Spirituality and Health Causation ProjectIBCSR's Spirituality and Health Causation Project aims to move beyond the hundreds of correlational studies identifying the health effects of religious and spiritual practices to identify the causal, biochemical mechanisms that mediate spirituality-health connections. IBCSR's partners in this project are Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott and Dr. Nicole Li at the University of Pittsburgh. The Spirituality and Health Causation Project is funded in part by an NIH subcontract through the University of Pittsburgh and by Boston University.

Key personnel: Wesley J. Wildman (PI), Katherine Verdolini Abbott, Nicole Li, Joel Daniels.

Does personality explain the link between belief and health?

PersonalityEach month new studies emerge about how religious belief affects well-being: belief in a loving, forgiving God is linked to slower progression of HIV; pro-religious people have better heart health. Each new study explores different facets of spirituality and religiosity, and different types of health. But what if this correlation is just a side effect of another, deeper connection? Corinna Loeckenhoff, a psychologist from Cornell, argues that personality may be that deeper factor, and her research backs her up.

Does being religious make you fat?

faaaaaatMost people go to church to get spiritually fed. The church provides a safe environment where its members can experience the wonders of religious life. Of course, while spiritual nourishment and religious experience are certainly important, they are not necessarily the only reason why people go to church. Another reason might be the social aspect of relating to others who share the same beliefs. However, there may be a slightly startling side effect of church sociality: according to a research team led by Matthew Feinstein (Northwestern University), those who regularly attend religious functions are more likely to be obese.

Could religion help fend off depression?

DepressionMany church members would attest to the social and perhaps even emotional benefits of participation and belief. Could one of these benefits include prevention of a major depressive disorder (MDD)? This was the question asked by S. Kasen, P. Wickramaratne, M.J. Gameroff, and M.M. Weismann at Columbia University. The results indicate that religious service attendance can aid in the prevention of certain mental disorders in the offspring of non-depressed parents, and in the offspring of depressed parents who did not have a prior MDD.

Consciousness streamlines decision-making

Decisions_decisionsAccording to Darwinian theory, the point of life is simple: produce more life. But this vast agenda doesn’t always seem to motivate our countless humdrum, daily decisions. Instead, James A. Morris (Royal Lancaster Infirmary, UK) argues that we’re motivated by a single, simple choice in all our decisions: pleasure and pain. Importantly, consciousness is vital for this mechanism to work, since only conscious beings can actually experience good or unpleasant feelings. And religion may be one of the tools our societies use to tell us what to feel good, or bad, about.

Chinese meditation reduces stress

It is examination time in many schools, colleges, and universities and students around the world are seriously stressed out. In the famous university town of Cambridge, England, for example one can almost feel the anxiety in the air as students pass on the sunny days and instead head to the library. Students are of course justifiably apprehensive in the face of exams and other due dates. In fact, some anxiety is good – it prepares the mind for serious work. But perhaps there is a way to help manage this stress and keep it from developing into the debilitating fear it too often becomes.

Brain networks linked to religious cognition

PNAS Cover March 10 2009Are religious beliefs fundamentally different, or are they simply the result of cognitive systems built for interactions with other human beings projected onto a supposed supernatural agent? A recent report by Dimitrios Kapogiannis Aron K. Barbey Michael Su, Giovanna Zamboni, Frank Krueger, and Jordan Grafman; entitled "Cognitive and Neural Foundations of Religious Belief," explored brain activation patterns when participants indicated their level of agreement with a series of statements reflecting supposed basic psychologic dimensions of religious belief. The authors found brain activation patterns for these dimensions of belief that matched those of previously known networks linked to social cognition and not uniquely religious networks. In short, the study suggests that there is no religious network in the brain as such, and that religion lives by borrowing the structures responsible for social cognition.

Review: Wallace's Contemplative Science

Buddhist scholar, B. Alan Wallace's Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism aBook_Jacketnd Neuroscience Converge (Columbia University Press, 2007) is an attractive read for anyone interested in neuroscience, consciousness, psychology, Buddhism, or religious studies. Educated in the West and having studied under H.H. the Dalai Lama in the East, Wallace represents a unique type of interdisciplinary scholar. He has written many books exploring the interface of consciousness and Buddhism, translated and interpreted for many Buddhist contemplatives and scholars, and most recently established the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain

spiritual_doorway_in_the_brainIt is a pleasure to review a book about the science of spirituality that is refreshingly free of ideological axes to grind. The author of The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience (London: Penguin Press, 2011), Kevin Nelson, is a clinical neurologist who treats patients with disorders of the brain. In his many years of practice he was impressed by the phenomenon of near death experiences (NDEs) and began to collect cases. Once he had a few dozen case histories in hand he, like many other investigators before him, noticed that these experiences evidenced some commonalities between them.

Review: Medicine, Religion, and Health

Medicine_Religion__HealthWith Medicine, Religion, and Health (Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), Harold Koenig makes a valuable contribution to understanding the relationship between religion, spirituality, and health for both practitioners and the general public. Koenig is a physician currently on the faculty at Duke University Medical Center and also the co-director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health. This field of religion, spirituality, and health, he informs us early on, is new and controversial. This direct statement lets the reader know from the start that the work is situated in an emerging field where findings are contested and conclusions tentative.

Review: Blind Faith

Blind_FaithRichard P. Sloan's book Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine begins with a description of patients who are asked to pray with their doctor as he prepares to perform surgery on them. With this and other examples of ethical and practical concerns, the book examines “the brave new world of religion and health, where science, medicine, faith, and ethics exist in a potentially explosive mixture” (p. 3). In this book, the author, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University, expands on issues he’d raised previously in medical journals, claiming that in contrast to headlines, “evidence about the health benefits of religious involvement is much more questionable that the popular media suggest, and there are many other problems associated with bringing religion into clinical practice” (p. 4).

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