Religious belief – faith in the existence of someone or something that is beyond the ability of science to prove or disprove – is one of the hallmarks of the human race. The vast majority of the planet’s population (75%-99% by some estimates) identify themselves as having some kind of religious belief.
So it’s no wonder that researchers are fascinated with the mental underpinnings of this uniquely human trait. The question “why do people believe?” is right up there with “why do people love?” – for those who study the human brain and try to unravel its deepest riddles.
But a surprising new report by psychologists William Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, would seem to indicate that your inclination to be religious can be – at least in part – determined by how you approach a math problem.
Here it is:
If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?*
Okay, now that you’ve given it some thought, I’ll let you in on what this is all about.
It turns out nearly everyone who answers this question come up with one of two possible responses.
Some people say the ball cost $10.
Others say it cost $5.
The mathematically correct answer is $5.
If that was your answer, you are an analytical thinker and – according to results of this study – more likely not to have any religious beliefs.
If you said the ball cost $10 (and I confess to being one of those people), you are an intuitive thinker and thus more likely to hold a religious belief of some kind.
I guarantee that some of you, regardless which answer you came up with, will feel anger, resentment or some other kind of negative emotion after reading the study’s findings. If you proclaim to be an atheist and you said “$10” you’re might feel as though you haven’t lived up to your usual analytical behaviour – the kind of questioning and skeptical nature that led you to your current views on religion. Likewise, if you are religious and said “$10,” you might feel like the study is saying your belief is an indicator of how smart you are.
I doubt this has much to do with religion — more to do with how much time you spend reading a question before answering, which is usually based on the consequences of a wrong answer which in this situation is next to none.
To be fair, the study’s authors are quick to point out that analytical thought (or a lack thereof) should not be considered the be-all and end-all factor when it comes to how likely someone is to be religious. They freely acknowledge there are many more areas of influence that come into play.
The full study, which was performed using 179 Canadian undergraduates, is available here and it’s well worth a read for those of you who want to learn more about the different ways these psychologists tested their hypothesis.
Now, if it pleases you our readers, let’s perform our own much less scientific survey…
P.S.: I have a favour to ask. It has been my experience that any articles here on Sync that touch remotely on the question of religion tend to ignite passionate and sometimes hostile debates over the existence of God or other deities. Given that the study in question did not make any judgement calls about the validity of religion or a lack of religious belief, I would very much appreciate it if comments on this article could be equally respectful. Thanks!
*The original math question from the study was “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” which is mathematically the same as the question above, but changed by the author of the Psychology Today article so that he could track references back to his piece.
True paradigm shifts don’t happen often, but when they do they have the power to change our entire way of thinking about a given subject.
Today’s story comes from the field of photography.
As any amateur shutter bug will tell you, other than image composition (how you frame up your subjects in the camera’s viewfinder), focus and depth of field are the most powerful tools in a photographer’s creative arsenal.
When you get ready to take a photo, the first thing you need to decide is where your focus will be. For most of us, the habit of depressing the shutter button half-way to initiate the auto-focus before triggering the capture process is second nature: Choose your subject, focus on it, snap!
The combination of focus and the aperture you’ve chosen leads to the effects we’ve all become familiar with: Portraits where the only the subject is in sharp focus and everything else is soft, landscapes where the entire image is in focus letting you see every detail of a mountain or field, and those clever in-between shots where the foreground and background are hazy but the middle distance is sharp.
These creative choices have to be made by the photographer at the time of the shutter-click.
Everything else – colour, contrast, even exposure can be modified after-the-fact in programs like Photoshop.
Until today that is.
Welcome to world, Lytro, a company founded by Stanford University Ph.D. grad, Ren Ng. Ng and his small team have been working quietly for the past few years to develop a technology known as Light Field Capture.
According to Lytro’s website, “the light field is a core concept in imaging science, representing fundamentally more powerful data than in regular photographs.” What this means in practical terms, is that any camera equipped with a light field sensor is capable of capturing much more than colour and intensity which are the two data points acquired by a typical digital camera’s CMOS or CCD sensor. The light field sensor camera “captures the color, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light. [emphasis added]”
When your camera knows this much information about the scene you’ve captured, it can yield astonishing effects – the most immediately thrilling of which is that you can change your focal distance after you take the photo.
It’s a little hard to appreciate what this means until you’ve seen it in action. Thankfully Lytro has provided some sample images for us to play with.
Take a look at the image below. See how the focus is on the toy that the black cat is playing with in the foreground? Okay, now click on the grey cat in the background.
I know, right? It’s kind of mind-blowing. It’s as though we are still in the process of framing up a photo that hasn’t been taken, and we’re adjusting the focus on the camera. It’s not purrfect (sorry couldn’t resist) – the very furthest objects like the couch remain soft even after clicking on them, but you can see the potential this technology has.
When I showed this example to a few colleagues around the office, the reaction was mixed. Some were thrilled, but others bemoaned the technology as a “cheat.” Their premise being that one of the core skills you need to acquire as a photographer is understanding the correct application of focus and depth of field. They’re right. Or at least, they used to be right.
Lytro has fundamentally changed the way we can now approach our images. No longer are their major attributes locked in place when we push the shutter button. They have become dynamic – “Living Pictures”, to use the term that Lytro has adopted. Lytro plans to bring the first light field sensor camera to market later this year.
And like it or not, I suspect that in less than 5 years, every digital camera on the market will be using this technology. You’ll be able to enable or disable it as you see fit, but most people will leave enabled, for the same reason that most people shoot in full colour instead of black and white. You can always switch to black and white later if you want to, and likewise with light field – you can always change your focus later if you want to.