Friday, November 10, 2006

If it hurts you more than it hurts someone else, are you just a sissy?

Not necessarily. The old "telegraph" model of pain is being replaced by a model that looks more like the Internet:
... in the last decade or so, psychologists and other pain researchers are coming around to a new definition of just what is pain — and how the experience looks to be different in men and women.

Gone is the old telegraph model that served medical science for thousands of years: You put your hand in a hot fire you felt the pain of the burn until the tissue eventually healed.

In its place, some scientists are putting forward the notion that pain ricochets through the body more like the way the internet works: The initial experience sets off a complex chain of reactions involving one's general health, genetic makeup, brain chemistry and perhaps even how one has come to think about pain in the first place.

Even more, the placebo effect and its evil twin the nocebo effect, functions of your own mind, play a great role in what you will or won't feel.
Much, though, is clearly in the deep recesses of the mind. Two years ago, for example, researchers in London and Pittsburgh hypnotized otherwise healthy people and told them they were in acute pain. Brain scans then showed these subjects had virtually the same electro-chemical activity as patients with actual ailments — another indicator pain can actually originate in the mind.

Obviously, if it hurts you, it hurts. But no one single standard of pain can be applied to everyone because many factors, including your own mind, play a role in what you are experiencing. Remember that when someone tells you that your mind does not really exist.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.

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Mythbusters: God spots, modules, circuits, genes, memes ...

A persistent materialist folk myth of recent vintage has been that some sort of God spot, module, circuit, gene, virus of the mind, pattern of electromagnetism, seizure, glitch, or meme can explain religious belief.

Clinical neuroscience may have accidentally given these ideas a boost. But he relationship between clinical neuroscience and theorizing about the neural basis of religion has been somewhat like the relationship between NASA and Roswell.

Now, the sad part about all this silliness is that decades ago, there were some respectable naturalistic explanations for religious belief. Wrong in my view, but at least intellectually reputable. For example, in The Golden Bough(1922), J.G. Frazier helpfully elucidated the relationship between primitive cults and the desire to control nature.

Even today, in Religion explained Pascal Boyer attempts to come up with a naturalistic explanation that at least makes sense: Religious ideas are formed in the same ways as other ideas are formed but they are formed about religious subjects.

The fact that this can be treated as an original idea tells you how much nonsense has been given a free pass in recent years.

Anyway, my co-author, Mario Beauregard with the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007) and his doctoral student Vince Paquette went to the trouble to study, using neuroscience tools, contemplative nuns who were recalling a mystical experience (recalling an experience activates many of the same neural pathways as were previously active):
Beauregard says that some researchers have theorized that religious experiences involve epilepsy-like seizures in temporal lobes. But the mystical condition activated dozens of brain areas involved in perception, emotion, and cognition, he and Paquette reported last week in Neuroscience Letters. The pair also conclude that although there is much overlap with the feelings of peace and love from the control condition, the mystical condition has its own signature, with "relatively different regional patterns of brain activation."

So, according to their research, people who have mystical experiences do enter an altered state of consciousness, but their experience is a complex one, as most human experiences are. There is no spot, module, or gene that simply activates it.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.

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