Explorations in Neuroscience, Pyschology, and Religion – A Commentary
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.
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>