Key West, FL>
So, I thought that a panel on the persistence of religious beliefs wouldn’t have a ton of relevance to contemporary politics. Spoke to soon!
The presenter was Andy Newberg, a professor radiology and religious studies and the author of “Why We Believe What We Believe,” a book that gained some notoriety a few years ago for its provocative theories about the connections between the physical brain and our spiritual and political beliefs. One suggested effect, for instance, of prayer, repetition, and meditation is that “the cells that fire together wire together,” which is to say, repeating or (hearing repeated) phrases or rites or rituals physically changes pathways in the mind.
As an example for how certain phrases excited different areas of the brain, he read a quote from Jeremiah Wright (the “God damn America” passage) and asked us how it made us feel, then correlated those emotions with specific areas of the brain. (Did it upset you? It stimulated the amygdala. Did you try to figure out why someone would say such a thing? It stimulated the hippocampus.)
Then, in discussion, someone asked Newberg what Obama should say that would calm people’s amygdalas. I don’t think the questioner was completely joking, and neither was Newberg when he said that it’s difficult to “undo” a neural path. In fact, Newberg said, he wonders what Wright’s brain looks like, and, for that matter, “If [Wright’s] been doing that [preaching those kinds of sermons] for twenty years, what has [exposure to] that done to Obama’s brain?” Though, he added, “It’s not fair to hold someone responsible for their unconscious.”
Of course, Obama says that he wasn’t present for Wright’s more incendiary homilies. And as for unconsciously absorbing radical ideas, few seem to take seriously the accusation that McCain “absorbed” Communism from his time as POW in Vietnam… and there was no doubt that McCain was there.
The science, as they say, is very young. (And I do think Newberg was mostly joking.)