Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

From time to time we bring you the quirky side of neuroscience here at BrainEthics. Now, we discover a funny little study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging that bears the attractive title “The neural basis of unconditional love” by Mario Beauregard et al. Indeed, the study of the neural bases of preference formation, aesthetics and even love have gained much momentum since this field started just a few years ago. Fields such as neuroaesthetics and neuroeconomics seem to overlap when it comes to these studies, in which the core aim is to study the fundamental processes underlying preference formation.

In the study, Beauregard and colleagues wanted to establish the neural bases of unconditioned love. So the first tricky thing would be to define and operationalise what is meant by “unconditioned love”. IMO, such kind of love is the affectionate feelings one would call religious love, or ultimate altruism…(if such ever exists).But following the name, it does suggest a broader definition of affectionate feelings towards a person (or just any thing?) regardless of their origin, persona, deeds or misdeeds, family bonds and so forth.

Claimed amygdala activation, which rather looks like collateral sulcus/entorhinal cortex... (from Bartels & Zeki 2004)

Claimed amygdala deactivation during maternal love, which rather looks like collateral sulcus/entorhinal cortex... (from Bartels & Zeki 2004)

Similar studies of strong affectional feelings to other persons have been conducted recently. For example, in a study of maternal love (PDF) by Bartels and Zeki, mothers were scanned while looking at baby faces, in which sometimes their own newborn’s face was shown. The researchers found that when looking at their own babies, compared to looking at other infants, mothers demonstrated stronger activation in regions such as the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens, ventro-anterior cungulate cortex and fusiform cortex.

In addition, and to the researchers’ surprise, they also found stronger bilateral activation of the anterior insula, a structure typically involved in aversive functions (but I will not follow the speculative account of the researchers on this activation). Deactivations were claimed to be found in regions such as the amygdala – which really is not amygdala, but rather collateral sulcus, judging from their figure (see figure on right). Isn’t is strange that prominent researchers such as Semir Zeki goes so wrong in neuroanatomy? The consequences from arguing for deactivation in the entorhinal cortex, compared to the amygdala, is dramatic. Instead of talking about emotions, one would be more prone to talk about complex visual processing. Yes, it does matter where you think your blobs are…

So what did Beauregard and colleagues do differently? First, they needed to describe the uncondition love construct, which they describe as:

(…) distinct from the empathy and compassion constructs. Empathy is commonly defined as an affective response that stems from the apprehension of another’s emotional state (e.g., sadness, happiness, pain), and which is comparable to what the other person is feeling (Eisenberg, 2000). This affective response is not unconditional and does not involve feelings of love. Compassion refers to an awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the desire to alleviate that suffering (Steffen and Masters, 2005). In contrast to compassion, unconditional love is not specifically associated with suffering.

Hm, not a particularly good definition to go hunting for neural correlates to. Nevertheless, the aim was to study the neural basis of unconditional love, something that has not been done before. So how did they do it? First, the authors had to select the subjects:

Participants were assistants in two l’Arche communities located in the Montreal area. L’Arche communities (founded by Jean Vanier in 1964) are places where those with intellectual disabilities, called core members, and those who share life with them, called assistants, live together. This special population was selected on the basis that one of the most important criteria to become an assistant is the capacity to love unconditionally. (We recruited) assistants with a very high capacity for unconditional love. We ensured that all recruited individuals understood the meaning of this form of love (based on the construct presented in Section 1) and found their work at l’Arche (community help service) very gratifying.

The hypotheses were 1) unconditional love is rewarding, and therefore it was expected to be associated with activation of the VTA and dorsal
striatal regions; and 2) since unconditional love experientially differs to a large extent from romantic love and maternal love, it was predicted that this form of love would be mediated by brain regions not involved in romantic love and maternal love. I particularly hate this second hypothesis: it’s not really a hypothesis, because ANY activation that is “different” can confirm this hypothesis. If it’s a fishing trip, let us know…

Let me try a bit of further deconstructionism of this study. In the methods section, it is described how the subjects were instructed to look at unfamiliar faces and either attempt to feel unconditioned love or think about the person’s intellectual capacity (sic.).

A blocked-design was used to examine brain activity during a passive viewing (PV) condition (control task) and an unconditional love (UL) condition (experimental task).

Note: using block designs are typically used to study differences in state (e.g. comparing neural activation during different attentional states).

Five blocks of pictures were presented during both conditions. Each block consisted of a series of four pictures. Each picture was presented during 9 s (pre-experimentation revealed that, on average, participants needed that long to feel unconditional love toward the individuals depicted in the pictures).

OK, so some of the activation differences between the UL condition and the PV condition may be due to task difficulty and reaction time, and not, as they would have wanted, the nature of the task.

Blocks were separated by periods of 30 s. Pictures depicted individuals (children and adults) with intellectual disabilities. These individuals were unfamiliar to the participants. Instructional cue words (“View”, “Unconditional love”) printed in white first appeared in the center of a black screen for 2 s. While the picture remained on the screen, participants performed the tasks specified by the prior cue. In the PV blocks, participants were instructed to simply look at the individuals depicted in the pictures. In the UL blocks, participants were instructed to self-generate a feeling of unconditional love toward the individuals depicted in the pictures.

OK, there are many assumptions here… Just to illustrate, do the following for me: close your eyes and for 20 seconds DO NOT THINK ABOUT AN ELEPHANT!!! What happens? Well, you’d probably be surprised to see that elephant does really appear in your mind even if you try to suppress it. Thought suppression studies have demonstrated this through the past many decades. So IMO, what the study might also be about is thought suppression – or comparing elephant thinking to elephant-suppression activation. IOW, I’m not sure that the viewing condition did not evoke some “unconditioned love”-suppression.

Therefore, the UL task involved both a cognitive component (self-generation) and an emotional–experiential component (feeling). Blocks were presented in alternation (PV, UL, PV, UL, etc.). At the end of each block for both experimental conditions, a four-point scale (1 = “No feeling”, 2 = “Some feeling”, 3 = “Moderate”, 4 = “Very intense”) for rating the extent to which they currently felt unconditional love was presented for 3 s.

Strangely, what the researchers found when doing the UL minus PV comparison, was stronger activation in “the middle insula, superior parietal lobule, right periaqueductal gray, right globus pallidus (medial), right caudate nucleus (dorsal head), left ventral tegmental area and left rostro-dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.” This can be seen in the figure below:

Regions showing stronger activation during "unconditional love" condition

Regions showing stronger activation during "unconditional love" condition

So what are the interpretations of these results? Does it surprise you that both hypotheses were confirmed? First, that unconditioned love was related to reward structure activation was not surprising. But the researchers over-interpret the results: they claim that this is prima facie proof that unconditioned love is rewarding. But hey, the results can just as well suggest that the unconditioned love state is just a framing of how we look at faces (for example, imaging you are either told that person/face X is a wonderful person OR an evil sadistic terrorist).

Second, is it surprising that they also found “activation not found for maternal or romantic love”? Not to me: the tasks are different, the selection of subjects are different, the confounds are plenty…

And what about that strong and bilateral insula activation? Yes, it’s right that it confirms the second hypothesis…but how does the insula play a role in unconditioned love? As I noted in my previous post, it does seem to play an important role in negative emotions and aversion. Here, the authors assert:

There is increasing evidence that the insula is implicated in the representation of bodily states that colour conscious experiences (or “background feelings”) (…) it is plausible that the middle insular activation noted during the UL condition was associated with the somatic and visceral responses elicited by the presented pictures.

Uh yes, but this is typically reflected in negative emotions. So how is unconditioned love related to aversion? Or maybe one could relate the findings to a recent review that suggest a role for the insula in addiction and urges? I don’t know, if you’re into speculating, go with whatever seems to work… Basically, this handwaving interpretations is not much better than old-style phrenology or hand-reading. They may be right, but only because they make the right guesses from previous studies.

Briefly put, although we enjoy the quirky side of neuroscience, and how it can be used to explore human nature, we at BrainEthics are also sceptical at the level at which quirky science turns into flaky science.


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Edge.org briefly taps into a most important topic: is China going to be the next leader in science and economy? Many observers tend to think this, and it is iterated in the media regularly. In terms of economy, we may expect this to be the case. The sheer amount of people, combined with lower rates of salary etc. suggests that for a period, China will be competitive not only in industy but also high-tech jobs.

But in science? I usually think of science as either basic or applied (although they can be mutually informative, and the distinction is not water proof). For applied science, like engineering, IT and so forth, one may expect that Chine may do well. But in basic science, what we often encounter is surprising, unexpected, and, not the least, runs straight counter to our wide-held beliefs. And the realization of these ideas depend on whether the state are basically tuned to accepting scientific results.

Think for example, how often you hear science news that actually alter your thought about the human/animal mind, the world and cosmos, and so forth. Many of these ideas run straight counter to widely and long-held beliefs in society and even academia. Think of our understanding of the role of unconscious (often emotionally driven) brain processes in decision making. Or, one of our favourite topics here: how genes contribute to specific differences between people’s brains, minds and behaviour. These ideas run straight counter to ideas in religion, economic theory and social science. But they are nevertheless expressed freely, through the peer-reviewed scientific thought.

So the question could be put differently: could ideas about evolution and evolutionary psychology, quantum mechanics, or the Big Bang ever come from scientists residing in China? Several authors and observers may think not. Although this is NOT the topic of the Edge.org issue, the brief title of the news, and the afterword by Dawkins suggests that it deserves more attention.


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And while we’re in the talk of media coverage, I should mention to those who understand Danish that the Danish Broadcast Company, or DR, has a documentary series on their primary radio channels, P1. The series is called “Hjernerejsen” (loosely translated to “The brain travel”) and it covers topics such as emotions and bonding, brain maturation, transhumanism and neuroethics.In the program called “the soul is in the brain”, I starred in an interview about the new ideas that neuroscience brings to our traditional thoughts about personality and self. My co-interviewees were Jesper Mogensen and Albert Gjedde, both well-renowned neuroscientists both within and outside Scandinavia.

In a coming topic on the senses (tomorrow, April 19.), I speak about how neuroscience can be used in marketing, aka neuromarketing.

The series can be found here, and DR does a nice podcast: http://podcast.dr.dk/p1/rssfeed/tema_torsdag.xml (copy and paste into your preferred podcasting program)

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This week’s Nature features a nice battle between creationists and evolutionists in the correspondence section.

The debate contains the following parts:


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religionscience.jpgI just received the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science. It’s nothing short of a mammoth book on this topic — and I didn’t even know it was such a big topic. Basically, the book’s aim is to provide a comprehensive introduction and review of the field. The book also attempts to provide a discussion of the relation between naturalism and supernaturalism

It does this by a series of chapters of different religions and their stand on science. I’m reading the book (at home; too heavy to carry around), and hope to be able to provide a tentative review soon.

…and I always wonder why they call it a ‘handbook’ — I need both arms and feet to hold it, let alone read it.


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books.jpgWhile Thomas is getting his kicks off at the SfN meeting in Atlanta I am toiling away at a number of long overdue papers here in the increasingly cold Denmark. I have several longer blog posts planned, but no time to write them. So, here’s three things to read in the meantime at other venues on the net.

First, John Searle reviews a new book on consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey, Seeing Red, in The New York Review of Books. I have always enjoyed Humphrey’s work, but his new theory on consciousness sounds plain weird (at least as retold by Searle; I haven’t read Humphrey’s book). In Searle’s words:


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huxley.jpgI just saw the TV documentary “The root of all evil?” hosted by Richard Dawkins, who is one of today’s most ardent defenders of evolutionary theory, and of science in general. Over two episodes Dawkins argues that the world would be better off without religion, since it distorts our view of ourselves as human beings and our place in the universe, of society and of morals and law.Dawkins seeks out confrontation with religious leaders such as Pastor Ted Haggard in The New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and Joseph Cohen, now Yousef al-Khattab in Jerusalem, an American-born Jew who came to Israel as a settler before converting to Islam. On both occasions, Dawkins attempts to discuss the difference in their respective understandings of humanity, the world, morals and so on. The problem is that neither Haggard or al-Khattab agree that scientific evidence must be regarded as true. Basically, they think that science is “just another religion”, and that you have to believe it, just as you do in God or Allah.

So what does Dawkins do, this ardent proponent of evolution? He goes numb! No doubt he is utterly suprised of the backwards logic that the religious representatives display. But why doesn’t he do as he says in the beginning of his documentary:

The time has come for people of reason to say: enough is enough. Religious faith discourages independent thought, it’s divisive, and it’s dangerous.

No, Dawkins goes numb and has little else to say, it seems. Although Wikipedia gives you the details of this documentary, it does not convey fully how Dawkins fails to apply his otherwise crisp and clear logic, as you can read in any of his books.

I think what we need is a new Darwin’s bulldog, or maybe a Dawkin’s bulldog? Or even better, evolution needs a butcher. We need someone who can piece out every single misinformation, failed logic and stupidity that can be found in religion. We need it to happen on-line, in front of our eyes, on the tele, on the radio. We need someone to ridicule religious belief, to show how it relies on nothing but anecdotes presented as axioms. That they are cultural memes, potential lethal mental viruses. Someone who asks “why should I believe in your religion rather than this over here?”, “why cannot my self-made, armchair philosophy religion be just as good as yours?”. Someone who get rabbis, muftis and bishops together to tell us what’s really right, why we should listen to only some of the Bible, or Koran, and decline other parts as culturally twisted tales.

Science has played the nice guy all along, because science is not a movement. It’s a method. It’s a way of asking “is this true, and can you prove it or reject it?”. How you choose to study a phenomenon is your own choice, but you open up to test whether theory A, B, and C are correct, whether only one is correct or whether all are false.

So we need a butcher, probably a whole association of evolutionary butchers. Let’s call them Dawkins’ Butchers. Who wants to join?


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carmelite-nuns.jpgResearch using fMRI to investigate complex cognitive behaviour, or controversial political issues, is often criticized – sometimes unfairly, but also often for good reasons. (A colleague of mine is prone to quip: “You shouldn’t conduct fMRI experiments that involve regions anterior to the central sulcus!”) In general, many of the problems with such fMRI studies stem from a more fundamental problem: on the one hand we want to know more about the most complex behaviour and cognitive mechanisms exhibited by the human brain (how are political beliefs formed?, what is romantic love?, etc.); on the other hand, due to this complexity, it is seldom possible to design experiments that lend themselves to a straightforward, and clear cut, interpretation.

A new study, in press at Neuroscience Letters, illustrates this conundrum. Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette scanned 15 Carmelite nuns as they experienced what the abstract refer to as a “a state of union with God”. In other words, Beauregard and Paquette have tried to design an imaging study that can tell us something about what goes on in the brain of people having a mystical experience. There are several reasons why this is interesting. One, mystical experiences are clearly, by themselves, a fascinating type of phenomenal experience. Scondly, since mystical experiences are very rare, it is naturally of interest to know more about why people sometimes leave their normal state of mind and engage in such “spiritual” experiences. And thirdly, understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of mystical experiences can help us understand the more basic question why religions are such an attraction to humans.

The problem with Beauregard and Paquette’s study lies in the unprecise nature of the experimental design. Beauregard and Paquette acquired MR images of the nuns’ BOLD signal vis-a-vis three different conditions: (1) a mystical condition, (2) a control condition, and (3) a baseline condition. Here’s how these three conditions are described in the paper:

In the Mystical condition, subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense
mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order. This strategy was adopted given that the nuns told us before the onset of the study that “God can’t be summoned at will.” In the Control condition, subjects were instructed to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense state of union with another human ever felt in their lives while being affiliated with the Carmelite Order. The week preceding the experiment, subjects were requested to practice these two tasks. The Baseline condition was a normal restful state (eyes closed).

In other words, what was actually investigated was the memory of previous mystical experiences, more so than the actual “union with God” proclaimed in the abstract. Beauregard and Paquette’s idea i now to compare the mystical condition with the control and the baseline condition. It is however somewhat unclear how the memory of a mystical experience match the memory of an “intense state of union with another human” (who?), and thus how the two conditions can be compared.

Another concern is the very long duration of the individual blocks. Each block lasted 5 minutes, which makes perfect sense from the point of view of the task (after all, the subject needs time to bring about the two principal conditions), but makes it enormously difficult to know what is being modelled by the analysis. To my knowledge no theory exists detailing how the time-course of calling up a memory of a mystical experience unfolds; hence, exactly what cognitive processes are reflected by the BOLD signal remain uncertain. Moreover, it is hard to make sure that people concentrate on just one cognitive task for such a long time, so the results may be contamined by unrelated mental activity.

Still, with these serious caveats in mind, it is interesting to see that the contrast between remembering the experience of a union with God and remembering the experience of a union with another human produce significant acitivity in a number of brain areas (medial OFC, medial PFC, dorsal ACC, middle temporal cortex, and the inferior and superior parietal lobule), albeit at p<0.001, uncorrected for multiple comparisons. This result indicate that (the memory of) mystical experiences do have some particular neural correlate, although the design of the experiment makes it impossible to say what the function of the brain regions mentioned above amount to.

Now, it is obviously highly unclear what this experiment shows, but this doesn’t make it a failed study in my view. Whenever we deal with complex cognitive processes, we have to start somewhere. If other researchers use others conditions we may slowly be able to piece together the puzzle of what these activations mean.


Beauregard, M. & Paquette, V. (2006): Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters, in press.


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brainy.jpgToday, a post is up at Meme Therapy on the ethical aspects of techological and scientific advances. It is an interview with a lot of different people with diverse backgrounds. Jose Garcia asks:

We seem to be awash in technological/scientific issues that raise serious ethical questions nowadays. Of these which concern/interest you the most?

You can find my answer down the line, probably the most lengthy of the replies (duh?). Basically, I’m pointing to two major points: 1) the technical advancements that have already occur and will continue to happen, will challenge our current views of humanism, law and morale, volition and other aspects of human affairs. However, 2) how this knowledge is communicated, understood and misunderstood due to everything from bad explanation to religious beliefs, is just as important an issue.

I’d say that today we have a vast majority of academics that accept the Modern Synthesis of the theory of evolution, while a large part of the population as such a) do not believe in evolution; b) think evolution may be correct, but that humans are still “spiritual beings”; c) think that all is right and do not acknowledge that there are any inconsistencies between religion and science; d) think science is “bad” and that it should be discarded altogether.

So where does that put us today? Indeed, if I claimed that I really believed that Santa Claus existed, I’d be able to make use of all the same arguments that those proposing an intelligent design theory rathern than evolutionary theory  of human (and anima) evolution. Yes, I believe that Santa exists, living at the North Pole (or was it Greenland, Norway or Finland, or what?). Just because we can’t see him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist, does it? He’s giving you the presents at X-mas, not your parents (just a cover-up). You want me to prove it? No, I don’t believe in science, you can’t measure everything, right? There is more between heaven and earth than that!


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