By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
THE VISION THING: PART FIVE—THIS AGAIN?
No, you haven't read this entry before (it's just the latest in a series on the brain and consciousness). But if you get the feeling that you have, you might be interested in psychologist Alan Brown's new book, The Dé jà Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. In it he examines a subject he tells the New York Times "has been either ignored or considered too spooky or flaky for many scientists to touch." The Times describes dé jà vu, which is French for "already seen," as a "sudden and sometimes breathtaking sense of familiarity." It says Brown and others are learning more about it by taking it seriously. They're finding that dé jà vu happens most to people who travel, are highly educated, young, stressed, or have an active imagination. It does not, as in the Freudian tradition, necessarily "invoke hidden conflicts or unusual brain conditions," the Times says. "Normal, healthy brain function suffices." There's also something called jamais vu, "the opposite experience of staring at familiar words or objects and having no recollection of them." Article Meanwhile, the Chicago Readerdistinguishes between "a dé jà vu experience" and "an out-to-lunch experience"—"a glimpse of the supernatural" and "just a cognitive burp."
Related:More from the Chronicle of Higher Education
• Speaking of dé jà vu, there's yet another news magazine cover story on how God is just a figment of our biochemistry—this time it's a Timecover last month, "Is God in Our Genes?" (Story reprinted here.) (That's not the only regular religion cover Time and Newsweek trot out every once in a while—last week Jesus was on the front of both.) I'll read this story when someone can convince me 1) it's a meaningful addition to much-hyped coverage of neurotheology (here and here, to begin with), and 2) it isn't crippled by its Enlightenment bias toward rationalist and reductionist epistemology.
• So now there's something called the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). They held a seminar earlier this year called "Experiencing Sacred Spaces" in the architectural mini-mecca of Columbus, Indiana (see sixth paragraph here). The AFNA president remarked to the gathering that "being transformed by space is a powerful experience, especially when it is sacred space." "Their goal was to develop research questions that might lend themselves to eventual empirical inquiry," says Arthur Farnsley, co-author of the forthcoming Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion, in a report for Martin Marty's Sightings newsletter. AFNA, Farnsley says, believes "it is now possible to ask empirical questions about what kinds of spaces inspire awe, surprise, mystery, anxiety, or comfort." Farnsley has some questions of his own: "Can sacred experiences truly be measured? Even if they could, what happens if subsequent generations wish their worship space to evoke different reactions? Might there be some insidious element in using neurological experiments to shape human experience?" AFNA is also looking into neuroscience and the design of hospitals, schools, and homes. "It is important to recognize that neuroscience is becoming an increasingly important tool for explaining not only how we experience external stimuli," Farnsley concludes, "but even for how we experience God." Entry
• Lie detectors make for great movie scenes, but little else. That was the conclusion of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. Neither polygraphs nor voice analysis—it turns out that something called a Vericator fails to live up to its name—have satisfied scientists as reliable revealers of truth. Now brain scanning techniques, including "cognosensors," are being studied, says the Economist, and some have already been used in court cases, although the jury is still out on their long-term promise. Article
• "Fatigue is in the mind, not the muscles," wrote New Scientist earlier this year. "Traditionally, fatigue was viewed as the result of over-worked muscles ceasing to function properly. But evidence is mounting that our brains make us feel weary after exercise" in order to protect our muscles. South African researchers, including one former unsuccessful candidate for the 1996 British Olympic rowing squad, have found a molecule called "interleukin-6" that tells the brain that we're tired and its time to slow down. A basketball coach of mine used to bellow, "You just think you're tired!" Maybe he was right! Article
• Brain damage made me do it. That was the argument of Patrizia Reggiani, a defendant in Italy whose lawyers claimed that her surgery for a brain tumor caused her to kill her fashion mogul husband. The jury didn't buy it and she's serving a 26-year sentence, but now her case has been reopened to accommodate new brain imaging technology, says the London Guardian. In the meantime, German scientist Wolf Singer has been arguing that crime itself is evidence of brain damage, and thus criminals can't be held responsible for their behavior. Singer has studied the so-called binding problem of perception—the fact that there is no single center of the brain that makes perceptions and decisions; the process of seeing, thinking and doing is decentralized and complex. Singer concludes that this complexity renders us helpless to volitionally manage our cognitive functioning. So never mind about little things like spirituality and the soul—those are just fictions that disguise our captivity to instinct! Articles
Can psychics solve crimes? From CSICOP
The Guardian on optical illusions
Edge.org on humans as natural-born dualists
CSICOP investigates the stigmata
From the New York Times :
LHASA, Tibet—They string brilliantly colored flags from the mountaintops here in this land of impossibly crisp blue skies. Here and there, one finds mounds of smooth, flat rocks, lovingly piled, each inscribed with its own Buddhist scriptural narrative. Water wheels are planted in fast-moving streams, not to harness energy but to turn wooden cylinders laden with scripture. Old women sit on doorsteps in the fading evening light kneading and turning their prayer beads. Visitors to Tibet, this remote, landlocked nation within another country, China, cannot help being struck by the fact that Tibet, which long since gave up its dreams of independence, is fighting now to retain its soul. …
BOSTON—A small, long brick structure whose circular stained glass window with a Star of David makes it stand out from the neat rows of brownstones, Vilna Shul is the last synagogue left on Beacon Hill. It closed in 1985 after Jewish migration to the suburbs left the congregation with one member. The Boston Center for Jewish Heritage later bought the building with the goal of turning it into a museum. Andrew Perlman said he immediately knew he had discovered the place for Havurah on the Hill. (Havurah means gathering in Hebrew.) Havurah on the Hill, was started in 2001 when a group of friends in their 20's were trying to gather people their age for Sabbath services followed by a kosher dinner.
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.