Friday, October 19, 2012

This is Your Brain on Prayer

Huffington Post has an article up today that discusses active areas of the brain during prayer. I'm a big fan of this sort of research, because I think if we are ever going to understand religious or spiritual experiences we need to have a good idea of what the brain is doing when those experiences are going on. According to the study, brain scans of religious people engaged in prayer show higher levels of activity in both the prefrontal cortex and the language processing center than do baseline control scans.

Note that this should not be taken to imply that I embrace the so-called "epiphenomenon" model that treats consciousness as a sort of side effect of brain activity, but rather that I believe consciousness and the brain are tightly integrated and interact in a strongly related fashion. Since directly measuring consciousness is not yet possible, we need to examine the side of the equation that can be directly observed in order to get greater insight into what is going on with the system as a whole.

The red part indicates greater activity, and in this case, increased activity is observed in the frontal lobes and the language area of the brain. This is the part of the brain that activates during conversation, and Dr. Newberg believes that for the brain, praying to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is similar to talking to people. "When we study Buddhist meditation where they are visualizing something, we might expect to see a change or increased activity in the visual part of the brain," Dr. Newberg said.

While observing atheists meditating or "contemplating God," Dr. Newberg did not observe any of the brain activity in the frontal lobe that he observed in religious people.

I once saw a comment by a skeptic used as a control in a parapsychology experiment that I think explains the latter phenomenon quite well. The idea was that the researchers were trying to see if a "receiver" could be influenced by a "sender" in a separate room watching them through a one-way mirror. One of the people they tested as a sender claimed to be psychic, while the other was a skeptic. The video of the tests showed that the "psychic" appeared to be concentrating in some fashion, and there were indeed some reactions on the part of the receiver. The skeptic, on the other hand, commented that for him the test was just like watching television since he didn't think it was possible for him to influence the receiver. I'd bet a substantial sum that the "psychic's" brain would show heightened activity, while the skeptic's would not.

So here's the next phase of the trial: recruit psychics and skeptics, perform the same test, but in addition perform brain scans on the senders. This data and that from the original experiment suggests that it might be possible to draw a strong correlation between this particular type of brain activity and reactions on the part of the receiver. If so, that's getting remarkably close to what you could accomplish with the "consciousness measure," the device that we would need to link states of consciousness to magical outcomes in an empirical sense. It certainly seems obvious to me that concentration of some sort should be necessary to activate magical or psychic abilities, and if parapsychologists could examine a subset of individuals who exhibit the right sort of brain activity it wouldn't surprise me one bit if their statistical results suddenly got a whole lot better.

Prayer and magick are similar phenomena, so my guess is that brain scans of magical practitioners engaged in ritual would show a similar effect. I do know from personal experience that the sort of concentration that increases readings on the Mind Flex feels the same as the state of consciousness that I experience during ritual, and the main sensors on that device are placed against the forehead where they would most easily measure increases in prefrontal activity. One of the items in my ongoing project list is to get a hold of an Emotiv headset, which is a much more sensitive EEG device than the Mind Flex. I could then track my brainwave states during magical procedures and record results from the whole session to my computer. This article is one more piece of data suggesting that such testing would be quite useful in terms of getting a handle on the brain states that we magicians employ.

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