Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Lost Self Schizotypy, Runaway Religious Selection, and the Neurobiology of Self

The Lost Self

Schizotypy, Runaway Religious Selection, and the
Neurobiology of Self*

by Charles Brack

The FLDS females: does religious culture divert schizotypy into explosive reproduction?

Every now and then, the Darwinian underworld of religiosity rises like the blinding sun. The not-so-secret world of religion and reproductive advantage came to fore when the Texas Department of Protective Services took temporary custody of over 400 children from the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) near the small city of Eldorado.

Historically, the Darwinian origins of religiosity have drawn little attention from the community of evolutionary psychologists, due in part to the subtle and sometimes dangerous political undercurrents that frame scientific research. This hands-off policy has come to an end, just in time to catch this small sect of 10,000 members with its polygamous pants down. The FLDS has such an aggressive and religiously-tainted reproductive strategy that it has become the smoking gun of Friedrich von Hayek's proposal (1982) that the primary function of religion is reproductive advantage.

The FLDS is most notable by its peculiar adaptation of religious polygamy. Polygamy is a divisive problem for the continuity of social groups, as it produces large percentages of surplus males, with the corresponding negative social consequences. Monogamy is a safety valve for such societies, with only about 20% of the male population actually taking advantage of plural arrangements.

This cross-cultural polygamy estimate is very close to some estimates of the rate of Mormon polygamy in Utah in 1870, about 20 years before the institution of the anti-polygamy laws. By 1910, the rate of polygamy dropped in half, countering some of its negative cultural and genetic consequences: group splintering; lowered age of first-intercourse and conception for females; lower educational levels for females; greater average age of reproductive males; and, higher rates of inbreeding.

The rise of the FLDS, like the rise of Mormonism, follows a long tradition of religious splintering and reproductive advantage. The FLDS was formed after the Mormon renunciation of polygamy, which was punctuated by statehood for Utah in the late 1890s. The formation of the FLDS (and its sister splinter groups) had much in common with the original formation of Mormonism, and indeed, with sect formation in general: elevated male dominance and polygamy (or virtual polygamy); emigration to "promised lands"; high levels of intragroup cooperation and income redistribution; elevated levels of outgroup competition; xenophobia; "prophet" leaders with a privileged relationship to god (and privileged sexual access to the sect's females); high levels of reproductive output; economic endogamy (the favoring of religious insiders in economic transactions); and last but not least, a new variation or a recycling (fundamentalism) of religious doctrine.

Sex and the Formation of New Religious Movements

John Lennon noted the sexual advantages of religious leaders in Sexy Sadie
and the Maharishi Song

While females, on average, are more religious than males, sect formation is typically initiated by males, an indication of its greater advantages in male reproductive success. Sect formation is typically accompanied by some novel variation of religious doctrine, which integrates mainstream religious practice with some significant difference, be it new or recycled (fundamentalism). So what evolutionary prize is behind the curtain of these endless variations in denominational religious doctrine?

In the case of the FLDS, this is quite clear. The variation took the form of the recycling of the Adam-God doctrine, proposed by some of the early founders of Mormonism, and subsequently discounted by the Mormon church. The Adam-God doctrine proposes the Biblical Adam to be a god, and in some interpretations, the God. This version of Adam was a polygamous one, with Eve relegated to one of his many wives. This was certainly another case of god imitating man, in that its initial promoters were all polygamous males.

Concurrent with the Adam-God doctrine, the FLDS promoted the Three-Wives doctrine, even going so far as to make it an essential part of eternal salvation for a male. According to Joseph Smith, God was so enamored with the Three-Wives doctrine that he commanded: "all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same … and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory".

To add fuel to the fire of blatant male reproductive strategy, eternal salvation for a woman would occur if she was escorted by her husband into heaven, and this was achieved through earthly obedience. The glaring inequity of this scenario certainly has the liberals mystified: why would females accept such a concocted premise for eternal salvation? No godly explanation could provide the answer to this question--this one belongs to Darwin. For these females, the sting of earthly subservience is compensated by the eternal glory of Darwinian reproductive advantage. Indeed, the subservient characteristics of the FLDS females are a Darwinian match to the highly reproductive and dominant characteristics of the FLDS males.

We have previously proposed that the religious look for religious partners in what is fundamentally a Darwinian game called reproductive strategy matching. That is, people tend to look for mates that match their desire for quantity of children, presumably, because this improves the probability that it will be achieved.

Religious females seek religious males to better achieve their reproductive objectives. The more religious, the more this is true. Since the very religious males have the greatest desire for children, finding a male at the extreme ends of religiosity provides the greatest potential for reproductive output. However, males and females at the far edge of religiosity have some distinctive cognitive and personality traits.

The continuum between religious normality and schizophrenia

The proposed relationship between hyperreligiosity and epilepsy dates all they way back to the ancient Greeks. More recently, Dewhurst (1970) noted a tendency of temporal lobe epileptics to experience sudden religious conversions, and Waxman (1975) noted several behavioral tendencies during the interictal phases of temporal lobe epilepsy: changes in sexual behavior, hyperreligiosity, and hypergraphia. (For a comprehensive review of epilepsy and religiosity, see Saver and Rabin, 1997).

Epilepsy is notable by the major religious founders that purportedly have been connected to it: St. Paul, Mohammed, and Joseph Smith. It is also interesting to note that dopamine levels are elevated during interictal periods of epilepsy, which is certainly consistent with the dopaminergic tendencies of religious-conservatism.

FLDS child bride of an older man: male sperm deteriorates with age, reducing fertility and increasing the risk of genetic problems in offspring

But no mental disorder has been as connected to hyperreligiosity as paranoid schizophrenia. Evidence for the relationship between schizophrenia and religiosity has been slowly piling up, and in 1989, Kroll reported that 70% of the schizophrenics in his study group claimed to have had a religious experience. Rudalevièiene et al. (2008) reported that 63% of the 295 schizophrenic patients in their study had religious delusions. Spencer (1975) reported that Jehovah's Witnesses were about four times more likely to be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia than the general population, and Peters et al. (1999) reported that Hare Krishnas and Druids were elevated (relative to the general population) in delusional ideation. Peters also implied the existence of a continuum between religious normality and psychotic behavior.

Consistent with Pervic's Dopaminervic-Spartial theory of Religiosity and the hemispericity theory of political interaction, schizophrenic religious delusions during neuroimaging, "showed an association of religious delusions with left temporal overactivation and reduced occipital uptake, particularly on the left [hemisphere]" (Purr et al., 2001). As we have previously proposed, the dopaminergic nature of the left hemisphere contributes asymmetrically to religious-conservatism. Indeed, paranoid schizophrenia has been more closely associated with a relatively higher activation of the left hemisphere than the right.

If I can't remember who I am, maybe I'm God?

John Nash, the Nobel-prize winning mathematician and paranoid schizophrenic, once thought he was the left foot of God on earth. Further, he thought he would become emperor of Antarctica and his name was really Johann von Nassau (Capps, 2004). The line between genius and madness is probably not even a line, but Nash's grandiose misidentification of himself highlights a not uncommon problem the brain has in maintaining identity, autobiographic memory, and place in the world.

Patients with damage to the right hemisphere may be unable to recognize their own face in a mirror (Breen et al., 2001), which is consistent with the right hemisphere's more substantial role in both facial processing and the rendering and analysis of reflected space. The right hemisphere seems to have a special relationship in the identification of self, and further, the identification of self may have implications in political-religious disposition.

The part of the human brain that accounts for many of the cognitive attributes of liberals (particularly the "intellectual" liberals) is the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (right DLPFC). The right DLPFC has been implicated in inhibiting racist tendencies (Richeson, 2003), aversion to dominance (Grafman, 2006), and aversion to inequality (Knoch, 2006). Further, we believe it to be the major "antireligious" portion of the brain, that is, its propensity to inhibit belief bias (Goel, 2003) makes it the prime suspect in the subversion of religious beliefs. The right DLPFC is also one of the major (creative) regions for hypothesis generation in the brain, and has given the pesky liberals an important role in the advancement of science and technology.

But the right DLPFC is part of a larger right-hemispheric network that manages one's "selfness". The brain has indeed constructed a "self" from regions in the brain that integrate the inputs coming from the multiple sensory systems, such as the temporoparietal junction, and also regions that respond selectively to human body parts, such as the extrastriate body area. The extrastriate body area keeps track of other people's bodies as well as your own (Blakeslee, 2007).

The right angular gyrus, part of the temporoparietal junction, gives you a sense of being localized within your own body. Out-of-body experiences have been generated by disabling the right angular gyrus with an electrode. Disabling the right angular gyrus also results in the inability to recognize your own face. But part of "selfness" also involves the personal-autobiographical memories accumulated over one's lifetime, and damage to the right cortex, from the DLPFC to the frontal polar and anterior temporal regions, more negatively impacts the retrieval of personal-autobiographic memories than damage to analogous regions in the left hemisphere (Keenan et al., 2000).

Therefore, the sense of self is disproportionately managed by the right hemisphere. Further, it seems to manage it differently than the left. One such experiment (Keenan, 2000) highlighting this difference involved the perception of composite faces, consisting of a 50-50 blend of famous people morphed together with one's own face (the self-famous morph), and a 50-50 blend of co-workers' faces morphed together with famous people (the familiar-famous morph).

David Koresh: a classic case of schizotypy, new religious doctrine,

dispersal, and reproductive advantage

People tended to perceive the self-famous facial morph as not being famous, while they tended to view the familiar-famous morph as famous. But what made this interesting was that this varied by the hand the subject responded with. The left hand (right hemisphere) was more likely to consider the self-famous morph as not being famous, while the right hand (left hemisphere) was more likely to consider the self-famous morph as being famous.

It is also interesting to note that the most frequent schizophrenic religious delusion of females is that of being a saint (the most rare was that they were God). For schizophrenic males, the most common delusion was being God (Rudalevièiene, 2008). This gender difference in god-delusion is certainly interesting, and seems to have implications for reproductive success. As we noted before, schizophrenia is more likely to be diagnosed in patients with a higher relative activation of the left hemisphere.

The left hemispheric tendency to be "reborn"

The left-hemisphere may be giving faint indications that it is the more "egomanical" hemisphere. Having a nagging right hemisphere constantly reminding it otherwise seems to be due to the fact that the accurate maintenance of one's autobiographical memories is mainly executed by the right hemisphere (Fischler, 1984). Further, damage to the right hemisphere is more likely to result in the phenomenon of delusional misidentification syndrome (Feinberg, 2005) of one's self and others.

Misidentification of self (and others) is a recurring problem in schizophrenia, which, like the loss of sense of self, has been linked to disorders in the functioning of the right frontal lobe (Coltheart, 2007). This misidentification of self associated with disorders of the right hemisphere is certainly consistent with the left hemisphere's tendency to formulate opinions in the absence of information from the right hemisphere. Michael Gazzaniga referred to this propensity as the "interpreter" function of the left hemisphere.

Gazzaniga, an early pioneer in the field of split-brain research, noted an interesting case study of one of his subjects:

when the word "walk" was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word "walk" was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

This same interpretive phenomenon was noted in numerous experiments, leading Gazzaniga to not only propose that the left brain compulsively generates and preserves beliefs based on whatever information it possesses, but this was the same process responsible for religious beliefs. This also parallels Goel and Dolan's findings (2003) of a left temporal system facilitating the phenomenon of belief bias, or the ability to hold onto beliefs in the face of contrary information.

The left hemisphere can fully construct a world unto itself, a noted tendency of schizophrenia. In the absence of interference from the right hemisphere, the principle source of self, the left hemisphere fills in the void based on some of the general tendencies of left hemispheric processing: positive dominance valuation (Grafman, 2006); orientation towards upper, extrapersonal space (Previc, 2006); and belief bias.

There is a distinctive tendency for schizophrenics to substitute one's real self with another, more powerful version. As autobiographical memories and the ordinary sense of self fade with the relative deactivation of the right hemisphere, a more powerful, left hemispheric self is constructed, based heavily on the schizophrenic's assessment of social or religious dominance levels. The Grafman study noted a distinctive tendency for the left hemisphere to become activated during dominance valuations, and work by Gazzaniga (with split-brain patients) seems to corroborate the left hemispheric propensity to view dominant individuals more favorably than the right, at least when the two hemispheres are separated by commissurotomy.

In the Rudalevièiene study, being God was the number one delusion of male schizophrenics. Being a saint was number two, followed by the devil, which was followed by the belief that one was an important person. For females, being a saint was by far the number one delusion, followed by an important person. Being God was a relatively rare delusion for females, perhaps due to the male gender bias of God. Perhaps there are reproductive implications in the God-saint dichotomy of male and female schizophrenics, as submissive females, when paired with dominant males, seem to be more reproductive.

Religious conversions have been associated with psychoses in several studies (ICMR, 1988), (Bhugra et al., 1999), and (Bhugra, 2002). Bhugra also made an interesting observation by suggesting that religious conversions were an attempt to regain self-control as one's self-concept began to change with the emergence of schizophrenic symptoms. In other words, the loss of self was compensated by hyperreligiosity and the strong behavioral modulation that went with it.

Rapid religious conversions, like the Christian "born again" experience, are correlated with the loss (to some degree) of autobiographical self, and seem to be serving several important functions: behavioral self-regulation; defection from one social network and into another (and usually a more reproductive one); emigration; and most importantly, higher reproductive rates.

Stuck in the middle with you

The proposal that religious culture diverts the negative consequences of schizoidal tendencies into successful Darwinian reproductive strategies is one of the most controversial theories of the evolution of religion. However, there are a growing number of studies indicating that religiosity is indeed a "coping" mechanism for people afflicted with mental illness, such as Tepper et al. (2001), Sullivan (1993), and Reger et al. (2002). Interestingly, elevations in religious activity usually occur at the onset of schizophrenia.

The Reger study is noteworthy in that schizophrenic patients maintain higher levels of religiosity over a longer time period than those with depressive disorders. The aforementioned Peters et al. noted an interesting finding with evolutionary overtones: the non-religious scored lowest on the delusional inventory, while the Hare Krishna/Druids (along with the psychotics) scored the highest. But the most notable finding from this study was that the normal religious scored in between these two extremes.

The ramifications of the Peters study is fundamental to the evolution of religion. If indeed the normal religious subpopulation, on average, falls in between the non-religious and psychotic subpopulations in delusional ideation, what trend of natural selection has it been following? The answer to this great paradox may be found in the dopaminergic theory of human intelligence (1999), by none other than the author of the ingenious Dopamineragic-Spatial theory of Religiosity, Fred Previc.

A primordial ooze of religion and science?

The fact that dopaminergic innervation is more emphasized in phylogentically recent species (Berger et al., 1991) may hint that it is the neurotransmitter most responsible for the human version of intelligence. It is also notable that humans, relative to chimpanzees, are more dopaminergically innervated in cortical layers V and VI in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. As we have previously discussed, these regions (among others) are highly activated in social (and political) attitudes, behavioral self-regulation, problem solving, and inductive-deductive reasoning.

Previc introduced the interesting notion that science and religion are actually cognitively linked via the expansion of the dopamine system:

the final expansion of [dopamine] could have prompted the rise in abstract reasoning, human creativity in the form of art and music, and religious behavior....Both abstract reasoning and religious thought involve an emphasis on nonvisible (distant) space and time, and both are linked to the upper field....It might also seem strange that two ostensibly antagonistic processes--religious behavior and abstract (scientific) reasoning--may have co-evolved....both phenomena are concerned with abstract concepts and comprehensive frameworks with which to comprehend spatio-temporal events in the external environment.

Previc's proposal that the brain's rendering of distant (upper) extrapersonal space and time is adapted into religious cognition is one of the great insights of neuropsychology. But his further proposal that scientific reasoning follows a similar cognitive spatio-temporal framework is certainly plausible, and bolstered by the fact that religiosity and spirituality are still common among scientists.

Religiosity and the replication of DNA

Given the substantial reproductive advantages and heritability of religiosity, atheism and agnosticism still persist, although at relatively low levels (about 8% of the population). Hyperreligiosity in a population is not without its Darwinian costs: lower rates of technological change; higher coefficients of inbreeding (Ober, 1998); and environmental stress due to high reproductive rates. These are some of the Darwinian checks and balances on the selection for hyperreligiosity in a population. Thus, natural selection seems to be maintaining the human gene pool in a religiously diversified state, which maintains reproductive effectiveness, technological progress, and the carrying capacity of habitats.

The asymmetries in the dopaminergic innervation of the various cortical regions could certainly explain much of the diversity in religiosity of the human species. The extreme ends of this cognitive diversity are anchored by the very religious females and the atheistic males. The very religious females have some notable personality characteristics that all converge on one central theme: reproduction.

As we have previously documented, some of these characteristics are: greater desire for offspring; higher rates of monogamy; lower age at first child; lower rates of contraception; greater orgasmicity during intercourse; higher reproductive valence to sexual behavior; higher copulation frequency; greater desire for religious (and therefore more reproductive) males as mates; and greater subservience to males (which increases reproductive output).

The neural substrates of hyperreligiosity appear to be constructed mainly in the left hemisphere, which is confirmed by some recent neuroimaging trends. The acceptance of subservience and inequality in their relationships is consistent with Knoch's findings (2006) that acceptance of inequality is managed mainly by the left hemisphere. Positive valuations of dominance are also managed disproportionately by the left hemisphere (Grafman, 2006). Further, belief bias, or the ability to hold on to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, is a distinctive trait of the left hemisphere, and the left temporal cortex in particular (Goel, 2003).

Following along the same theme of the temporal lobe's contribution to hyperreligiosity, the controversial Waxman-Geschwind syndrome (1975) notes some of the characterisitics of temporal lobe epileptics: hypermoralism; humorlessness; and hypergraphia. Prosody, which is managed primarily by the right hemisphere, is usually diminished in the hyperreligious, as seems to be the case in the FLDS females.

Schizotypy and human dispersal strategies

The conventional view of schizophrenia as an all-or-nothing disorder ignores the continuum of schizoidal personality characteristics that afflict the general population in varying degrees, yet falling short of a full diagnosis of schizophrenia. Gordon Claridge referred to this continuum as schizotypy, and defined four factors associated with it: unusual perceptual experiences, such as hallucinations; disorganized thinking; asocial and emotionally flat behavior; and impulsive nonconformity.

The evolutionary psychologists would have to work hard for adaptive explanations, especially since schizotypy can originate from many diverse genetic, environmental, and pathological reasons. While creativity seems to be one of the obvious beneficiaries of schizotypy (Nettle, 2005), some others are not so obvious.

Stevens and Price (1996) would make the connection between schizotypy and the most common method animals employ to deal with overpopulation and depletion of habitats: dispersal. Stevens and Price outline their basic premise (1998):

In colonization and the sort of splitting along kinship lines seen, for instance, in the Yanomamo (Chagnon 1980), the group norms of the parent group are maintained in both daughter groups. In another type of splitting, one daughter group breaks off from the main group with a new set of norms, beliefs, and standards. This latter type of splitting occurs in our own society in the formation of cults, in which a prophet or cult leader forms a new ideology, collects a group of followers, and takes them off into some form of “promised land.” We explore the possibility that the sort of mental apparatus that allows the prophet to reject the norms of his parent group and form a new set of beliefs may, if circumstances are not favorable, result in psychosis or what in the 19th century used to be called delusional insanity.

The "mental apparatus" employed by cult formation, according to Stevens and Price, is schizotypy. Group splitting by kinship or cult has distinctive genetic and cultural implications. When a group splits by kinship, the daughter groups maintain a greater proportion of cultural memes than if splitting by cult formation. Cult formation seems to confer greater reproductive advantages to male cult leaders, one of the reasons cults discourage contact with outsiders. It is certainly arguable that cult formation, relative to kinship, provides greater genetic diversity among new founder populations. However, gene flow between populations would seem to be more limited in cults, although there is little genetic evidence comparing these two modes of splinter group formation.

Runaway Religious Selection

So what are we to make of the FLDS? While the secular world is titillated by their polygamist practices, amused by their old fashioned clothing, disgusted by their expulsions of young males that might compete for females, and unsettled by their extreme form of male dominance, the lifetime reproductive yield of the FLDS female stands at about seven children (Quinn, 1993), not too far from the fertility rates of prehistoric humans. However, the mortality rates of these early humans were quite high, and their net reproductive yield fell short of the modern FLDS.

Religious cultural memes, when combined with the continuum of religious schizotypy, is a runaway Darwinian process. This genetic-memetic confluence is reproductively explosive, creating higher fertility rates, an enhanced propensity for dispersal, and the improved survival of small isolated social groups (Sosis, 2003). Religious culture diverts schizotypy and bipolar tendencies into socially adaptive behaviors, and most importantly, reproductive effectiveness.

Further, religious culture seems to be positively and negatively selecting certain genes, more specifically, the genes associated with the functioning of the monoamine transmitter systems: dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. The so-called dopamine adventure gene, DRD4, associated with both novelty seeking and spiritual transcendance (Saucier, 2000), and the genes associated with serotonin receptor density (Borg, 2003), are but a few of the genes potentially under selective pressure associated with religious culture. However, we suspect the genetics associated with religious selection to be diverse, and even vary with the particular flavor of religious culture.

Charles Brack, August 2008


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* Originally from