July 2-3 people from around the world gathered for the World Culture Festival in Berlin for what seems like a powerful celebration of global diversity.

I was especially intrigued by the video just posted to give a glimpse into the group meditation by 70,000 people, focusing on world peace:

In this January 2011 study led by Sara Lazar of Mass General Hospital, the striking findings were that meditation changes not only your stress response, but also the very underlying structure of your brain–especially areas related to sense of self, stress, and empathy.

I can’t help but wonder what small-scale evolutionary steps we humans are taking when 70,000 of us meditate together.  In the big picture of the human project, what are we about here?

Are we using meditation to program our brains for world peace?

If so, what location should play host to the next gathering of 70,000?

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Jesse Bering, columnist for Scientific American has a intriguing book coming out February 7, 2011 titled, The Belief Instinct:  The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. You can see a preview in this Scientific American article:

One of the important, often unspoken, implications of the new cognitive science of religion is the possibility that we’ve been going about studying the God question completely wrong for a very long time. Perhaps the question of God’s existence is one that is more for psychologists than for philosophers, physicists, or even theologians. Put the scripture aside. Just as the scientist who studies the basic cognitive mechanisms of language acquisition isn’t especially concerned with the particular narrative plot in children’s bedtime stories, the cognitive scientist of religion isn’t much concerned about the details of the fantastic fables buried in religious texts. Instead, in picking apart the psychological bones of belief, we’re going to focus on some existential basics. Perceiving the supernatural isn’t magic, but something patently organic: a function of the brain.

Today’s New Scientist features a write-up on a new research tool for studying human social interaction, a dual-headed fMRI scanner.

This tool will enable new research on how our brains light up as we socially interact–not only through being exposed to video of a loved one, as current research features, but also through the tactile and visceral experience of tangible presence.

Ray Lee, of Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute is credited with the lead on this work, and here is how it is described in IEEE:

One of the major functions of the human brain is to mediate interactions
with other people. Until recently, studying brain social interactions
has not been possible due to the lack of measurable methods to observe
two interacting minds simultaneously. We have developed a novel
dual-head MRI coil that can scan two subjects’ brains simultaneously
while the subjects are socially interacting in one MRI scanner.
Meanwhile, a novel scheme for decoupling two quadrature coils (not
surface coils) is introduced and validated.

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Note:  Also posted on the IFTF blog, FutureNow

Social Contagion Theory

If you haven’t yet encountered the social contagion work by Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler, I highly recommend it, especially in Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Their research focuses on social networks and the impact of your friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees of separation!) on dimensions of your life: from health to finance, from smoking to violence.

Then, it challenges you to question your impact on your connections–how do my exercise habits make it more likely that my friend Mike’s wife, Sarah’s mother will have healthier exercise habits?

Their research handily disrupts binary thinking; especially questioning the dichotomy between individual and collective responsibility.

Faith & Social Networks

They also have some provocative insights into the link between faith and social network connectivity.  According to Christakis & Fowler, some people anthropomorphize God, which allows them to understand God to be part of their social networks (even to the point of drawing their relationship with God on their social network diagrams.)

This can create a phenomenon where everyone in the social network feels closer to each other, because they are all only one degree removed from each other; all connected through the network node of their deity.  As they put it:  “A key function of religion, in other words, is to stabilize social connections.”

The Brain & Religious Experience:  Hard Wired for Connectivity?

This is further supported by evidence obtained through study of the brain–linking religious experience with particular brain phenomenon.  See Chapter 7 of Connected for more on faith, human nature & connectivity:

For example, functional MRI studies show that during religious feelings and altered states of consciousness, the parts of the brain that regulate the sense of self in time and space actually stop functioning.  This contributes to the sensation that ‘all are one’ and may help us overcome a built-in rigidity in the way we perceive our position with respect to others.  In essence, the brain is fooled into believing that social boundaries do not exist or, equivalently, that everyone is connected to everyone else….In this way, a religious movement can bring together disparate groups of people to achieve a common goal, from caring for the poor to building great structures to, alas, launching wars on rival groups.

This interesting clip overviews key concepts from Connected (though isn’t about faith specifically): 

In the next decade, will neuroscience give us more of a glimpse into our spiritual brains?

In the Feb. 11, 2010 issue of Neuron, Italian researchers report on their experiments surrounding the personality trait of “self-transcendence” which is meant to be a measure of spiritual orientation.

Through analyzing self-transcendence scores of brain tumor patients both before & after their tumors were removed, they made another step towards drawing the link between brain activity and spirituality in a measurable way.

Highlights

Here are the highlights of their work–full article downloadable here:

  • Self-transcendence is a stable personality trait measuring predisposition to spirituality
  • Brain damage induces specific and fast modulations of self-transcendence
  • Self-transcendence increases after damage to lt and rt inferior parietal cortex

Summary

  • The predisposition of human beings toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors is measured by a supposedly stable personality trait called self-transcendence. Although a few neuroimaging studies suggest that neural activation of a large fronto-parieto-temporal network may underpin a variety of spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking.
  • Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence.
  • Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness.
  • These results hint at the active, crucial role of left and right parietal systems in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.

For those interested in learning more, here is an accessible summary in Science Daily.  Thanks to Mark Schar for pointing me towards this fascinating research!

Just another area where neuroscience is highlighting interesting resonances between previously disconnected domains of human experience:  immersing in a brand versus immersing in a religious experience.

Am intrigued to read Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology:

Verilliance shares a succinct write-up of Lindstrom’s work, with the strong brand example of Apple as the entry point for the comparison of neuroscientific stimulation by religion & brands.  The “pillars” Lindstrom identifies as fundamental to all religions are below:

  1. Sense of Belonging
  2. A Clear Vision
  3. Power over Enemies
  4. Sensory Appeal
  5. Storytelling
  6. Grandeur
  7. Evangelism
  8. Symbolism
  9. Mystery
  10. Rituals

Using these as the basis for the comparison seem off-base to me, but the list provides an interesting framework for the reason that it helps show the ethical quandaries around the potential of neuromarketing in the future.