A roundup of some stuff I found interesting pertaining to religious belief!
To our knowledge, this is the first study examining potential modulating effects of biological sex on hippocampal anatomy in the framework of meditation. Our analyses were applied in a well-matched sample of 30 meditators (15 men/15 women) and 30 controls (15 men/15 women), where meditators had, on average, more than 20 years of experience (with a minimum of 5 years), thus constituting true long-term practitioners. In accordance with the outcomes of our previous study of meditation effects on hippocampal anatomy by pooling male and female brains together (Luders et al., 2013b), we observed that hippocampal dimensions were enlarged both in male and in female meditators when compared to sex- and age-matched controls. In addition, our current analyses revealed that meditation effects, albeit present in both sexes, differ between men and women in terms of the magnitude of the effects, the laterality of the effects, and the exact location of the effects detectable on the hippocampal surface.
Although existing mindfulness research seems to lack sex-specific analyses—at least with respect to addressing brain anatomy—the observed group-by-sex interactions seem to be in accordance with a recent study reporting sex-divergent outcomes when assessing the impact of a mindfulness intervention on behavioral measures/psychological constructs (de Vibe et al., 2013). More specifically, administering a 7-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, that study detected significant changes in mental distress, study stress and well-being in female students but not in male students.
The hippocampus is a small brain structure integral to the limbic (emotion-motivation) system. It plays important roles in learning, mood, and the formation of memories.
Meditation and prayer have some of the same effects on the brain, so we might see the same results with people who pray regularly. This might be another reason why men are less religious than women: Do women benefit more from religious practices?
The first task used to measure self-control is known as the “Stroop task,” which requires participants to resist the urge to name a word on a colored background rather than simply saying the name of the color, which requires a degree of self-regulation to stifle the incorrect response. The second, an anagram test, gave participants seven letters and unlimited time to make as many English words as they could with the letters, which measures persistence despite boredom or fatigue.
Both tests are considered “seminal indices of self-control,” according to Clarkson, although the skills required to perform each are different.
“So it is not simply a matter of conservatives being more efficient or liberals being overly analytical,” he said.
In their performance on both tasks, however, conservatives outpaced their liberal counterparts. At the same time, both groups were shown to have similar levels of motivation and effort.
[Next], a group of study participants was told that the belief in free will has been shown to be detrimental to self-control by causing feelings of frustration, anger or anxiety that inhibit concentration. Under these circumstances, the effects were reversed. Liberals outperformed conservatives, suggesting that a belief in free will can undermine self-control under certain conditions.
“If you can get people to believe that free will is bad for self-control, conservatives no longer show an advantage in self-control performance,” Clarkson said.
So, if one believes in free will then one will perform better on tasks that test free will. But if you poison the concept of free will, and you believe you have this poisoned trait, then you’ll do worse on tests of free will! Pretty wild stuff. Reminds me of stereotype threat and growth mindset.
Next on the rationality front, expert philosophers are just as irrational as the rest of us [pdf]:
We examined the effects of order of presentation on the moral judgments of professional philosophers and two comparison groups. All groups showed similarsized order effects on their judgments about hypothetical moral scenarios targeting the doctrine of the double effect, the action-omission distinction, and the principle of moral luck. Philosophers’ endorsements of related general moral principles were also substantially influenced by the order in which the hypothetical scenarios had previously been presented. Thus, philosophical expertise does not appear to enhance the stability of moral judgments against this presumably unwanted source of bias, even given familiar types of cases and principles.
Nearly 200 students took part and were split into four groups. One group read about naive realism (e.g. “visual illusions provide a glimpse of how our brain twists reality without our intent or awareness”) and then they experienced several well-known, powerful visual illusions (e.g. the Spinning Wheels, shown above, the Checker Shadow, and the Spinning Dancer), with the effects explained to them. The other groups either: just had the explanation but no experience of the illusions; or completed a difficult verbal intelligence test; or read about chimpanzees.
Afterwards, whatever their group, all the participants read four vignettes about four different people. These were written to be deliberately ambiguous about the protagonist’s personality, which could be interpreted, depending on the vignette, as either assertive or hostile; risky or adventurous; agreeable or a push over; introverted or snobbish. There was also a quiz on the concept of naive realism.
The key finding is that after reading about naive realism and experiencing visual illusions, the participants were less certain of their personality judgments and more open to the alternative interpretation, as compared with the participants in the other groups. The participants who only read about naive realism, but didn’t experience the illusions, showed just as much knowledge about naive realism, but their certainty in their understanding of the vignettes wasn’t dented, and they remained as closed to alternative interpretations as the participants in the other comparison conditions.
“In sum,” the researchers said, “exposing naive realism in an experiential way seems necessary to fuel greater doubt and openness.”
I imagine doing something like this, and then teaching some other rationality concepts (like my feeling of certainty) might be a good overall teaching tool. Might.