Explorations in Neuroscience, Pyschology, and Religion – A Commentary

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Explorations in Neuroscience, Pyschology, and Religion – A Commentary

Book By: Kevin S. Seybold

This book begins with a powerful anecdote—a story that embodies the very essence of a question that I have long struggled with.

“The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican houses some of the greatest art in the Western world…There, Michelangelo painted scenes from Genesis [such as] the ‘Creation of Adam’ in which a divine finger is reaching out to touch the finger of Adam and bestow upon the first man a spirit or a soul… A few years ago, the frescos of the Sistine chapel were restored and cleaned…after removing centuries of dirt and grime, bright colors emerged and new, clearer views of the painting were possible. In the ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God himself is enclosed in a wispy kind of structure that came into clearer view. Some observers suggested that the formation resembled the brain…a cerebral hemisphere seems to surround God and the host of heaven. ” (Seybold, 33)

Within this particular painting lies a specially encoded message that epitomizes the very center of Emily Dickenson’s argument. As a Christian, it illustrates for me the sheer magnitude of the brain’s power. God is in the brain. A paradox lies here—this would imply that God is not real, and this I do no ascribe to. The neuroscientist within me has come to believe that the sum of everything that I am and that is around me is the product of my brain. How can one reconcile these two identities—as a Christian and as a possible neuroscientist in the making? It is in this vein that I picked up this book. The author Kevin Seybold has achieved a harmony between these warring identities and I read, eager to understand.

Seybold begins by providing the reader with an interesting body of theories egarding the ways in which the “religious experience” manifests itself in the brain. His discussion starts with Michael Persinger, a cognitive neuroscientist who was one of the first to study the brain’s involvement in religious experiences (80, Seybold). The bulk of his studies emphasized the role of the temporal lobe in the “God experience.” The temporal lobe is also a well-know site of seizure activity, which often accompanies hallucinations. This sparked his interest in this particular brain region and he hypothesized that an unstable temporal lobe region might allow for the possibility of confusion or a mixture of “current experiences and fantasy.” His experiments in the 1980s focused on inducing a religious state in subjects via stimulation of the temporal lobes with a weak magnetic field (the device was later termed the “God Helmet”). His results revealed that the field could produce the sensation of an ethereal presence in the room; 80% of his participants stated that they felt the presence of God or someone they knew who had died. Thus, on this basis, Persinger argues that “had the structures within the temporal lobe developed differently, the ‘God experience’ might not have occurred.” Put another way, God exists to us because of a mere biological artifact of the brain.

Carol Albright disputes such notions. She argues that the brain operates as a result of complex interconnections among various different brain regions; thus it would be illogical to ascribe the totality of the entire “religious experience” to one specific module within the brain as Persinger suggested (82). Rather, she emphasizes that the very nature of the brain’s complexity demands an equally complex approach to understanding the “God experience” in the brain. In her work, she recognizes three basic levels or kinds of areas in the human nervous system: the reptilian brain which is responsible for behaviors such a protection of self and territory; the mammalian brain, which consists of the limbic system, and adds emotion to the functions of the reptilian brain; and the neocortex which provides what is considered to be “humanness” (I should add here, I am unsure of what is meant by this statement). According to Albright, each of these regions are associated with different beliefs and perceptions about God. The reptilian brain guides religious practices and beliefs that provide traditional guidance to people regarding raising children and general protection. The mammalian brain is responsible for memory—she states that it is with this memory that one is able to develop a meaningful relationship with God. Lastly, the neocortex is responsible for decision and judgments (82).

The frontal lobes are implicated in the “God experience,” according to Antonia Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis; this hypothesis implicates changes in hormonal and neural responses in providing feedback which marks a situation as either good or bad. This automatic feedback, conditioned in part by culture, serves as a “gut reaction.” Religious beliefs, attitudes, and practice are part of this so called “somatic marker system,” and thus explains the universality of the religious experience. (85)

Yet the most acclaimed research is that of Andrew Newberg’s and Eugene d’Aquili (85). Together, they empirically investigated the regions of the brain that were activated during religious experiences such as prayer nuns and Buddhists during meditation using brain imaging. Results in both the nuns and the Buddhists were similar; an area in the parietal lobe near the posterior superior parietal zone showed a decrease in activity during these peak religious experiences. When this area is inhibited during prayer or meditation, the experience is reported as being “close to God” by nuns and as a sense of “timelessness” or “infinity” by Buddhists. Increased activity in sites in the frontal lobe and limbic systems increased in activity at the same time. Seybold points out here that a correlation does not necessarily entail causation; for instance, spirituality may be causing the brain to change, and not the other way.

So is God essentially a bunch of firing neurons? Such data might indicate that religion is a “construct of the brain,” and thus, God could not be real. Seybold is not particularly impressed by the presented evidence. He argues “of course, if we are to experience God, we must do so with our brains. What other organ would we use? As you read the words on this page you are using your brain. As you listen to your iPod, you are using your brain….all of our experiences are mediated via the brain.” (85)The fact that these processes are mediated by the brain does not negate their “reality.” On this, he goes on to say “we interact with reality by having that reality represented in our brains in the form of neural activity.” The same is true of the religious experience.

Seybold then goes on to discuss dualist and monist perspective regarding the brain. He highlights the essential problem of dualism, which is the following: how can a nonphysical “mind” affect a physical body? Energy cannot be created or destroyed according to fundamental physical laws of energy conservation. How then can the physical body be moved by a mind that is not part of the physical world? Seybold argues that the mind was proposed to help explain the existence of certain abilities such as reason, thinking, and language. With the development of neuroscience, the brain’s role in these mental abilities is clarified and as we attain more knowledge regarding brain abilities, this theory becomes less and less relevant. Thus, he claims there are several forces that favor monism over dualism. This struck me as peculiar—how can a “religious” individual adhere to a monist theory of the brain in order to understand behavior? If the brain is all there is, then it would follow that God is also a construct of the brain. Again, how does one reconcile a Christian identity and a monist perspective? Ironically, Seybold’s discussion of this is non-existent and instead he devotes a lengthy discussion to evolutionary psychology.

Again, I say the neuroscientist within me has come to believe that the sum of everything that I am and that is around me is the product of my brain.” After reading this book, I still stand by this statement. While I enjoyed reading this book, I was a bit disappointed; there seemed to be gaping holes where the author had chosen not reflect critically on what I termed earlier to be the “warring identities.” These very holes provided me with an avenue for reflection and it wasn’t until a second read that an idea came to me. Perhaps God is the brain? After all, this would truly uphold with Christian notion of God as the creator of all things on Earth.

Works Cited

1. Honderich, T. How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

2. 'Creation of Adam' <http://www.byui.edu/onlinelearning/courses/hum/202/CreationOfAdamBrain.htm>

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Himangsu Sekhar Pal's picture

ON GOD AND TIMELESSNESS

ON GOD AND TIMELESSNESS

Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it from eminent philosophers. Richard M. Gale has said that if time is unreal, then 1) there are no temporal facts, 2) nothing is past, present or future and 3) nothing is earlier or later than anything else (Book: The philosophy of time, 1962). Bertrand Russell has also said something similar to that. But he went so far as to say that science, prudence, hope effort, morality-everything becomes meaningless if we accept the view that time is unreal (Mysticism, Book: religion and science, 1961).
But when scientists have shown that at the speed of light time becomes unreal, these same philosophers have simply kept mum. Here also they could have raised their voice of protest. They could have said something like this: “What is your purpose here? Are you trying to popularize mystical world-view amongst us? If not, then why are you wasting your valuable time, money, and energy by explaining to us as to how time can become unreal? Are you mad?” Had they reacted like this, then that would have been consistent with their earlier outbursts. But they had not. This clearly indicates that a blind faith in science is working here. If mystics were mistaken in saying that time is unreal, then why is the same mistake being repeated by the scientists? Why are they now saying that there is no real division of time as past, present and future in the actual world? If there is no such division of time, then is time real, or, unreal? When his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote in a letter to his widow that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Another scientist Paul Davies has also written in one of his books that time does not pass and that there is no such thing as past, present and future (Other Worlds, 1980). Is this very recent statement made by a scientist that “time does not pass” anything different from the much earlier statement made by the mystics that “time is unreal”?
Now some scientists are trying to establish that mystics did not get their sense of spacelessness, timelessness through their meeting with a real divine being. Rather they got this sense from their own brain. But these scientists have forgotten one thing. They have forgotten that scientists are only concerned with the actual world, not with what some fools and idiots might have uttered while they were in deep trance. So if they at all explain as to how something can be timeless, then they will do so not because the parietal lobe of these mystics’ brain was almost completely shut down when they received their sense of timelessness, but because, and only because, there was, or, there was and still is, a timeless state in this universe.
God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” become two meaningless words, because by these two words we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, these are none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no correspondence whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. Here one supernatural being has been merely replaced by another supernatural being. So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside portion of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.

Jen Benson's picture

re.

I find Seybold's experiments from the 1980s (in which he induced religious states by stimulating the temporal lobe) quite compelling. From this evidence we may deduce at least that some religious experiences can arise purely from activation of one brain region, in the absence of any other stimulation. I would be curious to find out if there is evidence of people similarly perceiving religious experiences from having their brain stimulated in certain parts, like in the parietal lobe and limbic systems which have been tied to the experience of timelessness. Of course, I do agree with Seybold that showing that religious experiences are mediated by the brain does not mean that God does not exist, as all of our perceptions are mediated by the brain. This commentary really makes me want to read the book, although based on what I've read here I still believe that some (brain-mediated) experiences of religion could not arise without the existence of something spiritual and outside of ourselves.
Paul Grobstein's picture

God and the brain

If we were to imagine that religions, like science, provide ways to make sense of the world, then it follows that religions, like science, would evolve as new observations are made. And that new observations on the brain would contribute to that evolution, as they do to scientific understandings. From "warring identities" new ways of understanding can come into being. "Perhaps God is the brain" is, I think, one well worth exploring further.

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