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June 1, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain. Scientific American analyses a study which links life-changing religious experiences, like being born again, with atrophy in the hippocampus. The study, “Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University, 'is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.'

'The study by Owen et al. is unique in that it focuses specifically on religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals. This study also broke down these individuals into those who are born again or who have had life-changing religious experiences.

The results showed significantly greater hippocampal atrophy in individuals reporting a life-changing religious experience. In addition, they found significantly greater hippocampal atrophy among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.'

'The authors offer the hypothesis that the greater hippocampal atrophy in selected religious groups might be related to stress.'

While the study is acknowledged by Scientific American, to be "an important advance in our growing understanding of the relationship between the brain and religion", despite the small sample size, the proposed explanations of the findings by the authors have significant issues. For one, the direction of the causal relationship between the hippocampal atrophy and religiosity might actually be the opposite: it is 'possible, for example, that those people with smaller hippocampal volumes are more likely to have specific religious attributes, drawing the causal arrow in the other direction'. 'Further, it might be that the factors leading up to the life-changing events are important and not just the experience itself.'

Then there is the central hypothesis that the hippocamal atrophy is the result of stress. But significantly, 'stress itself did not correlate with hippocampal volumes', thus throwing into question the central proposed explanation.

Finally, 'one might ask whether it is possible that people who are more religious suffer greater inherent stress, but that their religion actually helps to protect them somewhat. Religion is frequently cited as an important coping mechanism for dealing with stress.'
posted by VikingSword (76 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain.

I've noticed this a lot in Apple vs Android thread, yes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:36 AM on June 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


The study, published March 30 in PLoS One, showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus in individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
posted by New England Cultist at 11:37 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


A "religious experience" is NOT the same as a religious conversion.

And I find it interesting that the phrase chosen is "hippocampal atrophy", which suggests a basic bias under the entire paper. What if the condition is actually "hippocampal hyperism", and those who have had religious/spiritual experiences are the ones with the normal brains and those without are suffering a condition?

And the hypothesis seems to be entirely centered around "life-changing". What does that mean, really?

Anyway, it's an interesting article, and I'll read further...
posted by hippybear at 11:39 AM on June 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


These brains sound like troublesome things.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:39 AM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting study. But if I were the editor of SciAm, I would on-the-spot fire whoever wrote the title

"Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain"

especially because the article itself enthusiastically waxes poetic about the uncertain direction of the "causal arrow".
posted by Salvor Hardin at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


Tiny sample? Moderate p-values?? Completely misleading headline??? BRUSH OFF THOSE KEYBOARDS BABY ITS CONTROVERSIAL STUDY TIME
posted by theodolite at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2011 [32 favorites]


Not one bit surprised.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 11:42 AM on June 1, 2011


And one prediction: I think this will be much more noticeable in the buyers of religion than in the salesmen.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 11:44 AM on June 1, 2011


axe-grindy FPPs on weaksauce articles

Considering this phrase describes 99% of the web, it's going to be hard to avoid.

MetaFilter: axe-grindy FPPs on weaksauce articles.
posted by GuyZero at 11:45 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


stress itself did not correlate with hippocampal volumes

This seems like it would be fairly difficult to determine without a continuous multi-year cortisol monitor. From the paper:

Psychosocial factors assessed included stress (global self-reported stress experienced over the past 6 months), social support (a composite variable, primarily level of satisfaction with personal relationships [55], [56]), and depression status (membership in depressed or non-depressed group).

Self-reporting. So, if you went through a messy divorce and bankruptcy which led you to Jesus 6 years ago, but are happy as a clam now, you have no significant stress.
posted by benzenedream at 11:48 AM on June 1, 2011


valkyryn: "We know you don't like religion, VS, but axe-grindy FPPs on weaksauce articles like that one aren't "Best of the Web.""

Your bias is showing.

It's not a weak article. It's in Scientific American, for heaven's sake. It's not as if this showed up in the Daily Mail or National Enquirer. Further, having read the journal article and their methods, it doesn't appear to me to be a weak study either. The conclusions being drawn about the effect of stress on specific religious minorities are quite interesting.
posted by zarq at 11:49 AM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think this is a post made purely so people can pile on and be all, "Religion is stupid, amirite?" Don't know if that's a great post; surely our daily Two Minutes' Hate can be found elsewhere?

(I'm an atheist, so not sure what bias you can accuse me of?)
posted by Windigo at 11:50 AM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wait, what says the causality (in these 268 people in their late 50s) isn't "people with underlying conditions making them susceptible to hippocampal atrophy are more likely to experience/report a life-changing religious experience"?
posted by griphus at 11:51 AM on June 1, 2011


It's in Scientific American, for heaven's sake.

Without venturing an opinion on the article, which I've not read, I must say that this phrase doesn't mean all that it used to.
posted by Trurl at 11:51 AM on June 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


It's OK! The Hippocampus is where Satan lives in your brain. Shrinking it helps to cast him out!

The power of Christ compels your hippocampus to shrink!
The power of Christ compels your hippocampus to shrink!
The power of Christ compels your hippocampus to shrink!
posted by orthogonality at 11:53 AM on June 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


The findings of this study indicate that hippocampal atrophy in late life may be uniquely influenced by certain types of religious factors.

Nothing wrong with a qualified conclusion like that. Valkyryn, you seem more ax-grindy than the article. As a quick check would your reaction be the same if this were someone's first post?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:53 AM on June 1, 2011


I don't know, valkyryn, if accusations of 'ax-grinding' are fair - it's certainly not supported by evidence. Not only did I go out of my way to enumerate all the possible limitations of the study, but I found additional research with important results. The article itself is hardly "weak-sauce". Clearly, Scientific American doesn't think so (direct quote: "This new study is intriguing and important."). The study is pretty solid. The explanations for observed findings however, are open to question, and I hope I have signaled that quite prominently. I posted the FPP, because I thought it was interesting, and metafilter readers might be interested in "intriguing and important" studies that represent - direct quote - "an important advance in our growing understanding of the relationship between the brain and religion"; that of course does not mean that everyone will be interested in this, but there are also cat SLYTs to tide you over.
posted by VikingSword at 11:54 AM on June 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Our questions about the study speak to a serious nomenclature problem around "religious experience." There's a ton of reasons to believe adult baptism (say) is qualitatively different from Bible study, which in turn is qualitatively different from mindfulness meditation, which in turn is qualitatively different from monastic chanting, which in turn is qualitatively different from opening presents under a Christmas tree. Each of these could be described as a religious experience (indeed, they're all experiences a Christian, let alone other religious folk, could undertake as part of their practice) and, inasmuch as any have an effect on the brain, it's more likely than not those effects are pretty different.
posted by Apropos of Something at 12:04 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Tiny sample? Moderate p-values?

OK, the science may not be all we'd like, but have a little faith!
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:06 PM on June 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's not a weak article. It's in Scientific American, for heaven's sake.

It's a tiny sample of middle-aged people, deliberately cast in controversial tones with the ambivalence of the actual authors pretty well buried and the correlation/causation arrow not really pointing much of anywhere. I call that "weak".
posted by valkyryn at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2011


Each of these could be described as a religious experience

As can more than a few of the rock concerts I've been to, or quite a few nights I've spent out dancing under the leadership of a talented DJ.

That's why I say that "religious experience" is entirely different from "religious conversion".
posted by hippybear at 12:07 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Of all the skills I've gained from being a long time MeFite, one of my favorites is the ability to spot "science" articles that are distorted, underpinned with questionable research and needlessly incendiary from eighty paces.

Were I a cynical man, I'd say that inflammatory headlines like these were engineered to crank up pageviews on a fairly thin article. Good thing I'm not cynical.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:15 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think you are confused, valkyryn as to what makes a study valuable. For example, the causality arrow issue is on the explanatory side - which can always be superseded by superior hypothesis. What's important and valuable is in the observed phenomena, whatever the explanation is. And I don't think doubts about the explanations proffered by the authors were buried by SciAm, nor do I think I've underemphasized that in the FPP.
posted by VikingSword at 12:15 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's all atheist lies, my hippocampus has not shrunk! I just checked his aquarium and he's fine.
posted by hat_eater at 12:18 PM on June 1, 2011


hippybear: " That's why I say that "religious experience" is entirely different from "religious conversion"."

I won't speak for you, hippy, but I'd say that conversion almost necessarily requires a narrowing in your understanding of how the world works: you have examined X>1 lenses through which to view the world, and you choose to select this one. I have no clue whether metaphorical mind narrowing results in actual brain narrowing, but I'm at least kind of open to the possibility it might. There are tons of religions one could change one's allegiance towards or choose to believe in the tenets of without "converting" per se, just as there are plenty of ways of experiencing the divine both traditionally religious and otherwise which don't require anything even approximating conversion.
posted by Apropos of Something at 12:22 PM on June 1, 2011


Hippocampal atrophy is associated with seizures, and seizure disorder is associated with intense religiosity.

Also, lots of schizophrenics have delusions with religious content, and schizophrenia causes atrophy of the hippocampus.

Both schizophrenia and seizure disorder cast long shadows into the 'normal' population.
posted by jamjam at 12:26 PM on June 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's a tiny sample

Sample size objection! DRINK! Come on "correlation vs causation", I want to get my drink on!
posted by Justinian at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure that people who are fluent in two religions or more will stop making sense five years later.
posted by Dumsnill at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2011


Somebody compare the author to Stalin and the Pope to Hitler so we can all move on.
posted by londonmark at 12:34 PM on June 1, 2011


posted by VikingSword direct quote: "This new study is intriguing and important."

It probably also raises new and troubling questions.
posted by mattdidthat at 12:35 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The hippocampus is overrated. I'm an atheist, and I don't use mine at all. Actually, I don't use my brain for much of anything, really. It's pretty much just ballast for my hair. I live mostly as an anarchist collective of cells in the lymphatic system.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:35 PM on June 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


“Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University, 'is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.'

STAB STAB FUCKING STAB

calming down

1. A brain region shrinking or growing is not necessarily harmful or beneficial. This would be a different story if they found decreases in performance on spatial reasoning or memory encoding (things we use our hippocampus to do). But there's nothing about performance here. Nor is there anything about measuring the seizures that jamjam mentions (which would be necessary because we don't know whether the neurons prone to atrophy in religious populations do the same job as the neurons that have atrophied in the seizure-prone).

2. Just because something is beneficial in one way does not mean that it's beneficial in all ways. Just because something is harmful in one way does not mean that it's harmful in all ways. That the same thing gives beneficial and harmful effects is not "surprising". What kind of bizarre world do you have to live in to not know that and yet somehow get a research position? Is there any one single thing that is only good?
posted by Jpfed at 12:36 PM on June 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Does this suggest I lost brain cells when I converted to appreciating the Raptor Jesus meme during the May 21 rapture lol fest? I'd previously been quietly-but-forcefully anti-Raptor-Jesus, well hey Zombie Jesus is way cooler if you've not fully considered the ecclesiastical underpinnings of the rapture meme itself.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:37 PM on June 1, 2011


Reading MetaFilter Found to Increase Size of Smugocampus
posted by desjardins at 12:46 PM on June 1, 2011 [15 favorites]


A brain region shrinking or growing is not necessarily harmful or beneficial.

Technically true. However, brain shrinkage is usually taken as atrophy. Given only one piece of information, that part of the brain has shrunk, the odds on it being harmful or beneficial is not a toss-up. You should bet on "harmful".

You know what else has been shown to shrink the hippocampus? Post traumatic stress disorder. Would you be making the same argument in that case? That, hey, shrinking the hippocampus might be a good thing? How about brain shrinkage from advanced neurological disease?
posted by Justinian at 12:47 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It appears that jamjam nailed it, i.e. schizophrenia and seizure disorder are major factors in both religious experiences and this hippocampus damage.

In short, there probably isn't any causality here unless you show that merely seeking religious experiences induces schizophrenia or seizures. And we already knew the world's saviors, prophet, etc. were by-and-large fucked in the head, be it biologically, via drug use, or otherwise.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:48 PM on June 1, 2011


The categories here are very narrow; the study focuses on Protestants, Catholics and atheist/agnostics and mostly addresses religious conversions and participation in religious communities. Meditation sneaks in, but looks like an afterthought, and insight, mindfulness and mystical experiences are absent from the "life-changing religious experiences" category.

It looks like what participants are being scaled on is "born-again conversion" status, so more accurately the study suggests that born-again conversion experiences within Protestants, Catholics or those with no religious affiliation may be linked to hippocampal atrophy.

Which is still interesting, but the SciAm article is full of unnecessary vagueness and generalizing.
posted by byanyothername at 12:48 PM on June 1, 2011


What kind of bizarre world do you have to live in to not know that and yet somehow get a research position? Is there any one single thing that is only good?

No. But there are some things which are widely claimed to be only good.
posted by vorfeed at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2011


posted by desjardins Reading MetaFilter Found to Increase Size of Smugocampus

Related: Use of Apple Products Linked To Enlarged Hipstercampus
posted by mattdidthat at 12:54 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: I won't speak for you, hippy, but ...
posted by joe lisboa at 12:57 PM on June 1, 2011


God, do I miss the old Scientific American. They would have avoided this article in favour of one about science.
posted by rocket88 at 12:57 PM on June 1, 2011


If He wants my hippocampus, by golly, he can have it.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2011


[MetaTalk is where it has always been, don't sink the thread pre-emptively please, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:58 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with jamjam. These "religious experiences" are indubitably what we in the medical field call "seizures." There is already a known correlation between hippocampal sclerosis and people with seizures and it is controversial whether the sclerosis is the cause or result of the seizure activity.
posted by Renoroc at 1:00 PM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is interesting in that heavy cocaine usage has also been shown to result in hippocampal atrophy and so then cue Marx calling Religion the opiate of the masses (although I realize cocaine is in a different class), and so therefore altogether now join me in a round of meme-y call and response:

Cocaine, Religion:

It's a hell of a drug.


Give yourself a round of applause...
posted by Skygazer at 1:05 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can someone clarify this for me? It seems like they are saying that the only ones without hippocampus atrophy are non- born again protestants. Is that right?

Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

Born-agains, Catholics, nonreligious -- all shrinkydinkies, right?only
posted by taz at 1:08 PM on June 1, 2011


Jpfed: "“Is there any one single thing that is only good?"

Yes: cherry pie.

posted by double block and bleed at 1:09 PM on June 1, 2011


If somebody wants to pony up $8, they can read this from Scientific American: Searching for God in the Brain. Excerpt:

"Researchers are unearthing the roots of religious feeling in the neural commotion that accompanies the spiritual epiphanies of nuns, Buddhists and other people of faith."

I'm not willing, because frankly, it seems just a generic fMRI on a few subjects, but perhaps I'm wrong.
posted by VikingSword at 1:13 PM on June 1, 2011


Can someone clarify this for me? It seems like they are saying that the only ones without hippocampus atrophy are non- born again protestants. Is that right?

No, the religious affiliation is kept separate from the born-again status and "no affiliation" here doesn't directly equate to "nonreligious." Also, because the Protestants overlapped so much with the born-agains, they divided them into born-again Protestants and non-born-again Protestants. What they're saying here, I think, is that everyone who scored an initial born-again status showed more hippocampal atrophy, regardless of religious affiliation, compared to those who didn't score a born-again status or did so in a later interview.

Here's the commentary on their categories:

Participants' responses changed over time; thus were categorized as: 1) no born again status or life-changing religious experience, 2) baseline born-again status, 3) new born-again status (i.e., responded no to born-again question at baseline, but yes at a later interview), 4) baseline life-changing religious experience, and 5) new life-changing religious experience. Religious group membership was classified as Catholic, Protestant, Other, or None. Because of the high degree of overlap between Protestant group membership and born-again status, the Protestant group was further divided into born-again and non born-again subcategories.
posted by byanyothername at 1:15 PM on June 1, 2011


You know what else has been shown to shrink the hippocampus? Post traumatic stress disorder. Would you be making the same argument in that case? That, hey, shrinking the hippocampus might be a good thing?

Yes, I would make the same argument. That specific effect of PTSD is not necessarily only bad, and may have some positive effect that I'm not aware of. There are some things about PTSD that we consider bad, but our certainty about their badness is directly proportional to how close they are causally to the observable stuff that we know is bad. Hypervigilance? Mostly bad (but could be good if the shit is still hitting the fan). Avoidance behaviors to the point of impairment? Bad. Hippocampus shrinkage? I don't know; the more directly it leads to the stuff I know is bad, the more confident I would be in saying that it's bad. (c.f. the recursive evaluation of a chess position)

This is a wonderful example, by the way, because PTSD is a bad thing, but I don't consider it to be the case that everything about it is necessarily all bad. For example, having PTSD has made it easier for me to give people the benefit of the doubt (because they may, like me, may have struggles that are not publicly visible).

How about brain shrinkage from advanced neurological disease?
posted by Justinian at 14:47 on June 1 [+] [!]


Of course if you lose a great deal of your brain mass, there's going to be a problem. You need some brain stem in order to live, for example. That's not in dispute.

But my point (within that part of my comment) is that variation within the normal range is not known to be good or bad.
posted by Jpfed at 1:25 PM on June 1, 2011


Like I said, I think that's too handwavey. In general, if your brain shrinks that's not a good thing. Given only the information that process X causes the hippocampus to atrophy, it is not a coin flip as to whether that is good or bad. Odds are it is bad.
posted by Justinian at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2011


But if I were the editor of SciAm, I would on-the-spot fire whoever wrote the title have been fired

FTFY :-)

This FPP doesn't seem all that axe-grindy, but the headline is terribly linkbaity. Unfortunately this has become the norm at SciAm, to the point where I avoid the magazine nowadays, and probably miss out on much genuinely interesting stuff as a result. So I am going to grind my axe about Scientific American in response.

Some time around 1997, faced with declining long-term sales, the owners installed a new editorial team and it has never been the same since. First there was a graphic makeover, with the old picture-frame cover style making way for more modern graphics; soon after came an infusion of lightweight content aimed at more casual readers (such as Michael Shermer's odious 'skeptic' column, which displaced 'Mathematical recreations, IIRC). I started to worry when I began seeing subscription cards with things like '[t]op 10 reasons to subscribe to SciAm ... #7: you don't have to read the whole magazine to impress your friends.' Over the next two years I felt the articles were getting shorter and more superficial, but told myself that I was just being grumpy about change...until one day I read a whole issue in about 2 hours and 30 minutes, and wondered why it used to take me 3-4 hours. I dug out the issue for the same month from 2 years earlier, and found that although the magazine had the same number of pages - as doggedly pointed out by the editors in reply to readers complaining about the new format - there had been an increase in font size, line spacing, and the amount of space given to illustrations. A few word counts confirmed that the amount of text had fallen by 20-25%. They didn't see fit to publish the letter I sent about that, so I stopped reading. I still glance at it on the newsstands every so often, but never buy - so much of the content seems to be confirmation bias (why you're so smart), pseudo-editorial (Special report: what we think), or sheer fluff (male pattern baldness - is there a cure?!). I know that staying in print requires selling a certain number of issues per month, but nowaadays the magazine seems only one or two steps above PopSci whereas it used to feel like a journal that was a few steps below Nature or Science - serious scientific reportage, with just enough supplementary material and editorial input to make the findings understandable to the non-specialist.

Reading SciAm used to be hard work, but for ~$100/year you got a pretty good educational resource. Nowadays, it just seems to pander to the tastes of its readers. This research is certainly worthy of being reported, and even the report is not bad. But the headline and the little endnote ('Are you a scientist? Want to tell us about a paper you've read recently?') drastically undercut the content.

posted by anigbrowl at 1:40 PM on June 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Justinian: “Like I said, I think that's too handwavey. In general, if your brain shrinks that's not a good thing. Given only the information that process X causes the hippocampus to atrophy, it is not a coin flip as to whether that is good or bad. Odds are it is bad.”

See, that seems "too handwavey" to me. How do you know this? "Odds are" isn't really a methodology for scientific testing, is it?
posted by koeselitz at 1:49 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Socio-economic status is a fairly obvious confound here. Among protestants, denominations that don't believe in the idea being 'born again' as an experience that's supposed to happen to you ('mainline' protestants) are generally more affluent than those that do ('evangelicals,' probably mostly Southern Baptists in their case). In the area where the study was conducted (Duke University in North Carolina) many people identifying as Catholic are likely to be Hispanic, and atheists and agnostics, who generally have higher socio-economic status, were lumped together with people who simply report no church affiliation. So out of the religious groups compared in the study, protestants not describing themselves as being 'born again' or having had such an experience, would be likely to have higher incomes in general than the other groups, and thus perhaps lower stress levels and better access to health care.

So while the study is kind of interesting, we would need studies controlling for more variables, and including more non-protestants to draw any conclusions about what it means.
posted by nangar at 1:51 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a tiny sample of middle-aged people,

Yeah because we all know that middle-aged people don't matter. Or that their brains are supposed to shrink whether they're super-religious or atheists. Or something.

deliberately cast in controversial tones

Ooh! Study mentioned by article on the internet deliberately casts things in "controversial tones"! The horror!
posted by blucevalo at 2:06 PM on June 1, 2011


It's worth remembering that PLOS One, where the study was published, accepts 70% of the papers submitted to it.
posted by IjonTichy at 2:16 PM on June 1, 2011


re handwavey:

To bring the larger context of my rant back in, the researcher quoted said that they were surprised that something they thought was good turned out to have something bad about it. I thought that this was evidence of bizarrely simplistic thinking.

You seem to be saying that P(finding out something good about brain atrophy | known bad stuff about atrophy) is very low. That's cool, and I can grant you that, but it doesn't say anything about my main point, which is that P(finding out something bad about X | known good stuff about X) is very high (and so should not surprise anyone).
posted by Jpfed at 2:16 PM on June 1, 2011


"...I'd say that conversion almost necessarily requires a narrowing in your understanding of how the world works"

Why would that necessarily be the case? Some religious people are very dogmatic; others are not. I know some believers who are extraordinarily broad in their approach to life, and others.

I'm not sure the title of the article is fair to those who are religious, or who have had a religious conversion. (btw, I do not fall into either category; I'm agnostic)

Regarding depression, it could be that those already predisposed to depression might seek out religion as a way out of their pain. In a way, a religious conversion could "free up" many of the cognitive distortions that a depressed person is engaging.

For instance, distortions like
excessive guilt (e.g. your god is all forgiving)
excessive reading into the future (e.g. your god is your guide; s/he is your guide on the path, etc.)
excessive fear and anxiety (e.g. you are in your god's hand, never fear)
...and so on

In some ways, religious experience and conversion can be live altering in very positive ways. The real trouble with religion happens once dogmatic, charismatic types get their grubby mitts on it and pervert the natural curatives related to religious belief and religious experience to their own ends.
posted by Vibrissae at 2:19 PM on June 1, 2011


How do you know this? "Odds are" isn't really a methodology for scientific testing, is it?

I know it because I know there are a great many harmful things which cause brain atrophy and I can't think of many if any things which result in brain atrophy with good results.

This thread isn't a scientific journal so I don't think we need to strictly adhere to scientific protocols. I'm not saying that something causing brain atrophy is absolutely guaranteed to have bad results, I'm saying that if the great majority of things which cause brain atrophy are negative, it's not really accurate to say that this could be good or bad and we have no basis for assigning any sort of probability to whether it is good or bad.

If something shrinks your brain when your brain wasn't swelled up in the first place, it's probably bad. That shouldn't be very controversial.
posted by Justinian at 2:22 PM on June 1, 2011


Skygazer: It's a hell of a drug.

*snort* *chuckle* *snort*
posted by syzygy at 2:35 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


IjonTichy: "It's worth remembering that PLOS One, where the study was published, accepts 70% of the papers submitted to it."

And what is the rejection rate for other peer-reviewed (or accredited) journals?
posted by zarq at 2:45 PM on June 1, 2011


Jpfed: "“Is there any one single thing that is only good?"

Yes: cherry pie.


Surely you mean damn good cherry pie.
posted by New England Cultist at 3:02 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's a link to the actual study.

It's worth remembering that PLOS One, where the study was published, accepts 70% of the papers submitted to it.

I mean, it's high compared to, like, Nature or Science. But PLoS One is meant to be a journal of record: to publish anything where the experimental approach was sound and the data are of good quality, regardless of impact or scope.

This paper is basically a single interesting observation, so I can see why it didn't get picked up by a higher-impact journal. There's no mechanism, no detailed cell biology, no analysis of hippocampus function after vs. before conversion, a small sample size, etc.

But limited data is not the same as flawed data. PLoS One is a legit journal (and if you care about these things, it even has a surprisingly good impact factor, in the top 25% of biology journals). It's certainly no JP&S.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:43 PM on June 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


And what is the rejection rate for other peer-reviewed (or accredited) journals?


From Elsevier:

On average, an acceptance rate of 25%-50% is often reported as the modal acceptance rate for publications.

I'm not sure what acceptance rate has to do with journal quality as opposed to impact factor or citation rate.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:44 PM on June 1, 2011


This is one, limited study. You left out that the study was done on a small number of participants and ALL were over the age of 58. I think that makes a difference as well.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 4:41 PM on June 1, 2011


And I find it interesting that the phrase chosen is "hippocampal atrophy", which suggests a basic bias under the entire paper. What if the condition is actually "hippocampal hyperism", and those who have had religious/spiritual experiences are the ones with the normal brains and those without are suffering a condition?

I had the same question, so I undertook an audacious act: I read the paper. Turns out they measured change in hippocampal volume over time, and the hippocampi of the born-agains shrunk over time. So there's that.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:21 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what acceptance rate has to do with journal quality as opposed to impact factor or citation rate.

Larger impact journals receive exponentially more submissions and are, therefore, required to be more selective, leading to lower acceptance rates.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:22 PM on June 1, 2011


So God is basically a giant spirochete.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:28 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had always suspected that.
posted by jessamyn at 5:31 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I find it interesting that the phrase chosen is "hippocampal atrophy", which suggests a basic bias under the entire paper. What if the condition is actually "hippocampal hyperism", and those who have had religious/spiritual experiences are the ones with the normal brains and those without are suffering a condition?

I had the same question, so I undertook an audacious act: I read the paper. Turns out they measured change in hippocampal volume over time, and the hippocampi of the born-agains shrunk over time. So there's that.


I just reread my dickish response, and realized that I misread your comment. You actually were asking why they don't consider atrophy normal and lack thereof abnormal. What threw me was your use of "hyperism" suggesting you thought the hippocampi of the non-born-agains might be growing larger.

I think it's pretty usual to assume that in the absence of pathology the parts of the brain stay pretty much the same size.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:34 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, it is a limited study. It has interesting results and it is in no way definitive, nor is anybody claiming it is.

What I find interesting is the possibility that profound informational events might cause organic changes to the brain. The converse, where organic damage can cause behavioral changes, shouldn't be surprising, but in some circumstances it should be examined more closely. For instance, the Malcolm Gladwell article, Damaged.

The possibility that information/experiences could lead to organic changes in the brain is still an area where research hasn't settled on any consensus body of theories. So that makes this interesting.
posted by warbaby at 5:41 PM on June 1, 2011


informational is not a word, but I will use it as if it is one.
posted by warbaby at 5:44 PM on June 1, 2011


How is it surprising? Since when has enlargement of any part of the brain always meant it was something good? Or perhaps those negative aspects run on some magical, non-existent part of the brain? Doesn't seem that way to me.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 6:40 PM on June 1, 2011


oh, that's nothing - arguing about religion on the internet causes your whole BRAIN to shrink
posted by pyramid termite at 9:32 PM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Larger impact journals receive exponentially more submissions and are, therefore, required to be more selective, leading to lower acceptance rates.

This is possibly true in general, but actually, PLoS One receives around the same number of submissions per year as Nature. In 2010, Nature received ~10K papers; from what I can tell PLoS One published around ~500K per month, or ~6K total, meaning they must have received around (6 / 0.7 =) ~8.5K. I don't really want to turn this into a total PLoS One derail but whatever you think of the journal, their editorial policy is a deliberate choice.

Also, a lot of the selectivity of the really top-tier journals happens in the editorial stage, i.e., when they're deciding whether to even send the paper out to peer review. This is obviously partly a crank-filter, but a lot of legit research gets killed here as well -- an editorial rejection from Nature doesn't mean your ms won't get published somewhere like Current Biology or even Cell. So I think beyond a certain point, it's not clear whether increased selectivity (particularly pre-peer review) translates into higher impact or "better" research, or if you're just optimizing in the noise.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:45 PM on June 1, 2011


Ah hell, I can't make any hay with this one. I mean, alcohol screws up your brain too but I'm not going to knock it on that account.
posted by Decani at 4:49 AM on June 2, 2011


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