Towards a neuropsychology of religion

This week’s Nature has a fascinating essay by anthropologist Pascal Boyer discussing the quirks of spiritual belief and how they may result from the evolution of our mind and brain.

Boyer is best known for his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought where he argued that religion can be understood as where the cognitive abilities we’ve developed through evolution are applied to things like group identity, ritual, or the explanation of otherwise mysterious things, such as weather or disease.

Essentially, Boyer argues that there are cognitive restraints on religious practice and belief, which he illustrates by pointing out some interesting inconsistencies in our intuitive ideas about spiritual agents. According to Boyer, this suggests that our mental capacities define what are supposed to be all-powerful or all-knowing entities.

This clip of Boyer being interview by Jonathan Miller is fascinating because he points out, contrary to popular belief, what most religions are concerned with. He notes most religions do not concern themselves with the creation of the world or the afterlife, while the presence of unseen agents is almost universal.

There is now a growing interest in the cognitive science of religion and one of my favourite articles is by psychiatrist Quinton Deeley who discusses how different form of religious ritual may influence specific cognitive functions to pass on religious teachings and commitments (full disclosure: Deeley is a friend and research collaborator).

Deeley argues that the well-known distinction between ‘doctrinal’ rituals which are frequent and low intensity (such as everyday prayers or practices), and ‘imagistic’ high-intensity, less-frequent rituals (such as exuberant religious celebrations) serve different psychological purposes.

‘Doctrinal’ rituals help create semantic memories of key concepts and emotional response through associative learning, while ‘imagistic’ rituals help create episodic memories of specific situations that may involve altered states of consciousness and the experience of other realities.

Deeley also did a fascinating talk on ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’ where he discusses some of the neuropsycholgical mechanisms that might underlie trance and possessions states.

Link to Boyer’s Nature essay ‘Religion: Bound to believe?’.
Link to brief interview with Boyer on religion.
Link to Deeley’s article ‘The Religious Brain’.
Link to video of talk ‘Ritual, Possession Trance, and Amnesia’.

One Comment

  1. Posted October 23, 2008 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Vaughan,
    I recently ran across an absolutely amazing book that uses pavlov research (among others) to explain the process of religious conversion and brainwashing in a physiological manner.
    I highly recommend it…
    It’s called “Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing” and it’s by William Sargent.


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