Research into the physical basis of beliefs and subjective experience

A multidisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford will examine all types of beliefs, from those that make children think their stockings are filled by Santa Claus to the faith that drives fundamentalist terrorism. The Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (OXCSOM) will be a multidisciplinary program of research into the physical basis of beliefs and subjective experience.

The Centre, which will be led by Oxford neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, will bring together neuroscientists, philosophers and theologians to ask such questions as how belief physically affects our brains, how religious faith affects experiences such as pain, whether there is a detectable physical difference in the brain between religious and secular faith, and ultimately how the collection of physical matter making up our brains can generate consciousness.

OXCSOM will be a ‘virtual’ centre spread across various Oxford departments, with a website and regular discussion meetings. The John Templeton Foundation has given $2 million to fund a two-year pilot of the Centre, with the possibility of long-term funding if it is successful.

The project will bring together an equal number of scientists and researchers from the humanities. Researchers will examine issues surrounding how belief changes neural networks in the brain and conversely how neural networks in the brain affect, or indeed cause, belief.

There will initially be eight academics on the payroll of the centre from six different departments: Anatomy, Pharmacology, Philosophy, Physiology, Theology, and the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. The researchers will employ a wide range of techniques, including functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

One of the first projects to be undertaken will be an investigation into whether people cope with pain differently depending on their faith, using volunteers who will have a small amount of chilli gel applied to the back of their hand and will be asked about their response to the sensation, whilst having their brain activity monitored.

Baroness Greenfield said: ‘The technologies generated by the science of the previous century now have the potential to challenge the very notion of Human Nature, whilst at the same time providing the opportunity to gain exciting new insights into its physical basis within the human brain. It is now possible to explore mental processes by experimental means, on time and space scales commensurate with real physico-chemical events within the brain and body.

‘By drawing on an unprecedented range of disciplines and harnessing cutting-edge expertise, the collective insights gained could inspire the development of highly innovative yet practical approaches for promoting well-being, and, ultimately, maximising individual human potential.’


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