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Apr 28 2012

Analytical thinking and religious belief

I bet we hear more about this one: a study at the University of British Columbia has found that analytical thinking actually decreases religious belief.

The study, which will appear in tomorrow’s issue of Science, finds that thinking analytically increases disbelief among believers and skeptics alike, shedding important new light on the psychology of religious belief…

Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle experimental priming – including showing participants Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker or asking participants to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts – to successfully produce “analytic” thinking. The researchers, who assessed participants’ belief levels using a variety of self-reported measures, found that religious belief decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks, compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not involve analytic thinking.

I’ve long had a suspicion that superstition and other forms of faith-based thinking are vestiges of the psychology of our pre-sapiens ancestors, a kind of proto-rationality based on pattern recognition and habit acquisition. Such thinking would have the advantage of being quicker (as in “snap judgments”) and of course the disadvantage of being inaccurate and unreliable. And yet, it would still be accurate and reliable enough to be a survival advantage, which is why it still holds on today, particularly among people who have not exercised their ability use reason and analysis to uncover the truth. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

 

 

9 comments

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  1. 1
    grumpyoldfart

    analytical thinking actually decreases religious belief

    Surely that is not a new discovery?

    1. 1.1
      MatthewL

      Not a new idea. Just new evidence.

  2. 2
    machintelligence

    “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but – more frequently than not – struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

    Martin Luther 1483 – 1546

    It is nice to have documentation, though.

  3. 3
    Brony

    I’ve long had a suspicion that superstition and other forms of faith-based thinking are vestiges of the psychology of our pre-sapiens ancestors, a kind of proto-rationality based on pattern recognition and habit acquisition. Such thinking would have the advantage of being quicker (as in “snap judgments”) and of course the disadvantage of being inaccurate and unreliable. And yet, it would still be accurate and reliable enough to be a survival advantage, which is why it still holds on today, particularly among people who have not exercised their ability use reason and analysis to uncover the truth. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

    I’ll go a step farther with you. I would assert that there are three different processing systems in the brain. They are somewhat represented (and probably work in many parallel ways) by the pain processing that goes on in what are called the “neospinothalamic tract” (new sensory data), “paleospinothalamic tract” (old sensory data), and “archispinothalamic tract” (ancient sensory data).
    http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s2/chapter07.html

    If I were to rename the processing strategies of the three systems by how I hypothesize they combine together in all the brain systems, I would call them,

    “Social mind” (processing rules for interacting with outside things that are like the self),

    “Animal Mind” (processing rules for a totally selfish creature that thinks everything is out to get it, and

    “Mindless beast” (rules for running the body with little/no awareness. Heartbeat, breathing, digestion, sneezing, vomiting…)

    It’s an in-progress summer project. Take from it what you will…

  4. 4
    This Is A Turing Test

    Brony says:
    ‘“Social mind” (processing rules for interacting with outside things that are like the self),
    “Animal Mind” (processing rules for a totally selfish creature that thinks everything is out to get it, and
    “Mindless beast” (rules for running the body with little/no awareness. Heartbeat, breathing, digestion, sneezing, vomiting…)’

    The first two are normative processes of “mind” (as opposed to brain)- they are aim-oriented. The last is non-normative- like evolution, indeed nature itself, they have no goals, they are simply processes. Even survival, as a result of evolutionary processes, is simply that- an outcome only, not an aim.

    And I think religion is the result of the same inability to grasp “non-normative” as a valid and real concept that drives creationists to reject evolution. It’s the very normativeness of “mind” that results in religion. As Deacon says, it’s a vestige of a reflex of pre(or “proto”)-rational thinking. It’s a projection of “mind,” as a normative process, on non-normative processes.

    It’s almost paradoxical that analytical thinking is necessarily normative. But there’s a difference, I think, between goal-oriented thinking done well, and in it’s own context (a test that requires it), and the same thing insisted on as a reflexive rejection of natural non-normativeness, and imposed on a different context (nature that doesn’t require goals).

    This is a little murky, I know. I’m an unemployed electrician with no education beyond high school graduation (in 1976). As with Brony, it’s sort of an on-going project of my own, trying not to stray too far into Dunning-Kruger territory. Just throwing it out there for what it’s worth, and fully prepared to be told it’s been done, and/or it’s worth nothing.

    1. 4.1
      Brony

      I agree in part because I’m interested in figuring out where the mind becomes the brain, so where the normative is constructed from the logical. Actually I’m obsessing about it at the moment :)
      The brain is constructed from hierarchically organized sensory systems that get tagged with emotional and other information in order to figure out what to do (very simplified).

      I’m fortunate enough to have a diverse enough background where I can figure out what I need to know (worked in: Molecular biology, Cell biology, evolutionary biology, TA: for neurobiology). I also am corresponding with some brain scientists for reality check purposes.

      I have Dunning-Prevention built in to my own process. The project is to basically build a computational model of the brain that is organized around what each structure does functionally,and what it’s relationship with the other parts is. I’m tearing through every anatomical review that I can find at the moment and I think that I have a good strategy.

      *Start at the spine and figure out exactly how it is organized, and exactly what kind of data it carries (basically knowing what the brain is not, and figuring out what the brain has to work with). So far that part is amazing. Have you ever seen the inside of a big piece of hardware or an aircraft? You know how they bundle the command and control cables by function. The spine is the same fucking way. It’s Amazing!
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spinal_cord_tracts_-_English.svg

      *Once I know what the command and control data is and where thee cables attach I start at the very bottom of the brain stem and work my way up with each little component, reading and modeling as I go (I have plans for organizing the colors and more for visual appraisal).
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainstem

      *Simultaneously I do the same with the cranial nerves which look really messy, but once you have an appreciation for them you see humans as being segmented like insects in a very real way.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranial_nerves

      *Also simultaneously I try to outline the evolution of each structure as best as I can so that I can try to understand the story of just what those three animals evolved to deal with since evolution is a reactive process and these things did not just come from nowhere.
      http://tolweb.org/Animals/2374

      All the while making sure that I don’t get it wrong with the professionals. You would be surprised how readily professionals are willing to communicate. If I’m lucky I might have a book that works as a general public “Manual of the Brain” by the time I’m done.

      Yeah, I’m a bit weird…

      1. This Is A Turing Test

        Brony: Sounds like an interesting project. Mine, of course, is nowhere near as ambitious, or as concrete- more of an intellectual interest thing than anything else.

        Thanks for the links, too- lots of interesting reading to do- good thing (for me) they’re mostly wikipedia- keeps it on my level (as the man said, Wikipedia is a good place to start research, not to end it). Your analogy of the spinal cord to “the inside of a big piece of hardware or an aircraft” resonated well with me, and called up an immediate visual; I worked as an electrician for a while at a large local shipyard, laying those cables.

        Also, this- “…since evolution is a reactive process and these things did not just come from nowhere”- raises a question for me. Does this still mesh with the idea that “evolution is not normative”? Would I be correct in thinking that “reactive” doesn’t necessarily imply “goal-oriented” (in fact, almost seems to contradict it)?

  5. 5
    Brony

    Thanks for the links, too- lots of interesting reading to do- good thing (for me) they’re mostly wikipedia- keeps it on my level (as the man said, Wikipedia is a good place to start research, not to end it). Your analogy of the spinal cord to “the inside of a big piece of hardware or an aircraft” resonated well with me, and called up an immediate visual; I worked as an electrician for a while at a large local shipyard, laying those cables.

    Wikipedia is gold for anyone who knows how to do research. It’s the kitchen sink. Anyone who can figure out scientific consensus and source quality can find anything they want. I use it constantly. Admittedly lots of this needed supplementing from other sources online, but it’s amazing what you can find. That link above discussing the neo, paleo and archispinothalamic tracts is basically a very recent, and completely free neurobiology book. It’s better than my actual book.

    I thought that it sounded like we were coming at this from opposite directions. I’m going from biology>Computation with my approach, and it sounds like you know general computation better for this. I have a friend who worked on helicopters and when I started trying to define the tracts within the spinal cord, I thought of the peek I got at the innards. It was the first analogy that popped in my head when it came to talking with others about this. So far comparing the “ascending tracts” and “descending tracts” to command and control cables seems a spot on analogy. It’s not as clean at the diagram presents though it is very compartmentalized. One region blends into another in a very organized fashion that would fool a creationist with no embryology reading.

    When you look up the individual labeled tracts and apply a theme to the data they carry, well just look for yourself,

    Ascending tracts (Command data)
    *dorsal and spinocerebellar tracts: Unconscious proprioceptive information Body>cerebellum.
    Unjargoned that means “Body position information including muscle position and stretch, joint angle…”. Since the cerebellum provides corrective information that is likely the role this data. The difference between the dorsal (posterior) and ventral (anterior) seems to be that the dorsal is more general position info for corrective purposes, and the ventral is unconscious reflex cycles.

    *Gracile and Cuneate tracts: More proprioceptive information, but this is the conscious information that makes you aware of your position (for everything below the neck). These tracts also contain deep touch, vibrational touch, and visceral (organ) pain, each in their own section.

    *Ventral and Lateral spinothalamic tracts: Ventral seems to transmit crude touch, lateral seems to transmit pain and temperature information (again these blend into each other, but are clearly separately organized).

    *Spino olivary tract: Uncertain proprioceptive function, but given the rest of the behavior I would think that it is of different nature than the rest.
    *Lots more recent stuff not on Wikipedia.

    Descending tracts (control data)
    *Lateral and anterior corticospinal tracts: Conscious control of body movement. Lateral distal (far from body) muscles and anterior controls proximal (close to body) muscles.
    *Rubrospinal tract: an interesting alternative for upper body control that is a major pathway in other animals, but not humans implying some kind of level of control that is not as important at this point for us. Severing it causes a slowness in movement so it may have been more important in our ancestors who had to use upper limbs for other reasons related to velocity.
    *Retulospinal tract: Has two parts. The MRST (anti-gravity extensor muscles), and the LRST (inhibiting excitatory axial extensor muscles. This tract reduces sensitivity of muscle reflexes so that they do not overreact. Also contains circuitry for posture, orienting, stretching…
    *Olivospinal tract: Also not well known.
    *Much more not on Wikipedia.

    I’m discovering that worst problem to understanding the brain is jargon. Brain research has been one of the biggest multidisciplinary efforts spanning centuries. Anatomists have Latin names for structures based on appearance, Neurobiologists have numbers and letters for types of cells, interactions between parts are discussed in loops and circuits, chemical activation of parts uses chemical names with no bearing on functional themes, and virtually all of it is impenetrable to regular folks. I wish there was a law where once the function of something was discovered, renaming was a requirement.
    Once you get past all of that the brain starts becoming a lot more sensible because there are general themes that run through the processes.

    Also, this- “…since evolution is a reactive process and these things did not just come from nowhere”- raises a question for me. Does this still mesh with the idea that “evolution is not normative”? Would I be correct in thinking that “reactive” doesn’t necessarily imply “goal-oriented” (in fact, almost seems to contradict it)?

    You will have to forgive me, I’m pretty “buffet style” with philosophy so I am (and was above) assuming this general meaning for “normative”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative_ethics
    …and specifically you were saying that the brain processing decided on actions depending on the circumstance and environment.

    It does not imply “goal-oriented”. It implies that natural selection responds to the environment, and the useful adaptations that arise can give information about “new” circumstances that can be responded to, or taken advantage of in the environment. Basically if it does not exist, or cannot be detected than natural selection cannot take advantage of it.
    What I am thinking about along these lines when it comes to the reading that I am doing is major events in processing capability that arose that have implications for philosophical questions. For example if my reading continues to support the idea that there are three general processing strategies, they might align with the ability to maintain and regulate the self (“Archi” processes), protect the self and eat/use/run from the other (“Paleo” processes), and interact with the “Other like me” (“Neo Processes”).
    The brain does get “older” as you go from brainstem to cortex, and somewhat from core to periphery. The functions also go from maintenance, to environmental detection, to social and long-term memory mediated functions.
    I’m hoping that as I read and build the model (which is just a means to internalize the information better) patterns will emerge that might enable me to tie computational patterns to everyday experience.

  6. 6
    jamesskaar

    so, what’s the possibility of putting up some kind of semi-abstract posters on walls and phone poles… that trigger the rational part of the brain, which would make people more rational thinkers? like, if there’s a method, non-invasive, non-drug, that would work in getting psych patients to recover rationality… would it work on ‘normal’ people? perhaps a legal drug that would suppress the instinct to leap at conclusions… market it as a brain booster to the kind of people that go for ‘super foods’.

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