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Pat Bennett
Towards a Neurotheology of Health: A Transdisciplinary Exploration of Personal Relatedness, Emergence and PNI Function


Neurotheology is a new and developing field of multidisciplinary endeavor aiming to integrate cognitive neuroscience with religion and theology.  Whilst its primary focus thus far has been on brain activity during meditation, there has also been some interest in whether various spiritual practices might affect the functioning of the immune system.  Taking a slightly different approach, this paper focuses on possible connections between immune function and the expression and experience of personal relatedness as a step towards developing a ‘neurotheology of health’.

Following van Huyssteen’s model of postfoundational rationality and its associated notion of developing dialogical ‘transversal spaces’, the concept of personal relatedness is proposed as promising ground for fruitful interdisciplinary engagement between theology, cognitive neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology.  Despite their very different preoccupations and language, the topic is a focus of research in each of these disciplines: from a theological perspective, there has been a resurgence of interest in relationality and its anthropological implications; within neuroscience, there is not only an increasing interest in the neural underpinnings of human sociability, but also a growing volume of PNI data linking social interaction with alterations in a variety of endocrine and immunological markers.  Based on work in progress for a doctoral thesis, the paper triangulates theological reflection with neuroscientific data in a transdisciplinary exploration of the human capacity for forming personal relationships and its possible effects on immune function and thus health outcomes.

Epidemiological studies indicate a significant link between social relationships and health outcomes, and data from PNI studies raise tantalizing questions about the possible effects of the experience of relatedness on the regulation of PNI systems.  Beginning from this PNI data, the paper argues that the quality of social relationships has measurable, distinct and significant effects on the functioning of the immune system.  Drawing on data from cognitive studies and theological reflection, it suggests that this is not simply due to stress-buffering mechanisms, but that the experience of such relationships may also mediate immune function much more directly, and that this effect is related to the extent to which the capacity for personal relatedness is experienced and expressed. 

The thesis proposed is that the capacity for personal relatedness should be considered as an emergent property of the various cognitive processes involved in social signal decoding.  The experience of relationality could thus, because of the intrinsic properties of ontologically emergent phenomena, exert causal effects on PNI systems.  Theologically, it is contended that such a capacity is an integral and significant component of what it means to be a human person made ‘in the image of God’.  Hence the extent to which the capacity for relatedness is realized, and the form that this realization takes, may determine the nature of these PNI effects: both degradation and enhancement of immune function being potential outcomes.

Pat Bennett, BM, BTh (Oxon) is currently a PhD research student at the Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University.  She originally trained as a doctor, practicing hospital medicine in a number of different disciplines.  After leaving medicine to raise a family, she returned to university to study theology and was awarded First Class honours by Oxford University.  Her doctoral research project, which forms the basis of this paper, has grown out of her final year dissertation, which won the college prize for best undergraduate humanities dissertation of 2004.  She is an associate member of The Iona Community—a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, the rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.


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