SECOND OPINION | Is religious belief hard-wired into the brain?

SECOND OPINION | Is religious belief hard-wired into the brain?

Here's this week's round-up of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

A new study published in Nature's Scientific Reports rejects a widely held theory that the human brain has a built-in neural capacity for religious beliefs. In other words, humans are not born believers.

"What we're suggesting is whether you believe in a god is like learning a language. You have to be exposed to it, and learn it," lead author Miguel Farias told us. He studies the psychology of religion and behaviour at Coventry University in the U.K.  

Farias set out to test the "intuitive belief hypothesis" — a theory that has emerged in cognitive science suggesting that humans are born with the capacity for religious belief, that but their actual religious nature depends on the way they think; whether they're more intuitive or more analytical.

The theory is based on the concept of two systems of thinking — "intuitive thinking" which is immediate, rapid processing of information, and "analytical thinking" which is slower and requires more cognitive effort to evaluate events and circumstances.

So intuitive thinkers should be more religious, and analytical thinkers should have weaker religious beliefs. At least that's the theory.

But Farias could find no evidence that it's true, even after looking at the problem in three ways. That included measuring religious beliefs and analytical thinking in people who were in the middle of the famous 30-day Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.  

"Our studies here suggest that it is probably about time psychologists reconsider their understanding of belief as 'natural' or 'intuitive' and instead focus on cultural and social learning factors that give rise to supernatural ideas," he said. 

Is this a controversial finding?

"I hope so," he said. "We're challenging something that had become a mainstream accepted idea in the last 15 years. We have to rethink it."

The study points out that archeological discoveries of Neanderthal burial practices suggest that religious beliefs are "possibly the earliest kind of structured human beliefs."

"People need to believe in something. It helps them to map reality and predict what's going to happen," Farias said, adding that there's lots of evidence that analytical thinkers also hold strong religious beliefs.

Do you know where your adrenal glands are?

Many people don't, according to a pop quiz conducted by a U.K. medical school. But there was one organ everyone could place.

"It's reassuring that everybody knows where their brain is," said lead author Adam Taylor, director of the clinical anatomy learning centre at Lancaster Medical School, with a smile.

Knowing your own anatomy is important, he said, because people need to be aware of their own bodies to better manage their health. And he was particularly concerned when a previous study showed that some men didn't know where their prostate was, or that they needed to have it checked as they aged.

Taylor's research team tested the anatomical acuity of 63 volunteers by asking them to pinpoint the location of 20 organs, muscles and glands on an outline of the human body.

Almost everyone correctly placed the cornea (part of the eye) and most people knew where the biceps and triceps are (front and back of the upper arms, respectively).

But people had the most trouble with parts of the body located in the abdomen, which contains several organs. Common errors included placing the liver and stomach on the wrong sides of the body and "the pancreas we saw in just about every position possible through the abdomen," Taylor said.

And those elusive adrenal glands?  Many people thought they were in the neck, but they're actually located on top of the kidneys.   

Overall there was a "mixed bag" of results, Taylor said, with a couple of people scoring a perfect 20, a couple of very low scores of two or three, and the rest somewhere in between. The participants ranged in age from eight to 74 years of age, and their level of education did not seem to affect how well they did on the quiz.

Taylor said the study was a pilot, and his team is making plans for a much bigger study to gauge people's knowledge about their bodies.

If people know where their internal organs are located, Taylor said, they can better identify where pain or discomfort is coming from and communicate that with their health-care providers.

Wanted: Vintage medical tools

Do you happen to have a 19th century stethoscope hidden away in that drawer where you keep old batteries and remote controls for appliances you no longer own?

If you do, the University of Toronto wants it.

A team of researchers and science historians are looking to create the school's first complete digital catalogue of historical scientific and medical artifacts, and are calling on the public for entries.

"We wanted to gather important artifacts from the past," said Erich Weidenhammer, an associate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which has helped spearhead the initiative.

"You can learn lots of info off a single artifact."

Weidenhammer said the catalogue helps preserve the "material culture of research" by giving people a glimpse of the methodologies, practices and limitations that were realities for scientists, doctors and researchers of the past — which he said, in turn, can function as a resource for current researchers.

So far, the catalogue includes early vials of the tetanus vaccine, insulin and dehydrated plasma; an electroencephalograph from the 1930s that measures brainwaves; a jar containing a crayfish preserved in liquid from 1979; and telescopes from the early 1800s.

Weidenhammer said he is currently in talks with one man who has offered to let them use his early 1920s blood pressure machine, known as a sphygmomanometer.

But what Weidenhammer said the catalogue is really in need of are local research materials — in areas like public health, nursing and pharmacy — as well as early computers.

"You can't gather everything," he admits. "But we want to gather as much information and create as coherent a resource [as possible], recording the past."

Why doesn't anyone remember Dr. Elizabeth Stern?

As a scientist, Ellen Elliott is already busy studying the genetic basis of disease at the Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut, but in her spare time she is also becoming a scientific biographer, resurrecting the memories of important women whose contributions have been long overlooked.

Her latest discovery is Canada's Dr. Elizabeth Stern whose pioneering research laid the foundation for one of the most successful cancer screening programs in history — the Pap test for cervical cancer.

Yet, even though Stern's research in the early 1960s has saved lives, almost no one has heard of her.

"I don't know why she is so overlooked," Elliott said. "Her contributions were instrumental in allowing doctors to diagnose cervical cancer at an earlier stage."

Stern was one of a handful of women who graduated from the University of Toronto's medical school in 1939. She went on to become a cytopathologist, studying the size and shape of human cells.

Although the Pap test for cervical cancer was becoming a standard screening test in the 1960s, scientists had limited knowledge of cellular changes in early-stage cancer.

"You need to be able to distinguish slightly cancerous cells form healthy cells and that wasn't well defined until Elizabeth Stern worked on that," Elliott said.

At the time cervical cancer was almost always fatal, but Dr. Stern's work has helped doctors catch the disease at its earliest stages, making it a highly treatable form of cancer.

Stern died in 1980 of stomach cancer in the middle of her research career, working on a scientific manuscript even in her final days.

Determined to highlight the contributions of women in science, Elliott wrote a story last year for the Jackson Laboratory's blog. When Stern's daughter saw the article she contacted Elliott and provided lots of new leads.

"She was really excited to see someone writing about her mom because there isn't much out there."

Elliott updated the story and sent it to Scientific American, where it was published online this week, under the headline "One more pioneering woman in science you've probably never heard of."

"I really wish I could have known her," Elliott said. "I'm hoping by getting this small article out there former students of hers might contact me."

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