December 16, 2010

Religion or cross words?

Wait, sorry, that was supposed to be crossword, not cross words.  Religion is already full of cross words.  Just listen to any zealot, and a lot of the words they use will be cross.

But no, I'm talking about this new thing called Neurotheology.  NPR did a story on it, so it must be either very leftist or... um, socialist, right?  Anyway, it's going to be more honest and informative than FOX news will be, that's for sure.  Right?

Well, maybe.  See, the Neurotheology article reports that a scientist did brain scans of religious people before and after eight weeks of meditation, just 12 minutes a day.  What this showed was pretty interesting and significant, and actionable--with this simple, non-intrusive technique, people can actually get their brains to work better and improve their memory.  This was shown in tests.

The conclusion, however, is that somehow the spiritual nature of the activity is the source of the improvement in brain function.  That being religious and meditating is what causes it.  Not just the meditating sans the religious aspect.

But waaayy back in January, 2006, TIME magazine ran an article about ways to stave off Alzheimer's.  And I quote:

Several studies have found that folks who regularly engage in mentally challenging activities—like reading, doing crossword puzzles or playing chess—seem less likely to develop dementia later in life.

Hmm.  Sounds maybe like... 12 minutes a day of heightened concentration exercises leading to improved memory and brain function.

Kind of like 20 minutes of exercise a day leads to better muscle tone and improved body function.

Not really that surprising or revolutionary, to be honest.  And really, really hard to tie to spirituality.

Which actually appears to be what the scientist who did the neurotheology study concludes.  Smart man, that.  He says, "One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God's really in the room, but the scan itself doesn't really show that."

In other words, "Hey guys, I've got some results, but in order to understand them we'll need a whole pile of more research money.  All of you who want to prove that there's a higher power, put your money in this bucket on the right.  All of you who want to disprove the existence of God, put your money in this bucket on the left."

Genius, this guy.  I bet he could totally beat my time at the NYT crossword puzzle.  (Around 11 minutes for Wednesday's puzzle this week.  But it was late.)

Unless he starts watching FOX news regularly, in which case he may end up like the other couple million zombies who still think Obama was born in a foreign country.


Laurel said...

I read conflicting information on memory training as a method of slowing Alzheimer's. I remember the study that you cited when I read this more recently:

Mental exercise can improve memory function related to an aging brain but does not show much benefit for memory loss related to Alzheimer's.

Which I found infinitely depressing and hope isn't really true.

I also wonder if the spirituality exercise might have some other method of action, since meditation doesn't typically require use of memory but does have an effect on biological patterns. Reduced heart rate and reduced stress both lower inflammatory markers in the blood, like interleukins, which in turn can have a beneficial effect on circulation and memory function.

Regardless, we're praying people. Bible belt and all that. I do associate it with calm, but since I can't remember what I had for lunch on any given day I can't offer any personal support to the findings.

fairyhedgehog said...

I've read about meditation as a way of improving brain function but it always seems to be a case of focussing on one thing for a while - often your breathing. (Very boring, in my view. I prefer to do some sort of visualisation.)

People will believe what they want to believe, and if they believe in God they will assume that it's the spiritual aspects of meditation that work. Although what's so spiritual about focussing on your breathing I'm not entirely sure.

PJD said...

I guess my point in posting this wasn't actually to discuss the existence of God, the utility (or lack thereof) of being spiritual, or how to avoid dementia later in life. I think all I really wanted to do was point out how tenuous the link was between the factual data and the category of "science" called neurotheology.

I think maybe I'll start a few new areas of science:

Kinetotheology: the study of how hitting people with swords in the name of God improves physical well-being.

Erotheology: the study of the correlation between screaming "oh God oh God" during sex and increased heart rate as well as feelings of "spiritual moments."

Mediatheology: the study of the correlation between watching cable news that agrees with or disagrees with your personal religious beliefs, and the resulting changes in blood pressure and tension indicators.

Hmm. There may be money to be made in these new fields of science.