Neurotheology

zygon

God Helmet

Neurotheology [noor-oh-thee-ol-uh-jee], also known as ‘spiritual neuroscience’ or ‘neuroscience of religion,’ attempts to explain religious experience and behavior scientifically. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena.

Researchers in the field attempt to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences, such as: spiritual awe, the feeling of oneness with the universe, ecstatic trances, sudden enlightenment, and other spiritually motivated altered states of consciousness. English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley used the term ‘neurotheology’ for the first time in the utopian novel ‘Island.’

In an attempt to focus and clarify what was a growing interest in this field, in 1994 educator and businessman Laurence O. McKinney published the first book on the subject, titled ‘Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century,’ written for a popular audience but also promoted in the theological journal ‘Zygon.’ According to McKinney, prefrontal brain development creates an illusion of chronological time as a fundamental part of normal adult cognition past the age of three. The inability of the adult brain to retrieve earlier images experienced by an infantile brain creates questions such as ‘where did I come from’ and ‘where does it all go,’ which McKinney suggests led to the creation of various religious explanations. The experience of death as a peaceful regression into timelessness as the brain dies won praise from readers as varied as author author Arthur C. Clarke, eminent theologian Harvey Cox, and the Dalai Lama and sparked a new interest in the field.

Neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg and others describe neurological processes which are driven by the repetitive, rhythmic stimulation which is typical of human ritual, and which contribute to the delivery of transcendental feelings of connection to a universal unity. They posit, however, that physical stimulation alone is not sufficient to generate transcendental unitive experiences. For this to occur they say there must be a blending of the rhythmic stimulation with ideas. Once this occurs ‘…ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience.’ Moreover, they say that humans are compelled to act out myths by the biological operations of the brain on account of what they call the ‘inbuilt tendency of the brain to turn thoughts into actions.’

Based on current neuroscientific research, German theologian and peace activist Eugen Drewermann developed in two monumental volumes (‘Modern Neurology’ and the ‘Question of God’), published in 2006 and 2007 respectively, a critique of traditional conceptions of God and the soul and a sweeping reinterpretation of religion in light of neurology. However, it has also been argued ‘that neurotheology should be conceived and practiced within a theological framework.’ Furthermore, it has been suggested that creating a separate category for this kind of research is moot since conventional Behavioral and Social Neurosciences disciplines already cover the topic.

During the 1980s cognitive neuroscience researcher Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field using an apparatus that popularly became known as the ‘God helmet’ and reported that many of his subjects claimed to experience a ‘sensed presence’ during stimulation. This work has been criticized and has, to date, not been replicated by other researchers.

The first researcher to catalog the abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) was neurologist Norman Geschwind, who noted a set of religious behavioral traits associated with TLE seizures. These include hypergraphia (impulsive writing), hyperreligiosity, reduced sexual interest, fainting spells, and pedantism, often collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome. Behavioral neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explored the neural basis of the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE using galvanic skin response (GSR), which correlates with emotional arousal, to determine whether the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE was due to an overall heightened emotional state or was specific to religious stimuli. Ramachandran presented two subjects with neutral, sexually arousing and religious words while measuring GSR. Ramachandran was able to show that patients with TLE showed enhanced emotional responses to the religious words, diminished responses to the sexually charged words, and normal responses to the neutral words. This study was presented as an abstract at a neuroscience conference and referenced in Ramachandran’s book, ‘Phantoms in the Brain,’ but it has never been published in the peer-reviewed scientific press.

Research by Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, using fMRI imaging of Carmelite nuns, has purported to show that religious and spiritual experiences include several brain regions and not a single ‘God spot.’ As Beauregard has said, ‘There is no God spot in the brain. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings.’ The neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns were asked to recall past mystical states and not while actually experiencing mystical states; ‘subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order.’ A 2011 study by researchers at the Duke University Medical Center found hippocampal atrophy is associated with older adults who report life-changing religious experiences, as well as those who are ‘born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation.’

Some scientists working in the field hypothesize that the basis of spiritual experience arises in neurological physiology. Speculative suggestions have been made that an increase of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) levels in the pineal gland (a small hormone producing gland in the center of the brain) contribute to spiritual experiences. Scientific studies confirming this have yet to be published. It has also been suggested that stimulation of the temporal lobe by psychoactive ingredients of ‘Magic Mushrooms’ mimics religious experiences. This hypothesis has found laboratory validation with respect to psilocybin.

One Comment to “Neurotheology”

  1. Very good quick encapsulation of my book – I wish I could have said it so well in so few words. It’s been updated, out within a year, but the underlying phenomenology was based on basic enough neuroscience that more recent studies only confirmed and elaborated on some of the major speculations. I was intent on staking the claim on a novel perspective and gave it an unwieldy title for that reason. Nobody had defined the term, and the last 25 years have established its place. The new title is “You’re Going to Heaven Whether You Like It Or Not” – Virtual Religion in the 21st Century. With the current interest in VR, it might just be the time. Thanks to folks like you, the original version is still alive; and this time I feel a bit more confident.

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