Monday, January 05, 2009

Get religious to improve self control?

Here is a curious piece by John Tierney noting the work of Michael McCullouch, who provides evidence that religiosity correlates with higher self-control among adults.
“Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”

In a study published by the University of Maryland in 2003, students who were subliminally exposed to religious words (like God, prayer or bible) were slower to recognize words associated with temptations (like drugs or premarital sex). Conversely, when they were primed with the temptation words, they were quicker to recognize the religious words.
What should a heathen like myself do?
Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.


  1. Science can be a kind of religion, can't it?

    I don't mean becoming Christian Scientist or, heaven forbid, a scientologist, but rather maintaining a quality of skepticism, fearlessness and resoluteness in your process of enquiry: keeping an open mind, being willings to ditch favourite beliefs when new evidence or better theory appears, and testing your belief structure not only against the evidence but against what is known about the process of belief itself. Maintaining this disposition is, in my experience, very close to the practice of self-enquiry advocated by some religions, eg, Buddhism or parts of Hinduism, just some of the ground rules are different.

    At it's base, Science proposes that the truth is "out there" - not in the form of a supernatural deity but as the world itself - available to be dicovered, albeit with limited tools and fallible cognitive capabilities that require a kind of mindful practice to avoid assumption and superstition.

  2. Jim, you might be interested in Stuart A. Kauffman's new book "Reinventing the sacred" (Basic Books, 2008), which very much mirrors and expands on your view.