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Demographics of Belief

by Michael Shermer, May 31 2011

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4
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Paraplegic Man Walks with Spinal Stimulation

by Steven Novella, May 23 2011

Scientists report in the Lancet a case of a 23 year old man paralyzed from the chest down who was able to learn to stand and walk with the aid of a spinal stimulator. This is an interesting advance, but news reports are careful to point out (correctly) that it is not a cure.

Rob Summers suffered an car accident in 2006 that damaged his spinal cord at the T1 level – just below the neck. This would mostly (although not completely) spare his arms, but render him weak in the legs. According to the case report he had no detectable leg movement and lost bladder control but had partial sensation in the legs. This is an important detail to put this case into perspective – Summers’ injury was partial, if severe. This means there were some neurons that were spared.

When I first read the news items but had not yet read the original report I thought this might be another case of using electrical stimulation for external control. There are already systems in existence, called functional electrical stimulation (FES), that allow paraplegics to externally stimulate their leg muscles, to make them contract in a sequence that causes them to take clumsy if functional steps. Simple devices strap onto the lower leg and can treat foot drop by stimulating the muscle that raises the foot at t the ankle. More elaborate devices consist of a walker with hand controls that stimulate various muscles of the legs and allow for a clumsy but functional gait.

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Attention and Memory

by Steven Novella, Apr 18 2011

By now most readers have likely seen the famous basketball-passing video. But if you have not, check it out here before reading further. It’s a fun test, but will be spoiled by the discussion here.

The phenomenon demonstrated by the video is called inattentional blindness (I have also seen attentional blindness and inattention blindness). It reflects the fact that we have a finite capacity to process information. We cannot attend to all the sensory information coming from our environment at the same time, let alone do that and attend to other cognitive tasks as well, like solving a math problem. So, moment to moment, we apply our finite capacity selectively to one or a few tasks. The more tasks we try to do simultaneously (multitasking) the fewer cognitive resources can be applied to each task, and performance suffers.

Most people cannot effectively multitask, even if they think they can. Only about 2.5% of people can genuinely multitask – perform two demanding cognitive tasks simultaneously without both suffering. For most people, multitasking comes at a price. We can divide our attention, but not without a decrease in performance. Many states now have laws reflecting this research – prohibiting talking on cell phones while driving.

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Baby Language

by Steven Novella, Jan 10 2011

Recent studies demonstrate that babies 12-18 months old have similar activity in their brains in response to spoken words as do adults, a fact that tells us a lot about the development of language function.

In the typical adult brain language function is primarily carried out in highly specialized parts of the brain – Wernicke's area (in the dominant, usually left, superior temporal lobe) processes words into concepts and concepts into words, while Broca's area (in the dominant posterior-inferior frontal lobe) controls speech output. The two areas are connected by the arcuate fasciculus and are fed by both auditory and visual input. Taken as a whole this part of the brain functions as the language cortex. A stroke or other damage to this area in an adult results in loss of one ore more aspects of speech, depending on the extent of damage.

Damage to this part of the brain in babies, however, does not have the same effect. When such children grow up they are able to develop essentially normal language function. There are two prevailing theories to explain this. The first is that language function is more widely distributed in infants than in adults, perhaps also involving the same structures on the non-dominant side of the brain. As the brain matures language function becomes confined to the primary language cortex.

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Neural Stem Cells and Exercise

by Steven Novella, Jul 05 2010

It is only recently (the last decade or so) that neuroscientists have realized that the brain harbors a reservoir of neural stem cells, even into adulthood, waiting to be recruited to make new connections. This is an important part of neural plasticity and learning. Now that we know the stem cells are there, research is underway to learn as much about them as possible, including their regulation. Perhaps they play a role in certain diseases, like Alzheimers. Or perhaps they could be exploited to treat or prevent such diseases.

It has also been learned that not all brains are the same in terms of aging. Most brains atrophy and develop pathological signs of aging, and this correlates with a reduction in mental agility (especially the ability to learn new things). But a lucky few do not seem to develop these age-related changes, and can remain mentally nimble well past 100. Nailing down the environmental and genetic variables that make the difference would be interesting and potentially very useful.

For now we are at the basic science level in addressing these questions – just figuring out what is going on. Clinical applications will hopefully come later. But there is one thing it seems we can say now based upon existing research – exercise, both physical and mental, is good for the brain and staves off the negative effects of aging.

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The Pattern Behind Self Deception

by Michael Shermer, Jun 15 2010

Last week I blogged about lying: “Everyone Lies: Why?”

Deception is one thing, self deception is quite another. This week has posted my new TED talk, delivered at the last TED conference, in which I present material from my forthcoming book on the neuroscience of belief, tentatively entitled The Believing Brain, a central theme of which is how we are so easily deceived and how we deceive ourselves. Here is a brief summary of the thesis of the talk, although because it is so visual I strongly recommend watching the TED video.

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