This one is found at EurekAlert, the online news service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Their slightly skeptical headline is Research that is simply beyond belief .
We’ll let you judge the appropriateness of their title — as well as ours. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
New research involving a psychologist from the University of York has revealed for the first time that both belief in God and prejudice towards immigrants can be reduced by directing magnetic energy into the brain.
We’re not making this up, and it’s not the first of April. Hey — if we can’t rely on the AAAS for good information, then it’s all over, so let’s stay with this thing:
Dr Keise Izuma collaborated with a team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to carry out an innovative experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a safe way of temporarily shutting down specific regions of the brain. The researchers targeted the posterior medial frontal cortex, a part of the brain located near the surface and roughly a few inches up from the forehead that is associated with detecting problems and triggering responses that address them.
So far, so good. Let’s read on:
In the study, half of the participants received a low-level “sham” procedure that did not affect their brains, and half received enough energy to lower activity in the target brain area. Next, all of the participants were first asked to think about death, and then were asked questions about their religious beliefs and their feelings about immigrants.
Forgive us, dear reader, but here we must inject a Curmudgeonly query: What in the world made them choose those two subjects — religion and immigrants? Could there possibly be a hidden agenda behind this research? Even if there were, could its results be replicated? Anyway, the article continues:
The findings, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, reveal that people in whom the targeted brain region was temporarily shut down reported 32.8% less belief in God, angels, or heaven. They were also 28.5% more positive in their feelings toward an immigrant who criticised their country.
We’re not familiar with that journal, but from its name we assume that this is yet another of our rare excursions into the realm of social science. We ought to do this more frequently, because it’s always so rewarding. Here’s some information about the researchers’ methodology:
The investigators asked participants to respond to both negative and positive emotional aspects of religion and of nationalism. Specifically, they rated belief in the Devil, demons, and Hell, in addition to God, angels, and heaven. All potential participants were pre-screened to make sure that they held religious convictions before beginning the experiment.
With regard to nationalistic ideology, the participants read two essays ostensibly written by recent immigrants. One essay was extremely complimentary toward the United States, and the other essay was extremely critical.
And as we’ve already been informed, the results of the transcranial magnetic stimulation were “32.8% less belief in God, angels, or heaven,” and “28.5% more positive in their feelings toward an immigrant who criticised their country.” Then we’re told:
The investigators found that the magnetic stimulation had the greatest effect on reactions to the critical author. “We think that hearing criticisms of your group’s values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat,” said Dr Izuma.
Ah, so we’re supposed to conclude that negative feelings about hostile immigrants is associated with intense religiosity. And because this research was designed with such scrupulously objective neutrality, that couldn’t possibly be the result the researchers were hoping to find. One last excerpt:
Dr Colin Holbrook, from UCLA and the lead author of the paper, added: “These findings are very striking, and consistent with the idea that brain mechanisms that evolved for relatively basic threat-response functions are repurposed to also produce ideological reactions. However, more research is needed to understand exactly how and why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced in this experiment.“
So there you are, dear reader. Make of it what you will.
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