Psychological Research: Uncertainty and Spirituality

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect by Benedict Carey

Along with being insightful and informative, this article is also well written.  I always enjoy a good article, but I must admit I’m particularly happy whenever I read about research comfirming my own intuitions and observations.  The article is about how people respond to the unusual, the uncanny… those things that can’t be immediately explained or fit into past experience, into conventional categories of thought.

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.

 So, the same psychological mechnism that lead to personal biases also leads to innovative thinking.  I’ve often thought about those two things separately, but I hadn’t considered their connection.  I think I understand the connection though.  The key isn’t fear.  Rather, the key is uncertainty which may or may not be caused by fear.  The type of person open to uncertainty (thin boundary types) are more likely to respond to uncertainty with curiosity (even to the point of inentionally seeking out situations that encourage uncertainty)… and thick boundary types, being less open to uncertainty, are more likely to respond with fear (thus desiring to avoid and dismiss uncertainty).  However, the psychological mechanism is similar and everyone has their limits on how open they are to uncertainty (and people are more open to certain things or situations than others).

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

Yes, a useful point to make.  It’s not helpful to provoke confusion in others in the hope of encouraging learning ability if you aren’t simultaneously teaching critical thinking skills.  On the other hand, critical thinking skills without innovative thought is equally problematic.

Religious Experience Linked to Brain’s Social Regions by Brandon Keim

The article is discussing the research of Jordan Grafman.

People who reported an intimate experience of God, engaged in religious behavior or feared God, tended to have larger-than-average brain regions devoted to empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. The research wasn’t trying to measure some kind of small “God-spot,” but looked instead at broader patterns within the brains of self-reported religious people.

[…] Grafman suspects that the origins of divine belief reside in mechanisms that evolved in order to help primates understand family members and other animals. “We tried to use the same social mechanisms to explain unusual phenomena in the natural world,” he said.

I heard an interview with Grafman last night which is what led me to this article.  In the interview, he explained his theory in more detail.  He mentioned that primates bond through intimate contact.  This is still important to humans, but intimate contact isn’t practical when dealing with a larger group.  Humans had to develop more efficient ways of creating social connection.  In particular, speech became very important for humans.

What fascinates me about this research is that it implies that those who lack spiritual experience will will probably have less ability towards empathy, symbolic communication, and emotional regulation.  This relates to research done on boundary types which confirm these findings.  A thin boundary person feels less separate from others.  So, they will have a better sense and understanding of the other person.  This is important because, as George P. Hansen writes in The Trickster and the Paranormal, thick boundary types are the people who are most likely to attain high positions in hierarchical organization (which means practically all major organizations from corporations to governments, from scientific institutions to educational institutions).  Thick boundary types have most of the overt power in society despite the fact that most of the population has much thinner boundaries than they do (and more spiritual experience, empathy, etc.).  This might answer the question of why our political leaders are so willing to send other people’s children off to die in foreign lands.

The emotional regulation aspect is a bit surprising.  People of extreme thin boundaries can have some psychological issues such as nightmares.  However, considering the average person rather than extreme examples, maybe increased emotional regulation can be explained by the other two abilities.  If someone is highly empathetic, then they’ll be more emotionally self-aware.  If someone is more capable of symbolic communication, then they’ll be better able to come to terms with psychological experience.

Very, very interesting!

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