I don’t read Time Magazine much, but I recently acquired some old issues and I found one I would like to share with everyone. On February 23 Time printed the ‘Mind & Body Special Issue: How Faith Can Heal’, and I had a few problems with the article entitled ‘The Biology of Belief‘ by Jeffrey Kluger.
The article begins with a subtitle that sets the stage for the rest of the piece:
‘Science and religion argue all the time, but they increasingly agree on one thing: a little spirituality may be very good for your health.’
From the start we can smell the agenda behind Kluger’s words. ‘Scientists increasingly agree’ likely means that there have been a couple of new studies published attempting to convince us that any correlation between spirituality, in the broadest sense of the word, and health absolutely proves causation. ‘A little spirituality is good for your health’ will likely be transformed into ‘religion heals ills when medicine just can’t do it’. But let’s try not to make too many presumptions yet.
In the first two paragraphs Kluger claims that the parietal lobe makes ‘your brain the spiritual amusement park it can be.’ He obviously knows the names and locations of some brain regions, but he gives no clear description of what each lobe does and how they produce a ‘spiritual amusement park’ in your brain. Either he hopes to explain it to us later, or we just have to take his word for it.
Five paragraphs into the article we finally get to it. ‘A growing body of scientific evidence suggest that faith may indeed bring us health.’ Boom! ‘People who attend religious services have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend.’ Boom! ‘People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.’ Boom!?!
Kluger does the arguing for me in the very next paragraph:
‘You live longer if you go to church because you’re there for the cholesterol-screening drive and nurse visiting service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against [disease] because your levels of cortisol–a stress hormone–go down first.’
Faith and religion are not what is causing an increase in life expectancy, there is nothing supernatural about it. There is no reason to use spirituality and religion to explain coincidental correlation.
But Bryan, didn’t you read? ‘People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.’ Who cares? This tells me nothing. Do people who believe in a loving God live longer than those who believe in a punitive God, or do they simply take the news better when they are told that they are going to die? If they don’t survive longer, then this has nothing to do with the effect of spirituality on physical health. This evidence simply compares two subsets of spiritual people who believe in different types of God. On the one hand spirituality is good for you but on the other it isn’t good for you. Faith can heal, but only the right faith. All this does is underle the subjectivity of religion. I wonder how atheists fare after being diagnosed with an illness, but I am sure that didn’t fit with the intended message of Kluger’s article.
IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Kluger then goes on to discuss the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg a professor of radiology, psychology, and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘Newberg and his team have come to recognize just which parts of the brain light up during just which experiences.’ (By this I assume that Kluger means they took brain scans of individuals performing particular activities and determined which areas were in use when). Yet again this holds no support for the idea that faith and spirituality will give you good health. We merely see that for every activity that we as humans perform, there is some region of our brain that is involved.
Not only did Newberg and Team determine which areas are involved in each task, they also scanned the brains of people before and after meditation training. What they found was that meditation training increased the size of certain lobes of the brain, and as the lobes bulked up memory improved. In other words, intense mind training increases the size and functionality of a person’s brain. (No $&!# Sherlock?)
Of course there was no comparison between the improvement of a person who was subjected to calculus training or learned how to play a musical instrument, I am sure they too would have an increase in brain size and memory capacity. But who cares about finding all of the evidence when the evidence you have now supports the hypothesis that you want to be correct?
Kluger goes on to describe ‘one of the staples of traditional wellness protocols and traditional religious rituals the cleansing fast, which is said to purge toxins in the first case and purge sins or serve other pious ends in the second.’ And again, in the very next paragraph, he explains and then immediately dismisses science that counters his claim that spirituality (in this instance fasting) is healthful:
‘The brain is a very energy-intensive organ, one that requires a lot of calories to keep running. When food intake is cut, the liver steps into the breach, producing glucose and sending it throughout the body — always making sure the brain gets a particularly generous helping. The liver’s reserve lasts only about 24 hours, after which, cells begin breaking down the body’s fats and proteins — essentially living off the land. As this happens, the composition of the blood — including hormones, neurotransmitters and metabolic by-products — changes. Throw this much loopy chemistry at a sensitive machine like the brain and it’s likely to go on the blink. “There are very real changes that occur in the body very rapidly that might explain the clarity during fasting,” says Dr. Catherine Gordon, an endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston. “The brain is in a different state even during a short-term fast.” Biologically, that’s not good…’
Biologically fasting is not good for your health; even if the ‘light-headed sense of peace, albeit brief, that comes with it reinforces the fast and [seemingly] rewards you for engaging in it all the same.’ So far that is the most revelatory news I have read in this article. Not because it wasn’t obvious that fasting is not good for your health in the first place. Rather because the most concrete evidence that Kluger has presented thus far is the exact opposite of what he is trying to claim. He as shown only that spirituality (particularly fasting) is not good for your health.
HOW POWERFUL IS PRAYER
This is one of my favorite sections in this article. Kluger begins by telling us that most believers and very serious theologians ‘believe in the power of so-called intercessory prayer to heal the sick.’ Plus, Kluger tells us, some very serious scientists have ‘looked at’ this question as well. More than 6,000 studies have been published on the topic since 2000. I wonder which of these 6,000 studies Kluger will use to support the idea that prayer will help your health, let’s see:
‘As long ago as 1872, Francis Galton, the man behind eugenics and fingerprinting, reckoned that monarchs should live longer than the rest of us, since millions of people pray for the health of their King or Queen every day. His research showed just the opposite — no surprise, perhaps, given the rich diet and extensive leisure that royal families enjoy. An oft discussed 1988 study by cardiologist Randolph Byrd of San Francisco General Hospital found that heart patients who were prayed for fared better than those who were not. But a larger study in 2005 by cardiologist Herbert Benson at Harvard University challenged that finding, reporting that complications occurred in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received intercessory prayer and 51% of those who didn’t. Sloan says even attempting to find a scientific basis for a link between prayer and healing is a “fool’s errand” — and for the most basic methodological reason. “It’s impossible to know how much prayer is received,” he says, “and since you don’t know that, you can’t determine dose.”‘
Wait. So your saying the widely excepted research suggests that 52% of patients who did receive prayer suffered complications and 51% of people who did not receive prayer suffered complications. Meaning there is no significant difference between patients who recieve prayer and patients who don’t. So, again, spirituality is not helping.
Finally, Kluger goes on to discuss his only relevant scientific claim in this whole article, that of the placebo effect. If I opened up this issue and read a four page article about the placebo effect I would have no problem with it. They could mention that prayer, religion, faith, and spirituality can all have a placebo effect, but also that the placebo effect can be produced by much more. They would tell us that it can also be produced by sugar tablets, sham surgery, or belief in any false information (including that of faith and religion already discussed). They would not exaggerate the affectiveness of spirituality to undermine the truth that evidence supports. The fact that spirituality is about as good for your health as sugar pills.
In conclusion, welcome to The Pseudoscience Chronicles Jeffrey Kluger.
(Header Image: ‘Gris-gris‘ by: Charles M. Gandolfo; New Orleans Historic VooDoo Museum)