Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Science of Consciousness

Every morning I log on to The Guardian, a British newspaper I've read since I lived in Ireland. This morning's issue has a fascinating article about some research into the science of consciousness entitled, "Scientists hunt the ghost in the machine". An Oxford study is examining the role of religious faith in pain management and tolerance:

The scientists will apply a chilli-based gel to the skin of volunteers and ask them to try different strategies to lessen the burning sensation, including asking people with strong religious beliefs to draw on their faith to cope with the pain.

The experiment is one in a series that sees scientists join forces with philosophers, theologians and brain surgeons to tackle some of the most profound questions of the human condition: what is the nature of consciousness and how do religious beliefs manifest themselves in our brains?

...The study of consciousness and brain processes that give rise to strongly held beliefs have for long been on the periphery of scientific research.

With the advent of techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can take snapshots of brain activity, scientists believe they can obtain meaningful answers about how consciousness arises and what makes belief systems so widespread and resilient...

The study could help to reveal how faith is represented in the brain. Other projects will look into the conditions that make people susceptible to strong yet irrational beliefs, such as the age people are exposed to certain ideas and the frequency with which religious messages are reinforced.

..."People are realising these are the most exciting questions that anyone can ask," said Lady Greenfield. Understanding the basis of religious and other types of belief could help to shed light on the surge in fundamentalism and terrorism.

"One of the fundamental reasons why religious beliefs have to be taken seriously ... is that they are potentially very dangerous, and that can be true of other dogmatisms too," said John Brookes, professor of science and religion at Oxford.

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