation of a few basic, fundamental elements that shape human perception.
Particularly, religion. Why do we care whether or not God exists? And why do so many people believe? A new generation of neuroscientists is addressing those questions directly, with the ambitious goal of measuring what happens to the human brain during spiritual experiences. Dr. Andrew Newberg is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine and a pioneer in the field of neurotheology. Newberg doesn't identify with a particular religious group, but he's fascinated by the profound significance and persistence of human faith throughout history.
To measure the effects of trance states and ritual on the brain, he uses a technique called single photon emission computed tomography, in which subjects are injected with a chemical that emits gamma rays. A computer collects the information transmitted by the rays and constructs from it an image of the brain depicting blood flow to the various regions. The more blood flow to a particular region, the more brain activity. Using this method, Newberg has studied the brains of Franciscan nuns during prayer, Tibetan monks during meditation, and Pentecostals speaking in tongues.
What's the Significance?
What he's found is surprising: religious feeling is not invisible. The common thread among mystical and spiritual practices is that while people are engaged in them, the lobes of their brain can be seen working together to create a powerful emotional experience. "When we looked at [subjects'] brain scans, instead of the frontal lobes going up, the frontal lobes actually went down [in blood flow]. Which makes sense in the context of what they are describing is happening to them," Newberg explains. "They don't feel that they're purposely making it [happen]. They feel that they are being basically overcome by the experience."
He believes that what subjects describe as their interaction with God is a shutting down of their concentrative, willful attention in order to allow this experience of transcendence to happen. "For them it's the spirit of God which is moving through them. I can't prove that or disprove that on the basis of a brain scan, but I can see the changes that are going on in the brain while they're engaged in this very, very powerful and very deep spiritual practice... It certainly looks like the way the brain is put together makes it very easy for human beings to have religious and spiritual experiences."
The question, then, is not whether we're wired for what we've come to call spiritual experiences exist, but how a tendency towards the transcendent makes us better adapted to live and survive in the world around us. What is the evolutionary purpose of belief?
A hint lies in the fact that it's likely the repetition rather than the content of a ritual that makes it effective. It doesn't seem to matter whether a person chants or recites a verse or thinks a specific thought; a transcendent or meditative state is achieved through practice, strengthening connections in the brain around a particular idea or task. Religious practices may in fact be useful in a secular context. Whatever they mean to you, there's evidence that simple rituals like breathing deeply when you're stressed can improve your mental health and help you cope with the world, even if you're skeptical about whether there's a divine plan behind it.
Bernadette Soubirous was living in a one-room basement when she saw her first vision of an illuminated woman, which she referred to as "acquero" meaning "that."
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
The future of deepfakes<p>In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.</p><p>But the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=324528215059254" target="_blank">video</a> is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real. </p><p>The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-seeing-still-believing-the-deepfake-challenge-to-truth-in-politics/#cancel" target="_blank">2020 report from The Brookings Institution</a>. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes. </p><p>As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."</p>
Context is everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.