Not So Fast Neuroscience!

Over at Religion Dispatches my friend Andrew Aghapour (a fellow College of Charleston religious studies alum) does a nifty take down of neuroscience explanations of religion by picking apart a claim that Apple products function the same as religious imagery:

Which “religious” parts of Alex Brooks’ brain lit up when he was shown Apple products? According to Dr. Calvert, Riley’s expert, it was the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information. When Brooks was shown Apple products, she states, the MRI indicated, “much more activity in the visual cortex, [indicating] enhanced sort of visual attention.” In other words, Brooks focused more on pictures of Apple products than he did on other gizmos and gadgets. This shouldn’t be a surprise—he runs an Apple-news website, and makes a living tracking the product releases, updates, and rumors associated with the brand. “Enhanced visual attention” should be expected in the brains of any other experts, from fashion designers to cell biologists to shepherds shown pictures of sheep among other animals.

At most, Calvert’s experiments seem to show a correlation between visual attention and past experience: if you have spent a good deal of time studying something in the past, then you spend relatively more mental energy looking at it compared to other objects. How, then, do she and Riley conclude that Apple is exploiting parts of the brain that evolved to process religion?

In a separate study, they argue, a similar pattern was found in “very religious” persons shown religious and nonreligious images. The simplest explanation for this similarity is that humans spend more visual attention on images which they find interesting or which they see quite often, whether they are Apple products or religious images. Instead, Calvert and Riley posit a “stack two” argument: that the visual cortex is a uniquely religious part of the brain, which Apple exploits in order to sell more mp3 players. The glaring problem here is that the visual cortex is not uniquely religious, nor is religion essentially visual. Just like time, “religion” is too multifaceted to be found in just one room of a mental skyscraper.

Under casual scrutiny, the objective aura of Alex Riley’s neuroscientific comparisons has begun to fade. Apple isn’t exploiting the religious part of our brains because the brain likely doesn’t have any essentially religious real estate, and even if it did, it certainly wouldn’t be the visual cortex.

Go read the whole thing.

I will only add that I find the simplistic ABC argument Andrew describes maddening. I had a handful of arguments in a seminar on religion and culture with someone who had been bit by the cognitive bug. They treat their cognitive theory as if it were their own sacred doctrine that explains everything. I do think, though, that cognitive research will have a huge impact on the study of religion in the next decades. Looking forward to more of this from folks like Andrew.

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