People with an upper socioeconomic status or background tend to be less engaged in conversations.
In a Berkeley study where two participants were filmed while having a conversation, the participants of the higher socioeconomic status or background displayed more disengagement behaviors, such as fiddling with things, not making eye contact or doodling.
People of a lower socioeconomic status or background were more likely to make eye contact, smile and nod or otherwise engage in the conversation. The disparity was so great that even objective viewers later could guess participants’ socioeconomic background by their body language.
The relevant point about religion is its practical value to the brain and genetics. Stripped of dogma, all religions share a basic premise of living a life in accordance with certain basic principles, with the aim of reaching a higher and far more rewarding level of existence. The idea that the brain needs to have some kind of spiritual exercises to develop its potential, varying between individuals, is no different than the idea that the body needs exercises to develop and maintain its natural strength, and that these will vary between all people depending on their abilities, present state, and preferences.
In Christianity, for example, the lasting benefits from the life of Jesus were not the miracles, or those attributed to him, but his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer. Dsimissed as rubbish by modern intelligentsia, these are fabulous spiritual documents. The words of the eloquent Lord’s Prayer have a soothing and uplifting effect on the brain. And as human brains are all the same design, these gifts were for all humanity, not just a select group, as the priests would have had us believe. The effort to turn religious knowledge into a gated private estate is an insult to the founders, who had no such intention. The only aspect which could propel religion to the forefront of scientific thought is that the way of life prescribed by it can have a soothing effect on the brain, assisting its evolution, and enhancing its functioning.
What the latest research is showing is that morality has biological roots, and that these roots have been around a very long time. Morality is based on the ability to feel empathy. Empathy comes from mirror neuron activity, a tendency within the neurons which fire in a certain way when we perform an action, to fire in a very similar way when we see others perform the same action. This lends us the ability to understand what others go through and is the biological basis of empathic behaviour; the lack of it causes severe difficulties, in autistic children and in the scient-austist – a high performing intellectual without any concept of the suffering of others.
This deficiency also creates the born psychopath, who feels nothing when causing suffering to others. When this kind of personality rises to power, recent examples being Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Tony Blair, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Radovan Karadzic, Radko Mladic, Milan Lukic, Arkan, Kim Jong Il, Ariel Sharon etc, they can oversee, organise, or ignore the massacre of thousands of innocent people and feel nothing whatsoever. When gifted with emotional charmisma, men such as Adolf Hitler can bewitch entire countries and for their own ends, light up the planet with the flames of war.
Animals come hard wired with this behaviour, which shows the level of degeneration achieved by leading players today on the world stage. Experiments show that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbour receives an electric shock, it will eventually forgo eating to avoid the empathic pain it feels. Mirror neuron activity is an explanation for this altruism:
In monkeys, mirror neurons fire when the monkey reaches for a banana. The same neurons activate when the monkey sees another monkey or human likewise reaching for a banana. Within patches of mirror neurons, some cells fire more vigorously when the monkey sees the action, and others fire more vigorously when the monkey itself performs the action. Imitation – monkey both sees and does—generates the strongest neuron response.
We can take this a step further. Some mirror neurons fire if the monkey reaches for a hidden banana, but don’t fire if it reaches behind a screen where it knows there is no banana. Other neurons fire if the context suggests the banana is going to be eaten, versus put in a box. In other words, mirror neurons encode abstract ideas (such as the idea of a banana, even if it can’t be seen) and complex ideas like intentions or goals.
In humans, mirror neuron activity is studied by a scanning technique called functional MRI. A person is awake with his head in a specially designed MRI scanner while he does an experimental task. The MRI detects how much blood flows to different parts of the brain as different tasks are done. Increased blood flow indicates more activity in that part of the brain at that moment.
With all this as background, consider what happens when you look at someone’s facial expression. If you have normally functioning mirror neurons, you immediately feel the emotion expressed in the other person’s face. The mirror neuron fires and sends its impulse to the emotional (limbic) circuit, just as if you had made the expression yourself. This capacity is the basis for empathy and the awareness that other people have feelings and points of view. [RiverCityMalone.com]
Religious scriptures emphasise voluntary cultivation of these qualities, and the brain, being a plastic instrument, responds to these efforts. Religious genius therefore has been in tune with these natural principles, and religion, when seen in this light, is an expression of a healthy evolutionary practice taking man away from the animal and towards a future in which ethical behaviour and altruism is the biological norm.
For the offspring to have a benefit, there must be mechanisms which accumulate the harvest – or absence – of spiritual work done in a lifetime, to pass on its effects to the next generation. Epigenetics is investigating the possibility of such mechanisms and has already made some very interesting discoveries: changes made to the genome as a result of drug use and addictions, for example, are passed on to the children and there seems to be no way of turning these changes off. (See: “Biological Heaven and Hell” for some published research on this subject).
But in the modern world, something is going drastically wrong. The harvest of tens of thousands of years is being undone in a day – evolutionarily speaking – and the cheerleaders are the skeptics and atheists who, banning God, banning religion, and banning spiritual ideals – have cheerfully hurled mankind into a pit of scorpions.
Modern society – based on the materialism championed by sharp-witted writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, George Smith, Darrel Ray, Sam Harris, Eric Maisel, Dinesh D’Souza, Victor Stenger – is falling apart genetically. The crop of ruined genetics is so obvious now that even these writers, safely ensconced in their ivory towers or engaged in lucrative book tours, could hardly fail to notice it. The argument that crime has always been commonplace, and now it is just reported more widely is absurd. The rates of addiction, mental disorder and violent crime have skyrocketed to such an extent that, within the lifetime of today’s teenagers, half of the whole population of America will either be on drugs, mentally ill, or in prison!
The biological influence of religion can act in a generalised and imperceptible way over many generations to protect the healthy evolution of the brain and genetics. There is evidence of this in the gradual evolution of families and societies evolving in intellect, creativity and genius. Conversely, the abandonment of religious ideas – or even any kind of behavioral restraint – in favour of greed, an ego-centric life and raw materialism seems to promote such a marked and rapid degeneration that in only one or two generations of unrestricted behaviour, a family name, fortune, and the accumulated genetic organisationstore of order can be ruined and the children’s lives blighted by addiction, recklessness, criminal behaviour, etc. Surely, anyone with access to a newsagent will already be well aware of this.
But religious practices can also be used intensely, to accelerate the process of evolution within a single lifetime. Just as some people go to the gym to maintain general health and carry on their life in the normal way, others devote their lives to it in an effort to set new standards of athletic ability. The science of Yoga was devised to enable this acceleration, using one’s own own body and brain as an experiment, in an effort to reach a higher state of consciousness. It was known that this was a dangerous undertaking and one who achieved success was hailed as a hero. This kind of effort would be even more dangerous today, as science knows almost nothing about the brain’s evolutionary potential, or about the powerful biological forces which can cause it to become unhinged.
The nervous energy which contributes to this evolutionary acceleration was named Kundalini by the ancients; a storehouse of it is contained within the reproductive organs and can act through the nerves running up the spinal column and act on the brain.
The ancient yoga texts depict ida and pingala as the left and right channels, representing the cooling and heating aspects of this energy, and the central channel leading to the centre of the brain, responsible for illumination they named sushumna. It was understood that life is created not only on the physical plane, but the mental plane also. The subjective impression of this energy acting on the brain via sushumna, the central nervous channel, is of a white serpent in full flight, rippling decisively towards its goal.
Even the earliest surviving temples in Turkey, more than ten thousand years old, contain sculptures of the human head with a rippling serpent rising over the rear of the skull. The modern medical insignia of the Caduceus contains an inverted triangle representing the base of the spine, serpents intertwined around a vertical axis, and a winged emblem at the very top.
The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s head-dress contained a variation of the serpent, indicating the power of an enlightened individual, and everyone will be aware that the Bible mentions the serpent as the “most subtle creature in the garden” guarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This alone shows the Garden of Eden to be a metaphor for the human condition and its relation to divinity. The Aztecs had the plumed serpent god, which I think was named Quetzalcoatl; Norse, Greek, Ashanti, Hindu, Aboriginal and many more examples can probably be brought to mind, but the important point is that this energy has long been intuitively understood and represented in the field of religion.
Modern education is based not on the original Latin educare, “to bring out”, but on the idea that memorisation can be passed off as wisdom, as a parrot might, up to a point, give an informative talk. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”, said Socrates, and the natural genius will do much better left to this own devices, than in the clutches of the modern brain-burdening school system. It is no wonder that genius has completely vanished and the whole mechanism fallen into obscurity: modern brains are forced to memorise fact after fact – many of them either completely useless or out of date – until the blythe and buoyant child who first entered the system leaves as a stressed and nervous adult.
The role of the brain in any transformation of consciousness is beyond doubt, and has been represented in dozens of ways. The halo around the heads of Christian saints, the thousand-petalled lotus flower, the sacred turban and the skull cap, the markings on the forehead of the Brahmin and Hindu – all these images point to the instinctive realisation of the brain’s importance. One of the benefits of religious practices is a gradually increased empathy; the voluntary effort in “treating others as thyself” tends to break down the ego by enlarging the ability of ventromedial preforontal cortex. As with all effort, nature meets us half way; all that is important is that we make a start somewhere.
In an experiment published in March 2007, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that “patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.”
When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with “end-justifies-the-means” answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue – such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city – these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains. (Washington Post, May 28, 2007)
As my interest in this blog is to justify the faith which all religion requires, and to interest science in the value of religion, I will point out the current research as best as I can find it, to prove that meditation, prayer, humility, sacrifice, unselfishness, self-control and the subdual of ego are all extremely valuable to the brain, and this is the reason why they form part of healthy religious practices. It is known already that certain areas of the brain relating to judgement shrink in those who give in to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is often confused with religion, but this same kind of approach, and a corresponding biological bias, is reflected in political extremes, too:
Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that .self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.
..the results of Harbaugh noted the correlation between altruism in those with elevated activity in the right superior temporal cortex, which contains “mirror neurons” that activate in response to the detection of (or just thinking about) biological movements in others.
This further correlates with elevated activations in components of the dopamine reward system in the right hemisphere: the nucleus accumbens and caudate. The elevated altruism displayed by liberals towards outsiders may indeed be adapting this right hemispheric network, although Harbaugh did not differentiate his subjects based on political affiliation.
In general, people who scored higher on libralism tests tended to be associated with “conflict-related anterior cingulate activity”. This is the part of the brain which comes into play when you encounter things conflicting with what you already believe. Clearly a fundamentalist will be resistant to navigating this kind of complexity, and retreat to a safely prepared position. But it seems to me this kind of pattern is present in scientists too, who immediately dismiss ideas about religion and the brain because accepting them would require a re-evaluation of their entrenched beliefs.
Having entered into very painful debates with fundamentalist Christians as well as fundamentalist scientists, I have found the entrenched, defensive positions and circular reasoning indistinguishable between the two. Whether it is a person who claims all the required wisdom of the world is limited to one book, or that all events (including their own consciousness in which they trust absolutely) arise only from mindless, dead forces, the personality is exceedingly anxious to protect itself from any variation to its worldview. This would not be the case if the individual had the ability to evaluate the whole picture – which would necessarily include his opponent’s reasoning – in the confidence of arriving at a balanced conclusion. There is nothing so silly as watching an educated person claiming the world can only be measured by logic, when their very existence – and that of their patient audience – is a result of illogical and emotional acts of their parents – and without which, all life would cease!
Those who meditate can be very glad about one thing – this practice thickens the cortex, and has already been shown to reduce age-related cortical thinning in the BA 9/10:
..research indicates that long-term meditation is associated with altered resting electroencephalogram patterns, suggestive of long lasting changes in brain activity. We hypothesized that meditation might also be associated with changes in the brain’s physical structure. MRI was used to assess cortical thickness in 20 participants with meditation experience involving focused attention to internal experiences. Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula.
Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. Finally, the thickness of two regions correlated with meditation experience. These data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice.
Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.
As for being correlated with amount of experience, the strongest correlation was in the occipitotemporal region. The fact that it is correlated with amount of experience suggests it is a result of practice.
The most significant difference (Lazar) was the right anterior insula, which is associated with emotion processing, attention and cognition. No doubt all this research will be enlarged upon, but no longer can any skeptics say that religious practices do not offer a concrete benefit to the individual. The laboratory results say that they do – which means that the brain was indeed designed to respond to voluntary efforts to expand consciousness, thus explaining the ages-old phenomenon of religion, and proving that Nature has already given us the tools to reach Heaven, Paradise, Nirvana or Samadhi. And the free will to use them and build a better world through altruism, genius and inspiration, or degenerate into materialism, skepticism and anarchy.