Explain the brain

Photo by Mike Iredale

For more information about the Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists and Non-believers (SacFAN), visit www.meetup.com/SacFAN.

What actually happens in our brains when we feel as if we’re “floating” outside our bodies? It’s disengagement in a region of the parietal lobe called the angular gyrus, where awareness of our body’s placement in space is located. That question—and others, including how religious belief evolved and what happens to our brains under stress—are among the topics that Dr. Sarah Strand lectures about, most recently at the SkeptiCal 2012 Conference. Strand is a neuroscientist who divides her time between research work at UC Davis’ California National Primate Research Center and teaching at Sacramento State.

Is much of your research about out-of-body experiences?

None of it! The research portion of my job takes place at UCD. At the primate center, I manage the projects of a neuroscientist at the University of San Diego. He’s the person who gets the grants. He works on translational research—Alzheimer’s disease—and he needs to test out his therapies in a monkey model before translating them to humans. I’m the person that basically runs his project at the primate center. That’s my job. I also teach psychology at Sac State.

So my jobs actually don’t have anything to do with OBEs [out-of-body experiences] or the biology of religious experiences. It’s just a really interesting area for me.

How did you start making presentations on OBEs and the neurology of religious experiences?

It wasn’t something that I specifically pursued. I’m a member of Sacramento Freethinkers Atheists & Nonbelievers, which is a Meetup Group. On Darwin Day 2009, which was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, SacFAN wanted some kind of evolution talk that had to do with religion.

And they were like, “Hey! Sarah has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and she works with monkeys, so let’s get her to come and talk.”

Because neuroscience and monkeys must have something to do with Darwin?

Exactly! That was essentially what launched it. I had such a great time, because there’s actually quite a lot of information out there—not as much as some areas of scientific study that have been around for hundreds of years—but people are starting to really get interested in this idea of studying religion from a scientific perspective.

My talk about evolution was the first one I did. It was “The Evolution of Religion,” which I’ve given a couple of times now.

Essentially, I start with how religion even came to exist. It’s a very human phenomenon. I talk about the evolution of religion in that sense: how it could have helped groups of people to survive in the “caveman days”; how it likely started out as animism, then evolved into the more modern kinds of religions that we have today.

Then I move into how our brains have evolved this propensity for religious belief—which I sort of talk about in the neurobiology of OBEs talk, too. There’s research that looks at how children will assign agents at work in nonanimate processes that they see. This was done by early humans as well. If there’s a storm, then something made the storm happen.

Then, in discussing how modern religions have evolved over time, the focus is to discuss the people who have sort of an à la carte approach to religion. They pick and choose the things they like from one single religion—and some do it from lots of different kinds of religions. There was a study that was done by the Pew [Forum on Religion & Public Life] which surveyed the flexibility of the beliefs that people hold. They found that beliefs are getting a lot more flexible, except among groups like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But for the most part, people from other religions are a little more flexible about things like how you get to heaven.

I could definitely flesh it out more—and would love to! I’m considering at this point writing a book, because there’re so many aspects of all these topics that could use more than an hour of speaking time.

Do you think scientific research is generally poorly translated for the general public?

I do. I think there’s a lot of editorializing that takes place between the actual science publication and the layperson’s publication. Of course, everybody has personal biases, even scientists, but scientists are trained to evaluate their data in a bias-free way as much as possible.

What’s really interesting is that this area of public speaking, in which I don’t have any day-to-day experience—I’m not collecting the data myself, I’m just reporting it to the public—has sort of flourished without me really putting a lot of energy into it. People have just been really interested in it.

So the question is: How can I make this work, and pursue this professionally? I think people have a real thirst for this kind of information, and it’s not always easy to get to. Doing these presentations is a real way to use my scientific training to evaluate the primary literature and get that information out there, to communicate it in an educational way through these meetings and conferences. It’s a really great outlet for these skills.