Transcranial Magnetic Oogity Boogity?

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.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Transcranial Magnetic Oogity Boogity?

  1. Charles Deetz ;)

    Helps explain why Hambo is foaming at the mouth when he is defending his version of god. I think we should send him a ‘special’ hat for christmas, loaded with magnets.

  2. Not sure the research was actually ideologically driven so much as the researchers had to use topics/positions that are deeply embedded in most people’s worldviews, and you don’t get much more embedded than religion & politics/nationalism.

    The Wisdom of the Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton talks about using TMS to temporarily augment the (normal) subject’s sociopathic tendencies. Very cool stuff.

  3. …an innovative experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a safe way of temporarily shutting down specific regions of the brain.

    “Safe”?? By whose determination is it deemed “safe”? Would you volunteer for this type of experimentation?

    If it’s true that TMS can affect deeply-held beliefs, who’s to say it isn’t having similar effects on memory, cognitive ability, perception, and on and on?

    X-raying kids’ feet for fitting shoes was once considered safe. Thalidomide was once considered safe. Drinking radium cocktails was once considered safe for curing all manner of ills.

    They couldn’t pay me enough.

  4. yehT deirt ti no em dna ereht erew on lufmrah stceffe.

  5. “ereht”, ton “rieht”, woh yllis fo em.

    [*Voice from above*] .dexiF

  6. Mike Elzinga

    So, this raises the question; does a tinfoil hat actually work, or does it just make people look like dunces?

  7. Mike Elzinga asks: “does a tinfoil hat actually work, or does it just make people look like dunces?”

    You can buy one at Amazon: Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie: Practical Mind Control Protection for Paranoids.

  8. Methinks this article begins to skate into tin foil hat/Woo territory. Too many unknowns about protocols, theoretical basis, etc. AAAS shouldn’t be messing about with woo stuff like this seems to be. Based on what I see here, I would completely discount this study as being relevant.

  9. michaelfugate

    Then again, the AAAS is involved with this – which I see as a mix of apologetics and evangelism.

  10. Rev. Dr. Juju Bamboozle Nosebone

    Faugh upon the cynicism of Dr. Curmudgeon!

    Sir, I submit to you–this is a marvelous research finding!

    I can’t wait till the day when stylish hive-mind magnetobonnets are used to make Islamist jihadists less likely to want to bomb peace rallies with TNT.

    Or blacks less likely to want to shoot each other by the thousands each year in large cities.

    Or liberal globalizers less likely to want to destroy anyone who wishes to protect non-globalizer local realities and environments.

    Or progressive tenured college professors less likely to want to ruin the lives and careers of any student, faculty, staffer, or general member of the public who has read up on population genetics and concluded that humans are not exempt from Darwin (“liberal creationism”).


    …oh, sorry, I was just corrected on these points. These haberdashery lobotomies are only for specifically CHRISTIAN people with nationalist values and a desire to live within their ancestors’ ways. Those other people pose absolutely no threat to reason, liberty, science, or free enterprise.


    Rev. Dr. Juju Bamboozle Nosebone
    (board certified Witch Doctor, Canadian Assoc. of Witch Doctors)
    (ordained Pastafarian minister)
    (Discordian Pope)

  11. @Mike Elzinga — If transcranial magnetic stimulation actually did have an effect on the brain, nonmagnetic materials like tin or aluminum wouldn’t act as a shield. Now, an old WW II – era steel helmet, on the other hand…

  12. Mike Elzinga

    @ retiredsciguy:

    Indeed I am very familiar with the techniques of electromagnetic shielding; it was a regular and critical part of my research, especially the research using SQUID magnetometers to map the development of extremely delicate magnetic fields in superconducting materials at very low temperatures.

    My comment was meant more as a matter of sarcasm about the fact that, when encountering someone with a tinfoil hat, it isn’t the hat that is working to maintain his ignorance or prejudices; it’s ideology more widely distributed throughout the brain that is making him look like a dunce.

    I am quite suspicious of this study. Really strong magnetic fields in localized areas of the brain can indeed affect local neural states; but moderating religious beliefs and attitudes about immigrants involves much wider areas of the brain. Somebody in this study apparently is wearing a tinfoil hat of some sort.

  13. @Mike Elzinga — I apologize, Mike. I certainly didn’t mean to impugn your knowledge of magnetic shielding — you know WAY more about it than I will ever learn, and I figured your mentioning of “tinfoil” hat was purely sarcastic.

    The only point of my comment was to point out how a lack of science knowledge leaves people so gullible and vulnerable to con artists willing to sell them aluminum foil hats to protect from “strange magnetic fields”.

    Now, we may all be vulnerable to magnetic fields — lord knows, there’s a lot more of them around us now compared to 100 years ago — but a “tinfoil” hat’s not going to make a bit of difference.

  14. Yeah, I see that the anti-foil hat conspiracy is making its progress. Aluminum foil must be a powerful protection against whatever rays that they’re using, so that they have to brainwash us against using it. If it isn’t causing concern, why would anyone care whether we’re using foil? Nobody is campaigning against felt hats, are they?

  15. Mike Elzinga

    Nobody is campaigning against felt hats, are they?

    Not unless “felt” hats refers to phrenology. 😉

  16. Mike Elzinga

    @ retiredsciguy:

    No need to apologize. I recognize the fact that, nerd that I am, oftentimes my attempts at humor can be obscure and quite lame. 🙂