How Grandma stopped worrying, and started to love cognitive anthropology

In the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a paper by Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al. proposes "an integrative cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief." The Independent comments the study in the following way: "A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences (…) The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.".

These last few years, it's become more and more difficult to tell my old folks about the kind of work that I do. Like Nicola, I often get the question: What exactly is that topic you're working on? And the answer: "cognitive anthropology", seldom satisfies anyone. Results have been scarce and progress uneven. Recently, my grandmother enquired, in a way that was slightly more earnest than usual, when it was that I would finally "get my exams" and find a proper job.

But I regain confidence every time I hear that a major anthropological problem has been solved by Neuroscientists using fMRI brain scans. Today, such a thing happened, and I feel that for once, I will have something to say next time we meet at the kitchen table. It will be something like this:
 

"Do you know that thing called religion? Religion is a universal phenomenon: every human being, ever since there were human beings, believes in a unique personal God that controls their destiny. We knew that already, because it's been asserted by famous biologists in the popular press and on TV. What we didn't know was: why? Why are Religion and Belief in God universal?"

I don't suppose Grandma will be very impressed with that question. If I don't know why people believe in God, she does. That's because He exists, and He's been kind enough to tell us about it. Repeatedly. But wait until she hears the next part.

"Now, so far, very little progress has been made in explaining belief in God, mostly because  fMRI scans had not been invented yet, and research about God and Religion was lead by scientifically illiterate anthropologists, people who did not know a thing about the Brain."

Ooops, wrong move. Grandma doesn't like it when I debunk colleagues. Generally speaking, I am way too agressive to her taste. I must confess she has a point. Let's move on.

"But today a paper published in the third-best scientific review worldwide uncovered an explanation for belief in God: it is controlled by our Brains. So it's actually a biological thing. Look, the paper comes with photographs of the Brain thinking of God, and lots of complicated figures."

I am quite sure I will score points with this. People are often astounded to learn that their brains can do anything at all. Brains are not the most active things you can think of: they usually come inside formaldehyde jars, which does not seem like an adequate position for thinking about God, or  about anything else for that matter. In addition to formaldehyde, brains have to do with other things chemical and biological, things like genes, emphetamines, neurons, and that guy who survived with a mineshaft stuck into his cranium – yuk.  You don't get much further than that from the domain of Thought and Religion. Besides, no less an authority than Jacques Lacan once claimed that thought came from our feet. So there's the element of surprise that comes with realizing that something as basic, material and inert as a brain could have Thoughts about God happening inside it. Plus that all this talk of brain scans, fMRI, elite scientific reviews, etc. obviously indicates serious work and the promise of a decent job.

"And there's a bit of an interview of the authors in The Independent: "The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history." Well, this is not a direct implication of their study, but… the brain is a biological organ, see? So it underwent Evolution, like everything else in our body. And Charles Darwin showed that, when a thing goes through Evolution, it becomes adapted – that is, better. So Religion and Belief in God are good things after all!"

That way, I show Grandma that in spite of all this talk of hard-science and brains, I can still be a decent boy, respectful of other people's creeds.

Thanks to you, Kapogiannis et al., I will have earned from my family several month of quiet respect for my scientific activities. It is true that you have solved an important anthropological question – but, believe me, that second feat pales when compared to the first.

ps. The old lady in this little piece bears no resemblance with my actual Grandma !

1 Comment

  • José-Luis Guijarro 16 March 2009 (20:51)

    This is the summary that Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al. have written about their work: [i]We propose an integrative cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Our analysis reveals 3 principle psychological dimensions of religious belief (God’s perceived level of involvement, God’s perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge), which functional MRI localizes within networks processing Theory of Mind regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics, and imagery. Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.[/i] I have always believed that there was an evolutionary history for the belief in God (Dennett’s intentional stance seemed to be a good point to start imagining it. And Boyer’s extended analysis is a further cognitive explanation of it. That these cognitive elements are indeed lodged somewhere in our brains is good news, for sure, but not as thrilling as Kapogianis and his colleagues think. We all know that human beings have a natural faculty to embed representations into other representations with almost no limits, which maybe would allow for another evolutionary history of the so-called human soul. Does it have to be shown [b]where[/b] these embeddings take place in the brain to make them more “real” (whatever that means!)? I really think we are putting too much credibility into these findings which, from what I’ve read in the papers, is now being questioned by some neurobiological (?) researchers (i.e., Yevgeniy Sirotin y Aniruddha Das –of Columbia University).