Sunday, 15 March 2009

National Science and Engineering Week - British Science Association

BHAScience is not the only organisation with a new name! British Association for the Advancement of Science ('the BA') is now known as British Science Association. They have a new logo too - or should that be called a rorschach inkblot test?!

6-15 March 2009 is National Science and Engineering Week with apparently thousands of events running in schools, museums, shopping centres and even pubs throughout the UK.

I searched for 'Dorset' and discovered an amazing society on my doorstep - BOURNEMOUTH NATURAL SCIENCE SOCIETY with a talk 'How on Earth did Life Start' on 10 March.

What amazing events can you find in your area during
National Science and Engineering Week?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

GOD IN THE LAB, London Sat. 21st March - one day event by Center for Inquiry

GOD IN THE LAB, Sat. 21st March - book now!

Location: Conway Hall. 25 Red Lion Square WC1R 4LR,London

Details: Center for Inquiry, London meeting next Saturday 21 March 2009.

Description: A day with some of the World's leading scientific researchers into faith, many from Oxford University. We'll be looking at hearing voices, possession, etc. What goes on the brain of someone hearing voices? Come and see the MRI scans. Is religious belief hard-wired into us? Yes, says one of our scientists, and provides the empirical evidence.

One of our speakers was recently featured in NEW SCIENTIST magazine: Born believers: How your brain creates God.

A unique opportunity to hear and question those working at the cutting edge of this growing field of scientific research. Presented by CFI London and the Ethical Society.

To book, send a cheque payable to “Centre for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Centre for Inquiry London, at the above address (Include names of all those coming). Alternatively pay by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI UK” button at and follow the instructions. Or just show up! £10 or £5 concessions.

Start Time: 10:30 (for 11.00)
End Time: 16:00

Friday, 13 March 2009

Belief and the brain's 'God spot'

source:,3650,n,n with Comments (87+)

Reposted from:

Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that control religious faith. And the research proves, they contend, that belief in a higher power is an evolutionary asset that helps human survival. Steve Connor reports

A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.

Scientists searching for the neural "God spot", which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief.
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.
"Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures," said Professor Jordan Grafman (Biography), from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington. "Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions."

Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

The latest study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved analysing the brains of volunteers, who had been asked to think about religious and moral problems and questions. For the analysis, the researchers used a functional magnetic-resonance imaging machine, which can identify the most energetically-active regions of the brain.

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, Professor Grafman said.

"There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn't have a 'God spot' as such, instead it's embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday," Professor Grafman said.

The search for the God spot has in the past led scientists to many different regions of the brain. An early contender was the brain's temporal lobe, a large section of the brain that sits over each ear, because temporal-lobe epileptics suffering seizures in these regions frequently report having intense religious experiences. One of the principal exponents of this idea was Vilayanur Ramachandran, from the University of California, San Diego, who asked several of his patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy to listen to a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while measuring their levels of arousal and emotional reactions. Religious words elicited an unusually high response in these patients.

This work was followed by a study where scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field produced by a "God helmet". Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings – the helmet's wearer reports being in the presence of a spirit or having a profound feeling of cosmic bliss.

Dr Persinger said that about eight in every 10 volunteers report quasi-religious feelings when wearing his helmet. However, when Professor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist and renowned atheist, wore it during the making of a BBC documentary, he famously failed to find God, saying that the helmet only affected his breathing and his limbs.

Other studies of people taking part in Buddhist meditation suggested the parietal lobes at the upper back region of the brain were involved in controlling religious belief, in particular the mystical elements that gave people a feeling of being on a higher plane during prayer.

Andrew Newberg, from the University of Pennsylvania, injected radioactive isotope into Buddhists at the point at which they achieved meditative nirvana. Using a special camera, he captured the distribution of the tracer in the brain, which led the researchers to identify the parietal lobes as playing a key role during this transcendental state.

Professor Grafman was more interested in how people coped with everyday moral and religious questions. He said that the latest study, published today, suggests the brain is inherently sensitive to believing in almost anything if there are grounds for doing so, but when there is a mystery about something, the same neural machinery is co-opted in the formulation of religious belief.

"When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us the opportunities to believe in God. When we don't have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations," said Professor Grafman, who believes in God. "Maybe obeying supernatural forces that we had no knowledge of made it easier for religious forms of belief to emerge."

Tom Rees, H4S member has reviewed this research at Epiphenom.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Television - curse of society!

The decline in US ‘social capital’
It isn’t what you know but who you know.” – trad.

Robert Putnam, sociology professor at Harvard, has shown that the US’s social capital, ie the value of the relationships between people, peaked around 1960 and has been in steady decline ever since. He has a LOT of evidence for this, published in 2000 as Bowling Alone and on the web at

His analysis, again very thorough, shows that this is a bad thing. It is damaging to educational performance, child welfare, public safety and prosperity, health, happiness and democracy.

There are several causes, the largest of which is responsible for about 40% of the decline. That cause is television. At risk of gross over-simplification Putnam says that because it is so easy people watch TV rather than going out to meet people and thus making or reinforcing those inter-personal relationships that are the essence of social capital.

He also finds that some kinds of TV programme are more harmful than others. The worst are soap operas and reality TV shows, the least are news and documentary programmes. He does not suggest a reason for this yet I find it intriguing.

Perhaps these are just the most compelling – I will not say ‘best’ – shows.

The psychological roots of the problem

But I think there’s another and more interesting reason. What distinguishes the best from the worst kinds of programme is the importance of on-screen characters. Soap operas and reality TV programmes are about characters rather than, say, plot, location or ideas. And the programme makers try to make their audiences care about these characters; to think of them as real people. (This is easier on reality TV shows because the characters are real people even if acting strangely.)

And here’s why this matters.

Commonsense suggests and a variety of studies confirm that people have a finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. Prof. Robin Dunbar of Oxford, a humanist scientist, has estimated this at 150. Doubtless there is individual variation (and the exact number does not matter). This number reflects the importance of social relationships within hunter-gatherer bands in our evolution.

People tend to treat media images of people as if they were real people. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass of Stanford have shown this in repeated experiments – published as The Media Equation. This rather perverse fact reflects the fact that our minds evolved in a period in which the only things that looked like people were, in fact, people. Therefore on-screen characters will occupy some of their brains’ finite capacity for tracking personal relationships. The effect will presumably be greatest for on-screen characters who appear regularly and that exhibit their relationships with other on-screen characters. The effect will therefore be particularly great for soap operas and least for news, documentaries and music. It will be greater for TV than for cinema.

Therefore people who watch a lot of reality TV and soap operas will have less available capacity for managing relationships with real people. This will be especially acute for soap operas because they have a lot of characters. (60 in Coronation Street.)

Therefore watching TV, especially soap operas, undermines real personal relationships, especially in those who watch most frequently and regularly. That’s pretty much what Putnam found.

What follows?

Many conclusions might be drawn from this analysis. I think the links between sociology, psychology and our evolutionary history make it inherently interesting and possibly significant. However, I won’t claim to be unbiased!

However, the most important conclusions concern the effect of television (and do not depend on my sortie into evolutionary psychology!).

  • First, TV is damaging our society. Social conservatives have claimed this since it first appeared – turns out they were right.
  • Second, the increasing richness of TV (colour, larger screens, more channels and longer hours) is probably making this worse.
  • Third, we should avoid watching soap operas – and make sure our children don’t see them either.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Pakistan: Undermined by a toxic mixture

It's tempting to see yesterday's murderous attack in Lahore as just another Islamist atrocity. Another attempt by religious fanatics to take over a state.

And that's true but it's not the whole truth. The Pakistani people are the victims of an historical cocktail in which religion, nationalism, American and Russian arrogance, Indian rigidity and Saudi money combine to make a toxic mixture.

It's tempting to assume, as everyone else seems to, that this attack is the work of an Islamist group. It's plausible enough but one thing makes this stand out from most other Islamist attacks - the murderers all survived. They clearly made and executed well a plan for an orderly withdrawl under fire. Most Islamist 'terrorists' expect to, even wish to, die fighting Islam's enemies. Yesterday's gunmen had a quite untypical desire to survive.

To me - a person whose military knowledge comes mostly from novels - weapons, targeting and tactics all looked more like an operation by special forces than a 'terrorist' outrage. That, in turn, suggests state sponsorship of the attack but by which state?

Enough speculation. Islamist fanatics are the obvious candidates.

But where do they come from? Maybe they come from the North West Frontier Province, which has long had its own, tribal and religious, system of government and law. (It's as if we had agreed that Welsh councilors should be free to force everyone to attend chapel and sing in choirs. With beatings for those singing out of tune!)

This region, bordering on Afghanistan, provides a safe haven for Muslim fanatics of various kinds. This fanaticism has been encouraged by an unlikely set of supporters;
  • Saudi Arabia has funded a network of religious schools, madrassahs, which fill the gap left by Pakistan's own educational system but teach only the Saudi's own fundamentalist brand of Islam.
  • The Pakistan Security Service (ISI) which has supported Muslim fighters (muhjahadeen) in order to undermine India's control of Kashmir and, previously, Russian control of Afghanistan.
  • The US, which also supported the muhjadeen against the Russians and whose policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine have persuaded Muslims who might have been friends that the US hates them.
  • India, whose control of (most of) Muslim majority Kashmir has been a cause celebre for Pakistani nationalists. India should at least give the Kashmiris a choice.
For Pakistan's rulers, especially its military rulers, religion has been a banner to rally support against foreigners and radicals. The people are, obviously, Muslim. But they would not have given support to fanatical cults without the malign influence of foreigners and the cynicism of their own rulers. The greatest sufferers from this have been the Pakistani people and especially Pakistani women.

Yesterday's attack will alienate foreigners - us. Who now will visit on business or holidays? And in that way they will have succeeded even though no cricketers were killed.