SciAmMind on neurotheology and false memories

The new edition of Scientific American Mind is on its way to the shelves and two of the feature articles are freely available online: one on the neuropsychology of mystical experience and the other on one person’s experience of false memories created by the widely discounted ‘recovered memory therapy’.

The article on the neuropsychology of mystical experience covers all the major research studies but has a few niggling omissions.

For example, it mentions that a 2005 attempt by Swedish scientists to replicate Persinger’s induced ‘sensed presence’ studies “failed”, without mentioning that it wasn’t a very good replication – as noted by Persinger himself in a reply in the same journal.

The whole area of neurotheology is interesting because its very presence seems to rile some people, not least because some of the researchers have personal religious beliefs. However, in the field as a whole the mix seems quite healthy.

For example, Beauregard argues in his new book that there is a neuroscientific case for the soul, from reading Newberg’s book Why We Believe What We Believe he seems to be of the ‘there may be something spiritual going on but I’m not sure’ school, whereas, as far as I know, Persinger and Ramachandran are both atheists.

I find Beauregard’s argument a bit bizarre to be honest, as understanding the neuroscience of spiritual experience tells us no more about the existence of the soul than the understanding of vision tells us about the existence of whatever someone’s looking at.

However, this doesn’t stop people using the data to confirm their own beliefs. The article finishes with a lovely example of this from both sides:

Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them.

What these studies may show is that spiritual experience is distinct from other sorts of subjective mental states in terms of neurobiology, but they can’t answer metaphysical questions.

The other SciAmMind article discusses the science of memory with regards to one woman’s experience of having false memories of satanic ritual abuse raised by involvement with an unethical therapist.

Other feature articles include stories on Eric Kandell, virtual reality, brain nutrition, IQ and the Flynn Effect, unusual experiences and creativity, and the accuracy of visual perception.

Link to annoyingly titled article ‘Searching for God in the Brain’.
Link to article on false memories entitled ‘Brain Stains’.

2 thoughts on “SciAmMind on neurotheology and false memories”

  1. It’s also interesting to read Larsson et al.’s reply to Persinger and Koren’s objections, if one has access to the journal:
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.059
    They go into great detail explaining how their conditions replicate those of Persinger. Plus, here is a choice quote:
    “Regarding double-blindness, which we believe to be the most important reason for the different results between our laboratories, we have not read all of the several hundred articles published by Persinger in this and related areas. However, we have carefully checked the methodological descriptions of the studies that were cited in the response by Persinger as representing truly double-blind procedures. As far as we can judge, none of them was double-blind according to the conventional definition of the term…”
    I found it hard to believe there were *several hundred* articles by Persinger et al. in this area, but a quick PubMed search reveals this to be the case (I stopped reading at page 4 of 16). Most of those papers are in low-quality journals, with the exception of some of his animal studies.

  2. Neurocritic, thanks for this. I was unaware of this reply as it’s not linked into the original article on PubMed. For those who are interested the whole ex change is definitely worth reading.

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