Posts Tagged ‘quirks’

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Led Astray” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I spend my Saturday mornings on my hands and knees creating paintings in chalk on the street during our local Farmers and Crafts Market.  Focused on my work, what I mostly I hear is the burble of the crowd, catching occasional glimpses of the feet of those who stop to watch or drop a dollar in my tip jar.  But I do look up from time to time.  One morning I looked up to see an elderly man walking away from me — and before I realized what was happening my throat seized with a sob that had leapt up from my chest.  In the moment that it took for my conscious mind to form the question: “What’s going on?” the reason for my reaction was delivered to that conscious mind: I was watching my dead father walk away from me.  Of course, it wasn’t my father at all, but a man of a very similar size, with a similar walk, wearing familiar colors.  It took only a few seconds before my critical mind was able to distinguish the differences between the actual man I was watching and my real father.

It’s a rather stunning illustration of how the mind works, and also how the mind can be fooled: I had glanced up with no thought in particular in my mind, and had seen a man with enough physical similarities to my father to trigger the reaction I would have had had my actual dead father walked past me at the Market.  My tears were real — my vision was not.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to err on the side of caution: to jump or run away first before deciding that the snake in the grass is really just a snakey-looking stick.  That same ancient instinct told my brain in a fraction of a second that I was looking at my father.  One very interesting aspect of all of this is that it happened before my conscious brain had a chance to get involved.

But this is not surprising, as recent neuroscience research has shown that, basically, the conscious mind is the last to know.  Most often our decisions are happening on the next level down, in a different part of the brain, with the net result that our bodies are reacting to the news at the same moment that the memo is being read by that part of our brain that we like to believe is in control.

We are invested in the notion that we are the authors of our fate, therefore the realization that so much of our reactions and decisions are happening on a pre-conscious level can be unsettling, as if some palace coup is afoot to dethrone our conscious mind from the role of monarch of the ship of our natural state.  The actual message is not that dramatic.  Our mind — the conscious product of our brain (or brains) — operates on several levels.  Those who study such things tend to identify them with the time of their biological evolution, from the more primitive to the more modern: the later adaptations being added to (but not replacing) the earlier brain(s).

Our brains don't always give us the correct readings.

To me it’s clear that this tells us that we are animals — complex organisms like any other on the planet, but with larger, more complex brains.  We argue endlessly about the things that separate us from the other animals, yet are always drawn back to the enormous biological and cognitive heritage that we share.  No matter how hard religions tries to resist the erosion of the temple of our uniqueness, the waves of data and science and reality continue to wear it down.

But why should this even be an issue?  Why does it seem to matter so much to so many people that we NOT be like the other animals?

The answer to that is as obvious as it is irrational: to accept that we are of a kind with every other life form on the planet makes it harder to hold to the idea that we are special creations of an infinite intelligence.  For, despite the fact that our social natures intimately entwine us with small groups of our fellow humans (an animals — our pets!), we are subject to feelings of painful loneliness in those moments when the company of others cannot protect us from the deep dark of night, or our smallness in the face of nature.  We have a deep need to not be alone, and that extends into the universe as well as into our community.

This is the primal existential terror that stalks each of us conscious beings.  Perhaps it is the force that fuels our profoundly social nature: our need to bond with each other; to form and nurture meaningful and lasting connections with friends, lovers and families; extending acts of charity to strangers we’ll never meet.

As I “saw” my dead father in the body of a stranger at the Market, we see the hand of God in random events, our brain’s stored associations with a lifetime of experience with other thinking beings triggered by unrelated sights and sounds that seem to have a shape we recognize.

I wasn’t thinking of my father that morning, but deep within me was a ready desire to see him if I could.  The fact that the experience was unbidden is the sort of detail we take to infer outside agency (“I didn’t make it happen”), which gives us the freedom to ascribe “meaning” to a random event.  The fact that my brain could even have the deep emotional response it did tells me something even more startling: that this brain of mine is willing to believe that which I know to be physically impossible: my deceased father walking through the market as if living some new, other life, that just happened to take him on a walk past his son drawing on the street.

It is little wonder, then, that we have built entire systems of belief on the quirks of our evolved brains.  We have all had these experiences, after all, and therefore have a common frame of reference for this kind of phenomena.  And it is the quality of these experiences, much more than their detail, that seems to matter most.

The more I read about the variety of human religious experience, the harder it is to hold to the idea that there is some objective spiritual reality out there that we are all given equal access to.  It sounds much more like the tales that children tell each other when they are making believe, and I would argue that it touches the same emotional and psychological triggers that such child’s play can trip: the expansive feeling in the chest, the cinching in the throat from excitement, the tingle of mystery tinged with danger, all within the safety of another’s company.

This is religion, then: the things we make up to describe the things that take us by surprise.  Whether it’s the face of Jesus on a tortilla or my father back from the dead at the Farmers Market.  Our brains are like a cosmic Global Positioning System that sometimes gives us a wild reading, and we have to go back to the old-fashioned tools to check our bearings.

In my pilot training we learned that even the reliable magnetic compass is subject to distortions: It can be affected by the magnetic field of electronic equipment in the aircraft; certain maneuvers can make it spin wildly; depending on your longitude, you have to add or subtract degrees from its reading; and every compass comes with it’s own “correction card” where you note the quirks of your own particular device.

So it is with our brains.  Mostly steady and reliable and, frankly, wondrous electrical devices, we nevertheless have to take note of the times they will lead us astray.

t.n.s.r. bob