Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)

And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free: A Crash Course in Design Thinking from Stanford’s Design School

If you ask a few of today's youngsters what they want to do when they grow up, the word "design" will almost certainly come up more than once. Ask them what design itself means to them, and you'll get a variety of answers from the vaguely general to the ultra-specialized. The concept of design — and of designing, and of being a designer — clearly holds a strong appeal, but how to define it in a useful way that still applies in as many cases as possible?

One set of answers comes from the 90-minute "Crash Course in Design Thinking" above, a production of Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.schoolThe Interaction Design Foundation defines design thinking as "an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions we might have, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding." In a brief history of the subject there, Rikke Dam and Teo Siang write that "business analysts, engineers, scientists and creative individuals have been focused on the methods and processes of innovation for decades."

Stanford comes into the picture in the early 1990s, with the formation of the Design Thinking-oriented firm IDEO and its " design process modelled on the work developed at the Stanford Design School." In other words, someone using design thinking, on the job at IDEO or elsewhere, knows how to approach new, vague, or otherwise tricky problems in various sectors and work step-by-step toward solutions., with their mission to "build on methods from across the field of design to create learning experiences that help people unlock their creative potential and apply it to the world," aims to instill the principles of design thinking in its students. And this crash course, through an activity called "The Gift-Giving Project," offers a glimpse of how they do it.

You can just watch the video and get a sense of the "design cycle" as teaches it, or you can get hands-on by assembling the simple required materials and a group of your fellow design enthusiasts (make sure you add up to an even number). Youngster or otherwise, you may well emerge from the experience, a mere hour and a half later, with not just new problem-solving habits of mind but a newfound zeal for design, however you define it.

"Crash Course in Design Thinking" will be added to our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. You can find a number of MOOCS on design thinking and design at Coursera.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

2,000+ Cassettes from the Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection Now Streaming Online

Last month Colin Marshall gave you the scoop on Stanford University's digitization of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a project that takes you inside the making of the iconic 1955 poem. As a quick follow up, it's worth mentioning this: Stanford has also just put online over 2,000 Ginsberg audio cassette recordings, giving you access to "a staggering amount of primary source material associated with the Beat Generation" and its most acclaimed poet.

For a quick taste of what's in the archive, Stanford Libraries points you to an afternoon breakfast table conversation between Ginsberg and another legendary Beat figure, William S. Burroughs. But you can rummage/search through the whole collection and find your own favorite recordings here.

via Stanford Libraries and Austin Kleon's newsletter (which you should subscribe to here)

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Stanford University Launches Free Course on Developing Apps with iOS 10

Whenever Apple releases a new version of iOS, Stanford University eventually releases a course telling you how to develop apps in that environment. iOS 10 came out last fall, and now the iOS 10 app development course is getting rolled out this quarter. It's free online, of course, on iTunes.

You can now find "Developing iOS Apps with Swift" housed in our collection of Free Computer Science Courses, which currently features 117 courses in total, including some basic Harvard courses that will teach you how to code in 12 weeks.

As always, courses from other disciplines can be found on our larger list, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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How to Start a Start-Up: A Free Course from Y Combinator Taught at Stanford

If you have any entrepreneurial aspirations, you've likely heard of Y Combinator (YC), an accelerator based in Silicon Valley that's been called "the world's most powerful start-up incubator" (Fast Company) or "a spawning ground for emerging tech giants" (Fortune). Twice a year, YC carefully selects a batch of start-ups, gives them $120,000 of seed funding each (in exchange for some equity), and then helps nurture the fledgling ventures to the next stage of development. YC hosts dinners where prominent entrepreneurs come to speak and offer advice. They hold "Demo Days," where the start-ups can pitch their concepts and products to investors, and they have "Office Hours," where budding entrepreneurs can work through problems with the seasoned entrepreneurs who run YC. Then, with a little luck, these new start-ups will experience the same success as previous YC companies, Dropbox and Airbnb.

Given Y Combinator's mission, it makes perfect sense that YC has ties with Stanford University, another institution that has hatched giant tech companies--Google, Cisco, Yahoo and more. Back in 2014, Sam Altman (the president of Y Combinator) put together a course at Stanford called “How to Start a Start-Up,” which essentially offers students an introduction to the key lessons taught to YC companies. Altman presents the first two lectures. Then some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley take over. Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook co-founder), Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder), Marc Andreessen (Netscape creator/general partner of Andreessen Horowitz), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo CEO, prominent Googler), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder), Ron Conway (Silicon Valley super angel), Paul Graham (YC founder)--they all make an appearance in the course.

You can watch the complete set of 20 lectures above, which covers everything you need to start a start-up--from creating a team, to building products users love, to raising money, to creating the right culture and beyond. Altman's site also features a recommended reading list, plus a set of additional resources. (Bonus: A Georgetown undergrad has created an ebook pulling together the class notes from the course. If you download it, please donate a few bucks so he can pick up some ramen.) The videos for "How to Start a Start-Up"--which will be added to our collection of Free Online Business Courses--can be found on YouTube and iTunes U.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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This is Your Brain in Love: The Stanford Love Competition Shows What Love Looks Like on an MRI

We hear it so often it’s almost a cliché, one I’m sure I’ve repeated without giving it much thought: You can’t measure love in a laboratory. But we probably can, in fact. Or at least neuroscientists can. Last year, one joint Chinese and American team of neuroscientists did just that, defining the feeling we call love as “a motivational state associated with a desire to enter or maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.” This doesn’t cover the love of pets, food, or sunsets, but it gets at what we celebrate with candy and red tchotchkes every year around this time, as well as the love we have for friends or family.

Using fMRI scans of three groups of 100 men and women, the researchers found that an “in-love group had more increased activity across several brain regions involved in reward, motivation, emotion, and social functioning,” reports Medical Daily. The longer people had been “in love,” the greater the brain activity in these regions. Whether the brain states cause the emotion, or the emotion causes the brain states, or they are one in the same, I can’t say, but the fact remains: love can be quantifiably measured.

Meanwhile, Brent Hoff separately decided to exploit this fact for what he calls a “Love Competition.” With the help of Stanford’s Center for Cognitive Neurobiological Imaging (CNI), Hoff enlisted seven contestants of varying ages---from 10 to 75---and genders to enter an fMRI machine and “love someone as hard as they can” for five minutes. Whoever generates the most activity in regions “producing the neurochemical experience of love” wins. Gives you the warm fuzzies, right?

While "the idea that love can be measured may seem deeply unromantic,” writes Aeon magazine, “the results were anything but.” The contestants were not restricted to romantic love. Ten-year-old Milo gives his love to a new baby cousin, because "she's very cute." Dr. Bob Dougherty of CNI predicts early on that an "older guy" like himself might win because experience would better help him control the emotion. But at the beginning, it's anyone's game. Watch the competition above and find out who wins.

Given that this is billed as the “1st Annual Love Competition,” might we expect another this year?

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

29 Sketchbooks by Renowned Artist Richard Diebenkorn, Containing 1,045 Drawings, Now Freely Viewable Online

Richard Diebenkorn (U.S.A., 1922–1993), Untitled from Sketchbook #4, page 23, 1943–1993. Ink wash with pen and ink on paper. Cantor Arts Center collection, Gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, 2014.4.25. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

We owe the way we see California today in part to the painter Richard Diebenkorn, "whose deeply lyrical abstractions evoked the shimmering light and wide-open spaces" of the state "where he spent virtually his entire life." Those words come from his 1993 New York Times obituary, which suggested that Diebenkorn's resistance to brief aesthetic movements and art-world fads (a resistance aided by the distance between California and New York) would ensure that the influence of his vision long survive him. Now, thanks to Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, we can look more closely than ever at what went into that vision in a new online exhibition of Diebenkorn's sketchbooks.

"Throughout his long career," writes the Stanford Report's Anna Koster, "Diebenkorn, AB '49, kept a sketchbook – a 'portable studio,' as he called it – to capture his ideas. These books, now in the Cantor's collection, span 50 years and represent the range of styles and subjects he explored, including deeply personal portraits of his wife, studies of the figure, landscape studies and compositions that point to Diebenkorn's signature blend of figuration and abstraction." The sketchbooks, donated by the artist's widow and the Diebenkorn Foundation, currently sit on display at the Cantor's exhibition Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed, which runs through August 22, 2016.

But if you can't make it to northern California before then, you can have a look at all of them online and behold in detail their 1,045 drawings spanning fifty years of Diebenkorn's life. They give not only an insight into how he rendered the material for so many of our California dreams, but how he handled his famously contrarian oscillations between styles, from Abstract Expressionism to figuration and back to the abstract again, with some of his richest work in-between. "I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another," he once said. "You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it."

via Stanford News

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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