Out of body experiences and the like have always disturbed me, because how could there be an evolutionary advantage to something that occurs at the end of your life, at a time when you will no longer be able to reproduce? I was watching a documentary about the original research into DMT (the “spirit molecule”) when I had an epiphany. The key insight came from the researcher’s comment about his discomfort with his experiments, due to the change in beliefs his patients experienced. They emerged from their experiences with new, life-altering beliefs. This was not something to be taken lightly. But how, out of all the hallucinogens known to man (and all the failed brainwashing experiments of the Cold War era!) could this one drug actually change a human mind so essentially and radically?
After locating a number of studies (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071212202008.htm, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120418162304.htm, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402094322.htm), I had an aha! moment. As an atheist, I have always though that believers are somehow weak, since they appear to absolve themselves of responsibility for their lives by “turning to [insert spiritual being]” whenever things got tough, etc. For myself, I am both liberated and weighted by the realization that everything in my life is my own responsibility, and that I have only one short life in which to do and think and feel. After reviewing a few studies about the function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, especially with regards to long-term decision making; the effect on both believers’ certainty and atheists’ uncertainty of death-related thoughts and associations; and the nature of high-risk behaviors and correlates with both stress and faith, I believe I have solved the puzzle.
Humans must have evolved the prefrontal cortex when we became able to conceptualize the future, and as a consequence, our own inevitable deaths. I do not believe it would have been possible for us to be aware of our own deaths without having a mechanism to deal with it. Studies show that, in fact, those with damaged VMPFC’s cannot make reliable choices about the distant future. To think about our future, we must have faith that there is a future to think about. For humans, uncertainty equals stress, and certainty alleviates stress. I believe that when we are stressed, when we think about the future, and when we think about death, our VMPFC is triggered (hence DMT) and we receive a measure of relief from uncertainty.
I realized that stress correlates highly with risky behavior, and faith (many studies confirm) correlates highly with avoiding risky behavior. I believe there is an interaction between faith and stress, and cannot avoid the conclusion that for most people, faith is literally very healthy. I still believe that it can lead to unhealthy societal conditions, but as these are generally mediated by a multitude of other factors, I cannot say with certainty that the negative aspects of faith outweigh its benefits. Yet I also cannot avoid the conclusion that thinking with the certainty part of our brain leads us to make bad decisions. Is it possible for humans to learn to be rational without giving up their faith? Or, on the other hand, what would the impact on humans be -depression? anxiety? nothing? – if all of us were rational?