Skip to comments.Neurotheologists Claim Religion is all in the Mind
Posted on 11/27/2001 9:32:17 PM PST by prisoner6
It's all in your head. Literally. At least that's the theory of scientists studying a budding new field of science called neurotheology. They believe that our religious experiences are really just blips in your brain chemistry that you mold to fit around your personal belief system.
In their quest to figure out just how our minds work, they have mapped out what happens in different areas of the brain during certain experiences and compared them with the responses of others in order to determine what physical changes in our brain take place in conjunction with certain emotional or psychological experiences. The patterns they are observing are intriguing but predictably very controversial. One scientist of neurotheology unabashedly summed up their beliefs with the declaration that, "instead of God creating our brains, our brains created God".
Pascal Boyer (the author of the above statement) stated that the brain is an organ of complex architecture that by its very nature is receptive to "supernatural ideas". Our human ancestors managed to continue to exist because of their ability to outwit predators and by their vigilance and wariness to their surroundings. These traits also fostered a belief in invisible spirits and gods, thus turning us into willing receptacles for "the airy nothing of religion". In his opinion, religious thinking is a cerebral virus that infected our minds as soon as we were evolved enough as a species to be able to embrace it.
Although his views may be somewhat extreme, he is not alone in believing that the brain is the vehicle through which we process all our experiences and that there may be a neurological basis for religion. One of the more well known examples of testing this out involves scanning the brains of meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns to map what they believed was the brain's spirituality circuit. They were trying to find out how brain waves change, and which bits of grey matter are switched on or off. In the experiments, the volunteers meditated or prayed until they had reached what seemed to them another plane of being. After signaling this to researchers - say, by tugging a piece of string - the volunteers were injected in the arm with radioactive tracers that would reveal blood flow in the brain.
Dr. Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d'Aquili discovered that some regions of the brain fizzled into action at the time of these experiences (namely, those involved in attention and concentration) while other parts stalled. Those that quieted down included the superior parietal lobe, that part which allows an individual to orient him or herself in space and time. This could possible explain that feeling of transcendence over space and time that many report accompanies their deepest religious experiences.
Newberg asserts that these findings do not necessarily mean that religion is no more than an artifact of our brains. He says that it is possible that we create religious experiences in our heads, but equally possible that we are detecting a spiritual reality that actually exists. Another provocative and significant piece of research was done by Michael Persinger from Laurentian University in Ontario. He has found a way of inducing religious experiences, or a "sensed presence", simply by bathing the skulls of volunteers in a mild but precisely controlled electromagnetic field called the "Thomas pulse", named after the researcher who developed it.
Four out of five of those who don the magnet-laden helmet in Persinger's human consciousness laboratory report some kind of mystical experience while wearing it. He claims that his ability to activate the parts of the brain that create the phenomenon prove that "spontaneous" religious experiences can be duplicated at will and are thus created by the brain and not the product of some higher power's influence over a person. Persinger believes that when someone feels spiritual, his or her brain undergoes a miniature electrical storm similar to the Thomas pulse.
He also believes that similar storms can be triggered by changes in the Sun's magnetic field, earthquakes, sleep deprivation, emotional trauma, or rituals such as fasting, illness (both physical and mental), all of which may spark a religious experience. Mr. Persinger is also careful to clarify that he is not seeking to address the sticky issue of whether or not God exists.
Perhaps Dr. Daniel Batson summed it up best. The psychologist at Kansas University declared that to say the brain produces religion is like saying that a piano produces music. Indeed, only time and further research will tell if we are all player pianos simply going through the motions by playing out the sheet music we are hard wired with, or if we are simply vehicles through which a Master Conductor gives voice to His deepest music.
Source: The Times
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