Archive | January, 2011

God: He’s Electric!

16 Jan

This Is Your Brain on God
Michael Persinger has a vision – the Almighty isn’t dead, he’s an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.
By Jack Hitt
Over a scratchy speaker, a researcher announces, “Jack, one of your electrodes is loose, we’re coming in.” The 500-pound steel door of the experimental chamber opens with a heavy whoosh; two technicians wearing white lab coats march in. They remove the Ping-Pong-ball halves taped over my eyes and carefully lift a yellow motorcycle helmet that’s been retrofitted with electromagnetic field-emitting solenoids on the sides, aimed directly at my temples. Above the left hemisphere of my 42-year-old male brain, they locate the dangling electrode, needed to measure and track my brain waves. The researchers slather more conducting cream into the graying wisps of my red hair and press the securing tape hard into my scalp.
After restoring everything to its proper working position, the techies exit, and I’m left sitting inside the utterly silent, utterly black vault. A few commands are typed into a computer outside the chamber, and selected electromagnetic fields begin gently thrumming my brain’s temporal lobes. The fields are no more intense than what you’d get as by-product from an ordinary blow-dryer, but what’s coming is anything but ordinary. My lobes are about to be bathed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect my mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation that I am seeing God.
I’m taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada’s Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as “having a religious experience” is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain’s feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a “sensed presence.”
Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use – Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations – describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance – while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.
It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn’t shy about defining our most sacred notions – love, joy, altruism, pity – as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal – aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.
To those of us who prefer a little mystery in our lives, it all sounds like a letdown. And as I settle in for my mind trip, I’m starting to get apprehensive. I’m a lapsed Episcopalian clinging to only a hazy sense of the divine, but I don’t especially like the idea that whatever vestigial faith I have in the Almighty’s existence might get clinically lobotomized by Persinger’s demo. Do I really want God to be rendered as explicable and predictable as an endorphin rush after a 3-mile run?


Pandy on the sly

16 Jan

the first video contains some fresh panda bear. Unheard before (at least by me)

All of Your Wishes Came True

10 Jan

From Freakonomics which I am currently reading:

It was John Kenneth Galbraith the hyperliterate economic sage, who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom”. He did not consider it a compliment. “We associate truth with convenience,” he wrote, “with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.” Economic and social behaviors, Galbraith continued, “are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring. Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”

So the conventional wisdom in Galbraith’s view must be simple, convenient, comfortable, and comforting- though not necessarily true.

[now two examples that challenge what was and maybe still is conventional thinking]

In 1995 criminologist James Alan Fox wrote a report for the U.S. attorney general that grimly detailed the coming spike in murders by teenagers. […] In the optimistic scenario, he believed, the rate of teen homicide would rise another 15 percent over the next decade; in the pessimistic, it would more than double. […] similarly learned forecasters laid out the same horrible future, as did President Clinton. “We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around,” Clinton said […] “to keep body and soul together for people on the streets of these cities.”

And then instead of going up and up, crime began to fall. […] By 2000 the overall murder rate in the United States had dropped to its lowest level in thrity-five years. So had the rate of just about every other sort of crime, from assault to car theft.

[…] the experts had failed to anticipate the crime drop […] they now hurried to explain it. Most of their theories sounded perfectly logical. It was the roaring 1990s economy […] it was the proliferation of gun control laws […] it was […] innovative policing strategies. [These theories] in short course became conventional wisdom. There was only one problem: they weren’t true.

[turns out the crime drop was because of the legalization of abortion*. many aborted children were to be born into situations where they would be inclined to turn to a life of crime. just as they were to come into their crime prime, they did not exist. thus] the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.

[example two is shorter; you are welcome]

Conviction rates declined in the 1960s [… and] at the same time politicians were growing increasingly softer on crimes “for fear of sounding racist,” as the economist Gary Becker has written, “since African-Americans and Hispanics commit a disproportionate share of felonies.”

*I do not support this morally. I am still deciding holistically. It seems beneficial socially.