An article in Seed Magazine talks about Professor Elizabeth Gould and her paradigm-shifting research on neurogenesis, the notion that the adult brain grows new neurons instead of stopping at puberty or whenever and simply losing gray matter as time goes on. Previous scientific wisdom declared that our brains stop growing new cells after a certain point, in spite of a 1962 paper declaring the opposite. Professor Gould has proven the details in that 1962 paper, and as of 1998 the scientific community accepted this new standard.
This may be old news to you. It isn't to me, but that shows you how well I keep up with modern medical papers.
This article interests me for several reasons. One is that it demonstrates that our brains can recover from injuries just like the rest of our bodies. Maybe a wounded brain won't function with exactly the same function as a wounded bicep, for example, but there is hope. It suggests that debilitating events like strokes and head wounds can be healed. This ought to be good news for my ex-father in law. We're all fairly convinced he's suffered a stroke or two, from the apparent changes in his personality.
But what really got my attention was this:
As Christian Mirescu, one of Gould's post-docs, put it, "When a brain is worried, it's just thinking about survival. It isn't interested in investing in new cells for the future."Stress shuts down neurogenesis, the process by which the brain grows new cells. When we're stressed, we're not functioning or learning properly. We knew this before, but now we have a smoking gun for it.
As a general rule of thumb, a rough life--especially a rough start to life--strongly correlates with lower levels of fresh cells.About the time I read this, I started thinking about an old Marxist aphorism: "Religion is the opiate of the masses." People who have a rough life tend more toward belief in a higher power to provide comfort and give them direction.
Professor Ronald Duman was researching Prozac, trying to figure out why there's a thirty day time lag between when patients begin taking the medication and when their depression begins to lift. He was originally researching the role of Prozac in filling the brain with serotonin, but he discovered that wasn't how the drug was helping. Instead, Prozac was creating trophic factors in the brain.
Trophic factors make neurons grow. What water and sun do for trees, trophic factors do for brain cells. Depression was like an extended drought: It deprived neurons of the sustenance they need.There's another aphorism passed down from the military: "There are no atheists on the front line." How many death row inmates claim to have been "born again," or otherwise embraced religion? Yet another aphorism for you: "There's no fanatic like a convert." My father is a classic example of this. After rejecting my mother's religion for the majority of my life, he was convinced to embrace it shortly after discovering he had cancer - the same form that killed my grandfather, his father. Since this conversion his personality has changed some. He's very enthusiastic about his new religion, but at the same time he's become a lot more intolerant than I remember. This could be a factor from advancing age and stress from battling cancer for ten years, but his attitudes reflect what I remember from my mother (attitudes that are coming out from hiding once again). If the changes weren't so eerily familiar, I could dismiss it as him getting old.
Rather than turn this into a rant I'll point out that religious people, especially the newly converted, often experience feelings of uplifting and relief as though a tremendous burden has been taken from them. They experience periods of enlightenment, of joy. Christians in particular are urged to place all their cares in God's hands and let Him guide their lives. "Take over, God. I can't do it myself." They surrender responsibility for all the things that cause them stress and have faith that God will take care of it for them. In return, their lives are transformed and they become happier people.
It works. I've seen it happen. I believe them when they tell me that they're better off. Religion can have a genuinely positive impact on people's lives. We've been hearing for years that a good attitude is the key to being happy and successful. Now I think we can demonstrate why.
Does this mean God is behind the miracle of neurogenesis? Or does it mean that neurogenesis is the reason why people invented God? That's a question that I believe medical science can never answer to everyone's satisfaction. It's a classic "chicken or the egg" question, and the answer will always depend on how you approach it. If you already believe in God, the answer is going to be the former. If you don't believe in God (or don't believe in God's intercession), the answer is going to be the latter. It doesn't answer any major philosophical or theological questions, it merely shows us the mechanism.
For myself, I still hold to the Deist philosophy. I believe there is a Higher Power that created the Universe and set everything in motion. I just don't believe that this entity or organisation is actively manipulating our lives, micromanaging our affairs. I have no rational reason for this, only faith that springs largely from habit. I have no good reason to believe it, but I have no good reason not to believe it, either. I'm fairly well convinced that we created gods to meddle in our lives, to shift our burdens from our minds and provide the stimulation we need for neurogenesis. There will always be those who aren't willing to provide their own stimulus, and situations that will always overwhelm us. So long as this is true, I believe religion will always be with us.
How do I justify this? Obviously, I'm approaching the question from the perspective of a skeptic. Imagine in the early ages of human development when we existed at no greater than a tribal level. Imagine that we have a problem with some of our tribal members: they're disturbed by things they see, experiences they can't explain. They're worried, stressed and ultimately depressed. They're not very good contributors to the tribe. How do we snap them out of it when they can't do it themselves? Give them something to believe in.
"Don't worry," they're told. "There's nothing you can do about it. Someone else, some higher power is out there taking care of it for you."
Thus, tradition is born. These unseen entities, these new gods are thought of as spirits moving the world unseen, causing the seasons to change. Creating babies in the wombs of women. Lifting the sun in the sky and hiding it at night. Making the wind blow through the trees. Helping our aim or spoiling our shot. Eventually, the notion of formalised worship springs up in an attempt to appease them and coerce them into doing our bidding. We have something to hope for, someone to take over our emotional burdens while we get on with the daily affairs of life.
Maybe one day we'll outgrow our need for gods. I believe that the field of neurogenesis will help us on that path. But it won't happen in my lifetime, and probably not for many after. Hopefully one day someone will be able to look back on our work and point: "this was when we really started to pull ourselves out of our painful adolescence."