Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Change your mind, change your brain: Smithsonian conference

Mediator Stephanie West Allen and psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz are offering a program in the use of neuroplasticity (the way our brains change in response to the focus of our thoughts) at the Smithsonian on Saturday, March 1, 2008

The science of neuroplasticity demonstrates that our brains are always changing, meaning that we can resculpt our brains in productive ways. This seminar teaches you how to achieve control of your brain so you can meet goals, create life-changing habits, and realize your full potential.

The morning session focuses on the brain and its role in how we think, decide, and act; how the amygdala (reflexive brain) and the frontal cortex (reflective brain) work in decision making; how people affect each other’s mirror neurons; and the difference between the mind and the brain, a distinction critical for self-mastery.

Now, if only my mind could convince my brain that I really DO want the stuff that is good for me instead of the stuff that makes me feel good. But then who's the I and who's the me? The trouble is, I'm really both. And I'm the one that wants both - I just don't want to choose, but I must.

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Atheists on the "new atheism"

So the new atheism is to the old atheism what lo-fat marge is to butter, according to Utne Reader?
Dalrymple’s basic, but crucial observation is that this latest spate of antireligious book lack originality. “[They] imagine themselves to be like the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, went to Mecca, and then wrote a book about his unprecedented feat,” he writes. “They advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14.”

Where have I heard that before? By the way, hat tip to Stormbringer who sends me a summary of his own views in these matters - quite different from theirs.

The main thing that concerns me is that people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins - popular new atheists - have a viewpoint about life that would make much that most people believe - for what they think to be good reasons - a crime, or next thing to it.

Just thought you might want to know.

I am currently reading "old atheist" Antony Flew's book, There IS a God, explaining why he abandoned five decades of atheism. I'll say more about his book shortly, but the most remarkable thing about it is the vastly superior civilization Flew inhabited to anything the "new atheists" seem to offer. If their idea is not catching on, that's probably why.


Pope blames world's worst woes on atheism

It should not surprise anyone particularly that Pope Benedict XVI, in his second encyclical, blames atheism for the world's worst woes, just as the recent spate of popular anti-God books blames religion:
Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized modern-day atheism in a major document released today, saying it had led to some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known to mankind.

But in his second encyclical, Benedict XVI also critically questioned modern Christianity, saying its focus on individual salvation had ignored Jesus' message that true Christian hope involves salvation for all.

I am SO glad, as a Catholic Christian, that someone (and imagine, it is the Pope, of all people) is speaking up against the irrelevant Jesus-hollering that has defaced so much recent evangelism in his 76-page document. (I haven't read it yet, but I am hardly surprised that he would say things like these, and I certainly look forward to reading it.)

Look, I am personally a Christian and I believe that Jesus is the answer, but if you can't be bothered to define the question, how do you know if I am right or wrong?

Hat tip fellow Catholic journalist David Warren, who didn't himself notice this till some friends forwarded it to him. I didn't know till he forwarded it to me. Just shows you what sinners we Catholics are. We were drinking heavily in assorted low-class pubs when the news was announced, okay? Glad that's cleared up.

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College students are more interested in spirituality than supposed?

This God and Freshmen article from Inside Higher Ed is an oldie (2005), but still interesting:
Researchers released data Wednesday that offers the most complete portrait to date of new college students’ attitudes about spirituality and religion, and the study suggests that freshmen care far more about spiritual matters than is widely believed. More than three-quarters of freshmen say they are looking for meaning in life, for example, and more than two-thirds engage in prayer.

No wonder the New Atheists are freaking out. In my day, the big enemy of spirituality was the Religion department. They beat the subject to death every day. People had to discover live examples on their own. Well, maybe that turned out okay too.

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Spiritual Brain authors in the media

Christine Williamson, hostess of On the Line, will feature "The God Debate", an interview with Denyse O'Leary and Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Michael Pare, Friday, December 7, 2:00 pm EST. Christine is a most engageda nd engagin hostess and I believe that she really brought out the best in us. (Note: Re the link, you need to click Ontario, the Originals, then Programs.)

Anna Maria Tremonti of The Current, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, interviewed Mario Beauregard for a special on spirituality that will be aired on December 27 (presumably 8:30 a.m.).

To listen, go here, select The Current, then scroll down to
27/12/2007: The Spiritual Brain
Mario Beauregard is a neuroscientist who has been studying the brain for years. His findings are surprising: he believes he has found a neurological reason to believe in the existence of the soul.

Right click to Download 27/12/2007: The Spiritual Brain
[mp3 file: runs 19:37]

Sorry that's so complex, but I cannot find a direct link to single podcast's own page.

Update: A kind commenter named Israel has left a note to say that if you go here the podcast will begin immediately.

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Visual art as old as human consciousness

Peter Campbell, writing in London Review of Books about Julian Bell's new art book, Mirror of the World, observes, observes,
Mirror of the World begins with the startlingly realistic images of people and animals found on cave walls in Europe and on rock faces in Africa. They suggest that visual art can draw on an ability to find pleasure in representation that is as old as the human race, and that the move from schemata to images which depend on detailed observation came very early. Both Gombrich and Bell illustrate naturalistic heads in three dimensions from South America (Moche pots from Peru) and Africa (a bronze head from Ife). These scotch the notion that, once achieved, naturalism will always successfully challenge formalism and distortion. Some things asked of images can be arrived at only by flattening, distorting and decorating: the cartoonist’s truth, the mask-maker’s and the photographer’s are different. Bell is particularly good at finding reasons for un-naturalistic strangeness.

The main reason for un-naturalistic strangeness is to focus on something that nature does not focus on. Human consciousness, once achieved, does not ascend some perpetual ladder of capabilities. Technology improves, but apart from that, we decide what we want to think about. The cave painters of Lascaux probably had different intentions from the sculptor of the "world's oldest" abstract art. Let alone, the sculptor of the Willendorf Venus.

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Meditation catching on at universities?

Well, this beats booze binges, for long term health:
On her last sabbatical, Fran Grace went into the woods. In a remote cabin in a southeastern Oregon forest, with no electricity, Internet or phone, the University of Redlands religious studies chair sat down and began to meditate. When she returned to the California campus in fall 2004, she changed her class offerings — shifting from courses like “Religion and Hate” to contemplative-based classes in meditation, healing and compassion.

“It brought forth a commitment in me to see how do we integrate these kinds of contemplative moments in a learning environment for students, where they can drop down to a deeper level, a calmer level,” says Grace. “It seems so obvious to me that a calmer mind is a more focused mind and a more focused mind is a better learning mind. But we don’t really ever talk about that.”

Apparently, the trend is catching on. Good thing too. Can't see a course in "Religion and Hate" doing much for wholeness and wellness.

Hat tip Stephanie West Allen, at Brains on Purpose

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Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.