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Scientology and the Brain

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Biology 202
2006 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Scientology and the Brain

Suzanne Landi

Scientology's stance on psychiatric medicines and the brain has become popular tabloid fodder since celebrities like Tom Cruise launched a highly publicized crusade against modern treatments for mental disorders like post-partum depression. The religion has crossed over to popular culture, spouting wisdom on parenting, job administration and education. In less than a century under the direction of now departed founder L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has become a religion, a trend and most importantly, a new way of looking at the brain and behavior.

One of the basic tenets of Scientology (more formally referred to as the Church of Scientology), is that man consists of three parts: the thetan, the mind and the body. The thetan is the immortal soul which Scientology claims is the individual. Specifically, the actual energy that makes up the thetan is appropriately called the theta, named after the Greek letter that was used to represent thought. Even though the dynamic includes the mind, it insists that the individual and personality is the thetan. The mind has a simpler role, used by the thetan as a communication and control system between the person and his or her environment, reminiscient of the theory that "The mind is what the brain does". The body serves as a vessel, with no role important to behavior (1).
For the neurobiologist, this interaction of thetan, mind and body reflects some brain science, but at the same time is incongruent with the models we follow. The thetan is parallel to the "I-function," the complex part of the brain that we often consider the source of decision, choice and a person's overall identity. Presumably, the mind is the leftover; the neurons and physical matter that controls basic functioning. The definition of mind is further separated to include the reactive mind, the part of the mind that has no volitional control and works on a simply stimulus-response model. As neurobiologists, we know that signals can start without a stimulus and can end without a response, but perhaps Scientology attributes this to the thetan or an undefined "unreactive" mind.

The separation of the brain into both the mind and thetan is not different from other religions that separate the soul, brain and body. We've seen these themes before without intense controversy – mostly debate on cognition.
Additionally, Scientology uses a form of meditation known as "auditing." An auditor conducts a session with a fellow Scientologist to contemplate existence, and examine areas of their existence in order to "rid themselves of unwanted spiritual conditions and increase awareness and ability" (1)). So far, this doesn't sound so different from regular visits to a psychiatrist or even a Catholic confession. But auditing sessions include a device known as the "E-meter," short for Electro-psychometer. Its function is to measure the mental state of the person being audited, and traces harmful energy, known as a "charge," that the session intends to fix. This works, presumably, by sending a weak electric volt into a person's body, which then interacts with the energy involved in thought and registers on the E-meter. Somehow, this process stears these charges away from the reactive mind, allowing for clear thought and life assessment (2). With the exception of science fiction-like meters, these tenets of Scientology sound similar to meditation, which has proven neurological benefits (3)and even psychological counseling. So why does Scientology seem to have such a strong vendetta against psychiatry and drugs?

The beginnings of Scientology were developed by Hubbard in the 1950s, based on his self-help philosophy of Dianetics. The foundations for psychotherapy that Scientologists are permitted to seek were established in these early developmental years of Hubbard's philosophy. However, Dianetics does not equal Scientology, nor is it forgotten in favor of the Church. Although Hubbard relegated Dianetics to a subfield of Scientology, there are some key differences between the two, mostly that Dianetics focuses on the individual's quest for health and truth, more psychological. Scientology explores more cultural aspects of life, like ethics, morality and solutions to broader, real-life complications. Dianetics actually resolves to rid a follower of the reactive mind, where painful memories are stored (6).

Hubbard claims that the reactive mind is also known as an "engram bank," and engrams are blamed for afflictions like allergies, asthma, hypertension and other psycho-somatic troubles (4).Whether or not this is true is difficult to tell. The official Dianetics website reports sketchy statistics that claim 98% of participants have had their lives improved by Dianetics, and it would be difficult to test every follower of Hubbard for significant improvement in neurological functioning and happiness. The beliefs of Dianetics are found in Scientology doctrine but one method can be utilized without the other (5).

Scientology and Dianetics exploit a basic human desire to explore thought and pain, commonly found in psychotherapy and other religions. There is no way to distinguish theta from ordinary thought in an MRI or if attempts to rid a person of the reactive mind, if it indeed exists, is impossible. This task is not entirely different from trying to detect the presence of God or the effect of prayer on one's brain. Scientology offers a support system that incorporates some science, and banks on people to use auditing and other applications of Scientology instead of chemicals and therapies that could actually improve their condition.

This reliance on a faith to solve medical problems and simultaneous rejection of the more established medical practices can be dangerous, but as noted before, not unfamiliar. Scientology and its proponents, most famously Tom Cruise, need to consider the benefits of established psychiatric medicine. While it is true that vitamins and exercise affect both brain and body in a positive way, it is not accurate to prescribe this as a method to cure post-partum depression (7). Both Dianetics therapy and the religion of Scientology are so modern that at times it seems like science fiction, but followers of other major religions indulge in beliefs that seem both strange and unethical to science. The study of the brain and behavior requires an enormous amount of faith in itself, whether we believe that either is dictated by neurons or engrams.

1) What is Scientology? The Parts of Man

2) The E-Meter

3) Psychology Today: The Benefits of Meditation

4) Dianetics (The "Bible" of Scientology)

5) Dianetics Results and Statistics

6) Scientology Glossary

7) Shields, Brook. New York Times Online. 01 July 2005.

Comments made prior to 2007
I have a serious brain damage since 1997. AT the time it occured i was unconscious for so long. My problem is how can i use dianetics alone to improve my situation. I have a lot of mental problems but since i started reading dianetics am still facing them. Any form of self analysis for some of us ... Patience, 2 January 2007


Ilja Heazler's picture

Buddhist meditation and science

This is a topic which I am really interested in. As scientology and the brain are being researched I always wonder where Buddhist meditation fits in the science research. I'll keep on reading more. Thank you
-Ilja N.

Anonymous's picture

Scientology & Therapy

It appears that you know at least a bit about Scientology. Have you found any psychotherapy procedures or schools of thought that resemble Scientology or from which Hubbard might have drawn his initial techniques?