Friday, December 17, 2010

Your Brain On God? (What, Again?)

Add oomph to your writing;
Make science exciting—
Cos everyone loves a nice scan!
Make “neurotheology
Look like biology—
Look! It’s the brain of a man!
Both god-contemplation
And deep meditation
Show frontal-lobe action, it seems;
But scanning a brain
Doesn’t really explain
All that neurotheology dreams.
Whether fishers of men
Or seekers of zen,
In the scan, we can see what we wish;
But now, let’s examine
The brain of a salmon
Is there god in the head of a fish?

From NPR again, a story that combines some of the things I really really hate about the new, sexy machines that neuroscientists can use. A mediocre study that might not get a second glance gets gussied up with a brain scan or two, and suddenly it's cutting edge science. Humbug. What's more, a brain image, even an image of a brain at work, is a snapshot. Brains are not snapshots. Looking at a scan of the function of a number of adult brains really tells us very little about what those brains are doing, and tells us nothing at all about what sort of history led to the activity seen today.

The researchers found an increase in frontal lobe activity during meditation.
"They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent," [Dr. Andrew] Newberg [director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia] says. "This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years."
Yes, imagine. You'll have to, because the study did nothing of the sort. In fact, brain scans of experts (say, for instance, in chess) show less activity than novices, arguably because they are so good that there is less actual effort expended. So, can we assume that 8 weeks of practice can be extrapolated to a lifetime? I don't know. Frankly, I don't much care; others can be interested in what's going on in the brain--I'm more interested in what's going on in the interaction between the individual and their environment over the years that shape them. The brain is not the "why"--the brain is part of the "how".

1 comment:

Cuttlefish said...

Somehow, I seem to have inadvertently deleted a comment by dvizard--my apologies! According to my email, it went:

On the one hand, you're right that all that brain scanny stuff is overhyped and its result are not really of any immediate interest for the general public. On the other hand, from the science point of view the current neuroimaging science is foundational work which forms a data basis for actual understanding, which will happen in 10 or 20 years from now. We are really in the phase of neuroscience which corresponds to "microscopy" for, say, cell biology, and nowhere near what corresponds to "biochemistry", i.e. actual understanding. The current research may be not very immediately informative, but has to be done nonetheless...

Agreed, for the most part--yes, the work has to be done, but the conclusions (not just in this paper) so far outpace the evidence, at this point! I hope you are right, and that in 10 to 20 years we can see the real promise behind the hype.