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Religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. What happens next might surprise you.

Last time, we heard from Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, who says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“[N]eurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, another pioneer of “neurotheology.” agrees that the religion-brain link promotes social cohesiveness and morality.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’ says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discusson.'”

The Apostle Paul, whose pre-conversion theological training was ultra-legalistic, likened law-based belief to being under the care of a guardian:  we need something to keep us in line until we grow up enough to embrace responsibility along with freedom. Paul’s Letter to the Galations 3:22-24. Until we make that shift, the brain’s religious wiring is equally adept at promoting individual and communal health as their opposites. Dr. Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist that reflect the implications of this neurological indifference:

  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
  • Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

In fact, the brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning”

“What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

These findings suggest a fascinating explanation for a wide range of religious behaviors — everything from charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and “fellowship” dynamics on one end to clergy sexual crimes and misconduct, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other. Shocking as it may seem, the whole spectrum qualifies for the brain’s addictive feel-good list, along with sex, drugs, music, and gambling.

More from neurotheology next time.