Wednesday, March 05, 2003

The Neurology of Religion-Josh has an interesting piece on neurotheology
You'd think that somewhere along psychology's history someone would have theorized about the brain being responsible for spiritual experiences. Surprisingly it wasn't until 1998 that a major book was published on the subject. That year Dr. James Austin published "Zen and the Brain," and since then more and more people have studied "neurotheology," or the study of neurobiology affecting religion and spirituality. Psychologist David Wulff of Wheaton College in Massachusetts says that because spiritual experiences are consistent across cultures, it "suggests a common core that is likely a reflection of structure and process in the human brain." Other scientists and psychologists have since done extensive studies to try to "prove" that spiritual experiences are rooted in physical changes in the brain. Taken a step further, they would argue there is no Holy Spirit, and no personal revelations. Rather, these psychologists (and most in academia) would argue those experiences are merely the result of natural biological brain functions.
Could the religious experiences be causing the change? If you are looking to deal with religious experiences as a brain malfunction, or at least an anomalous function of the brain, you are looking at the anomaly causing the experiences. Many psychotic individuals have vivid imaginary interactions with "God" and other supernatural beings, modern neurologists, including this piece that Josh seems to have cited above, have tried to chalk up the visions of mystics of the past such as St. Teresa of Avila as symptoms of epilepsy. However, what if there is a spiritual part of the brain that would enlarge when interacting with a spiritual dimension? I'm going to take a weird tangent into string theory, a hot area of modern physics. I'm no theoretical physicist, but the idea that captures my imagination is that there are more than the four dimensions (time being the fourth) we're accustomed to thinking about. Let's assume for the moment that there is a dimension that supernatural activity exists in and that there is a part of the brain that is receptive to spiritrons, a mythical quantum particle of supernatural energy. People who are spiritually active might see that spiritual lobe enlarge or grow more complex by activity, just as other parts of the brain grow more complex with use.
But even under those pretenses, there is still the question of whether our brain wiring creates the idea of God, or whether God created our brain wiring. Losing ourselves in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but Christianity (and any religion) doesn't rest solely on spiritual experiences. Religion encompasses a whole range of acts and insights without requiring a "spiritual experience."
If we follow this spiritron theory, it might start out with God creating a way for man to sense Him. If not exercised, that part of the brain might remain undeveloped. Yes, you don't need a grand "spiritual experience" to have an active faith, but that doesn't mean that the more subtle experiences would be triggering that part of us that is interacting with the supernatural realms.
Christians throughout history have noted that spiritual experiences could give people pride or self-indulgence. It's just as important to "love you neighbor." In fact, Catholic candidates for sainthood are measured more by charity than by their mystical experiences.
The mystics tend to be loose cannons, having an apparently better connection to God than their superiors. Modern Protestant mystics, often flying the banner of "prophets," remain loose cannons, saying things that might not be welcomed in many churches.
But I digress. I have yet to see conclusive evidence that spiritual experiences are based solely on changes in our brain. The most scientists can do is correlate certain experiences with certain brain activity. It seems to me as though suggesting the brain is our only source of our experiences is reductionist. Nevertheless, it could be "discovered" someday. Either way, it doesn't discount the probability that God created the wiring that way, to lead us to Him.
It's hard to test to see whether changes in the brain are merely psychological or Spirit-induced; you're not going to get God to cooperate in a double-blind test-"OK, Holy Spirit, you take the next two subjects off." Even if there isn't that spiritual dimension, God could still be directly interacting with our brain in order to rearrange our thoughts. We could have been built in with a craving for spiritrons.

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