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Those in science who look for the one principle behind all physical manifestations seek the unified field. Those with a religious orientation who want to know more about the power behind everything seek God. Both are equally slippery pursuits, and both are equally honorable when approached with honesty and openness.
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Neurotheology: The Crucible of Religion
A crucible is a vessel used for refining a substance, usually with the addition of extreme heat, which is exactly what I see happening to religion these days. Science, particularly neurotheology, has been turning up the heat under a crucible in which all religious experiences and beliefs are being scrutinized.
When the Church was calling the shots, during the time of Galileo (1564–1642) for example, it avoided such objective scrutiny, and many religious people continue to resist it today. But truth is in everyone’s best interest. I don’t believe any of the founders of the major religions would have a problem with looking for the essential truth behind different religious experiences—or for that matter, with any study that resulted in challenging cherished illusions that followers of the various religions have held on to since the founders’ deaths.
We might think of the Buddha as the first neurotheologist. He was a Hindu who concluded after years of rigorous study that people didn’t need to worry about much of what Hindu religion taught. The Buddha wanted to alleviate suffering by limiting study to as few variables as possible. He taught people to focus their concern on the observable present, and he insisted that the key to our well-being would be found in our (scientific-like) detachment from all things, including God.
Similarly, although Jesus was a Jew, when he was a child, his parents took him to Egypt to study science and philosophy.1 When he was older, he spent seventeen years in India and Tibet to further his learning and his search for the underlying truth of life.2
Discovering underlying truth is the goal of both religion and science; the only difference between the two is perspective. Those in science who look for the one principle behind all physical manifestations seek the unified field. Those with a religious orientation who want to know more about the power behind everything seek God. Both are equally slippery pursuits, and both are equally honorable when approached with honesty and openness.
Three centuries after Jesus Christ’s death, the Roman emperor Constantine hijacked Christianity by making the honest search for truth sacrilegious. Muhammad picked up the slack, once again probing the nature of the one underlying truth behind all things (the one God he called Allah), but it’s been 1,400 years since his death in 632 BCE. Since then, religious authority has consolidated, peaked, and been in decline.
The Christian Reformation weakened the influence of the Catholic Church on people’s minds. With religious freedom more prevalent, people again began probing for the underlying truth of things. This freedom has led to a renewed interest in discovering the roots of the major religions, and perhaps more importantly, it’s opened the door to looking for truth from entirely new angles.
Neurotheology: A Bridge
The field of neurotheology began when it was first recognized that the workings of the brain affect religious experiences and belief. For instance, it was discovered that “some people who suffer from temporal-lobe epilepsy experience religious revelations or hallucinations during seizures, even if they are atheists. Work in the field roughly divides into two types: either stimulating spiritual experience with drugs or studying brain activity during such experiences using imaging techniques to see which regions of the brain change.”3
At first, these scientists were excited because they had discovered a quantifiable trigger to religious experience, seemingly invalidating the essential nature of those experiences. However, after more analysis, it was concluded that in “showing how these deep and life-changing experiences operate in the brain…they have not explained them away. In fact, they have helped to explain the causes behind these experiences and, to some degree, have even justified the validity of religion in a secular society.”4
In other words, the fact that a change in brain activity can be recorded when someone has a religious experience doesn’t negate that religious experience. In fact, it has neurotheologists working overtime to try to determine the underlying causation and the overlying order in life—just as Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad once did.
Recently, researchers at the University of Missouri attempted to isolate the portion of the brain responsible for the measurable phenomena we know as spiritual experiences. They concluded: “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”5 [See also Mario Beauregard’s excellent 2008 book, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul.]
Isolating the primary ingredient necessary for a spiritual experience has been more successful. Paul J. Zak, a mathematician who holds a doctorate in economics and has done post-doctoral work at Harvard, has identified oxytocin as the chemical that registers as love in our brains. He recommends hugging, dancing, petting animals, and meditation as ways to increase what he has coined the “moral molecule,” which he explores more deeply in his new book The Moral Molecule. To put his discoveries into practice, Zak founded the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, which endeavors to bring oxytocin-building (feel-good) morality into economics.
Building on the idea that science can’t reduce religion to the result of brain functions, Andrew Newberg filled his book Why God Won’t go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief with the reasons why this is so. In fact, he’s demonstrated that just as visions and belief can result from stimulated brain activity, the opposite is also true—a change in brain chemistry can be caused by a religious experience. Newberg, an MD who is also the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, has also done research to determine whether there is any difference between the brains of religious and non-religious subjects. While the practice of religion can be viewed as a mixed blessing, Newberg discovered a surprising advantage to having a religious bent, at least among a certain group of people engaged in a particular practice.
Newberg measured “changes in cerebral blood flow among Franciscan nuns as they prayed in a meditative fashion, finding a significant increase in activity in the frontal lobe,” which governs the higher brain functions. He also found that this practice actually grew the frontal lobe.6 Increased activity in this area of the brain and especially the growth of this area translate into better emotional control and judgement. Improvements in the frontal lobe also result in enhanced motor skill in activities such as writing, problem-solving, memory storage, and social interaction, as well as in spontaneity.7
This intriguing search to discover useful nuggets in the foreign soil of religion has led Professor Michael Winkelman at Arizona State’s Department of Anthropology to argue that shamanism is actually the original naturally occurring form of neurotheology. Winkelman describes shamanism as “an ancient healing practice” that supports the brain as well as the neuro-network that affects the health of the entire body. He makes his case for the scientifically verifiable objectivity of shamanism by pointing out that “the shamans’ experiences and practices have fundamental similarities around the world because they reflect innate brain process and experiences.”8
Today, serious neurotheologists are as concerned about how beliefs affect the brain, the body, and the health of both as they are about how the brain effects beliefs. The classic example of this is the observation that Tibetan Buddhist monks aren’t as moody or sick as often as most regular people. The Dalai Lama wondered if the practices the monks engage in could be shared for everyone’s benefit. His cooperation in a study resulted in the establishment of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, which is part of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Founded in 1995 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the clinic teaches mindfulness techniques to patients with chronic diseases of all kinds to help them better handle their symptoms.9 The documented successes attributed to Buddhist-derived mindfulness techniques include reduction in stress, chronic pain and illness, anxiety and panic, GI distress, sleep disorders, fatigue, high blood pressure, and headaches.
Also, a study by Richard Davidson, PhD, of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, found “significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group.” They concluded that their “findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways.”10
Bringing the Spiritual Down to Earth
Religion was originally established for practical reasons. Buddha’s teachings were designed specifically for the needs of everyday people. Moses’s commandments gave his people much-needed order. Still, somehow, over the millennia, religions have lost much of their vitally practical orientation as they’ve settled into comfortable traditions. Neurotheology is helping these spiritual traditions rediscover their practical applications. Essentially, it puts religious practices in a crucible in an attempt to refine something useful for all humans, whether their orientation is secular or sacred.
I doubt that all mystical experiences will ever be verifiably traceable to either a cause or effect relationship in the human brain. However, the pursuit serves a vitally important role. It inspires religious people to reexamine the fundamentals of their faith, strengthening their belief in what can be verified and setting cultural considerations and faith in perspective. It also isolates and verifies what is universally practical in religious exercises for the secular public.
Neurotheology’s success in calling attention to the practicality of religion for the pragmatic world serves the purposes of all. Such work reinforces what we all have in common, lowering the barriers between science and religion. It demonstrates the practicality of the sacred to a secular population and introduces objective reality to those whose religious thinking has grown fuzzy with traditional beliefs over the millennia.
As exciting as these scientific discoveries are, the really significant aspect to it all is how the field of neurotheology is introducing a worldview in which both the spiritual and the secular are proving to be simply different perspectives on the one reality that affects us all. This reinforces our common needs and interconnectedness and is bound to increase understanding among people of all kinds, contributing to a goal that makes sense from any perspective: a more peaceful and sustainable world.
1. Paul Perry, Jesus in Egypt: Discovering the Secrets of Christ’s Childhood Years (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003).
2. Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East, 2nd edition (Montana: Summit University Press, 1988).
3. Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words website, “Turns of Phrase: Neurotheology.“
5. Jessalyn Tenhouse, “No Single ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain,” Futurity, April 18, 2012.
6. Michael W. Taft,"Hardwired for the Mystical?” Science 2.0, February 8, 2012.
7. K. L. Harting, “Frontal Lobes of the Brain: What Functions Do They Control?" Yahoo! Voices, May 27, 2007.
8."Professor Argues That Shamanism Is the Original Neurotheology," Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, June 5, 2001.
9. “Stress Reduction Program,” Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society website.
10. Richard J. Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, Jessica Schumacher, et al., “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation,” Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003): 564–70.