Does Religion Make Your Brain Happy? An Interview with Science Writer David DiSalvo

Does Religion Make Your Brain Happy? An Interview with Science Writer David DiSalvo

Quite often, what makes us happy and what is actually good for us are directly at odds with each other. What worked for us evolutionarily over the millenia frequently becomes counter-productive in our current world. For example, fat was a scarce and valuable resource when Homo sapiens evolved on the African savannah, but with vending machines, Starbucks Trentas and the KFC Double-Down, what made our bodies happy millions of years ago are now things we should be trying to avoid today.

But if those same issues arise with our bodies, what about our brains? What do we do with our evolutionary cognitive history?

David DiSalvo, who writes about science, technology and culture for Scientific American, Forbes and Psychology Today, has a new book coming out entitled What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. DiSalvo, exploring questions about the cognitive aspects of religion and atheism, hope and faith, certainty and doubt, and the creation of meaning.

1. You recently wrote a piece asking, “Religion vs. Atheism: Which Fights Dirtier?” If we wanted to tone down the anger on both sides, what would help facilitate a more productive discussion?

DD: I think the major thing would be for all of us to realize that we’re operating with essentially the same cerebral hardware, with all the foibles and biases contained therein. We often begin difficult discussions about belief (religious or otherwise) as if we are somehow set apart from the biases that plague the other person. In truth, we are all swimming in murky water, and there is nothing flawless or absolute about the iterative process of learning to navigate the waters with more clarity.

GM Response: I think DiSalvo is right — recognizing that we are all “swimming in the same murky water” allows to focus the question differently. Rather than asking someone, “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, we can ask, “What do I believe? What is leading someone else to believe something different? And what are the consequences of my beliefs?”

My rule of thumb whenever I talk with anyone (believer, atheist, or anything in between) is, “Will this be a productive conversation?” I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that God has told them what to do, and I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that there is no God (and there’s a big difference between “being certain there is no God” and “not being certain there is a God”). But I have had many wonderful conversations with people across the spectrum of belief about the question, “How can I create more fulfillment in my life and make a more positive impact on the world?”

So he’s right on — we all need to realize that we are not set apart from the biases others have. Accepting that none of us has absolute truth and that we all see the world through our own imperfect lens is what allows us to engage in fruitful dialogue, rather than vituperative attacks and counter-attacks.

2. You say in the introduction to your book, “If we could live our lives without bias, distortions and delusions involved, the world would truly be idyllic.” Yet hope and optimism — which certainly bias and distort the way we view the world — are crucial aspects for our drive to make ourselves and our world better. So when do we need to look at the world as it is, and when do we need to envision the world as it could be? How do we reconcile those two ways we look at the world?

DD: The “bias, distortions and delusions” I discuss in the book are outcomes of mismatches between several of our brains’ evolved tendencies and our social and cultural environments. My contention is that cultural evolution moves much faster than natural evolution; as a result, the built-in leanings of our brains are frequently as odds with the situations we face on a daily basis.

Hope and optimism are “biases” of a different sort – arguably, they are adaptive responses to the constant undercurrent of adversity we face as self-reflective, sentient beings living on this planet. Recently a solid body of research has emerged suggesting that optimism is actually an evolved trait (cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s work comes to mind).

Another way to describe the difference is by way of comparison. Would we be better off without, for example, restraint bias, which leads us to believe we can expose ourselves to more temptation than we can actually handle? Probably so. Would we be better off without the transformative power of hope that drives us to overcome obstacles and adversity in our lives? Certainly not.

GM Response: Actually, Tali Sharot’s book The Optimism Bias was one of the inspirations for this question. And I love the image on the cover of her book — a pair of glasses, with one lens clear and the other rose-colored.

And I think we need to look at the world through both of those lenses. The scientific lens can help us see the world as it is, since it strives to give us objectivity. The religious lens can help us see the world as it could be, since it strives to help us examine the subjective nature of our experiences.

It’s important to remember that hope and optimism are primarily subjective experiences — they cannot change reality, but they can change how we look at reality. They change how we feel about our lives, and they give us fuel to keep going when life becomes difficult. And in fact, I think that’s what draws people to religion — a desire to find a sense of purpose, meaning and hope, all in the context of a supportive community.

So as DiSalvo implies, even if hope and optimism aren’t rational, they are valuable. So yes, when it comes to objective truth, science needs to be the way we look at the world. But religion can help us enhance our subjective experiences, as it allows us to make moments powerful, to create deep connections with others, and to find hope and purpose.

3. You mention that one of the problematic things our brain does is to create meaning out of coincidence. But there’s a difference between believing that meaning is inherent (such as thinking that “clearly this was God’s plan”) and believing that we create meaning (such as asking, “How can I make sense of what’s going on?”). So do the same problems arise in creating meaning as they do when we believe meaning is inherent? What would it imply if “meaning” arose in different ways?

DD: Your question highlights one of the more frustrating aspects of being human. It is precisely because our brains evolved to “makes sense of what’s going on” that we stumble on pattern-based biases like the clustering illusion, and are prone to stringing together coincidences in search of an explanatory pattern. In a sense, we can’t escape this tendency no matter how aware of it we become, because pattern identification is so central to our brains’ reason for being.

What we can do, however, is short-circuit pattern detection on the verge of, or already going, haywire – as is the case, for example, with people who live their lives around certain sequences of numbers appearing as signs telling them how to think and act in given situations. Psychics and other hucksters exploit these sorts of tendencies, in effect making a living on peoples’ absorption in patterns.

Frequently, believing meaning is inherent goes hand-in-hand with searching out patterns to make sense of what’s going on. Once, for example, someone invests confidence in a psychic to tell him what the patterns in his life mean, it’s a short journey to believing that someone or something must be producing the patterns. Whether that thing is thought to be a personal God, or some impersonal force (“the universe” etc.) depends largely on the socio-cultural context that person lives within.

So, yes, I do think some of the same problems occur whether we are searching out or “creating” meaning as they do in believing meaning is inherent, because the underlying “meaning infrastructure” of our brains is prone to tendencies that we are all, in one way or another, subject to.

GM Response: I think we agree on what “meaning” is — it’s about how we place events and facts into a larger context, helping us make sense of the world. But for me, the most crucial question about meaning is how it arises — is it top-down, dictated and discovered, or is it bottom-up, self-owned and created? Since we all have a “meaning infrastructure,” who do we see as its builders?

Think about how we read a text. The author certainly has an intended meaning. But what the readers find in the text may be very different from what the author had in mind. Now, who owns the meaning of that text? While the answer is clearly both the author and the reader, it’s a major mistake for the reader to say, “I know what this author meant.” Instead, the reader needs to be able to say, “This is my own interpretation.”

So the problem with psychics, hucksters and religious fundamentalists is that they try to prevent the reader from creating their own interpretations. They encourage a top-down approach to meaning, and lead people to say, “This is what God / the universe / the Bible means.” But a bottom-up approach of creating meaning may be able to prevent that system from going haywire, since we can later edit or revise our interpretations.

We will always be looking for patterns and meaning — but I think there’s a big difference between thinking we “discover” meaning and realizing that we “create” meaning, since one implies an eternal, unchanging truth, and the other implies an ability to re-write as need be.

4. Why is doubt so valuable? And since our minds seek certainty, how can we embrace doubt more easily?

DD: Doubt is an applied “checks and balances” mechanism that is not unique to humans. My speculation is that it’s an adaptive trait that began evolving very early (well before human ancestors arrived on the scene) as a means to differentiate beneficial from harmful things in the environment, particularly when the differences were slight. We see this trait evidenced by primates and monkeys in lab studies: when offered grapes under two different conditions, one slightly more cumbersome than the other, a capuchin monkey will quite observably make a doubtful evaluation about the grapes with more strings attached.

In humans, the only true existential animal on the planet, doubt is elevated to far more abstract levels of evaluation (“is there a God?” and similarly high-level questions), but is also useful at lower levels such as determining if another person’s intentions are sincere. In that practical application, among others, doubt can save our lives.

The interesting thing is that to exercise doubt about meaning-laden positions (those involving belief and value judgments), we have to face off against other tendencies of our brains like the desire for stability and certainty. That’s what makes those high-level evaluations so spirited, tense, and frequently explosive. If someone is “certain” that their belief position is correct, someone else introducing doubt about that position is likely to set off fireworks. But it’s important that we have those discussions because peoples’ lives are directly affected by the outcomes.

GM Response: That face-off between doubt and certainty is absolutely one of the biggest challenges we face when we are engaging in conversation about beliefs and values. The challenge is how we embrace stability without it lapsing into absolutism.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, talks about the need to be able to be committed without being certain. The analogy that I like is to a marriage. You are never certain when you get married what the future will bring, and if you are always looking for surety, you will never be satisfied. But at some point, even though you will never be certain, you make a decision to commit to this other person, because that’s how you will build a life and a relationship.

It’s similar to how we need to look at our worldview. In order for us to make an impact on the world, we need to stake our claim somewhere — we need to hold certain beliefs and values, because if we always we go, “I’m not sure, it could be this way, or it could be that way,” we become paralyzed and cannot make decisions.

So the goal should be seeking stability without requiring certainty and clarity — indeed, we can’t ever find certainty in science, religion or life in general. Instead, we need to make a commitment despite the lack of certainty, and use that sense of doubt for (as he says) a mechanism of “checks and balances.”

Because while certainty shuts down conversation and fosters a sense of arrogance, doubt can open up the dialogue and encourage humility.

DiSalvo argues that many of the things that make our brains happy are now more harmful than helpful. And some people place religion in that category, as well. Religion is like fatty foods, they claim — something we should outgrow and move beyond. But I think the better question is, what aspects of religion should we try to outgrow?

Because religion is not one thing. Religion has so many varied parts to it that rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can try to move beyond the elements that are so counter-productive, and at the same time, try to keep the ones that are valuable.

Clearly, when religion fosters absolutism, certainty and a lack of critical thinking, it is doing more harm than good.

But we need hope and purpose in our life when it seems dark and difficult. We need to find ways to strengthen our commitments when we feel adrift. And we need a sense of community when we feel isolated and alone. Those are the things we can and should never outgrow — and so those are the things religion can and should offer us for today.


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