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What Can Science Teach Us About the Mystical Experience?

Friday, January 4th, 2013 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

via Transcendence and the Limits of Science « Acculturated.

Religion, God, transcendence, spirituality: do these things exist independently of the human mind or are they products of neurochemical firings of the brain? When Saul had his revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, had he fallen under the spell of a seizure, as some have claimed, or was it a flash of the divine that caused his conversion to Christianity? When Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced the self-transcendent moment he describes below, was he momentarily elevated into a mysterious mystical realm or was he having a fit of temporal lobe epilepsy?

The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people . . . can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit . . . I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

Over at the Atlantic, two scientists and doctors–the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks and radiologist Richard Gunderman–are debating these fascinating questions.

In his new book Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks writes, “One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.” In his recent piece for the Atlantic titled “Seeing God in the Third Millenium,” he went on to argue:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

When I interviewed Sacks for a profile, his words were slightly softer: “There is always a brain basis for these various religious states, although this says nothing of the meaning or value of hallucinations. I don’t think it’s at all reductive.”

Continue reading at Acculturated.

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Crying’s Essential Role in Human Evolution

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

via I Cry, Therefore I Am – NYTimes.com.

IN 2008, at a zoo in Münster, Germany, a gorilla named Gana gave birth to a male infant, who died after three months. Photographs of Gana, looking stricken and inconsolable, were ubiquitous. “Heartbroken gorilla cradles her dead baby,” Britain’s Daily Mail declared. Crowds thronged the zoo to see the grieving mother.

Sad as the scene was, the humans, not Gana, were the only ones crying. The notion that animals can weep — apologies to Dumbo, Bambi and Wilbur — has no scientific basis. Years of observations by the primatologists Dian Fossey, who observed gorillas, and Jane Goodall, who worked with chimpanzees, could not prove that animals cry tears from emotion.

In his book “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” the only tears the biologist Marc Bekoff were certain of were his own. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, the authors of “When Elephants Weep,” admit that “most elephant watchers have never seen them weep.”

It’s true that many mammals shed tears, especially in response to pain. Tears protect the eye by keeping it moist, and they contain antimicrobial proteins. But crying as an embodiment of empathy is, I maintain, unique to humans and has played an essential role in human evolution and the development of human cultures.

Within two days an infant can imitate sad and happy faces. If a newborn mammal does not cry out (typically, in the first few weeks of life, without tears) it is unlikely to get the attention it needs to survive. Around three to four months, the relationship between the human infant and its environment takes on a more organized communicative role, and tearful crying begins to serve interpersonal purposes: the search for comfort and pacification. As we get older, crying becomes a tool of our social repertory: grief and joy, shame and pride, fear and manipulation.

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Darwin speculated that crying occurred less in Britain than in non-Western countries. More robust cross-cultural evidence comes from the Dutch psychologist A. J. J. M. Vingerhoets, who with his colleagues surveyed crying across 37 countries. Americans, Germans and Italians are more prone to tears than Bulgarians, Chinese and Peruvians. Paradoxically, people from wealthier democratic countries with moderate climates cry — or admit to crying — more frequently, and the gender differences are greater. The less hierarchical the social-class structure, the more tears flow, which is perhaps a reflection of greater individual autonomy, acceptance of emotional displays and exposure to the arts.

SADNESS is our primary association with crying, but the fact is that people report feeling happier after crying. Surveys estimate that 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men report feeling better after shedding tears. Paradoxically, crying is more commonly associated with minor forms of depression, like dysthymia, than with major depression involving suicidal thoughts. The popular antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac, are reported to inhibit crying — an effect that, surprisingly, many patients who otherwise obtain relief from the drugs find unsettling.

Read the whole thing.

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Image courtesy shutterstock / szefei

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Friday, November 2nd, 2012 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

Hat tip: Vulture

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Coming in 2015: Electronic Bee Brains Uploaded into Robot Insects

Friday, October 5th, 2012 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

via New project aims to upload a honey bees brain into a flying insectobot by 2015.

Every once in a while, theres news which reminds us that were living in the age of accelerating change. This is one of those times: A new project has been announced in which scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex are hoping to create the first accurate computer simulation of a honey bee brain — and then upload it into an autonomous flying robot.

This is obviously a huge win for science — but it could also save the world. The researchers hope a robotic insect could supplement or replace the shrinking population of honey bees that pollinate essential plant life.

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Monday, October 1st, 2012 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

Hat tip I09

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The Male Birth Control Pill Arrives

Friday, August 17th, 2012 - by PJ Lifestyle Science

via Possible Man-Whore Pill Would Make Testicles More Forgetful at Jezebel:

Yet another ship has (a little by accident) sailed into the largely uncharted waters of male birth control pills, having discovered that a drug being developed for cancer treatment might actually make testicles temporarily “forget” how to produce sperm. This latest breakthrough in the burgeoning field of sperm obfuscation comes on the heels of news in May that a Scottish research team had pinpointed a gene necessary for sperm production, a breakthrough that opened the imaginarium of hormone-free male contraception.

The latest discovery in the quest for the male pill comes by way of Dr. James Bradner from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, who believes that he and his team may have alighted on a way to trick the testicles into shutting down sperm production without any discernible side effects. What’s more, the treatment would be completely reversible.

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