Spirituality and the Brain
Voltaire wrote, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (quoted in Kafka, 1998, p. 39). The emerging field of neurotheology has uncovered suggestions of how the human brain may be capable of inventing a divine being. Prayer, meditation, liturgy, and ritual are some of the religious experiences are studied by neurotheology researchers. Mystic experiences may be triggered by depriving the brain of sensory information and by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes. (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
The convergence of science and religion is represented in neurotheology, the study of spiritual experiences, such as prayer and meditation (Begley, Searching For the God Within, 2001). While the subject has only begun to be seriously studied by researchers, psychologists have always been interested in religious experience and consciousness, beginning as early as 1902, when the book The Varieties of Religious Experience was published by William James (Bower, 2001). Modern research was begun by Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego (Kafka, 1998). In his experiment, people with temporal-lobe epilepsy were shown to react strongly to religious words, as recorded by a machine measuring physical symptoms, while normal people did not, suggesting the involvement of the temporal lobes in religious experience (Talan, 1998).
Similar mystic experiences are shared by cultures across borders and across time. The supernatural experiences of shamans are depicted even on ancient rock and cave art in Australia and Africa (Bower, 2001). Spiritual experiences may even be felt by nonreligious people. In fact, transcendent religious experiences have been claimed by fifty-three percent of American adults (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
Whether in the form of intense prayer or meditation, the experience is begun by focusing on an inner image or word. As focus is increased, the outside world is increasingly ignored. At the moment of greatest transcendence, the sense of self is lost and a feeling of complete unity with the universe is achieved (Begley, Searching for the God Within, 2001). The sense of time and space is decreased, producing a sense of infinity. The presence of a being outside of oneself may also be sensed. Similar symptoms are produced by liturgy and ritual. Feelings of oneness with the group participating in the ritual and of spiritual unity are produced by these spiritual ceremonies (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001). Feelings from inner peace to transcendence can be triggered by even simple rituals, like crossing oneself or bowing (Hardwired For God?, 2001).
Spiritual experiences can be brought about by certain religious behaviors. They may be achieved through Christian prayer, Zen Buddhist meditation, and other religious practices. The ability to have a spiritual experience is not limited by the religious faith of a person, though. Atheists have been affected by mystic experiences under the right conditions (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001). Such an experience has been claimed by James H. Austin, a neurologist. A feeling of transcendence was achieved by him while he was waiting for a train on a London platform. Although he was surrounded by dreary buildings and a generally gray world, he was transported outside of himself into a feeling of oneness and eternity (Bower, 2001). However, in general, a feeling of transcendence is achieved by most through intense focus, usually produced by religious techniques, which shuts out the input of the outside world (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
Prayer and meditation were discovered to cause similar brain patterns in an experiment performed by Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d’Aquili of the University of Pennsylvania. A SPECT brain-imaging device was used to examine the brains of Buddhists and nuns during the peak states of meditation and prayer. A quieting of an area of the parietal lobe that orients a person with respect to where he ends and the world begins was indicated by the results (Begley, Searching For the God Within, 2001). The orientation association area of the brain’s parietal lobe is deprived of sensory input by the intense focus involved in the religious practice. Without sensory input, the division between the self and the world cannot be perceived, leading to the feeling of being one with the universe. The same feeling is achieved a different way by religious ritual. Intense focus on ritualistic practice and intense emotion and both produced by religious ceremony. The hippocampus, which maintains balance in the brain, is activated by the overflow of emotional input, and neuronal signaling is stopped by this brain formation. Sensory deprivation is caused by this stoppage, plus the intense focus, and, again, leads to a quieting of the orientation area (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
The research of Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran has suggested that the temporal lobes are also involved in feelings of religiosity (Talan, 1998). Michael Persinger of Laurentian University has also experimented with the temporal lobes and religious experience. A weak electromagnetic field was created by a helmet worn by a volunteer, and the volunteer’s temporal lobes were excited by the electrical impulses created by the field. Mystic experiences were described by the volunteers after the experiment, such as out-of-body experiences (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
Ramachandran had tested people with temporal-lobe epilepsy in his experiment, a disorder which would cause the afflicted person to have bursts of seizure-causing electrical activity in his temporal lobes. It was noticed by Ramachandran that these people were unusually religious, often carrying crosses or books on the divine, and his suspicions of their sensitivity to religion were confirmed by his results (Talan, 1998). Temporal-lobe epilepsy may have afflicted several famous historical figures consumed with religion or spirituality, such as Saint Paul and Dostoevsky (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001).
Spirituality is not an illness to be cured. In fact, spirituality is valued by most people. Dr. Newberg has explained why in this way:
‘As long as our brain is wired as it is, God will not go away,’ he says. Why? ‘The idea,’ he explains, ‘is that the brain is set up in ways to help us survive.’ Religion ‘offers the reassurance that there is purpose and casual effect in this pretty scary world,’ and so ‘religious and spiritual experiences are right in line with what the brain is trying to do for us’ (Hardwired For God?, 2001, p. 11).
Therefore, everyone is helped by injecting a little more spirituality into life. People are helped to cope with everyday struggles by religion. In fact, religious awakenings are experienced by many people during times of great trial in life (Begley, Religion and the Brain, 2001.)
Neurotheology will experience great growth in the next few years as researchers make even more discoveries about how spiritual experiences and brain activity are connected. However, only the effects of mystic experiences can be studied by psychologists and neurologists. Whether the experiences are caused by the brain, or they are perceived by the brain cannot be determined, and whether God was created by brain activity, or brain activity was created by God cannot be determined, either. In the end, faith can neither be confirmed nor denied by science.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002