Laughter

Photo by Uschi Hering, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Uschi Hering, http://www.sxc.hu/

What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Sick humour? Children saying funny things? Your own attempts to master a dance move? Some of the most memorable chuckles for me have been caused by typos in emails (either my own or other people’s) that resulted in somewhat inappropriate – but thankfully very obviously wrong – meanings.

This week, Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt, Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon, spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘A Merry Heart Doeth Good Like a Medicine: Humour, religion and wellbeing’.

A number of clinical studies have been carried out on humour and physical wellbeing, and like research on religion and health, the results of these studies vary widely. For religion, the overall Continue reading

Brain Activity and Awareness of God

env1ro, http://www.sxc.hu/
© env1ro, http://www.sxc.hu/

This month’s guest writer is Tim Middleton, a DPhil student in the Earth Sciences department at Oxford University. Here he writes about the interface between neuroscience, medicine and and spirituality.

“There was a moment or two almost before the fit itself… when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness, and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments, all his doubts and worries seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of sense and harmonious joy and hope… a blinding inner light flooded his soul…” 

This description of the experience of an epileptic fit is from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. Dostoyevsky himself experienced such seizures and they clearly had a significant influence on his life. For him, it didn’t matter whether it was epilepsy or not, there was a moment of joy that he experienced before a seizure during which he was convinced that God was speaking to him—and he was Continue reading

Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading

People

Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute

I interviewed a number of scientists on a recent trip to Spain, and this is an extract from the first of those conversations. Dr Raul García has a background in medicine and neuroscience, and is a Children and Adolescents Psychiatrist in Madrid.

I started university as a civil engineering student, but I didn’t enjoy my studies. I was more interested in people than numbers and equations, and towards the end of my first year I was looking for something else to do.  At the same time, I was involved in supporting a family friend who was suffering from mental illness, and I went with him to an appointment at the hospital where he was being treated. This person was a Christian, and during the interview he said that his future was in God’s hands. The medical staff laughed sceptically at him, interpreting his optimism as delusional thinking. This incident had a huge impact on me, and I began to think about studying medicine. I realised that I wanted to help people like my friend, and that this was both a scientific and a theological ambition. So I changed track, and studied medicine. Continue reading

The boundaries of science

This week I took part in a couple of experiments on the psychology of religion and meditation. I was only too happy to fill in questionnaires for my friends who are writing dissertations for their psychology degree, but the experience raised some questions for me: How can you study religion scientifically? Can you find out anything meaningful about spiritual people if you start from humanistic assumptions? What’s the relationship between science and religion in the social sciences? Is this where you throw in the towel and decide that science and faith really are at odds?

I attempt to address some of these questions with great trepidation as I’m not a psychologist, but I have a few thoughts, and great quote that I’ve been dying to use! Feedback welcome, especially from psychologists.

Science studies a subset of what life has to offer, and excludes a good deal: basically anything you cannot measure quantitatively. So we can’t expect psychology or any other branch of social science to take into account the existence of God. How then do psychologists and other social scientists study people – who (I believe) are essentially spiritual animals – in a meaningful way?

A good number of psychologists do (what I ‘humbly’ consider to be…) meaningful research on very interesting questions that can then be interpreted from either a faith based or humanistic viewpoint. An example is Justin Barrett‘s work on childhood beliefs. He has shown, along with other psychologists of religion, that we seem to be wired for belief. This is the beginning of a really interesting conversation. Either faith comes from our genes and doesn’t really exist, or God has given us a helping hand in the faith department by making belief in supernatural beings somewhat instinctive for us. Discuss…

Other psychologists get round the problem of science being unable (or unwilling) to postulate the existence of God in a different way. They start from the assumption that God doesn’t exist, and try to figure out why people would be deluded into believing in him (this is what I felt about one of the surveys that I took part in). I’m just not sure that such a huge bias will help anyone to study religion in a meaningful way.

My ideas on the relationship between science and faith are, at this stage, I think best summed up by pastor and developmental psychologist Daniel Harrell.

…theology can embrace scientific discovery without insisting that science buy theology’s presuppositions and without theology succumbing to science’s own predilictions. Faith allows for a perspective greater than human perception can muster, but this is never to deny the perspective that human perception can muster. We need not discount scientific discovery on religious grounds, even when we do take issue with scientific explanations as insufficient to paint the complete picture.

Nature’s Witness, Abingdon Press, 2008, p66

Wired for belief

I just listened to a lecture on ‘Apparitions, Alien Abductions and Hearing the Voice of God’ by Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist from Bristol University. His take on spiritual experience is similar to that of the psychologist  Justin Barrett, who works on childhood belief at Oxford, but he spends a bit longer explaining the application of the scientific knowledge from a Christian point of view. Continue reading