Sunday, December 13, 2009

'Tis the season?

In a blog connected to an Australian osteopath I know of, appeared this post from almost a year ago. There was always something about pain and religion. It discusses a study in which a specific example of religious imagery was found to help the brains of those who had been imbued with those particular images to downregulate pain. The post is clear on the point that an entrenched belief system is at work, that the picture itself has no "power" over pain.

It seems an appropriate time of the year to consider the information contained therein. Personally I've always found religion to be more rather than less of a pain, but maybe that's just how I happen to be wired. That having been said, it makes more sense to me now why people are so "devoted" to acquiring, harbouring, growing, and propagating the memeplexes involved - it looks like they operate on the human population as a convenient drug-free pharmaceutical.

It's perhaps less of a mystery to me now why people can be so angsty when someone comes along to challenge said belief system, or maybe any belief system - how is this reaction not like that of a junkie threatened by separation from the next fix? I am reminded of Robert Burton's book, On Being Certain. Dopamine pathways are involved in the generation of the feeling of being certain.

I get an image in my head that's hard to shake - billions of human minds born free of nonsense, reaching up and waving like vine tendrils, hoping to find something to cling to, finding nothing, so inventing something (anything) to latch onto to help haul self through life as painlessly as possible. It fits with why religion seems to be so ubiquitous, still.

My own mind somehow ended up not needing to acquire this particular adaptation. I am definitely not free of belief, but I examine things I believe in to make sure they have foundation in fact, not fiction. Oh well. And about pain? I deal with pain in myself and others the old-fashioned way, one by one, by handling nervous systems and trying hard to not create more pain for the people embedded inside them in the process. I haven't bumped adversely into very many belief systems in other people along the way, in 40 years. However, I think I'm at a stage where all this personal life trajectory, how I balance my own against others', where my personal values stand now vis a vis my cultural context/current-entirely-changed social context, is up for retrieval and update. I expect the values are sturdy - I tried to build my "self" that way, but I have often observed there are surprises too - life is full of those. So we shall see.


Unknown said...

Of course, as a one of those devoted folks, I found your blog interesting.
Long before the discovery of endorphins, Marx labeled religion as the opiate of the masses.

As for myself, I believe my faith helps me with pain in two ways: 1. Believing that there is a God who loves me and thinking about that is certainly a source of comfort. 2. Even when pain (broadly speaking, so that includes the pain of depression, etc.) is intense, I take comfort in my belief that this life is a brief (albeit important) prelude to an eternity in the presence of God, where there will be no more crying and no more pain.

As for personal life tragectories, I find myself more and more impressed by the fact that everything can change in a moment. Sometimes extrapolation works, many times it does not, and we never know which category the next day or week will be.

Your "tendril" metaphor is a powerful one. As a non-believer until the age of 32 or so, I felt very much like I was finding nothing to cling to. Of course, now I believe that I actually have found something, but it is easy for me understand that other would see that as wish fulfillment on my part. That is how I looked at it when I was a non-believer.

Diane Jacobs said...

Well, as it happens, it turns out religious imagery may not be necessary for downregulation of pain. Another study set up to be secular, with pictures regarded as pleasant or unpleasant, seems to do the trick too. See Cerebral and spinal modulation of pain by emotions, by Roy, full access. [/atheistbreathessighofrelief:)]