Saturday, September 06, 2008

Neuroscience: Individual brain cells spotted in act of retrieving memories

Benedict Carey reports in "For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving" (Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2008) that

Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it.

The recordings, taken from the brains of epilepsy patients being prepared for surgery, demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. Researchers had long theorized as much but until now had only indirect evidence.

Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing (at least in the short term, as the research says nothing about more distant memories).
Of course, they are not saying that the memories are in a single neuron:

Dr. Fried said in a phone interview that the single neurons recorded firing most furiously during the film clips were not acting on their own; they were, like all such cells, part of a circuit responding to the videos, including thousands, perhaps millions, of other cells.

[ ... ]

Single-cell recordings cannot capture the entire array of circuitry involved in memory, which may be widely distributed beyond the hippocampus area, experts said. And as time passes, memories are consolidated, submerged, perhaps retooled and often entirely reshaped when retrieved later.

Yes indeed. Memory, especially when we are old and have a lot of it, is always being edited.

These results support the approach that Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette were working with when they asked Carmelite nuns to recall mystical experiences, as reported in The Spiritual Brain. The nuns' recollections would activate the same circuits that were active when the experience occurred.

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Religion and health: Some teens more, not less, depressed due to religion?

Science Daily informs us that religion may make teens from certain races more depressed:
Previous research has shown that teens who are active in religious services are depressed less often because it provides these adolescents with social support and a sense of belonging.

But new research has found that this does not hold true for all adolescents, particularly for minorities and some females. The study found that white and African-American adolescents generally had fewer symptoms of depressive at high levels of religious participation. But for some Latino and Asian-American adolescents, attending church more often was actually affecting their mood in a negative way.
The results suggest that something unique was affecting adolescents within these two groups when they went to church often. Petts believes that the traditional nature of religion for these two groups may be conflicting with the ideals and customs of mainstream American society. This conflict may be putting additional stress on these youth as they try to balance competing principles and traditions, he said.

"Asian and Latino youth who are highly involved in a culturally distinct church may have a more difficult time balancing the beliefs of their family and their traditional culture with mainstream society. Their religious institution is telling them what should be important in their lives and how to behave, and mainstream society is saying something else," he said.
Here's a thought: It is possible that the Asian American and Latino youth are disproportionately from families that have not lived in the United States as long, and the teens may not realize that the consumerist values aimed at them in advertisements are simply not compatible with a spiritual tradition. White and African-American teens from a religious background would more likely take that for granted, thus reducing conflict by deciding for one or the other.

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Religion and violence: Do materialist intellectuals have answers?

A friend writes to draw my attention to Martin Amis's somewhat convoluted discussion about religion and violence: Asking whether al Qaeda's violence is based on religion, he ponders,
Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the caliphate? Why did people write whole books with titles like "A Fury for God" and "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "Holy War, Inc."? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism isn't about religion -- not least of them the immense onerousness, the near-impossibility, now, of maintaining a discourse (I'll put this simply) that makes distinctions between groups of human beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about Islam. But one's faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.
Well, the best way to resolve whether Al Qaedaism is about religion is to ask its members. Do they have religious convictions, and what are they? That would surely settle the matter - yes, they are motivated by very specific religious convictions, not shared by the vast majority of Muslims.

But making that point spoils the fun. It means that materialist intellectuals cannot insinuate that "all religions are like that." Which is what many want to do, of course.

In reality, a brief examination of religion in most places will soon reveal two things:

(1) Few religious people are interested in any type of religiously inspired violence.

(2) The few that are interested in violence are usually more trouble to their fellow believers than to anyone else. For example, radical Islamists are especially dangerous to traditional Muslims, if we go by death rates. The Protestant and Catholic terrorists of Ireland were basically Christians murdering other Christians over matters that few non-Christians would even make sense of*. But they never represented the majority of Irish Christians.

*For example, if you are not a Christian, you likely do not know what "transubstantiation" means. If you are a Christian, you still might not know, but in either case, you would wonder, I am sure, that anyone would kill someone else for disagreeing about it. And not many people would. But of course you are more likely to get killed by such a fanatic if you are a Christian in Ireland. And you are more likely to get killed by an Islamist if you are a Muslim in the Middle East.

Materialist intellectuals don't have any worthwhile answers for religiously inspired violence. If Amis's essay is any example, they find it difficult to discuss the matter intelligibly. The societies that forcibly got rid of religion, like Stalin's Russia and Pol Pot's Cambodia, were more violent than most others because religion prevents far more violence than it encourages. That is probably because religious authorities teach people to control themselves in many situations where they otherwise would not.

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Reviewer thinks The Spiritual Brain should have been longer?

Quite a favourable review of The Spiritual Brain by Derrick Hassert, associate professor of Psychology at Trinity Christian College (University of Southern Illinois), appeared in Christian Scholar’s Review ((Volume XXXVII, Number 4 Summer 2008)). It ends with:
Overall, one is left with the feeling that, given more time, each section of the text could have been developed into a stand-alone volume. While this may be one of the book's weaknesses, it may also be one of its strengths, for in one unintimidating volume, the reader is exposed to current and past neuroscientific attempts to explain religious phenomena, empirical and philosophical problems with an eliminativist approach to the psychology and philosophy of mind, and cutting-edge research examining the neurological correlates of religious experience. It is recommended to general readers as well as those with an interest in neuroscience and the philosophy of mind.
This sounds like a somewhat academic way of saying, "If you read this book, there are books out there that you needn't bother with."

By the way, Dr. Hassert notes, "Each section of the text could have been developed into a stand-alone volume."

Sure it could, but I don't think our publisher thought the market was quite ready for a ten-volume set? Maybe in a couple of years ....

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If you need a book that tries to explain religion and doesn't succeed ...

Speaking of books not to be bothered with, Amazon has just sent me a flyer flogging a “minimally revised” update of Matthew Alper’s 1996 “cult classic” “manifesto against belief in God,” The “God” Part of the Brain.

When Mario and I were writing The Spiritual Brain, we decided to begin - in Chapter 2 - by getting out of the way a couple of books that were out there and were talked about - but simply lacked substance. Alper's is one of them.

Sadly, it's being marketed alongside Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. While we disagree that Boyer has succeeded in explaining religion, or could do so, given his premises, his work is worthy of consideration (as we said). So if you want to read a book that tries to explain religion and doesn't succeed, read Boyer, not Alper.

Note: In The Spiritual Brain, we don't try to "explain" religion or spirituality in terms of something else. Spirituality, like curiosity, is a nature and normal part of human beings that doesn't require explaining except in its own terms.

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