The Times - UK (2020-10-14)

(Antfer) #1

the times | Wednesday October 14 2020 1GM 17


In 1843 Karl Marx referred to religion
as the “opium of the masses” — a study
suggests that he was nearer the truth
than he might have realised.
Researchers have found that the feel-
ings of social connection brought about
by taking part in a religious ritual can be
lessened by a medicine that is usually
used to stop opiate addicts getting high.
They said that they had provided the
first solid evidence that parts of the
brain known as mu-opioid receptors —
the biological triggers activated by her-
oin and opiate pain pills — were behind
the surge of fellow-feeling often asso-
ciated with communal religious rites.
“Our body naturally produces opi-
oids,” Sarah Charles, a PhD researcher
at Coventry University, who led the
study, said. These molecules are behind
the so-called runner’s high experienced
during exercise. “This is what a reli-
gious ritual seems to be able to do as
well,” Ms Charles said. “It creates this
feeling of pleasantness, of euphoria and
social bonding.”
The same researchers had looked at
churchgoers in the UK and found that
religious services raised pain thresh-
olds and enhanced social bonding.
In a study published in Biology Let-
ters, a journal of the Royal Society, they
explain how this led them to suspect
that the mu-opioid system played a part
— but no study had investigated which
mechanisms in the brain were involved.

Going to church? It’s

just like taking drugs

Rhys Blakely Science Correspondent They looked at people taking part in
two types of ritual — a yoga class in
Britain and a religious service in Brazil.
First, five people in a yoga session re-
ceived a placebo while the rest were
given naltrexone, a medicine used to
treat opiate addiction. Naltrexone
binds to the brain’s opioid receptors but
does not activate them. This blocks the
effects of opiate painkillers, such as
feelings of well-being or pain relief, and
lessens the urge to take them.
After their yoga, the volunteers filled
in questionnaires to measure the level
of social bondings they had experi-
enced. Those who had taken naltrexo-
ne had significantly lower social bond-
ing scores, compared with the placebo
group. This hinted that the mu-opioid
system was in play, but the sample size
was very small.
So the researchers ran another ex-
periment in Sao Paulo. This time they
looked at an Umbanda ritual — an Af-
ro-Brazilian religion that blends spiri-
tualism, African ritual dances and
rhythms, and Roman Catholic prayers
and images. Eleven people were given
naltrexone while 13 received a placebo.
After the ritual, those given naltrexone
again had significantly lower social
bonding scores.
Ms Charles believes the results may
help to explain the utility of ritual.
“Some people believe that the reason
religious ritual developed — not neces-
sarily religion, but ritual — is that it was
useful for bonding groups,” she said.

TMS | @timesdiary

Comical start

to a career

The author Neil Gaiman shares the
frustration of those who have been
told to find another career if their
own collapses thanks to Covid. At
school he bounced into his session
with a careers adviser and declared
that he wanted to write comics. The
adviser asked how he might go
about doing this. “I have no idea,”
Gaiman said. “I thought you’d tell
me.” The adviser sat in silence for a
bit, then asked the future creator of
The Sandman comics: “Have you
ever thought about accountancy?”
Gaiman’s back-up career was to
be a theologian because he thought
it meant someone who creates
religions. “I liked the idea of being a
freelance religion designer,” he tells
David Tennant’s podcast. He
wanted people to hire him to create
a religion so he could ask questions
like: “What is your stance on sin?”
and “Any dietary restrictions?”

hair-raising adventure
Intrepid adventuring is all well and
good but it comes second behind
grooming in local government. Sir
Robin Knox-Johnston told the Isle
of Wight Literary Festival that the
end of his solo circumnavigation 50

years ago had to be delayed for an
odd reason. The sailor sent a radio
message to Falmouth saying that he
would arrive at 9am after 312 days
at sea. Back came the request: “Can
you slow down? The mayor’s wife
has a hair appointment then.”

Anthony Scaramucci, the former
White House communications
director who is seldom over-
burdened by self-doubt, has decided
to become an SI unit. Referring to the
11 days he worked for Donald Trump
before being sacked, he announced
that we are “two full Scaramuccis out
from having a new president-elect”.

software has a bone to pick
Academia is getting very sensitive.
Ben Rathe tells me that his wife is
presenting to a conference today
and had been asked to submit her
text so they could run it through a
computer and check it wasn’t
problematic. The software,

presumably programmed by an
American high school student,
disliked her persistent use of the
word “bone” and flagged it up as
filthy slang. Fine, maybe, except this
is a conference of palaeontologists.

lost in interpretation
In a neat piece of gender fluidity,
Gyles Brandreth attended last
month’s funeral of the playwright
Ronald Harwood representing the
Duchess of Cornwall while Dame
Maggie Smith represented the
Prince of Wales. I wonder if the
costumes needed alteration.
Brandreth writes in The Oldie that
Dame Maggie, above, appeared in
one of Harwood’s rare flops, called
Interpreters, in 1985. Early in what
turned out to be a short run,
Harwood visited the dressing room
and was coldly asked by Smith what
he was up to. “Struggling with a
new play,” he said, to which she
tartly replied: “Aren’t we all?”

After yesterday’s item on Gus “God”
O’Donnell, I received an email from a
reader who had worked on the Iraq
inquiry. One day she was asked by
her boss to pass a message to the
chairman, Sir John Chilcot, telling
him to contact O’Donnell, the cabinet
secretary. The message read: “For JC,
please telephone God, yours Mary.”

patrick kidd

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