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Religion in the media/Religion in the public discourse

I find one side saying, “You can’t use the religion that way”, and another one saying, “Religion is stupid.” And that actually makes it very difficult to get into the social space. The intellectual marketplace of ideas is very, very difficult. So for example, I work a lot trying to enter the media, whether it’s . . . I’ve been on the Today show. I’ve been on O’Reilly. These kinds of pundit shows, you know, where you can offer a “spiritual intuition” to whatever the problem is. It doesn’t make a difference. It could be taxes. It could be the war in Iraq. And not a right wing or left wing. Not God is a Democrat or God is a liberal, but a spiritual perspective that kind of gets at the fears and the hopes of everybody as we talk about it so the conversation can be different. And I find that from the media’s perspective, what they really like is religion either to be covered as ugly, and violent, and exotic, and crazy, and nuts ‘cause that’s entertaining; or as trivial and ridiculous. And religion doesn’t have to be trivial and ridiculous like the Hitchens folk claim it is. And it doesn’t have to be violent, and coercive, and abusive like fundamentalists often wind up making religion. It’s a very difficult cultural space to find out . . . that’s on the Meta level. And then the most difficult thing on a personal level is it’s amazing how many people come at me when I’m giving a talk who will wait two hours to talk about how much they have been hurt, and yet how much they seek. And that combination – to be that hurt by a religious community and at the same time still seek religious meaning, still seek some kind of spiritual connection, and even seek the kind of belonging to a spiritual community – it is remarkable, but it is also really painful to just hear that day after day. I use the ecological model in understanding how wisdom traditions ought to work in the world today. And the ecological model, we need every single species. We don’t know which species that’s gonna be extinct was actually gonna be central in figuring out something that would enhance our lives on this planet. Well I consider ancient religious wisdom traditions much like species. We don’t know which ones are contributing exactly what to the unfolding of and the development of human beings on this planet. And the greatness of this moment . . . The greatness for America, the unbelievable freedom, and openness and permeability of at least intellectual and spiritual boundaries, the greatness of the technology that now allows us to speak across every institutional, and dogmatic, and theological barrier – every single one if we want – the greatness is people can bring their wares . . . you know their wisdom to the marketplace. And not only marketplace on the low level, but into the intellectual and spiritual tables that everyone can dine at. And we need them all ‘cause you don’t know which resource and which tool you’ll need when in your life. And I understand the danger in that. The danger is everybody will become a tourist. And being a tourist is different than living somewhere; and that’s different from being a pilgrim; and that’s different than being a pioneer; but each of us have our psychological and spiritual pre-dispositions towards being in the world in different ways. And the opportunity of this moment is to bring our wisdoms – everyone. I don’t care if you’re an imam, or a priest, or a minister, or . . . to bring your spiritual wares, practices and wisdom to the marketplace, to the public culture, to the public arena and offer it. And what’s great about this kind of freedom is it’s a phenomenal test to see if your wisdom works.

It’s scary for all religions, and that’s why some religions are freaking out right now; but it’s an unbelievable cleansing moment, because now we’re gonna have evidence-based spirituality. You know like evidence-based medicine. Now we’re gonna have evidence-based spirituality. Here’s the practice. Here’s the wisdom. Try it. Meditate on it. Reflect on it. Contemplate it. Use it. Does it work? Fine. If not, then you know what? It’s not gonna make it. Recorded on: 8/15/07

The media likes to portray religion as as ugly, and violent, and exotic, and crazy, and nuts because that�s entertaining, or as trivial and ridiculous. Yet, in our modern world, there is still the need to seek the kind of belonging that comes with a spiritual community; there is a necessity to bring spiritual wares, practices and wisdom to the public culture, whether imam, priest, or minister.

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    Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

    The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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