SECOND OPINION | Is Religious Belief Embedded in the Brain?


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A new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports rejects a widely held theory that the human brain has a built-in neural capacity for religious beliefs. In other words, humans are not born believers.

“What we’re suggesting is to believe in a god, it’s like learning a language. You have to be exposed to it and learn it,” lead author Miguel Farias told us. He is studying the psychology of religion and behavior at the University of Coventry in the UK

We are questioning something that had become an idea accepted by the general public.– Miguel Farias, University of Coventry

Farias set out to test the “intuitive belief hypothesis” – a theory that emerged in cognitive science suggesting that humans are born with the capacity for religious belief, but that their actual religious nature depends on how they are. to think; whether they are more intuitive or more analytical.

The theory is based on the concept of two systems of thought – “intuitive thinking” which is an immediate and rapid processing of information, and “analytical thinking” which is slower and requires more cognitive effort to assess information. events and circumstances.

Thus, intuitive thinkers should be more religious, and analytical thinkers should have weaker religious beliefs. At least that’s the theory.

But Farias couldn’t find any evidence that this was true, even after looking at the issue in three ways. This included measuring religious beliefs and analytical thinking in people who were in the midst of the famous 30-day Camino de Santiago pilgrimage to Spain.

“Our studies here suggest that it is probably time for psychologists to reconsider their understanding of belief as ‘natural’ or ‘intuitive’ and instead focus on the cultural and social learning factors that give rise to supernatural ideas,” did he declare.

Is this a controversial finding?

“I hope so,” he said. “We are questioning something that had become an accepted idea by the general public over the past 15 years. We have to rethink it.”

The study points out that archaeological findings from Neanderthal burial practices suggest that religious beliefs are “perhaps the first type of structured human belief.”

“People need to believe in something. It helps them map reality and predict what’s going to happen,” Farias said, adding that there is a lot of evidence that analytical thinkers also have strong religious beliefs. .

Do you know where your adrenal glands are?

A lot of people don’t, according to one pop quiz run by a UK medical school. But there was an organ that anyone could place.

“It’s reassuring that everyone knows where their brain is,” said lead author Adam Taylor, director of the Clinical Anatomy Learning Center at Lancaster Medical School, with a smile.

Knowing your own anatomy is important, he said, because people need to be aware of their own bodies to better manage their health. And he was especially worried when a previous study showed that some men didn’t know where their prostate was, or needed to get it checked out as they got older.

Taylor’s research team tested the anatomical acuity of 63 volunteers by asking them to identify the location of 20 organs, muscles and glands on an outline of the human body.

Sixty-three volunteers responded to this questionnaire for a study conducted by Lancaster University School of Medicine. They were asked to point out where the internal body parts listed on the right were located on the body contours on the left. (Lancaster University School of Medicine)

Almost everyone placed the cornea (part of the eye) correctly, and most people knew where the biceps and triceps were (respectively in front of and behind the upper arms).

But people had the most trouble with the body parts located in the abdomen, which contains several organs. Common mistakes included placing the liver and stomach on the wrong side of the body and “the pancreas we’ve seen in just about every possible position across the abdomen,” Taylor said.

What about those elusive adrenal glands? A lot of people thought they were in the neck, but they’re actually located above the kidneys.

Overall, there was a “mixed bag” of results, Taylor said, with a few people scoring a perfect 20, a few really low scores of two or three, and the rest somewhere in between. The participants were between eight and 74 years old and their level of education did not seem to affect their quiz scores.

Taylor said the study was a pilot and his team were planning a much larger study to assess people’s knowledge of their bodies.

If people know where their internal organs are, Taylor said, they can better identify where the pain or discomfort is coming from and communicate it to their health care providers.

Wanted: Vintage Medical Tools

Do you have a 19th century stethoscope hidden in that drawer where you store old batteries and remotes for devices you no longer own?

If you do, the University of Toronto wants it.

A team of researchers and science historians is seeking to create the school’s first comprehensive digital catalog of historical scientific and medical artifacts and is appealing to the public.

“We wanted to collect important artifacts from the past,” said Erich Weidenhammer, associate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, who helped lead the initiative.

“You can learn a lot of information from a single artifact.”

An electroencephalogram for measuring brain waves, constructed in the mid to late 1930s by John Goodwin, a researcher at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection)

Weidenhammer said the catalog helps preserve the “material culture of research” by giving people insight into methodologies, practices and limitations that were realities for scientists, physicians and researchers of the past – which, according to him, can in turn function as a resource for current researchers.

So far, the catalog includes the first vials of tetanus toxoid vaccine, insulin and dehydrated plasma; a 1930s electroencephalograph that measures brain waves; a jar containing a crayfish preserved in a 1979 liquid; and telescopes from the early 1800s.

Weidenhammer said he was currently in talks with a man who offered to let them use his blood pressure monitor from the early 1920s, known as the sphygmomanometer.

But what Weidenhammer said the catalog really needs are local research materials – in areas like public health, nursing, and pharmacy – as well as early computers.

“You can’t put it all together,” he admits. “But we want to bring together so much information and create such a coherent resource [as possible], recording the past. “

Why does no one remember Dr. Elizabeth Stern?

As a scientist, Ellen Elliott is already busy studying the genetic basis of the disease at the Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut, but in her spare time she also becomes a science biographer, resurrecting memories of important women whose contributions have long been overlooked. .

His latest discovery is Dr. Elizabeth Stern of Canada whose pioneering research laid the foundation for one of the most successful cancer screening programs in history – the Pap test for cervical cancer.

Yet even though Stern’s research in the early 1960s saved lives, hardly anyone has heard of her.

Dr. Elizabeth Stern, pictured here in the University of Toronto Medical School graduating class of 1939. (SRC)

“I don’t know why she’s so neglected,” Elliott said. “His contributions have helped doctors diagnose cervical cancer at an earlier stage.”

Stern was one of a handful of women who graduated from the University of Toronto’s medical school in 1939. She then went on to become a cytopathologist, studying the size and shape of human cells.

Although the Pap test for cervical cancer became a standard screening test in the 1960s, scientists had limited knowledge of the cellular changes in early-stage cancer.

“You have to be able to distinguish mildly cancerous cells from healthy cells and that wasn’t well defined until Elizabeth Stern worked on it,” Elliott said.

I really wish I could have known her.– Ellen Elliott, author profiling Dr Elizabeth Stern

Back then, cervical cancer was almost always fatal, but Dr. Stern’s work helped doctors catch the disease in its early stages, making it a highly treatable form of cancer.

Stern died in 1980 of stomach cancer in the middle of her research career, working on a scientific manuscript even in her dying days.

Determined to spotlight women’s contributions to science, Elliott wrote a story last year for the Jackson Laboratory Blog. When Stern’s daughter saw the article, she reached out to Elliott and provided him with plenty of new leads.

“She was really excited to see someone write about her mother because there isn’t much there.”

Elliott updated the story and sent it to Scientific American, where it was posted online this week, under the headline “Another Science Pioneer You Probably Never Heard of”.

“I really wish I could have known her,” Elliott said. “I hope that by publishing this little article, his former students could contact me.”

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