This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2006 Second Web Paper
Until recently, religion and science have been like oil and water; neither scientist nor theologian dare cross over and integrate one field into the other. However, times have changed. Neurotheology is the study that unites together these seemingly different entities in hopes of being able to understand the inexplicable-God and consciousness (1). Its goal is not to materialize God or to reduce religious experiences to brain functions, but rather to shed light on the interplay between the brain and these religious encounters. Essentially, neurotheologists wish to learn more about the brain and religion by using one to study the other.
With the advent of high tech brain imaging techniques, researchers are able to see the inner workings of the brain and observe neurochemical changes in the brain due to different stimuli (2). Specifically, neurotheologists have employed single photon emission computed topography (SPECT) in order to visualize brain activity during deep prayer and meditation. SPECT uses radioactive tracers, a scanner, and a computer to read, record and produce a picture of the brain (2). Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania performed SPECT-scans on Tibetan Monks and Franciscan nuns to take snap shots of their brains during their deeply religious experience (1), (3). He and his colleagues found that the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with thoughts and actions affiliated with internal goals, lit up (1). More interestingly, the superior parietal lobe, which is correlated with spatial and temporal orientation, grew dim (4).
Words do little to describe the feeling one gets when he/she enters a mystical state. Often, a sense of unity comes over a person deep in meditation, which is sometimes accompanied by a perceived voice. For this moment in time, all boundaries cease to exist and a feeling of euphoria usually occurs. The superior parietal lobe, also known as the orientation association area of the brain, is responsible for this religious experience according to the SPECT-scans data (4). This region of the brain combines visual and somatosensory signals to distinguish the body from the rest of the world (1), (5). So, it makes sense that, when the superior parietal lobe is "turned off," the feeling of unity and oneness arises.
To account for the turning off of this area of the brain, we can turn to the input side of the nervous system. Since our orientation association area of the brain calculates vision, temporal and spatial inputs in order to situate ourselves respective to the external world, blocking any sensory input will hinder the brain's ability to segregate and set boundaries (1). This is what occurs during meditation and prayer. Without these inputs to the nervous system, infinity can be experienced, which in it of itself can be a rather sensational experience with or without religious intentions.
Interestingly, another way to quiet the orientation association area is to participate in a ritual. In the most basic form, rituals can be a vehicle for species survival. Being able to create some sort of unity among a group of individuals can increase their chances of survival-think mating and hunting rituals (6). Not only does the repetitive nature of rituals allow a sense of unity to be felt by all participants but it also sends the sensory input-processing unit into overdrive. When this occurs, the hippocampus intervenes and inhibits neuronal signaling in order for brain to be able to process all the inputs it is receiving (1). The orientation association area is under hippocampal control and, thus, becomes inhibited during neuronal overdrive (1). Essentially, the "I" function is turned off, and the sense of self disappears.
With the "I" function shutting down, consciousness is impaired, and therefore, the unconscious brain is the main player behind the experiences of those who are undergoing a religious experience. Besides a sense of unity, another sensation correlated with deep prayer and meditation is the ability to hear voices that do not seem to be associated with your own inner voice. Sometimes, one assumes that this voice is that of God. Those whose unconsciousness is able to overcome their conscious thoughts are thought of to experience this phenomenon more so than others. What neurotheologists believe is happening is dissociation between different regions of the brain, which misidentifies inner speech with something existing outside of oneself (1). The region of the brain that is responsible for producing speech, the Broca's area, does not match up with the sensory processing unit of the brain since, during meditation and prayer, this unit is overloaded with input (1), (7). Therefore, the distinction between self and non-self do not align, and the voice seems to be coming from an external source.
Relating these mismatches to topics discussed in class and the forum, we could look at the reafferent loop to help us further understand this issue. Some neural outputs do not require any input or stimulus for the output action to occur. Many times, the nervous system's pattern generators will create outputs in order to produce inputs; this feedback mechanism is called the reafferent loop. The pattern generators that spontaneously create the output in the middle of the "box model" of the nervous system partake in a corollary discharge symphony where they essentially relay information to other pattern generators, so as to create coordination among them (8). During meditation and prayer, perhaps the corollary discharge harmonization becomes impaired in such a way that internally generated output signals do not match up with inputs received by other pattern generators, thus creating a perception of an externally created input.
Although the development of neurotheology excites some, it offends others. It is quite obvious where the controversy lies. It's important to note that neurotheologist neither claim that God is a product of the mind nor do they seek to reduce religious experiences to brain behavior; instead, they simply wish to understand the link between minds and spirituality (1), (3). As with anything in neurobiology, having evidence that one thing happens offers no grounds of refusal for other events. Just because an experience is correlated with a certain neuronal activity does not mean that the experience only exists in the brain (1). However, there is no way of knowing whether or not the brain is causing the experience or reacting to a spiritual encounter. As long as our brains are functioning the way they do and our innate need for finding explanations for the unknown fuels our exploration, the debate will continue and perhaps will never be solved.
1)Newsweek Article, Religion and The Brain: In the New Field of "Neurotheology," Scientists Seek the Biological Basis of Spirituality. Is God All in Our Heads?
2) An Introduction to Brain Imaging.
3) Tracing the Synapses of Our Spirituality.
4) Religion and the Brain.
6) Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration.
7) How the Brain "Creates" God: The Emerging Science of Neurotheology.
8)Serendip Website, Neurobiology and Behavior Spring 2006
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