A study in the journal Neuron reports that researchers might have found the neural basis of spirituality in the brain's posterior parietal region.
This is great stuff, with all kinds of potential to inspire righteous anger in the ecclesiastical, to offend militant atheists, and to disturb complacent agnostics.
Ewen Callaway of The New Scientist avoided getting into any trouble whatever with a tepid lede that said "Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage." Feelings of transcendence can follow getting a story on page one, too, or a stiff martini, but nobody would write a story about either of those. He threatens to get more interesting in the next graf, where he writes that "feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality." Why wasn't something like that in the lede?
But then he loses me again when he says the brain region in question in this study is responsible for, among other things, "helping you keep track of your body parts." That's often been a problem for me, and I guarantee you it's not a transcendent experience.
Cordis News, a news service of the European Union, says the new study "has shed light on how changes in the brain can alter spiritual and religious attitudes, and that it "might ultimately lead to new treatments for certain personality disorders."
What? Religions attitudes are personality disorders? No, it doesn't say that, of course. But the connection is uncomfortably close. It wouldn't be hard for somebody with an agenda to purposely misread that lede and rail against science's mistreatment of religion.
Greg Miller of ScienceNow seems to me to improperly conflate a couple of things. He backs into the story with a lede that begins, "People of many religious faiths share the belief that there is a reality that transcends their personal experience." He goes on to say that some patients who had surgery to remove part of the parietal cortex "became more prone to 'self-transcendence.'"
I'm not entirely clear on what self-transcendence is, but it doesn't seem to be the same thing as believing there is a "reality that transcends...personal experience."
This is an unusual case in which the abstract of the study is actually more daring--and clearer--than much of the reporting that I looked at. The researchers are unafraid, in the title of their study, to refer to "the spiritual brain," and how a region can "modulate human self-transcendence." And the abstract clearly explains, in its first sentence, that self transcendence is a "supposedly stable personality trait." That's helpful; now I have some idea what we're dealing with.
The abstract concludes by saying that the findings "cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors."
The researchers were not afraid to say what they thought.
The news coverage would have been better if it had been similarly direct.
Grist for the mill: Press release on Eurekalert.
- Paul Raeburn