Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Friday past marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and the International Holocaust Memorial Day across the globe. Each year people come together, from across religious and cultural divides to remember the genocides that have scarred humanity deeply and irrevocably.

mental-health-foundation-holocaust

Many moving commemorative events have taken place; some have been very public events, whilst others have been very private.  I watched Auschwitz survivors gather at the former camp in Poland on the 72nd anniversary of its liberation, and I marvelled at the stoicism and dignity of those elderly survivors.  Having visited Auschwitz several years ago – an experience that I will never forget – I simply cannot understand why seemingly ordinary people can inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings.  But then darkness and unfathomable cruelty are part of our collective human nature; for those that committed such atrocities, I am reminded of Proverbs 6:18 where it is written that there are those with ‘a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil’.

We now know the staggering statistics for the Holocaust, where six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in forced work camps and extermination camps. The scale of the suffering was, and still is, incomprehensible.

There were other groups of people that were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.  Consider political opponents, priests, ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsy people, Slavic people and gay people amongst others.  But there is one group that is sometimes overlooked: the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Foundation website published a powerful article to remind us that those with psychiatric conditions were deemed, in that most egregious of phrases, to be ‘life unworthy of life.’  The prevailing eugenic ideology in Nazi circles was driven by defective science and woeful ignorance.  The consequence of this was that an estimated quarter of a million people living with varying degrees of mental illness were murdered. That few people spoke up against this outrageous programme is chilling.

As we reflect on the voiceless and the persecuted, the question of speaking up and speaking out against injustice comes to mind.  As the Holocaust Survivor and Author Elie Wisel once wrote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. This maxim is applicable today as it was before and during the Holocaust. Our world does not want for examples of injustice and persecution; it is therefore our duty as Christians to raise our voices, to challenge and cajole, and to remain informed and vigilant as to what is going on, on our doorsteps and in the world around us.

Every blessing,

Scott

A multi-disciplinary research team from Washington DC and Washington State have published an important new study entitled ‘Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists.’

Altruism, and particularly costly altruism toward strangers, such as kidney donation, is poorly understood by science, particularly in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology. The question has been posed time and time again: ‘How can such behaviour be rationalised and explained?

Although it is fair to say that the propensity to engage in costly altruism varies widely across and within populations,  Abigail A. Marsh and her research team argue that although it may be genetically mediated, very little is known about the neural mechanisms that drive it. In order to make more concrete conclusions, the Washington team used structural and functional brain imaging to compare extraordinary altruists, specifically altruistic kidney donors, and controls. What did they find?  Fascinatingly, it would appear that altruists exhibit variations in neural anatomy and functioning that are the mirror image of patterns previously documented in psychopaths, who by their very nature are callous and lacking in empathy.

Such findings are significant in that they suggest that there are neural correlates that underlie social and emotional behaviour and help us to understand the science of empathy.

The Washington researchers anticipate that their findings will provide the basis for an expanded scope of research on biological mechanisms that enhance altruistic behaviours.

 Empathy, and altruism, is the cornerstone of Christianity; the Sermon on the Mount says it all.  So it’s interesting to note that some of us may be hardwired for empathy and altruistic behaviour, whilst others find it more difficult.  This study raises the interesting question of whether neural mechanisms can be changed by behavioural input, that is, modulated by our own behaviour?  Can neuroplasticity facilitate a more altruistic outlook on life? Science may well provide that answer more quickly than we might think.

You can read the entire article here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/09/11/1408440111

Sea of Faith was a six-part documentary television series, produced by the BBC and first screened in 1984.  Presented by English philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt, the series explored the interface between the history of Christianity and critical thought through the lens of scientific advances, political atheism and societal secularisation.

Of all the Sea of Faith productions, Cupitt’s short documentary on Carl Jung is particularly noteworthy in that it describes the Swiss Psychiatrist’s understanding of science and religion with alacrity and insight.

Jung’s understanding of religion departed sharply from that of his one-time mentor Freud; Jung understood that the religious question is inescapable in the life of the psyche, and that a marriage of the conscious and unconscious is critical to fully understand the centrality of the religious quest.  He therefore grasped, at quite an early stage, the place of myth and symbolism in facilitating spiritual health, and possessed a more optimistic view of the unconscious than did Freud.

Professor Jung also clarified his thinking on intuition and reason.  Indeed he once wrote that “intuition does not denote something contrary to reason, but something outside of the province of reason.” Further, he postulated that natural science gives us our only understanding of the external world, but the inner world of the psyche expresses itself in the language of myth – religion is about that inner world.

Interestingly, location was important when it came to Jung.  Cupitt, in his film, explores the importance of Jung’s beautiful, but simple and symbolic retreat house at Bollingen for the propagation of his ideas – ‘thoughts rise to the surface which reach back into the centuries’.

Perhaps problematically for some, Jung concluded that all religious ideas are equally valid in terms of human psychic life and referred often to the ‘God Image’ in the human psyche.  This understanding naturally lead to Jung’s eclecticism, exemplified by his interest in Gnosticism, alchemy and many other mystical outlets.  But what Jung was really getting at, was that regardless of the route taken, a rediscovery of the life of the psyche was a necessity. It is perhaps not surprising then, that he saw the Christian message as being of central importance in Western circles – although he argued strongly that it needed to be seen in a new light and applied in a new way.

Jung’s religious naturalism, exemplified in his view that knowledge of God is harmony and is intrinsically linked to the knowledge of self, is where Cupitt leaves his exploration of Jung.

You can watch the documentary here:

The mental health provision in North Korea is truly shocking.  In my bipolar blog – ‘an uneasy awakening’ I explore some of the issues that confront those struggling with mental illness in this isolated country.

Bipolar In North Korea: A Frightening Prospect?.

Dr. Michael Stone, a Forensic Psychiatrist from Columbia University, is perhaps best known in popular culture as the the host of the Discovery Channel show, ‘Most Evil’.  In ‘Most Evil’, Stone developed and employed a ‘scale of evil’ which took into account a number of factors with the aim of categorizing perpetrators of heinous crimes.

Exactly how one defines evil is hugely problematic and depends on your theological, philosophical and sociological stance, as well as your understanding of psychopathology.  We have increasingly become uncomfortable, and I would argue for very good reasons, in applying the term ‘evil’ to describe an individual as opposed to a set of behaviours and moral choices.

And this vexed issue becomes particularly relevant when it applies to children. In Dr. Stone’s ‘Big Think’ contribution entitled ‘The Psychopathology of Evil Children’, he explains that a very small percentage of children express callous and unemotional (CU) traits which consist of a persistent pattern of behavior characterised by a disregard for others and a lack of empathy.  Although these traits and associated behaviours cannot be ‘cured’, there are behavioural and pharmaceutical approaches that can, albeit to a very limited degree, ameliorate the negative effects explains Dr. Stone.  This raises the interesting question of whether we can identify a neurochemistry or genetics of  ‘evil’ as Dr. Stone seems to suggest; my own thoughts are that this reductionist approach is not likely to yield all the answers we need.  Moreover, the prospect, and indeed practice, of branding children as intrinsically ‘evil’ does not sit easily with me and may even be counterproductive.

 You can watch Dr. Stone’s ‘Big Think’ interview here:

 

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

According to http://www.rawstory.com, Oxford Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor made a very thought-provoking comment recently during a talk at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales.  When asked what positive developments she anticipated in neuroscience in the next 60 years, rawstory states the following:

‘“One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” she explained, according to The Times of London. “Somebody who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology – we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance.”’

Taylor’s statement raises many questions.  How is ‘fundamentalism’ to be defined? Is it right to medicalize belief systems that are held in the absence of other manifestations of mental illness/disturbance? How should the ‘disturbance’ be treated?

Personally, I find the Austrian Psychiatrist and founder of Logotherapy/Existential Analysis (or the Third School of Viennese Psychotherapy), Viktor Frankl, to have the most sensible approach to fundamentalist ideology.  Frankl would point out that when a person’s religious worldview becomes distorted, it ceases to fulfill its function and a spiritual malaise develops.  That malaise can only be rectified by re-discovering the core meaning at the heart of a religious experience.  Once the individual  recognises the freedom that  now exists to change his/her way of thinking, life has renewed meaning and the spiritual dimension is expressed in a more positive manner. Crucially, the spiritual dimension of the individual’s life is affirmed and developed, not denied.

You can read the rawstory article here and make up your own mind.

 

Image courtesy of marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of marin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a mindfulness practitioner myself, I’ve often struggled to articulate the mechanisms through which meditation might actually work, mainly because there hasn’t been a plethora of scientific literature on this subject. But that might be about to change.

Rick Nauert, in his recent article on Psych Central entitled ‘Controlling Brain Waves May Be Key to Meditation’s Benefits‘ reports on a paper published by Brown University researchers in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.  

Nauert made the following observations: ‘…….researchers said that by learning to control their focus on the present somatic moment, mindfulness meditators develop a more sensitive “volume knob” for controlling spatially specific, localized sensory cortical alpha rhythms’.

He carried on to conclude that: ‘efficient modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in turn enables optimal filtering of sensory information. Meditators learn not only to control what specific body sensations they pay attention to, but also how to regulate attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations such as chronic pain’.

The authors have suggested the framework around which further empirical research can be undertaken; to get substantive answers will require further hypothesis testing and much reflection.  So we may not know for some time what the exact mechanisms look like, but we can be assured that the scientific community is on the right tracks to formulate an answer.

You can read Nauert’s full article here.

The PsychCentral website has posted a fascinating article about a German neurologist who claims to have identified a very specific area of the brain “where evil lurks.”

As part of his government sponsored research, Dr. Gerhard Roth scans and analyzes the brains of violent criminals such as rapists and murderers. And he’s found that they all have something in common: a “dark patch” in their frontal brain. Interestingly, Roth says he can predict with 66% accuracy that an adolescent with anomalies in this area of the brain, is a “felon in the making.”

You can read the whole article here.

‘My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.’ So wrote Albert Einstein with his usual clarity.

But one may ask the question – does this instinctual pacifism as espoused by Einstein have a limit? And are there any circumstances in which it can be breached?  Interestingly, Einstein wrestled with those questions.  When it became evident that the logical out-workings of his groundbreaking formula – E=mc2 – was the development of an atomic weapon, Einstein was appalled by such a prospect. Initially, his fear was that Nazi Germany would acquire the technology first, but events proved otherwise and he was equally horrified when the US used a nuclear device in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Thereafter he was deeply troubled by the cold war and concomitant nuclear arms race.

Einstein intrigues me.  His ethical dilemma’s stemmed from his love of, and understanding of, a humanity which he understood to be incredibly complex, flawed and nuanced. He also understood the power of science.  As insightful as ever, he once wrote: ‘Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill.’

And so it is.  The use of science still exercises our ethical minds today, perhaps even more so than ever.  The nuclear issue is still as pertinent as ever, but we also face other dilemmas centering on genetic engineering  and the like.

In the end, Einstein’s intuitively pacifist stance became more utilitarian in practice; he had made the very pragmatic decision that a nuclear armed Third Reich could only be countered by a nuclear armed US.

If you’re interested in Einstein’s ethical dilemma, and the history behind it, I recommend you watch the documentary  ‘Einstein’s Equation Of Life and Death‘ on Top Documentary Films.  You can watch it here.

According to a recently published story on the BBC News website:

“Failing to teach evolution by natural selection in science lessons could lead to new free schools losing their funding under government changes. The new rules state that from 2013, all free schools in England must teach evolution as a ‘comprehensive and coherent scientific theory’.”

In my opinion, this is certainly a move to be welcomed. Creationism has no place in the science classroom; it is vital that students, from whatever background, have the opportunity to learn about evolution as an empirically based theory and one of the underpinning tenets of biology. Creationism is not, as some of its proponents often claim, a valid scientific alternative to evolution. Nor is it, as again is often claimed, a form of ‘censorship’ to exclude it from the science classroom.

That said, it most certainly has a place as a philosophical worldview in Religious Education modules, an area that would quite rightly be unaffected by the new government funding criteria.  It is important that students are aware of the creationist movement and its historical and philosophical underpinnings.

You can read the entire article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20547195