Monday, January 15, 2007

Book renewal

Or rather, shall I re-start my "what I have read" post, as it's getting a bit long and clumsy and this is a new year?

On the whole, I think I won't. I'll just divide it into years.

I'm currently part-way through the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, part-way through The English Civil War by Tristram Hunt, dipping in and out of Phantoms in the Brain by VS Ramachandran and tempted to read another Minette Walters, all at the same time.

I hate it when this happens and I don't know which to read next or try to finish.

I love Phantoms in the Brain: it's a fascinating book written by a neuroscientist, combining anecdotes about patients with science & medicine. He writes well, with real humour and compassion as well as authority. (I tried to read Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat after reading this, it is perhaps the better-known book on a similar subject/style, but found myself unable to do so. VS Ramachandran had spoilt me too much, I think). I'm currently re-reading the chapter on "God and the Limbic System".

He starts by discussing Dr M Persinger's experiment where he artificially stimulated his temporal lobe with his Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator (which sounds ludicrously like something belonging to a bad SF show) and experienced "god". Which is interesting if true.

Having done some more reading: apparently a group of Swedish scientists have failed to replicate Persinger's findings in double-blind conditions. He argues that their attempts didn't use the same timings and that he also achieved his results in double-blind condition. Persinger used the technique successfully on Susan Blackmore but failed with Richard Dawkins.
"Dr Persinger has explained away the failure of this Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator. Before donning the helmet, Prof Dawkins had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity.
Recent studies on identical and fraternal twin pairs raised apart suggest that 50 per cent of our religious interests are influenced by genes. It seems Prof Dawkins is genetically predisposed not to believe."

This is really fascinating stuff. Persinger's experiments seem supported to a certain extent by the propensity of temporal lobe epileptics to religiosity and visions, but there is clearly more research to be done.

If it is true that temporal lobe activity gives rise to religious experiences/sensations, then could religion simply be a neurological response?
Or would a deity choose to stimulate particular areas of the brain in order to communicate?
And if it were all in the temporal lobes, as it were, does this really mean Dawkins is really unable to experience a god due to a genetic/physical deficiency? (Or you could turn it round and say that those who do have such experiences suffer over-activity in those areas).
Would it mean I am unable to experience god as Dawkins seems unable? The article cited above points out "If strong religious feelings are no less a part of brain function than those linked with hunger and sex, the ultimate test would be to summon up mystical and religious beliefs experimentally. Indeed, it would actually be in Prof Dawkins's interests to experience religion for the first time under Dr Persinger's helmet."
Or would I be more like Susan Blackmore?
What would this mean if it is a valid conclusion to say that religious experience is a product of temporal lobe activity?
What would it mean about the idea of god if some people are genetically/physically unable to experience/feel him?
Would a god deliberately create people who could never believe in him? It certainly doesn't fit with the Christian god, as I understand it.

Anyway, that went off a bit from discussing Phantoms In the Brain as I intended, but never mind. :)

1 comment:

Abby said...

Sounds like a good book, I'd love to read it myself. I like books about the brain too. I don't think it's true to say that the religious are religious because their brains are able to have dreams and see visions, because many religious people have nearly no mystical experience of God. Only certain religious sects encourage dreams and visions. Mine doesn't. If God talks to me it's usually in my own voice, thinking of people I ought to contact or write to who I had forgotten about, and this happens in church so I tend to feel that I must be more open to God's voice there. Maybe it's just me... I don't know.