March 11, 2013

This is your brain on #spirituality? Well ....

A human brain allegedly hooked on "spirituality."
Ocean/Corbis photo via Daily Mail
Not totally. Perhaps not even close to totally. So, not quite really, despite the breathless hype.

The only parts of this research that I would accept as true are:
1. That, however "spirituality" is defined, it is driven by more parts of the brain than previously believed;
2. That, speaking of the above, there are all sorts of experiences we might define as "spiritual."

Here's where the over-hyped rubber hits the road, though.
1. Various electronically-driven brain scans, whether fMRI, CAT, or SPECT, are still, to use a Photoshop word, very "bitmappy" in terms of low spatial resolution, and quite time delayed to boot.
2. This particular study, even with the allowance it was specifically designed to focus on people with parietal lobe injury, only studied 20 people. Wayyyy too small of a sampling sizes.

And, that's just on "measurement error" problems.

We haven't even talked about research bias problems. Like this, from University of Missouri researcher Brick Johnstone:
He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. 
Johnstone later tries to claim that the non-religious also experience "spirituality." But, since he's definining spirituality in metaphyiscal terms, religious ones if we count New Ageism, 12-Steppism and "atheistic" varieties of Buddhism as religion, then he's skewing his research.

That means this statement by the reporter:
The research indicated that there are all kinds of spiritual experiences that Christians might call closeness to God and atheists might call an awareness of themselves.
Simply isn't true; or at least, it's only "true" in a question-begging light. 

And, since it's bylined only as "Daily Mail Reporter," I don't even know who to blame.

But, it's simply not true. 

Even worse, neither the reporter nor the researcher mentions the likely role of the temporal lobe in generating such experiences. Temporal lobe epilepsy has long been associated with religious ecstasy and visionary experience.

Oh, and per a former acquaintance on an email list, who was from the British Isles? While US newspapers often aren't great, this is why your touting of the greatness of British journalism is pretty much wrong. 

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