Field of Science

A brief history of 2010

Another year over for Epiphenom! 107 posts, 871 comments, and 135,000 visitors later (plus all the people who read this blog via newsreaders), what has 2010 had to show for itself?

We learned some more about what religion can do for you. Religious people are less likely to smoke, but more likely to be overweight. Religion can also make you more attractive. Religious people have worse verbal skills and are worse at science (incidentally, Republicans are also unscientific). However it's the study of literature, not science, that really seems to turn people off religion. 

Religious prejudice seems to tap into the same neural circuits that drive racism. Religious fundamentalism can lead to right-wing authoritarianism and racism, as well as increased support for the death penalty. Religious priming can increase support for punishing wrongdoers.

There were several studies on the link between religion and fertility. Although it's weaker in wealthier nations, it remains strong among fundamentalists, leading Eric Kaufman to wonder whether the religious shall inherit the Earth. Other research this year suggests that in Austria the link is driven by adherence to conservative lifestyles, although in the US it seems that the very religious actually have fewer kids.

So much for fertility. What about sex? Well, surprisingly, religion has no effect on sexual activity among American teenagers, among older Americans religion means less sex and fewer sexual fantasies.

The religious and non-religious are equally generous when it comes to giving blood. And, at least among elderly, they are equally likely to volunteer.

As for atheists, well we learned that they are disagreeable and unconscientious - particularly in the USA. On the other hand, in the UK the non-religious are the most open-minded and have the most independent, confident spirits! There was another paper by Satoshi Kanazawa, this time suggesting that people with high IQ are able to overcome a number of innate biases, including the (alleged) predisposition to religion. Other research supports this, showing that the least religious have the fastest neural processing.


Religious people see the world differently to the non-religious. For example, Protestants are more likely to confuse thoughts with actions.And being raised a Calvinist Protestant may make you less likely to see the big picture.  Belief in the paranormal and fatalism both seem to be linked to fundamental errors in understanding the world around us.

However, even young children understand the difference between science and religion. They have to be taught the concept of an ominpotent god - not a problem because they are biased to believe what they are told. Unfortunately kids with the strongest religious beliefs are the most likely to be emotionally disturbed.

There were more studies showing a complex interaction between anxiety and religion. Sick people who pray are less anxious, and religious priming can make people less anxious if they make mistakes. On the other hand, priming people with the idea of God can make them more anxious and spend longer trying to complete impossible tasks.  Belief in a strong government can weaken faith.  But make people feel unempowered, and they can turn to zealotry (and reject the scientific theory of evolution). For those in doubt, preaching can actually strengthen their beliefs.

There were also several neurological studies this year. Transcendent feelings seem to be generated in the right-hand side of the brain, according to one MRI study.In support of this, brain surgery, especially in the region of right parietal lobe, can make people feel more religious. In fact, losing the entire right-hand side of your brain can trigger a kind of hyper-religiosity.  And lastly, there was a nice study showing that charismatic preachers seem to send believers into a kind of hypnotic trance.

Well, that's a brief summary of some of the most interesting papers of the year. Here's to another good one in 2011!


Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Magical thinking enhances creativity

It's tough being an atheist dad at Christmas. I mean, the kids love all the stories, the sense of drama, the sense of community and of being part of something big. They also love to think they have a magical friend who cares about them and watches over them.

But I still feel awkward looking them in the eyes and telling them that Santa is real. I guess it's the incorrigible rationalist in me. Arty types probably have it easier.

Well, here's a study that I was hoping would salve my conscience over all the porkies I've told my kids over the years. Unfortunately it doesn't quite do that. Let me explain...

Eugene Subbotsky, a psychologist at the University of Lancaster in the UK, wanted to know whether encouraging kids to think about magic would actually help them to be more creative. We know that kids are often delighted by magical thoughts, but we don't know if they are just a byproduct (an, ahem, epiphenomenon) or if they are actually contribute to their mental development in some way.

Basically, he set groups of kids down to watch clips from Harry Potter film (the first one). These clips either contained magical elements, or they did not. Before and after, they tested the kids creative powers using some standard setups (problem solving, drawing creatively, etc).

Subbotsky found that kids who watched magical scenes did actually think more creatively. The effect was quite marked. Although both groups improved, the improvement in the 'no magic' group was around 50%, whereas it doubled in the 'magical scenes' group.

Unfortunately, the results are complicated by the fact that the groups weren't matched at the start of the experiment. The kids were put into groups at random - which is the gold standard method, and is supposed to ensure that the groups are similar. For this experiment, it didn't work out. The kids in the 'magical scenes' group were actually less creative than the kids in the other group.

Although you can control for that statistically (and he did), you're left wondering if whether what you're seeing here is simply regression to the mean.

Subbotsky also showed that, although creativity increased, magical beliefs didn't. Well, actually, they did - by the end of the experiment the kids in the 'magical scenes' group were averaging around 50% higher on the magical beliefs scoring. It's just that the difference was not statistically significant.

Subbotsky concludes that watching magical scenes can increase children's creativity without increasing their magical beliefs. I'm not so convinced, based on the evidence shown.

But go ahead, bring the magic of Christmas to your kids, even if you are a stoney-hearted rationalist. It may, after all, boost their creativity!

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone!


ResearchBlogging.orgSubbotsky E, Hysted C, & Jones N (2010). Watching films with magical content facilitates creativity in children. Perceptual and motor skills, 111 (1), 261-77 PMID: 21058605

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Hey, good lookin'... you must be a Mormon!

Strange as it may seem, you can tell the the religious from the non-religious simply by looking at their photos. True, it's only a little better than chance, but it's a still an intriguing fact. Maybe, as this woman believes, people really can see the holy spirit glowing from within:
I ran into the TA whom I asked to speak on the Holy Ghost for my baptism. I was very excited to see him. There was this sense of ‘‘glow’’ from him, which I heard about many times yet never understood, like a ‘‘Mormon Radar.’’ But I saw it for the first time and I finally understood what it is. It is the Spirit!
That fantastic quote, taken from a blog by a Mormon woman, appears in a new paper by Nicholas Rule, from the University of Toronto, and colleagues.

This same team has previously shown that people can pick out Mormons from Christians by looking at photos taken from online personal ads. They only chose ads from people who specified that they were either Mormon or a member of some other religious organisation. So all these people took religion seriously enough to use it as a hook to catch a potential partner.

Only Image F (with eyes and mouth blanked) is needed to
pick out Mormons from non-Mormons
Using the photos from these ads, they set out to try to find out what it was that enabled their student raters to pick out the Mormons from the non-Mormons. It turns out that they were just as good at it if you turned the faces upside down, or if you blanked out the eyes and the mouth (both of which make it difficult to detect emotion).

In fact, they then discovered that the raters seemed to be detecting the Mormons based on facial shape and skin tone. And that, in turn, suggests that what they were actually doing was picking out the healthiest-looking:
Both skin and facial structure, via adiposity, have been found important in the accurate perception of individuals’ health. Given that Mormons and non-Mormons are known to significantly differ in their levels of health, it therefore seemed possible that differences in health may serve as the basis for perceivers’ Mormon/non-Mormon categorizations
They went on to show that they Mormons were indeed rated as healthier, and that this rating seemed to drive the rater's perception of their spirituality. The strange thing was that the raters didn't realise this. They did believe that Mormons were healthier, but they didn't believe that's was the visual cue they were using to detect them!

Mormons are thought to be healthier at least partly because they lead a more abstemious life. In fact, there was a study out just last week showing that sleep deprivation can have a measurable effect on appearance.

Does something similar explain why people can pick out the religious and non-religious from photos? Well, there was a study last year which showed that, in the US, the religious were not rated as being healthier. In fact, it showed that, although people thought they were picking out the religious based on their healthiness, in fact they were not.

So, the complete opposite of this new study then. Oh well, back to the drawing board!


ResearchBlogging.orgRule NO, Garrett JV, & Ambady N (2010). On the perception of religious group membership from faces. PloS one, 5 (12) PMID: 21151864

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The evolution of dissent

If religion is a virus, then perhaps the spread of religion can be understood through the lens of evolutionary theory. Perhaps cultural evolution can be modelled using the same mathematical tools applied to genetic evolution.

Well, that's overly simplistic, of course - as anyone who's followed the 'meme' controversy over the years will know. In fact, the authors of the paper I'm writing up today - Michael Doebli and Iaroslav Ispolatov at the University of  British Columbia - studiously avoid using the term.

Want they set out to model was the development of religious schisms. Such schisms are a recurrent feature of religion, especially in the West. The classic example is the fracturing of Christianity that occured after the reformation.

Their model made two simple assumptions. Firstly, that religions that are highly dominant actually induce some people to want to break away from them. When a religion becomes overcrowded, then some individuals will lose their religion and take up another.

That could happen, they say, when religions are hierarchical, providing greatest benefit to a few at the top. Eventually, for those cut out from the power structure, the benefit of striking out with their own, new religion might outweigh the costs.

Second, they assume that every religion has a value to the individual that is composed of it's costs and benefits. That value varies between religion, but is the same for all individuals. It's a pretty simplistic assumption, but even so they get some interesting results.

At each generation, the religion can mutate a little, just like a virus.

With these simple assumptions, they get a range of results depending on how they tweak the parameters. In one, they end up with a wide, even spread of religions - and infinite range of religions, clustered around a central, average, archetype.

But tweak the parameters a bit more,and you get a discrete number of stable schisms - just like the religious sects seen in real life.

Now, this is a very simple model, and so the results shouldn't be over-interpreted. But it's a fascinating result for a couple of reasons.

It shows how new religious 'species' can come into being in a mixed population - no need for geographical separation. That's such a common feature of religion - from the Judaeo-Christian religions to examples from Papua New Guinea - that it's worth trying to understand what drives it.
What's more, this is the first time that anyone has attempted to model the transmission of religious ideas in evolutionary terms. It's a first step, to be sure, but just showing that it can be done is a significant achievement.

The value comes because it shifts the focus from thinking about how culture benefits the host, and instead asks how the cultural trait is adaptive in it's own right. What is important is not whether or not the human host benefits from the trait, but rather whether the trait can successfully transmit and reproducing itself (see Bible Belter for an example of how this could work).

Even more intriguing is the implications for understanding cultural-genetic co-evolution. After all, we know that viruses and their hosts co-evolve in a kind of arms race - sometimes ending up in a relationship that benefits both.

Genetic evolution in humans occurs in an environment shaped by culture - and culture, in turn is shaped by genetics. There are clearly some very deep relationships here, and the kinds of models introduced by Doebeli offer a way to untangle them.


ResearchBlogging.orgDoebeli M, & Ispolatov I (2010). A model for the evolutionary diversification of religions. Journal of theoretical biology, 267 (4), 676-84 PMID: 20854828

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The transcendant temporal lobe

The temporal lobe of the brain - the bit just above where your ear is - keeps cropping up in studies of spirituality.

In this latest one, Peter Van Schuerbeek and colleagues from the University of Brussels have looked at the volume of grey matter in different parts of the brain in young women.

They were interested to see how the volumes of different parts of the brain correlate with personality, and in particular testing a particular model of personality called the Cloninger personality model.

This model has four temperament dimensions (harm avoidance, novelty seeking, reward dependence and persistence) and three character dimensions (self-directedness, cooperativeness and self-transcendence).

The "self-transcendence" component is related to the feeling that you are part of a broader universe in some deep way, and includes tendencies towards spiritualism.

They found that women with a high sense of self-transcendence had more grey matter in the right-hand side of the brain in the region of the middle temporal gyrus and the inferior parietal gyrus (the images on the left of the picture).

They had less grey matter in the left-hand side of the brain in the region of the inferior temporal gyrus and the sub gyral (in the parietal lobe). They also had less grey matter in the superior frontal gyrus.

All this is intriguing because other research has shown that damage to the right-hand temporal and parietal lobes can lead to increased spirituality. That may be because these regions are involved in spatial awareness.

Now, that doesn't match precisely with these findings in Belgian women (who have more grey matter in this region. But perhaps there is some similar mechanism at work!


ResearchBlogging.orgVan Schuerbeek P, Baeken C, De Raedt R, De Mey J, & Luypaert R (2010). Individual differences in local gray and white matter volumes reflect differences in temperament and character: A voxel-based morphometry study in healthy young females. Brain research PMID: 21126511

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Is religion a kind of racism? Yes... and no!

Humans have a tendency to seek out their own kind, preferring others who have the same skin colour, the same culture and, yes, the same religion.

What's more, there seems to be some sort of connection. People who are the most stridently religious also tend to be more racist, and to generally be more cautious about dealing with people from outside their own group.

Does this connection stem from some deep, common mechanism that drives people to be suspicious of non-group members (a "central affiliation mechanism")? Or are do each of these prejudices derive from an independent mechanism. Does the brain have a pro-racism module, a pro ethno-centrism module, and a pro-religionism module (an "essentialism mechanism")?

Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates, from the University of Edinburgh, set out to investigate the genetics behind this using data from the MacArthur Foundation Survey of Midlife Development (MIDUS) in the United States. They quizzed 957 identical and non-identical twins on their attitudes to people from outside their own group, using questions like "How much do you prefer to be with other people who are the same religion as you?"

Basically, the idea is that if identical twins score high on all three forms of prejudice, then it suggests a central affiliation mechanism. If particular identical twins tend to rate higher on one or other form of prejudice, than that suggests an "essentialism mechanism".

So they cranked the numbers, and what they found was that both mechanisms are needed to explain the data!

Well, to be more precise, they found that the "central affiliation mechanism" accounts for 35%, 69%, and 21% of variation in religious, ethnic, and racial favouritism, respectively.

There does also seem to be a genetic trait that's specific for religious prejudice. This predisposes for religious prejudice independently of racial and ethnic prejudice. However, according to Lewis and Bates' data, it's  pretty weak - taking it out of the model didn't much affect the results.

So it seems that religious prejudice is mostly driven by a general purpose prejudice module in the brain. Yes, religious prejudice is a kind of racism.

They found something else interesting. The shared environment - the family home, for example - didn't have any effect on prejudice. That's a surprise, and may simply indicate that their study sample wasn't big enough to pick it up.

But they did find that the "unique environment" (all those environmental factors experienced by one of the twins but not the other) did have an effect, and in a surprising way. The more the unique environment favoured religious prejudice, the less it favoured ethnic prejudice - and vice versa.

According to Lewis and Bates, that's because religion and ethnocentrism act in opposition:
This may reflect the influence of religious teachings, which may increase ethnic tolerance, or the possibility that religion became superordinate to coalitions based on ethnicity.
So although religious prejudice and ethnic prejudice stem in part from a common brain mechanism, they don't seem to go together as traits. If your genes incline you to prejudice, that could form either into racial or ethnic prejudice, but not both (at least, not amongst this group of Americans).

That doesn't seem to be the case for racism, however!


ResearchBlogging.orgLewis GJ, & Bates TC (2010). Genetic evidence for multiple biological mechanisms underlying in-group favoritism. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (11), 1623-8 PMID: 20974715

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The emotional problems of the slightly religious

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIt's generally taken as fact that religion is linked to happiness - happier people are more likely to be religious,  if you take into account other circumstances. There are loads of studies, of varying quality, that support this idea.

Most people who interpret these data make a couple of assumptions that are probably not valid. Firstly, the assume that they can be generalised across cultures. However most studies are done in the USA, where being non-religious often leads to social exclusion.

They also mostly assume a linear relationship between religiosity and happiness. But Luke Galen has shown that there may well be a U-shaped relationship between religion and happiness.

In a new piece of research, Howard Meltzer (at the University of Leicester in the UK) has analyzed data from interviews with over 4,000 kids aged 11-19, their parents and their teachers. It's a pretty good sample of Britain's kids.

One remarkable finding was that 58% of these kids said that they had no religion at all! So in this sample, unlike samples from the USA, being non-religious is normal.

The largest religious denomination was Protestantism (14%) - but 40% of the Protestant kids said that, although they are Protestant, they know nothing about the religion. They are simply 'culturally' Protestant.

At the other end of the scale were the Muslim kids. Although only 3.3% of the total sample, some 60% of them said that their religious beliefs were strongly held (compared with only 20% of Christian kids).

So how did the strength of religious beliefs correlate with emotional disturbances (a mixed bag of anxiety disorders and/or depression)? In order to test this, they first adjusted the data to strip out the effects of age, sex, economic status, and type of religion.

As you can see from the first figure, religious kids were, in general, more likely to report emotional disturbances - although for the most part this didn't reach statistical significance. The effect was particularly pronounced (and statistically significant) for kids with weakly held beliefs.

All this is particularly interesting given that British kids today have more emotional problems than kids did in the past. Maybe that isn't down to loss of religion, after all - at least, not directly!

What this suggests is that kids who have been brought up religious, but have difficulties accepting religion, face conflict and guilt. According to Meltzer and colleagues:
... children expressing weakly held views may be experiencing a range of different emotions from guilt (that they do not hold the beliefs as firmly as perhaps they feel they should), ambivalence (that the beliefs are at odds with other beliefs or values they may hold), hostility (that they are expected to share the beliefs of their family and wider community but do not have the same values). In a home where the child’s views are less likely to be heard and where there are strong expectations that the religion is adhered to, the child may struggle to express themselves and internalise their emotions. This may then lead to self-harm and low mood.
The picture is very different for conduct disorders (aggressive, disruptive, or anti-social behaviour). Religious kids were less likely to have conduct disorders, and the effect was particulty noticeable when looking at religious service attendance. There's a nice, linear relationship - kids who go to Church, Mosque or Temple are less likely to be unruly.

The critical factor here is likely to be the social environment:
The relationship between regular attendance at religious services and the reduced likelihood of conduct disorder may be attributable to attendance at prayer meetings being associated with strong adult scrutiny and support. This probably limits the opportunity or the desire for young people to pursue antisocial behaviours. These children may also hold the views and values that come with the religion. Religious attendance can be seen as a protective factor against conduct problems via the mediating influence of prosocial peer interactions.

 Loss of religion does not lead to unhappiness or other emotional problems. But loss of the social framework that religion can provide does seem to lead to conduct disturbance

The implications for secularising societies are clear. Losing religion is OK: the kids will do fine. But let's make sure that they have a broad, engaged, mutual society to grow up in!


ResearchBlogging.orgMeltzer, H., Dogra, N., Vostanis, P., & Ford, T. (2010). Religiosity and the mental health of adolescents in Great Britain Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.515567

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.