January 7, 2015

Religious Brain Project:FacebookStudying Religious Experience in the Brain
The researchers want to see more than religion’s registry on the brain. They want to know whether it differs across sects, or by intensity of belief. They want to see what genes it activates, what hormones it releases, and how it relates to social behaviors. Can the same basic circuitry produce Mother Teresa and the Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta? If so, how? To approach even speculative answers to such questions, the researchers have to capture what goes on in the brain of a believer during a religious moment. (Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times)

Is This the Site of Herod’s Palace?
It started 15 years ago with plans to expand the Tower of David Museum. But the story took a strange turn when archaeologists started peeling away layers under the floor in an old abandoned building adjacent to the museum in Jerusalem’s Old City. They knew it had been used as a prison when the Ottoman Turks and then the British ruled these parts. But, as they carefully dug down, they eventually uncovered something extraordinary: the suspected remains of the palace where one of the more famous scenes of the New Testament may have taken place—the trial of Jesus. (Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post)

Who Are You?
Some people will tell you that they have a clear sense of who they are, and that their sense of self is stable over time. Psychologists refer to this as having high “self-concept clarity.” In a new study, Jean Guerrettaz and Robert Arkin shine a spotlight on these self-proclaimed self-knowers. The researchers find that their confidence is often fragile, and that somewhat paradoxically, it is people confident in their sense of self whose self-esteem is most undermined by challenging questions about who they are. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Kepler Has Found More Than 1,000 Exoplanets
The telescope has also spotted 3,200 additional planet candidates, and about 90 percent of them should end up being confirmed, mission scientists say. Furthermore, a number of these future finds are likely to be small, rocky worlds with temperate, relatively hospitable surface conditions—in other worlds, planets a lot like Earth. (In fact, at least two of the newly confirmed eight Kepler planets—which were announced in Seattle during the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society—appear to meet that description, mission team members said.) (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Did My Brain Make Me Do it? Neuroscience and Morality

Despite some divergent perspectives on the roots of human behavior, two experts—a neuroscientist and a neuroethicist—agreed at a AAAS event that humility is in order when scientists study or attempt to manipulate the human brain. This is true now more than ever as advances in research outrace society’s ability to resolve related questions of free will, ethics, and morality, they said. (Kathy Sawyer, AAAS)

January 6, 2015

Pew Research Center

Faith on the Hill
More than nine-in-ten members of the newly elected 114th Congress are Christian—a significantly higher share than is seen in the general population. However, many other major religious groups are represented in the body, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and the unaffiliated. (Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project)

The Physical Unburdening of Forgiveness
Recently published research suggests a simple way to lessen that will-sapping perception of difficulty, allowing us to access reserves of strength we didn’t know we had. It simply involves thinking about someone who has wronged you—and forgiving them. “The benefits of forgiveness may go beyond the constructive consequences that have been established in the psychological and health domains,” writes a research team led by Xue Zheng of Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management. “Our research shows that forgivers perceive a less daunting world, and perform better on challenging physical tasks.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Social Status and Prosocial Behavior
It’s not so hard to get people, even children as young as 4, to help each other out a little bit. The trick, according to a study, is to make them feel like they’re part of a low social-status group. (Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard)

Recipe for an Earth-like Planet
Only a small number of worlds around other stars look anything like Earth: roughly the same size and at the right distance from their star for liquid water to be present. But are these Earth-like exoplanets really made from the same sort of stuff—a rocky surface, an iron core, and just a dash of water? A study presented here at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society suggests that exoplanets, at least up to 1.6 times the mass of Earth, follow pretty much the same recipe as our home. So if we’re looking for life out there, we can probably ignore anything bigger than that. (Daniel Clery, Science)

Todd Kashdan on Dancing With the Dark Side of Your Personality

Scott Barry Kaufman: Psychologist Todd Kashdan shares some unconventional research on how we can harness “negative” psychological characteristics to live whole, successful, and fulfilling lives. Topics include the dark triad, emotional experimentation, mindfulness, education, evolution, and what it means to live well. (The Psychology Podcast)

January 5, 2015

Pope FrancisPope Francis on Climate Change, Evolution, and the Big Bang
Chris Mooney: The relationship between science and religion is very complex, and generalizations are dangerous. There’s no doubt that many religious people around the world cling to their beliefs (or, to what they think their beliefs require) in the face of evidence, and history shows science-religion conflicts popping up at regular intervals. But it also shows something else: Believers who find a way to reconcile faith and science. If Pope Francis continues on his current course, he has the power to make this latter group a whole lot more prominent than it already is. (Wonkblog, The Washington Post)

Loneliness Is a Modern Epidemic in Need of Treatment
John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo: Tracking large groups over time indicates that perceived social isolation carries its own risk for morbidity and mortality, independent of actual social isolation. What could drive this surprising effect? (New Scientist)

The Pastor Who Tried Atheism for the Year
At the start of 2014, former Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell made an unusual New Year’s resolution: to live for one year without God—this reflecting his own loss of faith. He kept a blog documenting his journey and had a documentary crew following him. After a year, Bell tells NPR’s Arun Rath, “I’ve looked at the majority of the arguments that I’ve been able to find for the existence of God, and on the question of God’s existence or not, I have to say I don’t find there to be a convincing case, in my view.” (All Things Considered, NPR)

The Latest on the Acid-Bath Stem Cell Papers
The final report from the independent investigation, released on December 26, bolstered suspicions that the stem cells—which were supposedly generated by applying stress to ordinary adult cells in an acid bath—were actually embryonic stem cells that had been introduced to the samples. But investigators were unable to determine how the contamination occurred or whether it was accidental. The investigation also has not explained one of the most notable features of the cells—their ability to form a placenta—something that embryonic stem cells do not generally do. (Heidi Ledford, Nature)

Is Your Religion Ready to Meet ET?
David Weintraub: In my book, I investigated the sacred writings of the world’s most widely practiced religions, asking what each religion has to say about the uniqueness or non-uniqueness of life on Earth, and how, or if, a particular religion would work on other planets in distant parts of the universe. (The Conversation)

Atheist Awakening

In Atheist Awakening, Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith track the current state of the atheist community, such as it is, using interviews, surveys, and field reporting. The portrait they draw reveals a diffuse group that is struggling to sort out the core assumptions of its unbelief. It is also a group anxious about its status in society and keen to coalesce into a movement. (Naomi Schaefer Riley, The Wall Street Journal)

December 19, 2014

Chia-wa Yeh:stanford-reportAltruism and Social Experiences
A pair of Stanford psychologists has conducted experiments that indicate altruism has environmental triggers, and is not something we are simply born with. (Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service)

What Makes Kids Generous?
University of Chicago developmental neuroscientists have found specific brain markers that predict generosity in children. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes. There are many sorts of prosocial behaviors. Although young children are natural helpers, their perspective on sharing resources tends to be selfish. Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, and Jason Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar in Decety’s Child NeuroSuite lab, wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether to share something with others out of generosity. (Jann Ingmire, UChicago News)

Are Christian Americans More Likely to Support Torture Than Those Who Are Nonreligious?
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that Americans, by a 59-31 percent margin, believe that CIA “treatment of suspected terrorists” in detention was justified. A plurality deemed that “treatment” to be “torture,” by a 49-38 percent margin. Remarkably, the gap between torture supporters and opponents widens between voters who are Christian and those who are not religious. (Sarah Posner, Religion Dispatches)

Religion at Work
Brent Lyons, assistant professor of management and organization studies at Simon Fraser University, in Canada, led a team of researchers who found that employees who discuss their religious beliefs at work are oftentimes happier. “Being able to openly express important aspects of one’s life at work can positively influence job satisfaction,” Lyons says. “However, sometimes individuals feel that their workplace is not open to expressing religion.” ( Max Ufberg, Pacific Standard)

The Latest on the Acid-Bath Stem Cell Papers
A Japanese team announced Friday in Tokyo that it has been unable to reproduce a new, astoundingly simple way of generating pluripotent stem cells, despite working directly with the lead author on the Nature papers reporting the breakthrough method. That researcher, Haruko Obokata, also today resigned from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, home of most of the team conducting the research. (Dennis Normile, ScienceInsider, Science)

Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities

“Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities” is a day-long national conference that will bring together leaders in science and religion—including Nobel Prize winning physicist William D. Phillips, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman, and National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson—to foster dialogue between scientific and religious communities, and to plan a course for future conversation. The conference program is still developing, but includes dynamic speakers, enriching topical discussion tracks, lunch sponsored by AAAS, and a concluding reception. Registration is open! (AAAS)

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