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Can Atheists Be Happy? And Other Answers from Scientific American MIND


The May/June issue of Scientific American Mind makes its online debut today. As usual, it contains an array of delicacies to sate your curiosity about people. Here are three mouth-watering morsels of brain food from its pages.

Pretty young woman

Don't blame her. Images of youthful knockouts are not the root of body image problems. Courtesy of liber via Flickr.

Knowing Ourselves. How we see ourselves—physically, that is--can play a significant role in our lives. Our body image likely undergirds much of our social and athletic confidence, and partly through those factors, our mood. Females, more than males, often struggle with their body image at some point in their lives, probably because they are judged by their appearance more than males are. For most, the trouble amounts to little more than a vexing, but temporary delusion such as, “I look fat in this dress.” But for the unfortunate few, a negative, and hugely distorted, body image produces persistent trouble, resulting in a disorder such as anorexia. Either way, getting at the root of such feelings of physical inadequacy is of no minor significance.

I have always thought that body image issues stemmed from what we see. We look in the mirror and compare ourselves to the beautiful woman we saw on TV, in the magazine, walking down the street—or wherever—and we are sorely disappointed. But in this issue of the magazine, I learned that body image isn’t all, or even mostly, determined by that visual comparison (see “Inside the Wrong Body,” by Carrie Arnold). It is, instead, hugely influenced by how we feel inside. That is, a little known sense called interoception, awareness of the internal state of one’s body, anchors our impression of what we look like.

Interoception enables us to read our own emotions and to know when we are hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or in pain. People vary on how well this sense works for them. Those who suffer from eating disorders and serious body image issues usually have major deficits in interoception. Research shows that such people are more susceptible to media images of thin women and more easily swayed by others’ opinions. If your interoception is good, then you are relatively immune to such influences and less likely to think you are fat when you are really thin—or vice versa. Want to know how well your internal sense operates? Read the article for a do-it-yourself test.

Ozzy Osbourne

Subliminal songs? Ozzy Osbourne was accused of imbedding backmasked secret tracks in his music that influenced children. Courtesy of Focka via Flickr.

Subliminal Silliness. When I was a kid, my pals told me that commercials contained hidden subliminal messages designed to suck us into buying things we don’t really want. I also remember hearing that records from reportedly nefarious rock musicians, when played backwards, issued spoken messages that could provoke people to behave badly, again working through the unconscious mind. It all sounded very fishy to me, and I never lost sleep over it—suspicious as I am of most claims and not the sort who responds to suggestions to engage in bad behavior anyway. Still, it wasn’t voodoo, but psychology, and despite the fact that both of my parents were research psychologists, I don’t remember ever learning whether these assertions had any validity.

As an article in this issue tells us, these particular examples of subliminal influence are mythical (see “The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages,” by Wolfgang Stroebe). It is possible to flash words or phrases onto a screen too briefly to be consciously processed, and audio engineers can record utterances backward onto a track, a technique known as backmasking. But no visual or aural messages transmitted beneath our awareness can change our preferences or make us do things we otherwise would be loathe to attempt or pursue.

That said, under certain circumstances, subliminal messages can subtly sway us. But we have to be ready for them. That is, if we are already thinking or feeling something that relates to the message, that phrase or sentence can serve as a reminder of something we like, making us more likely to choose that item over something else. In other cases, we might subconsciously associate a stimulus—such as the type of background music in a store—with high- or low-brow taste, and this can influence the amount of money we spend. But such cues don’t make us do anything radically different from what we intend or want to do.

The effect of such subliminal signals seems to me to be a lot like other happenstance influences on our behavior. I work in an open office so lots of people walk by my desk. I rarely pay attention to them, but I do sometimes vaguely register their presence. Most of the time, the passerby has no affect on my behavior. But occasionally, I notice someone who reminds me of a task that I have forgotten to do. Maybe I am working with that person, or he or she is part of a meeting in which whatever I was supposed to accomplish would be discussed. In such cases, I might stop what I am doing and turn to the forgotten task. But since that degree of influence doesn’t seem too sinister to me, I am going to continue to find concerns more worthy of sleep loss.


Communal benefits. Religion can bolster well-being, in part because going to church provides a sense of community. Courtesy of tbower via Flickr.

Can Atheists Be Happy? Being religious confers big benefits. Time and again, studies have shown that people who have a religious faith are more likely to be healthy and happy than those who lack one. Religious people may even live longer. Go to church and you could outlive your atheist friends by a good seven years, as we report in this issue (see “Healthy Skepticism,” by Sandra Upson). Yet doctors don’t counsel patients to take up Christianity, say, as a way of beating back mental or physical distress. Even if such advice were socially acceptable, it wouldn’t work. Most people can’t just go out and find religion if the idea hadn’t resonated with them before. But finding out the secret ingredients behind religion’s powerful effects might reveal something that could be prescribed.

One clue: religion makes the biggest difference for well-being in places where life is hard, suggesting the belief system, or the camaraderie that accompanies it, provides support when times are tough. But if you are affluent, and things are going well, you may be perfectly happy without this psychological safety net, studies show. Being religious also seems to be most beneficial if you live among mostly religious people, indicating it is way of fitting in socially. In countries where few people believe, the psychological benefits of faith disappear.

So if you are nonbeliever, surround yourself with like-minded people, and work on achieving your goals in other parts of your life (see “The Secrets of Self Improvement,” by Marina Krakovsky, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2012). Having close friends and other forms of psychological support can also boost your well-being. Your social and professional successes will then help you weather life’s ups and downs just as religion does. If you live in the U.S., these accomplishments might even help you withstand the most unrelenting downside of being nonreligious: the feeling of not fitting in.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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