Human Nature in ritual





We have an over developed sense of cause and effect. We assume the rustle in the bushes is caused by something, and so survive, as a false alarm does less harm than ignoring a real emergency. Deborah Keleman, University of Arizona in Tucson, has done experiments that show that children easily see a sense of purpose and design in natural objects. They resist the contrary suggestion. Olivera Petrovich University of Oxford, has shown that even agnostics and atheists are prone to supernatural thinking They “often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen.”

“Humans can anticipate future events, remember the past and conceive of how things could go wrong – including their own death, which is hard to deal with.” The mind needs a way to cope with all of it. (Science, vol 322, p115 2008)

Jennifer Whitson, University of Texas in Austin and Adam Galinsky, NorthwesternUniversity in Evanston, Illinois, asked volunteers to look for patterns in dots or stock market data, but before they were made to feel a lack of control. This lead to them seeing more patterns than there was actually there.

“Whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.” Justin Barrett, University of Oxford.

(Michael Brooks, ‘Natural Born Believers’ p31 New Sci 7 Feb 2009)



“The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims does help us see religion in an interesting new light.”

Children try to make sense of world very early on in different ways. “One of the most important of these is to recognise the difference between ordinary physical objects and ‘agents’ – things that can act upon their surroundings.”

“Because of our highly social nature we pay special attention to agents. We are strongly attracted to explanations of events in terms of agent action – particularly events that are not readily explained in terms of ordinary causation.”

“First, agents act to attain goals. And second, they need not be visible. In order to function in social groups, avoid predators and capture prey, we must be able to think about agents we cannot see.”

Justin L Barrett and Amanda Johnson of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Almost two-thirds of the students spontaneously referred to the ball bearings as if they were agents making comments such as, “that one did not want to stay”.” (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 3, p208).

“Young children find it easier to assume that others know, sense and remember everything than to figure out precisely who knows, sense and remembers what. Their default position is to assume superpowers until teaching or experience tells them otherwise.”

“This assumption is related to the development of a faculty called “theory of mind”, which concerns our understanding of others’ thoughts, perception, wants and feelings. Theory of mind is important to social functioning but it takes time to develop. Some 3-year-olds and many 4-year-olds simply assume that others have complete, accurate knowledge of the world. A similar pattern is seen with children’s understanding of the inevitability of death. Studies by my collaborator Emily Burdett at the University of Oxford suggest that the default assumption is that others are immortal.”

“Whatever some people say, children do not need to be indoctrinated to believe in god. They naturally gravitate towards the idea.”

“The way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.”

“If religion comes naturally to children, doesn’t that put God on the same footing as Santa Claus of the tooth fairy?”

Adults can think their way to becoming more religious.

“If indoctrination and theatrical acts of deception were the bulk of what gods had going for them conceptually, adults would outgrow them too.”

“Why does labelling an idea childish automatically make it bad, dangerous or wrong?”

“Adults generally do believe in gods. That such belief begins in childhood and typically endures into adulthood places it in the same class as believing in the permanence of solid objects, the continuity of time, the predictably of natural laws, the fact that causes precede effects, that people have minds, that their mothers love them and numerous others. If believing in gods is being childish in the same respect as holding these sorts of beliefs, then belief in gods is in good company.”

(Justin L Barrett ‘Born believers’ p39-41 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


Mentalising is the brains process for allowing us to let us predict the behaviour of others by modelling what they believe rather than what we know. It enables us to see how someone can believe something that is not true because what they know is different from what we know. It also enables us to lie. “Theory of mind is a necessary ingredient in the arts and religion – after all, a belief in the spirit world requires us to conceive of minds that aren’t present.” It allows one to imagine things beyond the physical world as seen.

Theory of mind seems to be present from 15 months of age (Science vol 308, p255) but it develops as we get older and experience more social situations. Teenagers would be at a disadvantage and more self-centred than adults. But adults ability to mentalise varies with some far better at “who-thought-what-about-whom” tests than others, such as “John said that Michael thinks that Anne knows that Sally thinks her phone will be on the table.” This ‘fourth order’ example is the limit for 20% of adults, 60% can go to ‘fifth order’, and 20% up to ‘sixth order’.

(Kirstein Weir ‘Inside job’ p32-35 New Sci 8 Jun 2013)


People with autism have a “reduced ability to infer what other people are thinking” and are less likely to believe in God.

“In each study, a professed belief in God correlated with higher mentalising scores (PLoS One, DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0036880.) However, the findings do not prove that belief in God relies exclusively on mentalisation, says Norenzayan. There are many reason why people believe in God, whether or not they are good at mentalising.” Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

(In Brief ‘Autistic people more likely to be atheists’ p16 New Sci 9 Jun 2012)



When it comes to controversial subjects studies have shown that Christians [and this will probably be the same of others] subconsciously endue God with their opinions.

“ “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs,” writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI:10.1073/pnas.0908374106).”

Christian volunteers were asked about controversial subjects, then asked what they think God’s view was, then what they thought other Americans thought. The volunteers own beliefs corresponded with those attributed to God. When the volunteers shifted their beliefs during another test, the views attributed to God also changed the same way, but not those they attributed to other Americans.

“Finally, the team used functional MRI scans of subjects’ brains to show that contemplating God’s beliefs activates the same brain areas as thinking about one’s own views, while thoughts about other Americans’ views activate a brain area used for inferring other people’s mental states.”

(In Brief ‘Dear God, please confirm what I already believe’ p17 New Sci 5 Dec 2009)


However, some experiences of visions of the divine seem to challenge and lead to a change of opinion in those who experience them.
(‘Seeing God’ BBC Radio 4 series “Something Understood” 9 Jun 2013)



“In one analysis of 200 utopian communes, both religious and secular, in 19th century America, Richard Sosis of the University of Connecticut in Storrs found a striking pattern. The average lifespan of the religious communes was a mere 25 years. In 80 years, 9 out of 10 had disbanded. Secular communes, most of which were socialist, fared even worse: they lasted for an average of 6.4 years and 9 out of 10 disappeared in less than 20 years (Cross-Cultural Research, vol 34, p70).”

“A growing view is that religious beliefs and rituals arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution that eventually led to large societies with ‘Big Gods’.”

“Some early cultural variants of religion presumably promoted prosocial behaviours such as cooperation, trust and self-sacrifice while encouraging displays of religious devotion, such as fasts, food taboos, extravagant rituals and other ‘hard-to-fake’ behaviours which reliably transmitted believers’ sincere faith (Evolution and Human Behaviour, vol 30, p244), and signalled their intention to cooperate (Evolutionary Anthropology, vol 12, p264). Religion thus forged anonymous strangers into moral communities tied together with sacred bonds under a common supernatural jurisdiction.”

“As these ever-expanding groups grew they took their religions with them, further ratcheting up social solidarity in a runaway process that softened the limitations on group size imposed by kinship and reciprocity. From there it is a short step to the morally concerned Big Gods of the major world religions. People steeped in the Abrahamic faiths are so accustomed to seeing a link between religion and morality that it is hard for them to imagine that religion did not start that way. Yet the gods of the smaller hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Hadza of east Africa and the San of the Kalahari, are unconcerned with human morality. In these transparent societies where face-to-face interaction is the norm, it is hard to escape the social spotlight. Kin altruism and reciprocity are sufficient to maintain social bonds.”

If you feel you are not being watched and are anonymous in some way, even just wearing sunglasses you are more inclined to cheat or be selfish. (Psychological Science, vol 21, p311). The opposite is true, an audience, camera or even the drawing of some eyes makes for better behaviour. (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p245). As societies get more complex and larger the frequency of ‘Big Gods’ who watch over the moral order increases. (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 24, p126).

“Recently some societies have succeeded in sustaining cooperation with secular institutions have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world – have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away.”

Subtle reminders of secular moral authority, words such as civic, jury and police, have the same fairness-promoting effect as reminders of God in the dictator game. People have discovered new ways to be nice to each other without a watchful God.”

(Ara Nornzayan ‘The idea that launched a thousand civilisations’ p42-44 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


[Recent research by Dr. Hervey Peoples has shown that pastoralists (animal herders), those with the most portable wealth requiring more collective defence, are even more likely to have a belief in ‘Big Gods’ than agriculturalists.]


Fran De Waal in his book “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In search of humanism among the primates” (Norton, 2013) states that social moral behaviours gave rise to religion “as a way of reinforcing the pre-existing community concern.”
(Bob Holmes ‘The making of morality’ p48 New Sci 18 May 2013).


“Maturationally natural systems are also what Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “fast” – they operate automatically and effortlessly. Because of this, they are highly susceptible to false positives. For example, our hair-trigger system for detecting human forms leads us to see faces in the clouds, and our ‘agency detection device’ leads us to talk to our computers and cars. These rapid and automatic systems also make people receptive to religions. Humans are ready to leap at, swallow and digest religious stories like a hungry frog will leap at, swallow and (attempt to) digest a ball bearing that flies within reach.”

“Supernatural beings trigger our natural beliefs about agents, and our theory of mind. Sacred spaces and objects cue our involuntary precautions against contaminants; it is no coincidence that so many religious rituals involve cleansing and purification.”

Kahneman’s ‘slow’ human mental processes are also found in religion. “Deliberate, conscious reflection about the meaning and truth of religious claims is called theology.”

“Theology routinely makes abstract and radically counter-intuitive statements that are conceptually complex and difficult to understand.” “In addition theological proposals are not at all memorable compared with, say, a story about Jesus’s virgin birth. This is why religious people must often make an effort to memorise them and why religious leaders adopt a variety of measures to indoctrinate and police “theological correctness.””

“Maintaining theological correctness is difficult, however, as the mental systems that underpin popular religion consistently intrude. The consequence is that theological incorrectness is inevitable: the religions that the vast majority of people actually practice are not the same as the doctrines they learn and recite.”

Science will not replace religion for several reasons:-

Firstly, the religious response rises inevitably from within humans in all populations. Secondly, theology is extremely adaptable at incorporating the discoveries of science.

Thirdly, “believers and critics alike underestimate how hard it is to do science. Science is far more complicated than theology. Its esoteric interests, radically counter-intuitive claims and sophisticated forms of inference are difficult to invent learn and communicate. Science depends on extensive and elaborate social arrangements which are complex and expensive. Its continued existence, at least in the long run, is therefore fragile, certainly in comparison to the continued existence of religion.”

“Cognitively, science has more in common with theology than it does with religion; both rely on slow, deliberate, reflective thought. Popular religion, on the other hand, is more like a common-sense explanation of the natural world.”

(Robert N McCauley ‘Natural religion, unnatural science’ p45-46 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


“Those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally….Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.”

(Editorial ‘Know your enemy’ p3 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


“The rituals give a structure and a pattern to life, regardless of the belief. When asked about which religion to follow, the Dalai Lama said: “Follow the one that suits you.” I think that’s absolutely wonderful. Religions contain myths which can be more or less truthful. That is to say, they can address fundamental features of human experience. Some myths are deeper than others. In that respect, religion has more in common with art and poetry. You can’t falsify a painting. But you can judge a painting as being better or worse. What religion seeks is meaning rather than explanation. The interest served by science is predominately one of control – theories which help give us a handle on the physical world. Neither gives us access to the absolute point of view.”

“The beliefs may change, but patterns of thinking go on. Like sex, if you suppress religion, it’ll pop up in all kinds of areas.”

“People hold very tightly to modern secular myths – the political and economic myths. They won’t give them up, even once they are falsified by experience. If you’re inside a myth it seems like fact – like science. So although it’s not the fault of science, forms of science have become a vehicle for new myths of progress.”

(John Gray interview p23 Big Issue, 3-9 Oct 2011. In response to an interview by Richard Dawkins.)


The theme of de Botton’s book is that the many of the structures of religion are useful to non-believers.

“I also look at morality and the need that religions feel to remind people to be good and kind. This is seen as a bit suspicious by secular society. But we are weak-willed. We have aspirations to goodness but just don’t manage it. So it seems important to have reminders of these aspirations.”

“The point isn’t to start replacement movements as to integrate practices, attitudes and states of mind into secular life.”

“Essentially, religions are choreographers of spiritual moments, or psychological moments, and on the whole atheists have not been choreographers at all. I think the genius of religions is that they structure the inner life.”

“The scientific world view doesn’t necessarily prepare you for all those things that science is not going to solve in time for you – ultimately, of course, life and death….Religious pessimism is attractive because one of the things that make life difficult is the assumption that everybody else’s life is OK. Pessimism lays out how it is at its worst. No one lives in that bit all the time, but we probably all have to travel there.”

(Graham Lawton ‘Religion without god’ interview with Alain de Botton, author or “Religion for Atheists” p48-49 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


Many studies have repeatedly shown that atheists are lower approval ratings than any other social group, including other religious, by the religious majority when it is the majority in that society.

(Ara Nornzayan ‘The idea that launched a thousand civilisations’ p42-44 New Sci 17 Jun 2012)


We have a fast (unconscious) and slow (conscious) way of thinking. The fast, intuitive one is over ridden by the slow one at times. Belief in the supernatural is associated with the fast form of thinking. Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada looked in to the causes of disbelief. ‘The students who had been exposed to analytical priming downgraded their belief in the supernatural, regardless of their previous degree of belief (Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1215647).’

‘The simplest explanation is if intuitive thinking leads to belief, and analytical somehow suppresses this process. “Habitual analytical thinking could be one reason scientists tend to be disbelievers,” notes Norenzayan.”

(In Brief ‘Analytical thinking erodes belief in God’ p14 New Sci 5 May 2012)


We are possibly more aware of our mortality than any other form of life. It has been suggested that this has stimulated civilisation by driving the development of life-extending innovations. Research in to US undergraduates shows that they are powerfully motivated to leave legacy and this legacy shapes human culture.

Jeff Greenberg, University of Arizona, Sheldon Solomon of Skinmore College, New York state, and Tom Pyszcynski, University of Colorado thought that, “if religions really are offering existential solace….then when death looms, there should be a measurable increase in religiosity. Which is what they found.”

“A further study, by Holly McGregor at the University of Arizona, showed that students prompted to think about death were not merely disapproving of those who challenged their world views, but willing to do violence to them in the form of giving them excessively large amounts of hot sauce (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 74, p590). These initial studies supported Becker’s [Ernest Becker author of The Denial of Death 1973, Pultizer Prize winning book] bleak view that denial of death is the route of all evil. It causes the creation of in-group and out-groups, fosters prejudice and aggression, and stokes up support for wars and terrorism.”

“The team [Kenneth Vail and colleagues at the University of Missouri] also identify an important distinction between conscious and non-conscious death reminders. The latter – subtle or subliminal prompts – tend to cause us to cling unthinkingly to the values of our community. This can be a positive if those values are positive but can also be negative if they induce us to aggressively defend those values against others. Conscious death reminders, on the other hand, stimulate a more considered response, leading people to re-evaluate what really matters. The more we actively contemplate mortality, the more we reject socially imposed goals such as wealth or fame and focus instead on personal growth or the cultivation of positive relationships.  Which suggests we do not yet think about death enough.”

(Stephen Cave “The quest for immortality” p38-40 New Sci 20 Oct 2012 )





The belief, or disbelief in a drug that is given or in those giving it affects its performance in the body. Sometimes the placebo effect can be more effective than the drug than a drug that works, and sometimes worse than being given one that doesn’t work. Some painkillers don’t work unless the patient is told that they are being given painkillers. Morphine is less effective if the patient doesn’t know. The awareness plus the drug stimulates the natural painkillers in the body that help the drug work. An experiment involving sham acupuncture both with and without attention to the patient improved IBS, though attention did help. In fact it performed as well as the drug. Even knowing you are getting a placebo does not necessarily stop it working. Half of the doctors in a survey said that they regularly prescribed placebos as they believed that they worked. [So half of doctors are consciously faith healing!] The research has shown that the placebo effect releases useful chemicals that heal the body as well as making you just feel better.

(Michael Brooks ‘The power of belief’ p36-38 New Sci 23 Aug 2008)

Work by Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that the vagus nerve may play a key role in this mind-body relationship. This is the nerve that soothes after the ‘fight or flight’ response is over and we return to ‘feed and breed’. Most of the variability between people in ‘vagal tone’ is genetic but exercise seems to improve it as can recording positive thoughts in a journal and practising the loving kindness meditation. Those with low vagal tone may struggle to stay calm when provoked and will take longer to recover from stressful situations. Those with high vagal tone have strong social bounds.
(Emma Young “Wishful Thinking” p47-49 New Sci 13 Jul 2013)


Belief influences the efficacy of medicines, and even works when they do not. “Trials have shown measurable changes such as the release of natural pain killers, altered neuronal firing patterns, lower blood pressure or heart rate and boosted immune response, all depending on the beliefs of the patient. There is even evidence that some drugs work by amplifying a placebo effect – when people are not aware that they have been given the drugs, they stop working. On the flip side, merely believing that a drug has harmful side effects can make you suffer them. The nocebo effect, as it’s known, can even kill (New Scientist, 13 May 2009, p30).”


Even when people know the pills don’t do anything, they still have an effect.

(Jo Marchant ‘Heal thyself’ p33-36 New Sci 27 Aug 2011)


Peter Trimmer, University of Bristol, has a possible explanation of this phenomenon which has come out of his research in to the placebo effect in animals.

The model revealed that, in challenging environments, animals lived longer and sired more offspring if they endured infections without mounting an immune response. In more favourable environments, it was best for animals to mount an immune response and return to health as quickly as possible (Evolution and Human Behavior,”

This idea was first proposed a decade ago by Nicholas Humphrey, retired psychologist formerly at London School of Economics.

“If the idea is right, he adds, it means we have misunderstood the nature of placebos. Farming and other innovations in the past 10,000 years mean that many people have a stable food supply and can safely mount a full immune response at any time – but our subconscious switch has not yet adapted to this.”

So we only switch our immune systems on if ‘times are good’. If we perceive they are not then the immune system saves energy and resources by switching off to improve our survival.


Perceived loneliness, not the actual size of their social network, can lead to increased health risks, but the relationship is more complicated still. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, Illinois “thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of studies , published last year, he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills (Annals of Behavioural Medicine, vol 40, p218).”
(Colin Barras ‘Placebos trick us into having confidence to fight’ p9 New Sci 8 Sep 2012)




THE MANY BENEFITS OF MEDITATION – rest and digest response

It boosts the immune system response to vaccines and for those with cancer, relapses of depression are fewer, skin ailments are reduced and HIV is slowed. It reduces stress levels, cortisol levels and changes the structure of the amygdale “a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol 5, p11).” “Imaging studies have shown that meditation can cause structural changes in the brain after as little as 11 hours of training.” These benefits can come from little moments of meditation throughout the day, and not just from longer sessions.

Optimists recover faster from surgery and other procedures, have stronger immune systems, and live longer (Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol 39, p 4). Optimism  does more than just reduce stress, “Feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A recent analysis of various studies concluded that the health benefits of such positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude (Psychosomatic Medicine, vol 70, p741).”

It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which controls the ‘rest and digest’ response, which is the counterbalance to the ‘fight or flight’ response.

“Whatever your natural disposition, you can train yourself to think more positively.”

Also, research by Clifford Saaron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California (Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol 36, p 664) suggests that the key factor in longevity and good health for those who are ‘believers’ is having a sense of control on ones life and “the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

(Jo Marchant ‘Heal thyself’ p33-36 New Sci 27 Aug 2011)


[For much more of research into the benefits of meditation see ‘The Mindfulness Manifesto’ by Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell.]


When you get the feeling of effortless concentration, you are experiencing a mental state called ‘flow’ it is associated with excelling in performance in all sorts of activities. It normally takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something so that it becomes so deeply wired in the brain it is automatic. Then it just flows. Time seems to stop, you are completely focused and there is a deep feeling of joy. If you don’t enjoy the skill, your development stops and you revert to average level of skill.

However, some report this flow state at far earlier stages in training. [I have experienced this with playing music.]

Flow has four key elements, which are described here by Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, of Claremont Graduate University, California, “The first is an intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time. The second is known as autotelicity, the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for its own sake. The third is finding the ‘sweet spot’, a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored. And finally flow is characterised by automaticity, the sense of ‘the piano playing itself’, for example.”

With chess players “the most skilled players showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher cognitive processes such a working memory and verbalisation [how does this relate to dyslexia?]. That may seem counter-intuitive, but silencing self-critical thoughts might allow more automatic processes to take hold, which would in turn produce that effortless feeling of flow.” [“Do without doing and everything gets done.” A mindfulness rather than mindless state. One is fully aware and engaged with what one is doing.] There is a surge in the alpha waves as cortex becomes less active, breathing slows and the pulse rate lowers. (Gabriele Wulf, University of Nevada at Las Vegas)

(Sally Adee ‘Zen and the art of genius’ p33-35 New Sci 4 Feb 2012)


Our thoughts often take the form of a voice in our heads. It helps with self-control and self-awareness. It can take the form of a conversation with several points of view, but may also be compressed or shorted version of external speech. A study at Durham University by Simon McCarthy-Jones in 2011 found that 60 per cent of those he studied had experienced “their inner speech has the to-and-fro quality of a conversation.” Other studies have shown “that people often report a train of thought unfolding more quickly than circumstances ought to have allowed, and yet not seeming rushed”. This occurs in the part of the brain that prepares what we say.

Putting our thoughts into words gives them a more tangible form which makes them easier to use. It may also be that verbal thought can allow communication between other cognitive systems, effectively providing a common language for the brain.

Experiments, including those by Jane Lidstone at Durham University, have shown that internal speech can help improve performance at various tasks. We also use it to ‘coach’ ourselves and it may play a role in self-awareness. As Alain Morin of Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada puts it, “Inner speech allows us to verbally analyse our emotions, motives, thoughts and behavioural patterns. It puts to the forefront of consciousness what would otherwise remain mostly subconscious.”

However, research is showing that it is not always a positive, one can get stuck on the subject with the internal voice and reinforce the wrong ideas. Also there maybe consequences with suppressing this process as well.

(Charles Fernyhough ‘Life in the chatter box’ p32-35 New Sci 1 Jun 2013)


We spend 47% of our time with our minds not focused on the present, and drifting off to thoughts about the past and the future (Science, vol 330, p932).

This is a natural healthy state for the brain, and experiments show that it is a far better state for generating creative new ideas than focused concentration. “Results suggest that learning how to tread the line between focusing in and zoning out could help you to arrive at a breakthrough you might otherwise have missed.”

Executive control “the ability to filter out distractions and focus on a task” has been assumed to be what drives clever thinking. “For a long time….the ability to filter out distractions and focus on a task – dubbed executive control – was considered to lie behind smart thinking. Since keeping your train of thought on track is necessary to remember information from moment to moment, short term “working memory” capacity is often used to gauge executive control.”

“While people with a high level of working memory are good at analytical problems, they tend to struggle on tasks that require flashes of inspiration.”

“After all, one important skill for creativity is the ability to link disparate concepts, which you might come across while wandering inside your head.” Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The message is that as you drift off into memories, thoughts of food or plans for your holiday, your brain is busily mulling over potential solutions for whatever problem you are trying to solve.”

2003 Shelley Carson, Harvard Universityexperiments showed that “high achievers were less likely to disregard inconsequential details and focus on the task, compared with an average person. In other words, their minds more frequently wandered from the task at hand, a tendency that may have left them open to novel or left field ideas (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 85, p49).”

Much research has shown that anxiety and being put under pressure reduce creativity and problem solving. “An anxious mood comes with a high degree of focus,” says Mark Jung-Beeman (of Northwestern University in Evaston, Illinois, working with Karuna Subramaniam). Whereas “people in a relaxed mood were more likely to find creative solutions to word puzzles (PLoS ONE, vol 3, p1459)”.

“Even listening to jokes helps. Subramaniam and colleagues found that watching a Robin Williams stand-up routine helped people subsequently solve mental puzzles. By contrast, those who watched a horror movie clip struggled.”

“Since it is difficult to concentrate when we are tired, you might want to flex your creativity when you feel most groggy. Early birds, for instance, find more original solutions late at night, while night owls do better early in the morning (Thinking and Reasoning, vol 17, p387).”

A little booze increases your ability to come up with creative solutions compared with those on soft drinks (Consciousness and Cognition,  vol. 21, p487), but coffee’s effects of increasing concentration also may inhibit creativity.

(Richard Fisher ‘Dream a little dream’ p34-37 New Sci 16 Jun 2012)


“As your mind flits from thought to thought, it may seem as if dozens of sensations and ideas are constantly fighting for your attention. In fact, that’s surprisingly close to the mark; the way different neural networks compete for dominance echoes the battle for survival between a predator species and its prey, and the result may be your wandering mind.” The winner is the whole mind.

The brain is a ‘small world network’. It has relatively short paths between nodes on the network, and just like people in the classic ‘six degrees of separation’ some nodes/people are more connected bridging between different areas. “The average number of steps between any two brain regions is similarly small, and slight variations in this interconnectivity have been linked to measures of intelligence.”

Research suggests that for a healthy brain the neural signals must be held back from flooding the system without being stopped altogether.

“An understanding of how the brain hits that sweet spot emerged in the 1970s, when Jack Cowan, now at the University of Chicago, realised that this balance represents a state known as the critical point or “edge of chaos” that is well known to theoretical physicists. Cascades of firing neurons – or “neural avalanches” – are the moments when brain cells temporarily pass this critical point, before returning to the safe side, he said.” This “critical state is thought to give the brain maximum flexibility”.

These neural avalanches follow the same ‘power rule’ as real avalanches, forest fires and earthquakes; an event that is ten times as powerful will be a tenth as likely to happen.

(Colin Barras ‘Elements of thought’ p35-39 New Sci 9 Feb 2013)


“Meditation increases our ability to tap into the hidden recesses of our brain that are usually outside the reach of our conscious awareness. That’s according to research by Madelijn Strick of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and colleagues, has tested “whether meditation has an effect on our ability to pick up subliminal messages.” “The meditation group gave 6.8 answers, on average, that matched the subliminal words, whereas the control group gave just 4.9 (Consciousness and Cognition, DOI:10.1016/j.concog.2012.02.010)”

(Anil Ananthaswamy ‘Meditate to tap into subliminal messages’, p10 New Sci 9 Jun 2012)

[A common method of meditation is the ‘body scan’ which increases ones awareness of the body. This is then linked to the goal of increasing empathy.]

Research has shown that those with good interoception (the ability to tune in to “signals from your own body” is linked to reduced depression, increased emotional sensitivity, better empathy and confidence in public speaking. They are more open to their instinctive ‘gut feelings’. “They are also better at remembering emotional information and have richer emotional lives, which may stem from the fact that internal body signals are detected in the brain’s insular cortex, a region also responsible for emotional processing.”

(Catherine de Lange ‘What’s your superpower?’ p41-45 New Sci 4 May 2013)


“There are two distinct neural networks that work together to create the sensation of pain. The more basic of the two – the sensory-discriminative network – identifies the presence of an unpleasant stimulus. It is the affective network that attaches emotions and subjective feelings to the experience. Crucially, without the activity of the emotional network, your brain detects pain but won’t interpret it as unpleasant.” [This distinction is made in Mindfulness Meditation practice as part of pain management.]

(Julia Sklar ‘What if people in a coma feel pain…’ p14 New Sci 23 Feb 2013)


Essay by Masahiro Mori in 1970 entitled “Bukimi No Tami” (The Valley of Eeriness). “It proposed that humanoid robots can provoke a uniquely uncomfortable emotion that their mechanical cousins do not.” There are many theories for why this is.

Empathy is complex and cognitive neuroscience divides it into three categories:- cognitive, motor and emotional. “Cognitive empathy is essentially the ability to understand another’s perspective and why they make certain decisions – to play “social chess”, as MacDorman puts it. Motor empathy is the ability to mimic movements like facial expressions and postures, and emotional empathy is essentially sympathy, or the ability to feel what others feel. MacDorman’s theory is that the uncanny feeling is produced when we experience certain types of empathy but no others.”

“It’s not just about our failure to sympathise with uncanny robots and computer-generated characters; it’s also about our perception that they can empathise with us.”

(Joe Kloc “Too close for comfort” p35-37 New Sci 12 Jan 2013)



For extensive references to research in to meditation and mindfulness see Dr Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell 2010 “The Mindfulness Manifesto. How doing less and noticing more can help us thrive in a stressed out world.” Hay House. and the associated website