All we know, or think we know about the nature of reality is dependent on the complex biological interface that is our brain. It is obvious that every person’s brain is different, but what if these neurological differences have an impact on religious or spiritual proclivity? It is not a controversial statement to assert that some people have a natural propensity for certain disciplines over others. Students often choose their field of study based on what comes most naturally to them. To some, mathematics can be learned with ease, while others might struggle to comprehend such concepts. This natural propensity extends to physical attributes as well; some people are natural sprinters with fast-twitch muscle fibers that are conducive to sprinting. Physical brain differences fall into this category of course. For example, some people can sing, while others are simply tone-deaf and unable to reproduce correct pitches no matter how much training they might receive. Perhaps religious and spiritual tendencies are similarly tied to innate biological tendencies. Neuroscience and the subset field of neurotheology may help to answer this question.
Neurotheology, as the name suggests, is the field of study linking neurological processes and religiosity. Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg has done some pivotal research in this field where he studied the brains of Buddhists during meditation and Franciscan nuns at prayer. He observed some unusual activity (or more accurately lack thereof) in the posterior superior parietal lobe (or as Newberg dubs it the orientation association area/OAA). This area of the brain is responsible for our ability to orient ourselves physically in the space we occupy. Basically, it is responsible for distinguishing between the self and everything else. During peak meditation and prayer the subjects’ brain scans revealed a significant reduction in activity in the OAA. This sharp drop in activity would certainly contribute to the sense of one-ness with the universe or God that subjects described as part of their prayer or meditation. Newberg determined that this inhibiting of the OAA, while unusual, was not a malfunction. If the brain is not malfunctioning, it logically follows that the experience is real to the experiencer. Newberg determined in this experiment that mystical experience was shown to be scientifically real based on the brain scan observations .
The “God helmet” has been named for its demonstrable ability to induce mystical experiences.
While Newberg studied religious individuals, neuroscientist Michael Persinger’s “God Helmet” experiments tested a broader subject pool. The contraption known colloquially as the “God Helmet” is a device developed by Stanley Koren and Persinger to study the results of electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes in the human brain. The temporal lobes are responsible for a wide array of human experience, namely processing sensory input, comprehending language, retaining and storing memories, as well as some very important emotional functions. Within the scope of the “God Helmet” experiments, the most relevant temporal lobe characteristics are those that contribute to ‘mystical experiences’. Mystical experiences in this context range from religious visions to feelings of a divine presence. Neuroscientific research has often linked temporal lobe epilepsy to bouts of religious ecstasy, and Persinger’s experiments aimed to contribute to research in this area.
The “God helmet” has been named for its demonstrable ability to induce mystical experiences. Subjects don the helmet and sit in a soundproof electromagentic shielded chamber (to minimize outside sound or electormagnetic interference) while Persinger systematically stimulates the subjects temporal lobes with electromagnetic fields. Persinger reports that 80 percent of subjects describe having odd experiences. Many subjects describe these experiences in terms of their personal religious faith, not surprisingly. Some subjects described ancestral encounters (such as a feeling of a dead relative’s presence), or even alien UFO types of associations .
If it is the case that religiosity or spirituality can appear via nature as well as nurture, and atheist or agnostic tendencies likewise, is the “God Experience” just not for everyone?
Renowned atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins notably donned the “God Helmet”, curious what religious experience would feel like. Somewhat disappointingly for him he only reported feeling a bit dizzy or strange but with no notable feeling of religious or spiritual presence. Persinger attributed his less-than-enlightening experience to Dawkins’s low temporal lobe sensitivity . Perhaps this natural temporal lobe sensitivity can account for the differences between religious and non-religious people. Perhaps just as there are natural-born singers there are people born with religiosity hard-wired into their brains, or vice versa.
If it is the case that religiosity or spirituality can appear via nature as well as nurture, and atheist or agnostic tendencies likewise, is the “God Experience” just not for everyone? Further, if an innate tendency for religiousness was evolutionarily selected for (as is presumably the case, given the high percentage of humans with some form of faith), what benefit did it serve? Persinger’s theory is that religious thought developed to balance out the crippling anxiety that our advanced frontal lobes would have created. The developed frontal lobe has many benefits, such as inhibition (which promotes social cohesion) and anticipation (which allows for planning and thinking ahead). The drawback, according to Persinger, is the inevitable contemplation of an end to existence. The spiritually-inclined temporal lobe developments can help temper this anxiety with a feeling of meaningfulness. Whether or not Persinger’s theory is correct, scientists must acknowledge that religious thought and feeling are real and have practical applications. The aforementioned Dr. Newberg has conducted further research on the health benefits of meditation and prayer, for example.
This is not to say that religion should be immune to scientific criticism at all. Scientists should rather view religion and its practices with a realistic diverse lens. Religion should similarly leave room for scientific input. Both religion and science will inevitably benefit from considering the other. Science will be able to study religious practices regarding healing and wellbeing, just as religion will be prompted to rationalize tradition and hopefully evolve and grow along with society.
Sasha Weisse is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.
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Newberg, Andrew B., Eugene G. D’Aquili, and Vince Rause. “A Photograph of God? Introduction to the Biology of Belief.” Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine, 2001. 4-11. Print.
Newberg, Andrew B. “Neurotheology: This Is Your Brain On Religion.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132078267/neurotheology-where-religion-and-science-collide>.
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