Sunday, April 09, 2006

Schizophrenic Shamans

I'm a bit behind on magazines, and I was reading the February 11th (2006) issue of Science News today. Its cover story, Self-Serve Brains, is about research into neurological sources of the sense of self. It's an okay article; it's a survey -- every third paragraph is of the form "People X and Y, of institution Z, did research on Q" -- without a lot of synthesis.

One thing did leap out at me, though:

Frith now suspects that anarchic-hand syndrome and schizophrenia's delusions of being controlled by others share a neural defect that makes it seem like one's movements occur passively. However, people with schizophrenia mistakenly perceive the passive movements as having been intentional.

In support of this possibility, Frith and his colleagues find that when shown scenes of abstract shapes moving across a computer screen, patients with schizophrenia, but not mentally healthy volunteers, attribute good and bad intentions to these shapes. Patients with schizophrenia may monitor their own actions in excruciating detail for signs of external control, Frith suggests.

This seems to me to be an explanation for every sky-god cult in the world -- into which category I place the most useless parts of all religions -- those that try to explain the behavior of the natural world in moral terms.

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