Our ability to peer into the human brain with new technologies can sometimes lead to researchers to exaggerate the insights they’ve gained into the human experience—particularly religious experiences. Interestingly, we are much more careful in making claims about dogs than we are about nuns! Let me explain:

New research conducted by a lab in Hungary suggests that there are similarities in how dogs and humans process voice and emotion. The research gives further evidence to the evolutionary relationship we share with other organisms.

 

Am I saying that comparative neuroscience investigations can tell us “what it is like to be a dog?” Yes, and no.

 

As a biologist, I am in no way surprised by the results of the experiment: dogs have vocal recognition and emotional processing centers. These neural centers in dogs are in similar anatomical positions to that of humans and have similar hemodynamic responses to stimuli as measured by fMRI. A scan done by fMRI measures brain activity by watching changes in blood flow in the brain. In the case of humans and dogs, a shared physiology allows scientists to take an educated guess to infer that their brains have similar functions.

Am I saying that comparative neuroscience investigations can tell us “what it is like to be a dog?” Yes, and no. We all agree that the dog contains an organ known as a brain, which is anatomically similar to that of the human brain, being that it contains many of the same structures that are organized in similar locations. Now if a fMRI study shows increased blood flow in an area of cognitive processing that is similar to that of humans—should we not expect similar function?  Granted, we simply cannot know what it is like to be a dog, because we will never have that experience, and the authors do not claim this, but through inference we are able to make calculated assumptions.

 

In a sense, these researchers are “cherry picking” neuroscience to provide a neural definition of religious experience.

 

Research in the neuroscientific study of religion invites a similar discussion of inferences, albeit at greater strides of acceptability by the scientific community. In 2006, another team headed by researchers Beauregard and Paquette explored what they termed the “neural correlates” to mystical experience in a Carmelite nun population. They asked the nuns to recall, from memory, a mystical experience that they had with God while being scanned by fMRI. The researchers then analyzed the scans to find activity in varying defined regions such as the right medial orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC) and right superior parietal lobule (SPL). The researchers then took the brain activity information and inferred cognitive states. The researchers cited other studies that have shown that the MOFC activates with pleasantness and that the right SPL activates when thinking about the spatial perception of self. Then they attempted to fit those models to the mystical states that the nuns were said to be recalling inside the scanner.

In a sense, these researchers are “cherry picking” neuroscience to provide a neural definition of religious experience. Despite being told by the nuns that “they were not capable of reaching a mystical state at will” the researchers still claim to have recorded “genuine” mystical experiences. How are these researchers able to differentiate between a “genuine” and “non-genuine” mystical experience?

I highlight the study done by Beauregard and Paquette from 2006 because sometimes we can take inference too far. The Hungarian researchers never concluded that they knew what it was like to “be” a dog or knew what it was like to “experience” life as a dog. They simply stated that they observed phenomena that was similar to that of what they see in human studies. Of course, the researchers made inferences but they do not claim to differentiate between “genuine” and “non-genuine” states for dogs. As researchers in the neuroscience of religion, we must be careful in the claims we make.


Ben Danner is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School studying the intersections of science, religion, and medicine. He is also a photographer, musician, and DJ.

 

Studies cited in this post:

Andics, A., Gácsi, M., Faragó, T., Kis, A., & Miklósi, Á. (2014). Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI. Current Biology, 24(5), 574–578. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.058

Beauregard, M., Paquette, V. (2006). Neural Correalates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns. Neuroscience Letters, 405, 186-190: doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060

Image from Flickr via haglundc

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