Month: June 2018

The cognitive science of religion

The cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a scientific approach to the study of religion that combines methods and theory from cognitive, developmental and evolutionary psychology with the sorts of questions that animate anthropologists and historians of religion. Specifically, CSR explores causal explanations of religious phenomena (thoughts, ideas, practices and experiences) across peoples and populations. It asks ‘How does ordinary human psychology inform and constrain religious expression?’ Four current prominent topics in CSR are introduced here: teleological reasoning about the natural world; children’s acquisition of God concepts; ‘minimal counterintuitiveness theory’; and religion and prosociality. Why is religion so common around the world? Why do some religious ideas and practices out-compete others? Why do religious practices take on common characteristics across cultures, and how deeply imbedded in human history and nature is religion? The cognitive science of religion (CSR) tackles questions such as these, attempting to understand the reasons for initial acquisition, recurrence, and continued transmission of religious concepts and behaviour. Psychologists – particularly scientific psychologists – have the training and tools to address such issues, …

How Many Genes Do Cells Need?

How Many Genes Do Cells Need?

By knocking out genes three at a time, scientists have painstakingly deduced the web of genetic interactions that keeps a cell alive. Researchers long ago identified essential genes that yeast cells can’t live without, but new work, which appears today in Science, shows that looking only at those gives a skewed picture of what makes cells tick: Many genes that are inessential on their own become crucial as others disappear. The result implies that the true minimum number of genes that yeast — and perhaps, by extension, other complex organisms — need to survive and thrive may be surprisingly large. About 20 years ago, Charles Boone and Brenda Andrews decided to do something slightly nuts. The yeast biologists, both professors at the University of Toronto, set out to systematically destroy or impair the genes in yeast, two by two, to get a sense of how the genes functionally connected to one another. Only about 1,000 of the 6,000 genes in the yeast genome, or roughly 17 percent, are considered essential for life: If a single …

How different parts of the UK will suffer from Brexit more than others

How different parts of the UK will suffer from Brexit more than others

Impact studies have revealed how different parts of the UK will suffer from Brexit more than others. One irony, as many have pointed out, is that a lot of these regions voted for Brexit. Another irony, which is less talked about, is that these are also regions that benefit a great deal from EU regional policy. The UK is an unevenly developed state. Some territories (such as London) are much more well off than others (such as the northeast of England) as a result of decades of investment (or under-investment) in their economies. Others benefit from varying levels of devolution, which gives them a relatively greater autonomy to tailor policy to their own needs, and stronger political representation within Britain and the EU. Over recent decades, when the UK government has fallen short in terms of regional policy to address the needs of less economically favoured regions, the EU has provided much-needed support. So the key question now is what will happen to the regions which have relied on this in the event of any Brexit? So far this remains …

Religion means different things to different people

A lot of arguments about religion treat it like going to school: a religion is a set of lessons to be learned, tests to pass and rules to follow, all watched over by the great headmaster in the sky. That assumption shapes the sorts of questions we ask of religions and religious people: are your teachers telling the truth? Have they trained you to behave properly? And why do you think it’s a good idea to go to school anyway? But there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that we need to think about religion in a different way: not as a process of training or indoctrination, but as arising from some deep-seated instincts, hardwired into our brains and then shaped by our cultures. This is more like the way we think about sex, emotions and relationships. The shift in thinking arises from a field of study known as the cognitive science of religion, where cognitive psychologists and evolutionary theorists have joined forces to address a puzzling question. In the words of Jeffrey Schloss: Why, despite …

Social media can be used used as an evidence against you

Social media can be used used as an evidence against you

As we increasingly use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate with each other, many of us are unaware of the ways in which our posts might later resurface – and get us into trouble with the law. There are numerous examples of social media being used as evidence in the criminal justice system, leading to convictions and sometimes prison sentences. Peter Nunn from Bristol, England, was imprisoned in 2014 after MP Stella Creasy and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez were subjected to a string of abuse on Twitter. And after the London riots of 2011, two men were imprisoned for incitement after posting messages on Facebook inviting those who read them to meet the next day and wreak havoc in their local town. Police were able to trace the messages back to the defendants, leading to successful prosecutions. Messages and media on WhatsApp, Snapchat and the like, have been used in evidence to show that defendants have committed offences, such as selling drugs, possession of firearms(as in the case of R v Noble and Johnson, where WhatsApp messages …

Disadvantaged family living in the United Kingdom

Disadvantaged family living in the United Kingdom

The UK has one of the widest attainment gaps in education within the developed world. This effectively means that if you are born in the UK to a family living in disadvantaged circumstances, you are much less likely to achieve your potential than your peers. And research shows it may take another 50 years to close this gap. Many young people who grow up in an area that is considered a “cold spot” of social mobility – like many of the UK’s seaside towns and former coal mining communities – are caught up in cycles of deprivation. This affects their aspirations, academic self-confidence and adult life choices. My recently published research looks at the realities of what it’s like to grow up in one of these areas. I spoke to 89 schoolgirls living in a former mining community – designated by the government to be within the UK’s worst 10% in terms of deprivation. In the community I looked at in my study, most men work locally, while women marry local men young, have children …

Alzheimer’s,-insulin-is-a-new-suspect-1200x800

Alzheimer’s, insulin is a new suspect

Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong? In the first analysis of the disease, the German physician, Alois Alzheimer, noted odd changes in the brain of a patient who died of the condition. Alzheimer identified two kinds of protein aggregates that are not found in younger brains: plaques that are found between brain cells and tangles that are found inside brain cells. Later research identified the proteins that made up the plaques as amyloid and those that form the tangles as tau. What these structures actually do is still under debate. Unheeded warning Alzheimer advised scientists not to jump to the conclusion that these proteins caused the disease. Unfortunately, his caution was ignored, and over the years it has become gospel …

Your body, when stressed

Your body, when stressed

Stress is great. It makes us faster, stronger, more agile and our brains have better recall and flexibility. That’s why people are willing to put themselves in stressful work situations or engage in extreme sports. The problem is that uncontrolled, stress can leave us frozen to the spot and unable to think – something all too familiar for people having to speak in public or students sitting in the exam hall. Stress developed because it gives an evolutionary advantage. For early man, and with predators everywhere, food could be scarce and diseases prevalent. By understanding what is happening inside our bodies and why, we can learn to control stress and use it our advantage. Your body, when stressed When you’re feeling stressed, it’s a sign that your body is going into emergency mode. The turbo button is pressed, the engine of your body has roared into overdrive and you become superhuman. This means becoming ultra vigilant, able to react quickly and increase memory recall, and to remember every aspect of what you are seeing, hearing …