Archive for May, 2012

May 10 2012

Analytic Thought and Religious Belief

Published by under Neuroscience

A series of psychological studies recently published in Science explores the relationship between analytic thought and religious belief. The studies raise a lot of issues, including how to interpret such studies, but first let me simply convey the results.

In the first experiment researchers Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan assessed subjects with a standard measure of analytical thought – problems in which the initial intuitive answer is incorrect and must be overridden by deeper analysis. Try to solve them yourself, they are:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake,
how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

You can look at the original paper for the answers. The researchers found that giving the analytic (and correct) answer to the questions above negatively correlated with three related measures of religious belief – instrinsic religiosity, intuitive religiosity, an belief in supernatural agents.

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May 08 2012

Coherent Breathing

Last week I wrote about earthing – the claim that being in contact with the earth (especially using products you can buy for this purpose) helps to balance your electrons and improve health.  Earthing fits into a category of pseudoscientific nonsense I called “just make shit up.” This seems to be a deep and constantly growing category, limited only by human imagination, ego, and greed. The existence of claims such as this is an excellent example for why we need the rigors and methods of science – without them to ground us to reality, there is no limit to the nonsense humans will believe.

Recently I was asked about another member of this category – coherent breathing. I bet you didn’t realize that you could use training in how to breath optimally. You probably naively assumed that the elaborate autonomic, respiratory, and circulatory systems that evolved over millions of years would have already optimized something as basic to life and physiology as breathing. You lazily just let your brainstem drive your respiration based on things like blood CO2 and oxygen levels, and let your autonomic nervous system regulate your heart rate and blood pressure. Why bother making a conscious effort to control your breathing when it will happen all by itself without any effort on your part.

Well, if you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a seminar you can learn how to synchronize your breathing with your heart rate. What will this accomplish, you may ask? Absolutely nothing – but it will make money for the guys running the seminar.

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May 07 2012

Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.

I am often asked, and wonder myself, if there are significant hard-wired and genetically determined brain differences between skeptics and new agers or conspiracy theorists (or name your favorite flavor of true believer). It can certainly feel this way when you are knee deep in a cyber-debate with someone with a radically different world-view than yourself. Obviously there is no simple answer to this question. Biological brain effects are filtered through culture, education, and personal experience, which in turn have an effect on the wiring of the brain (the brain has memory and learns from experience). Further, genetically determined hard-wiring, to the extent that this exists, is extremely complex, with many factors affecting each other.

While it may be difficult to tease out the contribution of genetic hard-wiring to things like belief in fairies, I think it remains an open question and it is not implausible that there is a significant contribution in some cases. Perhaps to some extent the conflict between skeptics and true believers is really a competition between different  versions of human brain wiring. Perhaps we will need to just accept this neurodiversity (its existence, if not its effect on our culture).

While this is a fascinating question, at the same time I feel there is a tendency in popular culture, especially among journalists and (ironically) some purveyors of dubious products and services, to reframe many phenomena with specific reference to the brain. Old fashioned learning is now “training your brain,” for example. While this is technically true, it makes it seem like a new, targeted, reductionist technology when in fact it’s just practice and learning.

A recent study explored one small aspect of the question of brain function and spirituality – researchers asked themselves if those healers and gurus who claim to be able to see a human aura are really synaesthetes, people with a hyperrobust connection among different brain regions that make them smell color, taste sound, feel numbers, or otherwise experience one sensation or experience with an overlay of another sensation. There is a form of synaethesia in which people experience the faces of those familiar to them as having a specific color.

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May 03 2012

CAM Logical Fallacies

There are times when an article packs in logical fallacies so densely that I just can’t help deconstructing it. Another feature that often lures me in is a blatant self-contradiction that the author seems to be oblivious to. HuffPo Canada has recently published an article by “investigative journalist” Isla Traquair that does both. The articles emerges from her health consumer series that she is filming. The result is a confused, conflicting, and profoundly naive article that makes me wonder how much investigation she could have done.

Let’s go through and count the logical fallacies and contradictions. She wonders:

What exactly makes a medical treatment accepted and trusted by mainstream society? Does it make a difference if a practitioner wears a white coat and gets employed through the health service? Do they need a certificate and letters after their name? Or do we trust someone who has learnt ancient teachings using the laws and patterns of nature?

She begins by begging the question about what creates medical authority, and in so doing creates a straw man (a nice double). She cites some of the superficial trappings of legitimacy (formal recognition, degrees, and the standard uniform of the trade), as if this is what people trust about mainstream medicine. She could have asked – is it the years of training and education, the culture of science and self-criticism, the mountain of hard-won evidence, or perhaps the layers of regulation?

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May 01 2012


Have you heard of earthing? This is just one of many pseudosciences that fits into the “just make shit up” category. From the earthing website, we learn this about its history:

In 1998, a retired cable TV executive named Clint Ober sat on a park bench in Sedona, Arizona. As he watched the passing parade of tourists, it occurred to him that almost everybody—him included—wore synthetic plastic or rubber soled shoes. He wondered if such footwear, which had increasingly replaced leather since the 1960s, could impact health.

This follows the typical guru narrative – an individual makes a single observation or hits upon an idea, which is then presented as if it’s a breakthrough scientific discovery. From this one notion that rubber soles have replaced leather soles in recent years, Ober makes up his pseudoscience of earthing. Science-babble gobbledygook follows:

The research that followed has produced fascinating evidence demonstrating that Earthing generates a powerful and positive shift in the electrical state of the body and restores natural self-healing and self-regulating mechanisms.

We know that Earthing allows a transfer of electrons (the Earth’s natural, subtle energy) into the body. We know that inflammation is caused by free radicals and that free radicals are neutralized with electrons from any source. Electrons are the source of the neutralizing power of antioxidants.

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