Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

[4] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).

“The Opium of the People”: Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll, Gambling, and … Religion

dice

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.