The Neurosciences of Religion: Meditation, Entheogens, Mysticism

How the Neurosciences Explain Religion or Not

In the last lecture(1), we learned how humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and how our genetic, mental, and behavioral nature was conditioned by and for this kind of life, even as we now live in a very different environment of our techno-cultural creation.  We considered how evolution had shaped our predispositions for religion and what functions and dysfunctions religion might have played in our species’ history.  We were introduced to the idea that the human mind was modular, that there were instinctive dispositions that then developed in conjunction with social and environmental factors into various inference systems in our brains.  Religion, we were told, could be understood as a potent combination of these different inference systems in our evolved brains – agency detection, ontological categories, intuitive physics, intuitive psychology, pollution-contagion templates, memory-recall patterns, and so forth, all assembled and accessed as independent mental modules (Boyer 2001). 

In this lecture, we are going to examine the human brain directly to see how the cognitive neurosciences try to understand and explain religious and spiritual experiences.  And we note first that there has been a tremendous amount of new research and new insights into the working of the human brain in the last few decades.  Powerful new tools also allow us to examine the function of healthy human brains and these tools have recently been used to study the brain functions of Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and others.

Inside the Brain

Now if you look inside the human brain, you do not actually see these mental modules previously referred to.  There is no piece of the brain that one could label the “agency detection module” or the “pollution-contagion module”.  In dissecting a human cadaver, we first see large-scale structures.  On the outside is the cerebral cortex, or neocortex, including areas labeled the Frontal Lobe, the Parietal Lobe, the Occipital Lobe, and the Temporal Lobe, and of course, these are divided into two hemispheres, right and left, with a broad band of nerve fibers know as the Corpus Callosum connecting the two halves.  If we peal away the neocortex, we discover the mesocortex and subcortical structures in the limbic system, including the Thalamus, the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, and the Cerebellum, all connected to the brain stem and the spinal cord.  This much you probably already know.  Images of the human brain have become iconic in our 21stcentury culture.

A lot of what we know about the specialized functions of different areas of the brain comes from observing survivors of traumatic brain injuries or stroke victims.  In both cases neuroscientists correlate the destruction of certain brain regions due to hemorrhaging or injury with the loss of particular mental functions, for instance the loss of motor-control, speech, or even particular parts of speech or sets of word concepts, the latter known as Aphasia. 

Curiously, memory seems to be distributed throughout the brain and is not located in any particular region.  I recall a colleague at Oxford University, who I visited in the hospital shortly after he had had a stroke.  He could point to Paris or London on a map, but he could not say the word “Paris” or “London”.   Nor could he speak the names of any number of other common items and places, though he certainly knew what they were and could directly point to any of them.  When I said “wallet,” he reach into his back pocket, pull out the wallet, he just could not himself say the word “wallet”.  Our brains are strange, indeed, though we take them for granted until something goes wrong.  Fortunately, my friend was able to fully recover his speech, but did so by training new regions of the brain to compensate for the loss of the one region destroyed by the stroke.  This is an example of another curious characteristic of the brain called neuro-plasticity.

When we examine brains under powerful microscopes we see that the brain is made up of neurons, lots and lots of neurons.  There are different types of neurons in the brain, and throughout our central nervous system in the rest of the body, but they all share a basic structure.  The cell body contains the nucleus and organelle.  Extending out from the cell body are lots of dendrite “trees” and axon “arms”.   These connect to other neurons.  This maze of connections end in synapses, linking each neurons with hundreds or thousands of other neurons.  The neurons fire electrical charges in the form of chemical ions, which are mediated by a variety of neurochemicals that are produced endogenously by the brain.  The chemicals produced and present in different areas of the brain are very important.

There are a lot of neurons in the human brain, estimated at 1011(one hundred billion).  Now each neuron has on average about 7 x 103(seven thousand) synaptic connections.  A three-year old child has about 1016synapses (10 quadrillion), but this happily decreases with age to a more manageable number between 1015to 5*1015synapses (1 to 5 quadrillion). 

Here are a few comparisons to help you remember these big numbers.  The number of neurons in your brain is approximately the same as the number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, which turns out to be conveniently also the number of galaxies in the observable universe, i.e., one hundred billion.  Or if you prefer, there are more neurons in your brain than the number of hamburgers served by McDonalds (before they stopped counting).

And it takes a lot of hamburgers, or other food, to keep our neurons firing.  The 1.5 kilograms of your brain, give or take, represents only 2 percent of your body weight and yet it consumes 15 percent of your cardiac output, 20 percent of your body oxygen, and about 25 percent of your body’s glucose consumption.  Just sitting around the brain needs about 0.1 calories per minute.  With intellectual activity this can increase to as high as 1.5 calories per minute.  From a biophysical and evolutionary point of view, the human brain is an expensive item.  In birth, it is difficult to pass through the female pelvis, too often resulting in the death of the infant or the mother.  In life, it requires a lot of extra food and care. 

The brain is best understood as a kind of Rube Goldberg machine.  Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was an American cartoonist who was famous for depicting complex devices that performed simple tasks in convoluted ways.  One such cartoon depicts a man eating his soup. The spoon is attached to a string which flips a cracker to a Parrot which then activates water pouring into bucket which pulls a string which activates a lighter which launches a rocket attached to a knife which cuts a string that turns on a clock with a pendulum which swings back and forth moving a napkin that now wipes clean the soup-eating man’s mustache.  The entire contraption is worn on the head of the mustached man as a kind of hat.  Our brains are like this Rube Goldberg machine, except that the complex machine is worn inside our heads instead of outside.  Neuroscientists today are developing algorithmic flow charts that map out neural processes.  Something simple like engaging in meditation sets off an impossibly complex series of actions, reactions, and feedback loops (Newberg 2006).  Thankfully, we do not need to be the least bit aware of any of these processes to have wonderfully functional brains allowing us to mindlessly perform lots of simple and complex mental activities everyday.  It is worth stopping a moment, however, to reflect that the most complicate object in the known universe is sitting right here between our ears.

The Explanatory Gap

It is hard to recognize ourselves – our subjective experiences, thoughts, emotions, and daily activities – in this neurological description of our brains.  Normally we have no conscious awareness of the cognitive modules and Rube Goldberg machines in our head.  Cognitive neuroscientists and philosophers of mind refer to this the “Explanatory Gap”.  Our physical descriptions of the way the brain works at the level of neurons, brain anatomy, and neurological processes bear no resemblance to our subjective experiences as people with brains having complex mental and emotional states.  Nor is there any neurological definition of consciousness. We have no device that can measure presence or absence of consciousness.  This is also referred to as the “Hard Problem” in consciousness studies.  We can study brains and learn all kinds of interesting and practical things about brains, their functions and dysfunctions, but this does not get us near to understanding what subjective conscious experience is or how the brain creates it.  We know that a diseased or damaged brain may lose function or consciousness, ultimately resulting in death, but we do not know what consciousness per se is at the level of the “neural code”.

Some are optimistic that we are closing this Explanatory Gap, that we will soon come to understand the “neural code” and be able to translate the “machine language” of the brain into the “software applications” of human consciousness.  Indeed, a lot of progress has been made in understanding how the brain functions.  Scientists have probed, prodded, tested, measured, dissected, and scanned lots and lots of brains, both human and animal.  Scientists have also developed a remarkable pharmacology of new drugs to treat depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders. 

Progress in the neurosciences raises lots of other interesting philosophical questions, which necessarily overlap with religious and theological concerns.  First, there is the question of reductionism and how far it can go?  If we can reduce certain mental phenomena, say mystical experiences of enlightenment, to neurological processes, does that mean that we have adequately explained the experience and can dismiss it?  What happens if we invent ways to stimulate these peak experiences at will? If the brain is a deterministic system, then how can we talk about free will, moral responsibility, and creative choice?  If personality is intrinsically linked to brain chemistry should we reject the dualism between brain and mind, body and soul?  In treating mental illness should we “waste time” with talk therapy or simply treat these illnesses with medications?  Do the cognitive neurosciences import assumed values and perspectives that are more ideological than empirical?  And what of bioethical issues that arise in the context of neuromedicine?  This is just a short list and we are going to revisit some of these questions below and in the discussion to follow.  The Hard Question remains: what is consciousness?  Can we fill in the Explanatory Gap between the neurosciences and subjective experience?  And what in particular is the nature of religious experience from the perspective of the neurosciences?

Science does not need to solve all of these philosophical problems.  That, I would argue, is not the job of science, but rather the task of scientifically informed philosophers and theologians.  Science can and does continue to plod along in its methodical manner.  The neurosciences move ahead by formulating small questions and then constructing experiments to try to answer them.  The neurological basis of religious and spiritual experiences is certainly an interesting question and it has recently been the subject of a lot of fascinating research in laboratories and debate in the academe and in the media.  There are a number of ways to tackle the question:

  1. Disease and injury based studies
  2. Surgical studies
  3. Functional Imaging studies
  4. Psychotropics drugs studies
  5. Developmental studies

1) Disease and Injury Based Studies

As already mentioned, many insights about the brain are derived from the study of brain disease and injury.  For instance, there may be a link between mental illness and religiosity, for instance in the case of schizophrenia, in which psychotic episodes often have religious content.  Indeed, for many decades the psychiatric community classified all religious content as delusional or neurotic in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD) (Larson 1993).  That is happily no longer the case.  The psychiatric community has slowly come around to recognizing that religious manifestations among patients may be a sign of strength, a resource in healing, and not necessarily pathological (Hufford 2005).

There is a lot of interest in the role of the frontal lobes in religious experience.  Traumatic injuries to the frontal lobes have a profound effect on a person’s personality, impulse control, and complex thought processes.  The seat of cognition, however, does not work alone.  It is part of a complex network, left, right, inside out, and all around.  V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at UC San Diego, has focused on Left Temporal Lobe epilepsy, which is frequently associated with religious visions during seizures and a preoccupation with religious issues between seizure episodes.  Ramachandran speculates that Saint Paul, Mohammad, and other prophets and sages were afflicted with Left Temporal Lobe epilepsy (Ramachandran 1998).  Ramachandran notes that “God may be the ultimate confabulation of the Left Hemisphere of the brain” (Ramachandran 2006).

There are other mental defects that manifest themselves in otherwise mentally healthy individuals.  For instance, with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, people have complex visual hallucinations of people, animals, or objects not actually present.  With Capgras’s Syndrome, otherwise mentally healthy individuals have delusions that people around them have been replaced by imposters.

Another, much more common mental disorder is known as Sleep Paralysis or Agoraphobia.  Probably many of you have had the experience of waking up at night with an inability to move and the strong sense of someone else in the room with you.  This is not a pleasant experience.  The presence-in-the-room is typically perceived to be a demon of some sort and the experience is generally terrifying.  This is such a common experience that it has many names, folk stories, and mythological explanations in diverse cultures around the world.  Neuroscientists now have an etiology for sleep paralysis, but one could easily imagine how this experience or others would help give rise to religious beliefs in demons, ghosts, or the devil (Hufford 1982).

There is one other neurological disorder that is worth mentioning. Synesthesia is a condition that might be thought of as metaphoric thought on steroids.  It typically involves things like hearing sounds and seeing colors, reading numbers and seeing colors, seeing colors and hearing sounds.  Perhaps one in a thousand humans have some form on synesthesia in varying degrees.  It is not necessarily unpleasant.  Indeed, far from being a disorder, it can be seen as a mental strength.  As we would expect, many creative artists have synesthesia. 

Synesthesia may be linked to a much more common mental functions that all of us employ everyday, the ability to make and use metaphors, of which religion is an important subset.  A metaphor is the combination of two unlike things to create a new meaning.  Shakespeare writes that “time is a beggar” and now we have a new insight into time.  You may have noticed that I have used several metaphors from the computer sciences to illuminate the neurosciences – neural “code”, neural “machine language”, mental “software”, neural “networks”, etc.  Science also uses metaphors.  In some sense, all human language is derived from metaphors (Ricoeur 1976). Religion can be thought of as something like the metaphoric confabulations of synesthesia, seeing nature and hearing the voice of God or the Buddha-nature in all things (Ramachandran 1998).

2. Surgical Studies

Surgical studies are much more limited, because doctors cannot ethically open up someone’s brain and start poking around, say like fixing a car or a computer.  The occasion to do surgery on live humans is typically to remove a brain tumor and these are risky operations.  Because the brain has no sensory nerves and cannot feel pain, brain surgery is typically done on conscious humans, which means you can ask them questions during the surgery.  In the 1950s, Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon, electrically stimulated different regions of patients’ brains during surgery and asked patients to describe any sensations.  Stimulation of the right temporal lobe caused patients to hear voices and see apparitions.  Around the same time, Robert Heath of Tulane University induced intense pleasure in psychiatric patients with electrodes implanted in the septum, a minute region just above the hypothalamus.  He also induced multiple orgasms in a female patient by injecting the neurotransmitter acetylcholine directly into her septal region.  These kinds of studies would not be allowed today by the Internal Review Boards at medical schools, and rightly so, but they were certainly illuminating and suggestive.  Certainly, every neuroscience course and textbook today still presents the work of Penfield and Heath.

Based in part on these kinds of studies, Julian Jaynes proposed a unique theory of religion in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Jaynes speculated that there were structural changes in the human brain some 10,000 years ago.  He suggested that the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, the corpus callosum, may not have been as developed as it is today.  In our ancestors’ brains, the left hemisphere, acting as the primary seat of language and identity, would misattribute signals originating from the right hemisphere to an external source, and thus imagined ghosts or gods (Jaynes 1976).

Brain surgery research continues on nonhuman animals, but alas lab rats, dogs, and monkeys cannot report to us on their subjective experience.  Nevertheless, we learn a lot about how the brain functions, which is then correlated with human brain function.  We are also embarking upon a new era of electrical implant machines to help patients with Parkinson or other brain disorders, as well as brain implants to help quadriplegics to control computers with their thoughts alone.  All of this will have implications for our understanding of religious and spiritual phenomena, some of which may have been best prefigured in science fiction novels.

3. Functional Imaging Studies

New non-invasive technologies now allows us to look inside the brains of humans without adverse risks to the patient.  Improvements in these technologies allow us measure actual brain functions while performing limited tasks or experiences and compare these states to some base-line image.  These are referred to as functional brain imaging studies.  The earliest form of such techniques was involved using electroencephalographs of brain waves, as well as measures of autonomic activities such as heart rate and blood pressure changes, for instance, as used in early meditation studies.  You are probably familiar with the term “bio-feedback device,” which were popular in the 1970s.  This approach, however, has been compared to trying to understand human speech by listening to the sound of a sport stadium.  The new technology is much more powerful, but not without its limitations.  There are three new techniques for functional brain imaging and each has different strengths and weaknesses.

PET scans, or positron emission tomography, uses a radioactive tracer injected into blood stream of the subject to measure oxygen flow, glucose consumption, blood utilization, or neurotransmitters in different regions of the brain.  This then indicates which areas of the brain are most active in any given experience or activity.  The injection provides a freeze frame at a particular moment and then is followed by the actual scan of the brain.  The problem with PET scan is that the tracers are only present for a few minutes, so the patient needs to be already in the scanning device before the injection occurs.  Hospital scanning devices are not particularly conducive to having profound mystical experiences.

Another category of imaging technology is fMRI, which stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging.  The advantage of fMRI is that it does not involve injecting radioactive tracers into the blood stream of the patient.  The disadvantage is that it involves placing the patient inside a claustrophobia-inducing machine that makes loud banging noises, only slight more tolerable than listening to a jackhammer.  Again, this is not an atmosphere particularly conducive to contemplative practice or religious devotion.

The functional imaging technology most suited to the kind of research proposed is SPECT scan, which stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography.  This involves using a longer lasting radioactive tracer.  Typical research design has the patients outfitted with an IV and a button so they can self inject the tracer at what they subjectively consider to be the peak experience in meditation or prayer.  This can be done in a comfortable room in the hospital near the SPECT scan machine and can involve the use of ritual objects, incense, chanting, prayer, etc.  After the peak experience and the tracer’s “snapshot” record of brain activity at the time of injection, the subject can then be put into the scanning machine to measure brain metabolism from the tracer “snapshot” some minutes earlier. 

Andrew Newberg and his deceased colleague Eugene D’Aquili pioneered this research with religious subjects.  Their first study involved eight American Buddhist trained in the Tibetan meditation and three Franciscan nuns.  They observed increased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe.  The latter is connected with the ability to navigate the physical self in an external world.  They hypothesized that the decreased activity in posterior superior parietal lobe was linked to the experience of non-duality described by the subjects.  They call this experience “Absolute Unitary Being” (Newberg 1999; Newberg 2000).  They maintain that “mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically ‘real’ rather than ‘wishful thinking’ (Newberg 2001) and go on to speculate:

[We] saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all others (Newberg 2001)

4. Pharmaceutical Interventions

Psychotropic or psychedelic drugs have long been part of human religious practices in diverse parts of the world.  The authors of the Hindu Vedas received inspiration from the drug soma, which is thought to be derived from psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin or fly agaric, perhaps in combination with cannabis or other substances.  The ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries also involved the use of some kind of psychedelic drug.  Tribal shamans from Africa, Asia, and the Americas use psychotropic drugs as part of their rituals.  The Native American Church in the United States won a Supreme Count case to ensure their right to use peyote in their religious observances.  The urge for intoxication is not limited to humans.  Chimpanzees, elephants, parrots, and other species ingest fermented fruit and other intoxicants.  UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel speculates that the desire for intoxication is “the fourth drive” after hunger, thirst, and sex (Siegel 1989).  The suggestion in this line of research is that perhaps religion is founded on this desire to get high.

Ergot, a fungus that contaminates rye, wheat, and barley, also has psychotropic properties and is probably used intentionally as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  It has also caused many accidental poisonings in human history.  Ergot epidemics were known as St. Anthony’s Fire in the Middle Ages and may be linked to incidents of mass hysteria and hallucinations.  The synthesis of LSD in 1942 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman was based on an Ergot derivative.

In addition to LSD, modern science has synthesized a great number of new psychotropic and psychedelic compounds.  Some prefer to use the term Entheogens, meaning “God-inducing”, to describe this class of chemicals, because of their ability to induce intense mystical experiences.  The most common and quite potent drugs are:

  • Mescaline –– 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine,
  • LSD -- lysergic acid diethylamide,
  • DMT - 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine, and
  • MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine),commonly known as Ecstasy

All of these chemicals bare some resemblance to endogenous neurochemicals in the brain like dopabite, norepinehrine, sorotoni, and opiates.  DMT, a powerful psychedelic drug can also be produced naturally in the human brain.  The ritual use of these drugs and others in religious ceremonies is quite extensive.  In the 1950s and 1960s, these drugs had been used to treat more than forty thousand patients for a variety of illnesses and over one thousand papers describing these treatments had been published in peer review journals.  But then came the excesses of Timothy Lear and the hippies and the drugs became controlled substance, their use illegal in most countries (Horgan 2003).

It is not clear what we learn about religion and spirituality by using and studying these drugs.  Are they a shortcut to enlightenment or simply a drug-induced experience with no greater significance?  Are other kinds of religious rituals and practice simply a different method for inducing these kinds of experiences that basically harness the brain’s capacity to hallucinate? It is worth noting that we do discover some “form constants” in these drug-induced experiences, for instance, the recurrence of mandala-like geometric patterns in hallucinations (Horgan 2003).

Psychopharmacology is powerful stuff, so we should not be too dismissive.  A lot of drugs provide powerful relief for clinical depression, schizophrenia, and other ailments.  Drug companies continue research and invent/discover new compounds.  The implications of new spiritual drugs are intriguing and disconcerting.

One thought experiment proposed by my colleague Jeremy Sherman involved an imagined compound, Darnitol, that would disrupt the somatic nervous system, such that if you did not pay attention to your breathing and consciously will your breathing, you would soon die.  This imagined drug would have no side effects and would only last for a few hours.  No longer would a person need to spend years learning meditation techniques in a monastery.  A few hours with Darnitol and you would achieve instant satori (or die) (Sherman 1999).  Maybe mysticism, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it, is just a neurochemical state that can be induced by rigorous training in a meditative tradition or a simple pill taken on a Sunday afternoon.

5. Brain Development

It is important to remember that brains grow and evolve throughout life, but especially in childhood.  In the second year of life, the brain of a human baby is only about fifty percent developed.  The maximum size of a brain is reached in adolescence around the age of sixteen. Different parts of the brain mature at different stages.  There are periods of high dendrite and synapse formation and other periods of pruning in which the number of neurons and synaptic connections are reduced.  Some neuronal connections are enhanced through the formation of lipid sheaths around the axions that speed and strengthen neural transmissions.  This process is known as myelination, the conversion of gray matter neurons into white matter neurons.  Myelinated neural connections play a much more important role in mental processes, than un-myelinated neural connections.

Humans have a universal dispositions to learn language, music, and religion, but the specific language, genre of music, and religious tradition is a matter of the geography and culture of birth.  Note that all religions also use music and language, so these connections may be more than incidental to the development of brains and religions. 

It may be that adolescence is a particularly important time for the transmission of religion, that there is a neurological disposition and evolved expectation that cultures utilize.  This can be seen in the prevalence of rites of initiation.  Seventy percent of the cultures studied by anthropologists have some formal adolescent initiation practice.  Some are for males only.  Some are for females only.  Some are for both.  These rites of passage generally involve separation from family and community, seclusion, physical hardship, psychological stress, deprivation of food or water or sleep, sometimes also torture and body mutilation.  These initiation rites precede marriage, reproduction, and adult responsibilities and rights within the social group (Alcorta 2006). 

It may be that those cultures that do not have a formal adolescent initiation ceremony do so at great risk to their wellbeing and survival.  Adolescents have a way of initiating themselves in the manner of Lord of the Flies or the Ragging rituals at Sri Lankan universities in the absence of a formal adult initiation ritual.  I think of the contrast between Thai Buddhism and Sri Lankan Buddhism.  In Thailand, it is the expectation and a matter of aristocratic honor that all pre-adolescent males spend a few years living and schooling inside the monastery, before returning to society.  There is no similar practice in the Sri Lankan Sangha, but conceivably it would be a useful practice to institute here.

Problems and Issues

There are a number of problems inherent in these neuroscientific studies of religious and spiritual phenomena.  First and foremost, religion is a complex neurocognitive experiences that include rituals, social groups, and a variety of other dimensions that are not easily replicated in a laboratory setting or isolated in individual human minds.  Nor is it clear that all religious experiences are neurologically comparable.  Talmudic studies, involving reading, analysis of text, and lively debate, may not be the least bit comparable to a Pentecostal experience of speaking in tongues.  The contemplative practices of a Sri Lankan Buddhist may not be comparable to Hindu Bhakti devotions.  Practicing Hatha yoga asanas in India may not be the same as Catholic self-flagellations at Good Friday observances in the Philippines.  Listening to Bach cantatas at a Protestant Church in Berlin may not be the same as listening to Gamelan music played at a village temple in Bali.  None of these phenomena are easily replicated in a laboratory.  Science necessarily tries to simplify in order to pursue manageable research.  Most of the neuroimaging studies focus on some kind of meditative or contemplative practice, simply because it would be hard to study anything else in a hospital radiology department.

A fuller taxonomy of religious experience needs to be developed, detailed, and correlated with different brain states.  Note that the list below are not necessarily discrete experiences and can be combined in any number of ways in actual religious persons:

  1. Interpretative experiences: understanding some event on circumstance to be religiously significant, as in serendipity, synchronicity, good or bad fortune;
     
  2. Quasi-sensory experiences: auditory or visual experiences of the divine;
     
  3. Revelatory experiences: receiving some insight about ultimate reality;
     
  4. Regenerative experiences: a healing or catharsis in which problems or anxiety dissipate;
     
  5. Ethical-moral experiences: grasped by moral obligation to act in the face of suffering or injustice;
  6. Aesthetic experiences: an intense spiritual experience of beauty in nature or art, music or ritual;
     
  7. Intellectual experiences: an intense engagement in learning and problem-solving that takes on a spiritual dimension, for instance, in the moment of discovery or comprehension;
     
  8. Ecstatic experiences: as in energetic devotional prayer, particularly in group context;
     
  9. Numinous experiences: an encounter with Spirit that is Wholly-Other, being in the presence of God;
  10. Oneness experiences: loss of distinction between self and world, non-dual sense of unity with God and the Universe.

Another problem in the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena is the tendency to draw ontological conclusions from these studies, typically to either validate or disprove some religious doctrine.  This is philosophically bogus; one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God by studying someone’s brain.  A neurological correlation does not equal causation or ultimate explanation.  So what if Mohammad or Saint Paul had temporal lobe epilepsy.  If God wants to use that mechanism to transmit His revelation, than so be it.  Every thought we have, including scientific thoughts, also have measurable brain states.  We can study the brain of a physicist while working on equations with a SPECT scan.  We would learn lots of interesting things about the brain of a physicist, maybe generalizable to all physicists, perhaps also to all equations, but we would learn nothing about whether the physics was true.

Lets use a playful analogy and imagine what the neurosciences of sports might look like.  There are a lot of different sports and we cannot study them all, so we are going to simplify by only looking at cricket (this being Sri Lanka).  Still cricket turns out to be really complicated, so we are going to need to simplify some more.  We are not going to pay attention to the business of cricket, to the rules of the game, to the social practices and enculturation of cricket as a sport among the youth, to the fanatical fans here, or to the complicate numerology of the sport.  It is just too much, so what we are going to focus on is the neurological correlates of cricket.  But whose cricket brain are we going to study, that of one of the boys from the Sunday pickup game in my village, or perhaps better, that of professional player of cricket on the national team?   We assume that a neuroscientific study of a cricket exemplar will be more revealing, so we select Sanath Jayasuriya of the Sri Lankan National Team to be our subject for a neuro-imaging study of cricket, assuming that this is generalizable in some way to all cricket players, indeed to all sports.  Before the big match we outfit Sanath Jayasuriya with a remote control IV, so that we can inject him with radioactive tracers in the midst of batting one of his cut short shots during a big game.  He swings the bat and hits a big one, but unfortunately now we have to stop the game, in order to whisk Jayasuriya away to the laboratory, and put him into the SPECT scan.  Don’t worry the game can resume in a half an hour, because we will have finished the scan and can begin our analysis comparing his base-state brain with his cricket-state brain.  No doubt, we would learn something interesting about Jayasuriya’s brain, but we would be nowhere near understanding the phenomenon of cricket.  We would not know whether Jayasuriya’s brain was the same as other cricket players’ brains or for that matter the brains of other athletes playing other sports, say tennis, golf, or baseball.  It might be that brain scans of the fans watching the match would reveal the same neurological correlates, given the phenomenon of mirror neurons, but we would need to test this. 

From a strictly neuro-reductionist point of view, we would not really know whether cricket was “real” or merely a “subjective” experience.  It seems like the object of cricket is more concrete and objective than the objects of religion, but is that really so.  You can take the neuroscientist to a cricket stadium and tell her behold, here is cricket.  As an outsider, she probably has not acquired an appreciation of the game and will not understand the complicated rules.  The object of cricket is to have fun, you might explain.  Our neuroscientist would then have to ask “what is fun”?  Similarly I could also take the neuroscientist to the monastery, the temple, the church, the synagogue, or the mosque, and say behold here is religion.  But she would still ask what is the object of all this activity.  God, enlightenment, what’s that?  There is no “objective” reason, in either case, to divert so much time and energy, passion and skill, into either activity, cricket or religion.  So the neuroscientist postulates that maybe it has something to do with the brain states of cricket players and fans or the brain states of the religious believers, as the case may be? 

Let’s push this reductio absurdum one step farther.  What is the objective reality of the brains of a neuroscientist while they do neuroscience? The British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) came to the same conclusion in thinking about the brains of scientists in general:

It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter (Haldane [1927] 1932).

As Buddhist philosopher Alan Wallace points out in his book The Taboo of Subjectivity, we still do not understand the mind:

Despite centuries of modern philosophical and scientific research into the nature of the mind, at present there is no technology that can detect the presence or absence of any kind of consciousness, for scientists do not even know what exactly is to be measured.  Strictly speaking, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness!  All the direct evidence we have consists of nonscientific, first-person accounts of being conscious (Wallace 2000).

First-person accounts of anything do not count as adequate evidence in a court of law or in the sciences.  These need to be correlated and corroborated by other evidence.  The “I” cannot be trusted.  Science leaves us with something like the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self, but of course that is a subtle and paradoxical doctrine in Buddhism.  We have sawn off the branch on which we sit.  Perhaps we need to rethink science, and with it the neurosciences, from the bottom-up.

The Emergence of Mind

The problem is that science lacks an adequate metaphysics for incorporating both mind and matter.  Today, an informed metaphysics and philosophy of science needs to go beyond reductionism and materialism.  We cannot really talk about science anymore without discussing emergent properties of phenomena and different levels of organization.  The human brain is only one example of emergence in nature, but an extraordinary one to be sure.  A single neuron may be beautiful to the discerning eye of a neuroscientist, but it is pretty stupid all by itself.

The concept of emergence says simply that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  We can learn a lot of interesting things about a brain cell by studying its parts and its chemistry.  A quick perusal of the typically heavy undergraduate textbook on neurosciences should be adequate to demonstrate just how much we have learned in the last century through this kind of reductionist approach.  That being said, the neuron itself could not be predicted or adequately described solely on basis of its constituent components.  Nor can a brain be adequately understood by listing its parts.  The human brain is an emergent phenomenon, both in its ontogeny – developmental biology --  and its phylogeny – evolutionary biology.

Mind is also an emergent phenomenon.  Mind cannot exist without a functional brain, but you could never predict consciousness on the basis of an exhaustive reductionistic description of the brain.  Nor does mind-brain really do anything by itself.  An isolated mind-brain would be a terrible waste.  To reach its potential, a mind-brain requires an entire body, vocal chords, oppositional thumbs, tools, languages, families, societies, cultures, and nature. 

It is not just “soft” concepts like mind-from-brain that burst the reductionist dream of a mechanistic account of complex phenomena.  There are ample examples of emergent properties throughout the sciences.  From the surface tension of water in a glass to superfluidity and superconductivity in a physicist’s lab, the behavior of huge numbers of particles cannot be deduced from the properties of a single atom or molecule.  In accepting the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998, Robert Laughlin notes:

The world is full of things for which one's understanding, i.e. one's ability to predict what will happen in an experiment, is degraded by taking the system apart, including most delightfully the standard model of elementary particles itself. I myself have come to suspect most of the important outstanding problems in physics are emergent in nature, including particularly quantum gravity (Laughlin 1998).

A Musical Interlude

Let’s imagine a scientific study of music, in this case of classical choral music.  Our case study will be Johann Sebastian Bach.  We will examine in scientific detail one of Bach’s Cantatas, BWV 99  – “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”. 

Our first approach will be to carefully examine the paper on which this cantata was written.  We will study the chemical composition of the paper and the ink in which the score was written.  We can also study the semiotic development of the notation system used and the music theory behind it.  This is all relevant to the subject matter, but it is not likely we will discover much of interest about Bach, his Cantata, or our experience of listening to it. 

Another approach will be to study the physics of acoustics and the instrumentation.  This Cantata calls for string and wind instruments and of course a choir.  This is going to lead us into some interesting directions, including question about how the human ear and vocal chords function, but we are still not going to learn much about Bach or this Cantata. 

Another approach will be neurological.  We will place you under a fMRI or PET Scan to try to ascertain through neuro-imaging analyses the effect of listening to this Cantata on your brain.  Technically, we are also going to have to do a lot of comparative work here to other sound perception and music perception studies, in order to isolate what is unique, if anything at all, to listening to this particular Cantata, as opposed to other sounds, musical pieces, and genres of music.  No doubt we might learn lots of interesting things, at least about your brain, because it is not clear yet that another subject, say a Chinese or Indonesian person unfamiliar with the genre or even the tonal structure, would have the same neurological experience when listening to this Bach cantata.

Another approach would be to employ a mathematical analysis of the music itself.  With Bach, in particular, there is clearly not only a musical genius composing, but also a mathematical genius.  So this might lead to some interesting insights, including now computer programs that can generate “original” scores in Bach’s style.

We could also take a historical approach, considering Bach’s life and time, the musical influences, his biography, his musical and perhaps mathematical genius.  This may be more instructive than studying the chemical properties of the paper on which the Cantata was written or the physics and physiology of acoustics.  Here the level of analysis better fits the topic, not that the physics and physiology are wrong or uninteresting in themselves. 

A scientific study of the cantata would surely also reflect on the philosophical, religious and theological significance of this Cantata, compare it to the other 200 cantatas that Bach wrote for the liturgical calendar and wonder about Bach’s own religious beliefs.  What does it mean to assert “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” – “what God does is done well”.  How does the music reinforce the message?  What influence does Bach’s music and theology have on us today.  How do we feel when we listen to this song or perform it?

Our scientific analysis of a single song by Bach can be posed on many different levels, lead us in many different directions, including into interpretative humanistic disciplines not normally thought of as scientific.  Furthermore, none of these directions and levels of analysis necessarily conflict with each other.  The only problems arise when we insist on a single, valid level of analysis to the exclusion of others.  For instance, a neuroscientist might insist that brain science is the only valid level of understanding the phenomena of Bach’s music.

In this discussion of a new science of music, we see many intriguing parallels and problems common to the proposed new sciences of religion.

The Emergence of Transcendence

We need to employ the concepts of emergence in science in order to go further in this inquiry.  There is ontological emergence in nature and with it different levels of reality and different practices appropriate at each level.  Emergence should place philosophical limits on the claims of social scientists to reductionistically explain away religion (or for that matter any other complex human or natural phenomena).  A scientist might find correlations, say, between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (to reference Max Weber), but this does not mean causation.  A scientist might also establish a functional outcome, say Orthodox Jewish marriage practices leading to maximal human fertility and reproduction, but this does not exhaust the meaning of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew, which might best be understood on a completely different level of analysis.  A scientist might establish that activity in the right temporal lobes correspond to the experience of the presence of God, but this does not mean that they have located or explained the reality of God.

A robust understanding of emergence, and with it different levels of analysis and interpretation, opens up a possibility space within the mind and soul of the scientific enterprise for religious notions of transcendence, the God-by-whatever-Name mystery.  Contemporary science is actually more suggestive of some notion of transcendence than it is of atheistic materialism, whatever that means.  There is a cultural lag in absorbing these insights on both sides of the religion-science divide. 

Caveat emptor – buyer beware.  Just because nature turns out to be super, fantastically super, does not mean that it is supernatural.  And while much of science is also fantastically strange, this does not mean that every supernatural belief and practice humans have or have had is therefore true.  Just because quantum mechanics is weird does not mean that every weird idea that people come up with is true, even if it is dressed up with the patina of quantum mechanics.  Just because there is ontological emergence of novelty in the evolution of the universe does not mean every novel notion that people invent is true.  In the name of religion and spirituality people also make the same mistake of reducing all phenomena to a single analytic framework.  The concept of emergence creates a possibility space for a lot of strange beliefs and practices – the i-Ching, the Bible-code, Reike, the Book of Revelations, astrology – but it does not mean that any of this stuff is, in fact, true.  Indeed, it can be patently false if interpreted at certain levels, as Young Earth Creationists do when promoting an alternative natural history of the planet based on uninformed Biblical literalism and no serious understanding of science.  The Bible is not true; it is profound.

Dangers and Opportunities

There is a lot of exciting research still to be done and some brilliant people devoting themselves to this research.  There are enormous benefits to be realized on the road ahead.  For instance, all traditions recognize that there is religious deviance, they just don’t agree on how to classify it.  Neuroscientific research may give us better tools for distinguishing between pathological religious persons and normal, healthy religious persons.

This discussion today has also already prompted a number of observations about possible reforms that would strengthen Sri Lankan Buddhism.  I note also that many of the Western neuroscientists who are inspired to study religious experiences in the brain are themselves practicing Buddhists.  There is an appreciation among neuroscientists that Buddhists in particular have been conducting consciousness research for over 2500 years and that Buddhism has something to teach the scientists on this account.

There are also some dangers that we should recognize.  The neurosciences can be used ideologically to denigrate religion, as was the case in the psychiatric community in the early years of the profession.  More worrisome is that the neurosciences may provide insights that might make religious euphoria easily obtained or religious brain-washing easily manipulated. This danger applies not just to drugs, but any full proof technique that can guarantee religious ecstasy or obedience.  The notion than someone might take a pill and achieve eternal bliss without any side effects might well spell the end of our species’ evolution and quite possibly our extinction.  It is not clear what we would do if everyone were happy and euphoric all the time, one with the Universe, what Newberg called Absolute Unitary Being.  What would motivate us to struggle and be creative? (Horgan 2003)

Sometimes getting what we want is really bad.  I take comfort, and of course some pain, in a faith that we will never really understand the human mind-brain, certainly not in a way that we can mechanistically control or easily transform to some desired end.  The mind-brain is just too complicated with too many feedback loops to expect certain results (Grassie 2007).  The mind-brain is an example of a complex distributed system, extremely powerful and creative, but because of its complexity, not something that can be understood and controlled.  In the end, we will be saved from ourselves by our complexity, which does not mean that people won’t be trying to discover or invent the fountain of youth and the key to eternal happiness (Lanier 1999).  I note that Buddhism claims to be such a foolproof technique, but after over 2500 years, samsara continues.  We have not all achieved nibanna and are unlikely to do so.  It is perhaps the questing after rather than the actual achievement of enlightenment that is most wholesome and transformative aspect of religion.  In that quest, there is no reason not to invite science, including the neurosciences, along for the ride.  We have a lot to learn from each other.

In closing, it is worth recalling the words of William James (1842-1910):

Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin...  I fully believe that such an empiricism is a more natural ally than dialectics ever were, or can be, of the religious life. (1909/1977, 142)

Empirical research on religious and spiritual phenomena is not only healthy for each of our traditions separately, it will also help us better understand each other in an increasingly globalized religious world.  James writes that a science of religion “can offer mediation between different believers, and help to bring about consensus of opinion” (1902/1985, 456).  Instead of religion being something that divides us, more and better religion can be something that unites us, here on the Kandy-Peradeniya Road and throughout the world.  The neurosciences of religion certainly help us along that road.

Questions:

  1. Buddhism has its own taxonomy of religious and meditative states.  What are the neurological correlates to these states?  Might this be a useful taxonomy in other traditions?  Would this Buddhist taxonomy be useful in the cognitive neurosciences?
     
  2. All religions recognize forms of religious deviance.  All cultures recognize different forms of mental illness.  Can the neurosciences of religion help us distinguish between healthy religious persons and unhealthy religious persons?  Can the neurosciences of religion help us understand religious deviance?
     
  3. Given the profound connection between embodied self and personality, is it appropriate to use metaphysical dualisms like body-soul, atman and anatman?  What happens to our theologies and philosophies, if we reject these dualisms, as science seems to suggest we must?

Endnotes

1 The last lecture was titled “The Evolution of Religion: Memes, Spandrels, or Adaptation?” and was presented on November 1, 2007 to the Society for the Integration of Science and Human Values at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka.  The lecture is available online at http://www.grassie.net/articles/2007_Evolution_of_Religion.html.

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