The Neurophilosopher’s weblog

on the molecular & cellular basis of mind :: “Minds are what brains do” (Marvin Minsky)

The new science of neurotheology

Posted by The neurophilosopher on March 16th, 2006

“Neurotheology” (a term first used by Aldous Huxley in his novel Island) is less of a mouthful than the full name of this emerging discipline: the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality.

By ‘religious experience’ it is meant anything from meditation and deep prayer to reading a religious text or singing a hymn and by spirituality I mean the ability to conceive of and believe in a divine being. Phenomena such as near-death and out-of-body experiences may also be defined as religious.

These phenomena are very subjective in nature but usually involve one or more of the following: an altered state of consciousness, ecstatic trances and the dissolution of time, fear and the awareness of self (dissolution of self-awareness is sometimes referred to as ‘oneness’ with the universe). The aims of neurotheology then are to elucidate the cognitive processes which produce religious experiences and spirituality and to try to correlate those with brain activity.

Already the research in this area has attracted criticism on the grounds that it is an attempt by scientists to disprove the existence of God. This is not the goal of those investigating this field. Human beings have an innate capacity to believe in God, a capacity unique to our species. Whether or not God exists, or whether or not one has a belief in God is irrelevant - this capacity for religiosity is hard-wired in our brains.

Since the 1950s, electro-encephalography (EEG) has been used to show that meditation produces changes in the electrical activity of the brain. It has been known for some time that meditation can alter the physiological activity of the body.

In recent years neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have enabled neuroscientists to gain a better understanding of the brain activity related to certain behaviours and thought processes. fMRI, for example, allows one to observe changes in cerebral blood flow almost in real time. When a region of the brain is activated the neurons (nerve cells) in that region require more oxygen to generate electrical signals. When a group of neurons becomes active, the blood flow to that region of the brain increases to provide those cells with the oxygen they need. Using these imaging techniques, neuroscientists are beginning to “map” in detail the areas of the brain involved in cognitive processes such as memory and emotion.

Recent research into neurotheology has used functional neuroimaging to explore the neural activity correlated to meditation and deep prayer and has been performed largely on Franciscan nuns and Tibetan monks. The research has involved asking the participant to pray or meditate until they report experiencing an altered state of consciousness, at which point they are inserted into a brain scanner so that neural activity can be observed. This has led to the identification of a region of the brain that is now believed to be involved in religiosity, the posterior superior parietal lobule (PSPL, located several centimeters to the side of the crown of the head).

The evidence obtained suggests that activity in the PSPL is reduced during meditation and prayer. What might this region of the brain actually do? The parietal lobe is known to be involved in spatial cognition; parts of it are involved in differentiating ’self’ from ‘non-self.’ Deactivation of the PSPL may therefore lead to the dissolution of the sense of self and/ or ‘oneness with the universe’ which is often reported in subjective descriptions of spiritual experiences.

Further evidence comes from the use of a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which a device worn on the head produces a magnetic field which alters the electrical activity of a localized region of the brain. It has been found that magnetic stimulation of parts of the temporal lobe can induce spiritual experiences. This is supported by clinical observations of patients with a very rare condition called temporal lobe epilepsy. Patients with this condition often report that they experience mystical visions during seizures.

It is now believed that historical figures like Joan of Arc and the emperor Constantine (who made Christianity the offical religion of the Roman empire after having a vision of the crucifix during a battle) may have been afflicted with temporal lobe epilepsy. The 19th Century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was deeply spiritual, may also have had this condition.

We are only just beginning to understand the neural bases of religiosity and spirituality. Like other cognitive processes, these phenomena are highly complex mental tasks and will certainly be found to involve the co-operation of many different parts of the brain which form distinct but integrated neural circuits, which are processed in parallel to generate such experiences. Some of the components of this circuitry have been identified and their functions are being determined. Many more circuit components, as well as their function, remain to be discovered; neural pathways involved in spirituality have been suggested, as has a neurophysiological model for the functioning of these pathways; and neurochemical changes associated with religious experience have been observed. Advances in technology will allow neuroscientists to examine each of these factors in increasing detail.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>