Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Religious Services Reinforce Zealotry

Hamas supporters protest Israel's seige of Gaza, typical of the 'strength in numbers' psychology that can create 'parochial altruism.'

A group of studies in Middle East war zones shows that the more frequently a person attends religious services, the more likely he or she is to become a zealot, especially a suicide bomber. It is the sense of reinforced community ~ not the religious beliefs themselves ~ that encourage such things as suicide bombings.

The studies use the rather benign term “parochial altruism” to define such behaviors, where here “parochial” refers to killing someone from another religious group and “altruism” refers to self-sacrifice.

A major conclusion of the studies is that collective religious ritual appears to facilitate parochial altruism in general and support for suicide attacks in particular.
  • Researchers surveying Palestinian Muslims found that devotion to Islam, as measured by prayer frequency, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks. However, frequency of mosque attendance did predict support for suicide attacks.
  • In a separate survey of Palestinian Muslim university students, researchers found again that those who attended mosque more than once a day were more likely to believe that Islam requires suicide attacks.
  • In another experiment, researchers conducted phone surveys with Israeli Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza and asked them either how frequently they attended synagogue or how often they prayed to God. All participants were then asked if they supported the perpetrator of a suicide attack against Palestinians. Analysis of the responses showed that 23% of those asked about synagogue attendance supported suicide attacks while only 6% of those queried about prayer frequency supported suicide attacks.

In the last experiment, the psychologists surveyed members of six religious majorities in six nations (Mexican Catholics, Indonesian Muslims, Israeli Jews, Russian Orthodox in Russia, British Protestants and Indian Hindus) to see if the relationship between attending religious services and support for acts of parochial altruism holds up across a variety of political and cultural contexts.

These results also showed that support for parochial altruism was related to attendance at religious services, but unrelated to regular prayer.

Click here for the complete Science Daily article.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Leper-Treating Priest to be Sainted

Father Damien ~ the Belgian priest who ministered to lepers in Hawaii until he succumbed to the disease himself in 1889 ~ will be canonized as a saint in October.

Born Joseph de Veuster in 1840, he took the name Damien and went to Hawaii in 1864 to join other missionaries and minister to leprosy patients on Molokai island, where some 8,000 people had been banished amid an epidemic in Hawaii in the 1850s.

He eventually contracted the disease ~ also known as Hansen's disease ~ and died in 1889 at age 49. "He went there knowing that he could never return," The Rev. Alfred Bell, who spearheaded Damien's canonization cause, told Vatican Radio. "He suffered a lot, but he stayed."

Miracles Ascribed to Father Damien

Father Damien was beatified ~ a step toward sainthood ~ in 1995 by Pope John Paul II after the Vatican declared that the 1987 recovery of a nun of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was a miracle. The nun recovered after praying to Damien.

After beatification, a second miracle is needed for sainthood.

In July, Pope Benedict XVI declared that a Honolulu woman's recovery in 1999 from terminal lung cancer was the miracle needed for the priest to be made a saint. She too had prayed to Father Damien.

Click here for the Associated Press article.
Photo shows Father Damien two months before his death of leprosy.

Beware of Hnegripitrom!

In a new study reported in Psychological Science, a group of students were given a list of made-up food additives and were asked to rate how harmful they were. The additives all contained 12 letters, with "Magnalroxate" being one of the easiest to pronounce and "Hnegripitrom" one of the hardest.
  • The students consistently rated the difficult-to-pronounce additives as being more harmful.
  • In addition, the hard-to-pronounce additives were considered to be more novel than those with easier names.
In another experiment, students were shown a list of made-up names of amusement-park rides and were asked to rate the rides on how adventurous they would be and how risky ~ and therefore most likely to make them sick ~ the rides would be. The names ranged from being easy to pronounce, such as “Chunta,” to very difficult to pronounce, such as “Vaiveahtoishi.”
  • Consistent with the first experiment, the students rated the rides with the difficult-to-pronounce names as being more risky, but also more exciting.
The findings also suggest that risk perception may be influenced by the way the items are presented. If they are difficult to process ~ such as hard-to-pronounce names ~ they will be viewed as being inherently riskier.

Click here for the complete article in Science Daily.

Violent Video Creates Emotional Numbness

A scene from "Manhunt 2"  for Nintendo's Wii system.

Evidence continues to mount that violent movies and video games numb people to the suffering of others, as well as affect someone's willingness to offer help to an injured person.

"These studies clearly show that violent media exposure can reduce helping behavior," says Brad Bushman, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. "People exposed to media violence are less helpful to others in need because they are 'comfortably numb' to the pain and suffering of others, to borrow the title of a Pink Floyd song."

Video-game Numbness

In one of the studies, 320 college students played either a violent or a nonviolent video game for approximately 20 minutes. A few minutes later, they overheard a staged fight that ended with the "victim" sustaining a sprained ankle and groaning in pain.
  • People who had played a violent game took significantly longer to help the victim than those who played a nonviolent game ~73 seconds compared to 16 seconds.
  • People who had played a violent game were also less likely to report the fight. And if they did report it, they judged it to be less serious than did those who had played a nonviolent game.
Violent-movie Numbness

In a second study of 162 adult moviegoers, researchers staged a minor emergency outside the theater in which a young woman with a bandaged ankle and crutches "accidentally" dropped her crutches and struggled to retrieve them. The researchers timed how long it took moviegoers to retrieve the crutches.
  • Half were tested before they went into the theater, to establish the helpfulness of people attending violent vs. nonviolent movies.
  • Half were tested after seeing either a violent or a nonviolent movie.
Participants who had just watched a violent movie took 26 percent longer to help than either people going into the theater or people who had just watched a nonviolent movie.

Click here for the complete Science Daily article.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Oppression. Success. Perseverance.
The great man brings about good fortune.
No blame.
When one has something to say,
It is not believed.

Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man. When a strong man meets with adversity, he remains cheerful despite all danger, and this cheerfulness is the source of later successes; it is stability that is stronger than fate. He who lets his spirit be broken by exhaustion certainly has no success. But if adversity only bends a man, it creates in him a power to react that is bound in time to manifest itself. No inferior man is capable of this. Only the great man brings about good fortune and remains blameless. It is true that for the time being, outward influence is denied him because his words have no effect. Therefore in times of adversity it is important to be strong within and sparing of words.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Read and Become Luminous

A depiction of Jesus meditating in the desert.

A blog I follow called Quaker Pagan Reflections carries an interesting post on the question of reading the Bible. It reminded me of this quote from the late Indian mystic Osho in his Art of Tea book. Here he’s talking about “meditations to awaken your spirit,” and I quote:

All of the great scriptures of the world are written in sutras, aphorism ~ because the people who wrote them went through this flood of catharsis. When the catharsis was complete, then diamond-like, small sentences ~ simple, aesthetic, beautiful, complete ~ started bubbling in the consciousness. It is from that consciousness that the Vedas were born, and the Koran. And it is from that consciousness that the beauty of the language of the Bible arises. Never has it been surpassed.

Jesus was illiterate, but nobody has ever surpassed that clarity, that penetrating reality of his assertions. Behind it is great meditation. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Brahma Sutras of Badrayana or the Bhakti Sutras of Naad ~ small sentences, the smallest you can conceive, almost telegraphic ~ but so much is pressed into them that each sentence has atomic energy. If you lovingly take it into yourself, to your heart, it will explode and you will become luminous through it.

Nearly 3,000 Languages Endangered

The world’s human languages are disappearing about about as quickly as species are going extinct. Of the 6,900 languages spoken in the world, 2,500 are now endangered, according to the United Nations.

That’s a huge increase from the last atlas compiled in 2001, which listed 900 languages threatened with extinction.
  • There are 199 languages in the world spoken by fewer than a dozen people, including Karaim with six speakers in Ukraine, and Wichita, spoken by 10 people in Oklahoma.
  • The last four speakers of Lengilu talk among themselves in Indonesia.
  • Some 178 other languages are spoken by between 10 and 150 people.
More than 200 languages have become extinct over the last three generations, such as Ubykh that fell silent in 1992 when Tefvic Esenc passed on, Aasax in Tanzania, which disappeared in 1976, and Manx in 1974.

India tops the list of countries with the greatest number of endangered languages, 196 in all, followed by the United States, which stands to lose 192 and Indonesia, where 147 are in peril.

Click here for the complete Discovery article.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Lesson in Fear

This is by the Indian mystic Osho, at the conclusion of his book Courage. With all of the fear the media is promulgating these days, I believe this tale is worth remembering:

A man walking in the night slipped from a rock. Afraid that he would fall down thousands of feet ~ he knew that place was a very deep valley ~ he took hold of a branch hanging over the rock. In the night, all he could see was a bottomless abyss. He shouted, but his own shout was reflected back. There was nobody to hear.

You can imagine that man and his whole night of torture. Every moment there was death, his hands were becoming cold, he was losing his grip.

And as the sun came out he looked down and he laughed. There was no abyss. Just six inches below his dangling feet there was a rock. He could have rested the whole night, slept well ~ the rock was big enough ~ but instead the whole night had been a nightmare.

From my own experience I can say to you: the fear is not more than six inches deep. Now it is up to you whether you want to go on clinging to the branch and turn your life into a nightmare, or whether you would love to leave the branch and stand on your feet.

There is nothing to fear.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Phobia-Erasing Drugs Discovered

Dutch scientists have discovered that a family of drugs called “beta blockers” can erase bad memories, including phobias. The discovery is igniting medical ethics debates across Europe, according to the London Mail.

The scientists actually discovered the drugs’ memory-erasing properties while working with patients with heart disease, for whom the beta-blocking drugs are sometimes prescribed. They found that the beta-blockers interfere with how the brain makes and remakes memories of frightening events.

To test the drugs' memory-altering capability, a Dutch medical team created fearful memories in volunteers by showing them pictures of spiders, while also administering electrical shocks. The following day the volunteers were split into two groups: One given the beta-blocker, the other a placebo. Both groups were then shown spider pictures and their fear responses were recorded.

The group given the beta-blocker had a much weaker fear response than the other group. Both groups were tested on the following day ~ two days after the initial fright ~ and the beta-blocker group essentially were without memory of the spiders, while the control group continued to exhibit considerable fear.

Click here for the complete London Mail article.
Photo is "Phobia" by Joshua Hoffine.
Thanks to my friend Ludmil Marcov for alerting me to this article.

Don't Scoff at Animal Intelligence

Last night I read a spiritual writer discussing why animals don’t believe in God. My immediate thought was, How do you know what animals believe or don't believe?

Then this morning I found an article much closer to my own suspicions, dealing with a recent symposium entitled “Animal Smarts,” where attendees learned:
  • Monkeys can perform mental math.
  • Pigeons can select the picture that doesn’t belong.
  • Some animals plan for the future.
"I suggest we humans should keep our egos in check," Edward A. Wasserman of the University of Iowa said last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He said that, like people, pigeons and baboons were able to tell which pictures showed similar items, like triangles or dots, and which showed different items. This is the definition of a concept, he said, "and the animals passed it with flying colors."

In the last 20 years there has been a major revolution in the understanding of animals, added Nicola S. Clayton, a professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge in England. Animals not only use tools, there is evidence that some of them save tools for future use, she said.

"Planning ahead was once thought to be unique to humans," Clayton said. "We now know that's not true."

Click here for the complete Associated Press article.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Body Language & Economic Status

People of higher socio-economic status (SES) are less dependent on other people and show their detachment with their body language. Meanwhile, people of lower economic status demonstrate more interpersonal engagement, such as laughing and greater eye contact.

Psychologists Michael W. Kraus and Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley wanted to see if body language can indicate our SES, according to Science Daily. To test this idea, the researchers videotaped participants as they got to know one another in one-on-one interview sessions.

During these taped sessions, the researchers looked for disengagement behaviors ~ fidgeting with personal objects and doodling ~ and for engagement behaviors such as head nodding, laughing and eye contact. The results, reported in Psychological Science, reveal that nonverbal cues can reveal a person's SES.

Volunteers whose parents were from upper economic backgrounds displayed more disengagement-related behaviors compared to participants from lower SES backgrounds. In addition, when a separate group of observers were shown 60-second clips of the videos, they correctly guessed the participants' socio-economic background, based on their body language.

Click here for the complete Science Daily article.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meditation Proven to Reduce Pain

A new study says people who practice Zen meditation have a lower sensitivity to pain ~ meaning they feel less of it ~ when they’re meditating and when they’re not. In other words, meditation can reduce pain.

The study was performed at the Université de Montréal, where scientists recruited 13 Zen meditators with a minimum of 1,000 hours of practice to undergo a pain test, then contrasted their reactions with 13 non-meditators. The subjects were 10 women and 16 men between the ages of 22 to 56.

In the study, a computer-controlled heating plate was pressed against the calves of subjects intermittently at varying temperatures. Heat levels began at about 110 degrees and went to a maximum of 130 degrees, depending on each participant's sensitivity.

Pain Drops 18 Percent

Scientists noticed a marked difference in how the two test groups reacted to pain testing. Zen meditators had much lower pain sensitivity ~ even without meditating ~ compared to non-meditators. During the meditation-like conditions it appeared meditators further reduced their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators.

Zen meditators experienced an 18 percent reduction in pain intensity. "If meditation can change the way someone feels pain, thereby reducing the amount of pain medication required for an ailment, that would be clearly beneficial," says Justin Grant, one of the lead scientists.

Click here for the article in Medical News Today.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall . . .

Venus at a Mirror by Peter Paul Rubens, 1615: The Venus Effect

A new study on mirrors concludes that people cannot always relate spatially to mirrors. They think their image should be visible, even when it is impossible due to the viewer’s location. The other study says that our perceptions of our appearance can be dramatically altered by the mirror.
Dr Marco Bertamini, from the University of Liverpool School of Psychology conducted a number of experiments by covering a mirror on a wall and inviting participants to walk along a line parallel to the mirror. He asked them to guess the point at which they would be able to see their reflection. Results showed that people believe they can see themselves even before they are level with the near edge of the mirror.

"People tend not to understand that the location of the viewer matters in terms of what is visible in a mirror,” Bertamini says. “A good example of this is what we call the Venus Effect, which relates to the many famous paintings of the goddess Venus, looking in a small mirror. If you were to look at these paintings, you would assume that Venus is admiring her own face, because you see her face in the mirror. Your viewpoint, however, is rather different from hers; if you can see her in the mirror then she would see you in the mirror."
Click here for more about the Venus Effect study.

Mirrors and Self Image

The Mirror by Sir Frank Dicksee, 1896

Another study regarding mirrors has been conducted by Dr. Manos Tsakiris of the University of London. It concludes that recognition of our own face is not as consistent as we might think.
The participants' ability to recognize their own face changed when they watched the face of another person being touched at the same time as their own face was touched, as though they were looking in a mirror. Specifically, when asked to recognize a picture of their own face, the picture that people chose included features of the other person they had previously seen. This did not happen when the two faces were touched out of synchrony.

Sharing an experience with another person may change the perception we have of our own self, such as the recognition of our own face. "As a result of shared experiences, we tend to perceive other people as being more similar to us, and this applies also to the recognition of our own face. This process may be at the root of constructing a self-identity in a social context," says Dr Tsakiris.

The findings imply that shared experiences may influence the way we perceive ourselves and possibly the way we interact with others. Dr Tsakiris explains: "If I feel that you are more like me, I might then behave to you in a different way. We now test whether shared experiences can make us stereotype others less, or change our attitudes towards people of different social groups, race or gender."
Click here for more about the University of London study.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Number 10 ~ TREADING

Treading upon the tail of the tiger.
It does not bite man. Success.

The situation is really difficult. That which is strongest and that which is weakest are close together. The weak follows behind the strong and worries it. The strong, however, acquiesces and does not hurt the weak, because the contact is in good humor and harmless.

In terms of a human situation, one is handling wild, intractable people. In such a case one's purpose will be achieved if one behaves with decorum. Pleasant manners succeed even with irritable people.