Friday, September 05, 2008


At seminary one of our on-going arguments was about whether one could “call the Holy Spirit,” how a person would do that, and whether the Spirit actually would come, remembering that the “Wind,” which is a metaphor for the Spirit, bloweth where it listeth. That is, does whatever it wants to as an independent and supernatural agency. But none of us had any trouble recognizing the phenomenon of feeling that the Spirit was with them. Whether it was awe and trembling, the recognition of the sublime, a feeling of presence, the “oceanic feeling” in which one felt connected to or dissolved in the universe, or any of the other descriptions, we all accepted Eliade’s idea that the sacred feels quite different from the profane, even in the subtlest forms embodied in architecture or near-accidental confrontation with nature. At least if no one felt this, they didn’t admit it. Why would they be at seminary?

In those days -- 1978 to 1982 -- there was not yet any “neurophilosophy” or “neurotheology” or “spiritual neuroscience,” because the fMRI and PET hadn’t been involved yet. But even then we knew that meditation could produce effects measurable by certain devices, like maybe electroencephalograms. In fact, there was considerable resistance to the idea that religious experience could be measured in the brain because believers worried that they might be told the whole thing was “in their heads,” possibly even pathological. We know that some ailments and tumors and brain deficits are accompanied by religious experience and no one wanted Joan of Arc’s bells reduced to tinnitis or Saint Theresa’s ecstasies identified as epilepsy.

And yet, as we become more and more able to find small structures in that blob of Jello that we call “the brain,” we become irrepressibly curious about what they can do and what difference they make if missing. A few days ago I Googled “brain”+ “religious experience” and got over 8,000 hits. Granted, some of them are redundant, but the essence of scientific investigation is repeatability and reflection. It appears that in order to keep order in my own brain-Jello, I’m going to have to learn a map of the brain.

So far, these are the suggested associations:
Posterior superior parietal lobule, or PSPL. (Part of the difficulty is learning the name of the structure, which is descriptive and then the acronym used by those “in the trade.”) Located “several centimeters to the side of crown of the head.” (Is this why monks shaved this area? Is this why men naturally go bald there? Is this why observant Jews wear yarmulkes? Should we call this the tonsure spot, the maturity spot or the observant spot?) It shuts down during meditation and prayer. This area seems to be involved in spatial cognition and differentiating “self” from “non-self.” Sort of oceanic, eh?

Then the parts of the temporal lobe which, when stimulated by “transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may give a person mystical visions. Some experimenters can make it happen and others can’t. The idea comes from people who have epileptic (electrical) storms there and report visions. Given “lie detector” tests that record reactions, people with this form of epilepsy react more strongly to religious words.

What’s especially interesting to me is that though the actual stimulation was the same, what the experimental subjects reported was in terms of their own culture, so that though they might all feel that there was a presence in the room with them or that they were experiencing cosmic bliss, the person said it was God, Jesus, Buddha, or simply the wonder of the universe. When I did my chaplaincy on the neurology ward of Rockford Hospital, there was a man with a tumor in his brain who claimed confidently that every night God came to him in a ball of light and promised him healing and heaven. His brain surgeon was a former Jesuit and I think he half-believed it himself.

A drop in activity in the parietal lobe (the upper back of the brain which “aids in navigation and spatial orientation”) and an increase in the right prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead and involved in attention and planning among other things) is characteristic of the peak in meditation. (This also sounds like being “deeply under” during hypnotism.) One reaches it by concentrating on a thought or object. (Om!) Adepts describe it as “effortless concentration.” The same pattern was in Franciscan nuns as they prayed, reporting “closeness and mingling with God.” A decrease in activity in the frontal lobes, the whole front section of the brain, showed up in five women while they “spoke in tongues.” (Glossolalia.) The area, which is what is severed in a lobotomy, is about self-control and judgment.

Though it turns out that the nun subjects could not summon up the Holy Spirit while in that hammering donut hole of the fMRI, their strong memory of such an event affected six areas: the caudate nucleus (“a small central brain region to which scientists have ascribed a role in learning, memory and falling in love”); the insula (“a prune-size chunk of tissue tucked within the brain’s outermost layers that monitors body sensations and governs social emotions”); the inferior parietal lobe (spatial awaareness, which contradicts other findings); the medial orbitofrontal cortex (“which may weigh the pleasantness of the experience”); and the middle of the temporal lobe.

Multiple involvement of brain parts is in line with the observation that brain functions are produced by several gizmos in different places interacting -- not just a global Jello response nor a cell-by-cell computer-type code. (Reference reading: is this why book=religion to some?) If one gizmo, the equivalent of a distributor or magneto, weren’t working right, the brain would perceive something different from ordinary daily operations. We know that we’re only aware of ten percent of all the stuff that goes on in there and that part of what it does is to provide awareness, so any impairment -- being drunk or high or hypoglycemic -- might make you think you were doing just swell while in fact stumbling, weaving and seeing double. But religious experiences, such as produced by meditation, seem to make people more clear-headed, even-tempered, patient and focused. No wonder people pursue the state!

Incidentally, IMHO, what’s at stake in naming this field of endeavor is cultural categories. Neurophilosophy privileges the “neuro” or scientific part over the “philosophy” or love of knowledge part which is more a humanities angle. Neurotheology insists on the “theos” or God, the big preoccupation of the Abramic religions that dominate the Western world. “Spiritual neuroscience” uses the polite but fuzzy “spiritual” to escape formal religions, which often seems like a good idea but loses precision.

I acknowledge my debt to a Scientific American article on October 3, 2007, called “Searching for God in the Brain.” (Abramic title writers!) Now I’m going to go looking for more and more recent stuff, plus a current map of the brain.

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