Natural Sciences

The God of Mind : Exploring the Implications of Neurotheological Research

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of “Mind’s Matter”, a series by Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham exploring the Neurobiological basis of behaviour.

Neuroscientists have discovered curious truths about religious experience and their potential enhancement through drugs, disease or even practice. In this article I explore the implications of the apparent malleability and non-universality of religiosity.

A relatively new area in neuroscience gaining momentum rapidly is neurotheology – a field which investigates the notion that within the brain are neural structures which give rise to the potential for religious experience. More studies are beginning to show not only that neural correlates exist, but that they have susceptibility to pharmacological and pathological modification and potentiation, much as the same as we have found for many of the complex emergent properties of the brain.

The neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has extensively investigated a curious condition known as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Studies have shown that after TLE patients undergo an epileptic seizure, they uniquely describe having a profound “spiritual” experience. They claim to understand their place in the cosmos, and how everything suddenly becomes saturated with significance and meaning. Such experiences occur independently of prior beliefs held by the patient. Ramachandran has explained that the phenomenon is not evidence for “God module” as the media initially popularised. Rather that there are perhaps a variety of structures which work together to give rise to such spiritual experiences, which is the case with other specific systems of the brain. The visual system for example has many quite distinct components (colour, movement, object recognition, facial recognition) working together to produce vision, rather than a “vision module” located in a single area. TLE patients also show a reduced response to normally provocative images (such as sexual images), but a heightened response to religiously-loaded words or imagery.

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The serotonin (5-HT) system has long been of interest in biological models of human personality. Psychopharmacological research has investigated the effect of psychedelic drugs in relation to religious experience. The drugs which have been studied include adrenaline derivatives (e.g. mescaline) and serotonin derivatives (e.g. LSD, psilocybin, DMT). It has been found that these drugs cause transcendental or spiritual experiences as well as intense visual hallucinations. The remarkable finding is that all of these drugs act on one specific type of neuroreceptor called serotonin 2A (or 5-HT2A) receptors, which are found all over the cortical surface of the brain. 5-HT2A receptors are stimulatory, which means when these drugs acts on them they increase production of serotonin in the brain, and this gross overstimulation of the 5-HT2A receptors leads to what are interpreted as religious experiences.

A second line of evidence regarding the serotonin system was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2003 on the effect of 5-HT1A receptors, which are inhibitory. They showed that the binding potential of 5-HT1A receptors correlated inversely with scores for “self-transcendence”. Self-transcendence is a personality trait covering religious behaviour and attitudes originally described by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger. He found that spiritual people tend to share a set of characteristics, such as feeling connected to the world and a willingness to accept things that cannot be objectively demonstrated. This result implies that there is a dysfunction in the 5-HT1A receptors in spiritual people resulting in less inhibition of the effects of serotonin, which in turn would lead to increased susceptibility to spiritual experiences. This was further evidence that the serotonin system may serve as a biological basis for spiritual experiences.

In “Why God Won’t Go Away”, radiologist Andrew Newberg describes his studies on the religious experiences of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer. Using PET scanning, Newberg revealed a number of mental traits which all seem to play a part in an overall religious experience in the brain. The most interesting of these processes is the feeling of cosmic unity. The parietal lobe contains an area called the “orientation association area” (OAA), which processes information about space and time, as well as the orientation of the body in space. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. The left OAA creates the sensation of a physically delimited body. The right OAA creates the sense of the physical space in which the body exists. An injury here destroys your ability to navigate around in physical space.

Sensory input is essential for the OAA to function, which is blocked during intense meditation or prayer. The left OAA cannot find any boundary between self and non-self, resulting in a sense of oneness. Without sensory input, the right OAA defaults to a feeling of infinite space, where meditators feel that they have touched infinity.

The obvious interpretation of such findings is that there is neural architecture in the brain which includes the temporal lobes that are specialized for what we understand as spirituality, which may be selectively and transiently enhanced by pathological (epileptic storm) and artificial (5-HT2A agonists) factors. However, it is quite specific in these studies that what is described is an overwhelming feeling of meaning or significance. I would speculate that such religious experiences feed into our mind’s innate teleological sense, eventually culminating in a deep religious belief which is used to elucidate the experienced emotions. The focus therefore is in meaning – an idea which ties in elegantly with native teleology, explaining the obsession with meaning and purpose explanations among intellectual theists.

The most significant question that arises from these discoveries is the implications on the theistic account of free will in choosing faith. In other words, the typical monotheistic description of a God who gives us the ability (free will) to choose to worship him becomes problematic, since we find that the capacity for religious experience seems to be as varied among the population as any other personality trait, individual characteristic or innate ability. Some people are simply born with a brain that has a greater chance of finding God, as they are “wired up” that way. We are restricted in our choice, much the same as we are restricted in our choice to prefer chocolate or vanilla, Bach or Mozart, men or women. Neuroscientific studies have consistently shown that all the choices we make in life are far more greatly influenced by genetic makeup, rather than our environmental influences. In this regard, we are certainly not equal in finding pathways to God.

The potential of religiosity to be enhanced through drugs, disease or even practice, reminds one of similar effects on other abilities such as music or art. Certain brain conditions such as autism or schizophrenia lead patients to express heightened artistic or musical abilities. Perhaps we should think of deeply religous individuals as having a keen “religious ability”, much like we do with other types of artistic temperament.

But like art, such religious abilities may be rationalised now as being secondary to natural rather than divine processes, though I concede that those with strong religious abilities would be unlikely change their view that their stunning experiences have no supernatural component. Having said that, I would still hope for an intellectual purification of such feelings, perhaps first by discarding words such as spiritual, transcendent or religious in their description, as these have all been tarnished by the brush of supernaturalism. Instead, I would propose we begin to use phrases such as “numinous ability”. We can learn to appreciate this creative numinous ability as something intrinsically rather than mystically stunning, much the same as we appreciate music or art without linking their intrinsic beauty with supernaturalism.

About the author

Jonathan Pararajasingham

Dr Jonathan T. Pararajasingham is a British medical doctor specialising in Neurosurgery, researcher and freethought writer. His writings span a range of topics including neuroscience, philosophy, ethics and theology, and many of his articles aim to make accessible such abstract topics for the nonspecialist reader. More of his work can be found at http://drjtp.com.

6 Comments

  • Two questions:

    1)”Some people are simply born with a brain that has a greater chance of finding God, as they are “wired up” that way. We are restricted in our choice, much the same as we are restricted in our choice to prefer chocolate or vanilla, Bach or Mozart, men or women. Neuroscientific studies have consistently shown that all the choices we make in life are far more greatly influenced by genetic makeup, rather than our environmental influences. In this regard, we are certainly not equal in finding pathways to God.”

    In the era of facebook,youtube and reddit, how much effect does genetic make up play in case of belief? is it really as hard wired as our preferences for chocolate over vanilla, isn’t it comparatively much more easily influenced? only that the resistance/willingness to influence may depend on the wiring, my point i agree “Neuroscientific studies have consistently shown that all the choices we make in life are far more greatly influenced by genetic makeup, rather than our environmental influences. In this regard, we are certainly not equal in finding pathways to God.” but in case of theism/atheism wouldn’t environmental factor play a much larger role as compared to preference for chocolate/vanilla

    2)”Instead, I would propose we begin to use phrases such as “numinous ability”. We can learn to appreciate this creative numinous ability as something intrinsically rather than mystically stunning”

    don’t you think “numinous ability” is vestigial and many a times may even be dangerous to the agent and the species too,considering this , does it deserve the same respect or appreciation as say art or music?

    • Lalit,

      “how much effect does genetic make up play in case of belief?”

      It cannot be reiterated enough that neurotheological research is still at its very infant stages. So at the moment it is hard to answer your question empirically. However it does seem as though genetically predetermined brain structure, such as the amount of serotonin 5-HT receptors found in the brain, and innate beliefs in purpose and unseen agents, have a clear influence on sustaining theistic inclinations into adulthood.

      It has always struck me as odd that even when environmental influences are relatively equal, we find individuals unable to shake their god belief despite being unable to defend it rationally. There must be something deeper underlying this compartmentalisation, especially when witnessed in otherwise very smart, informed and erudite individuals. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked, the interesting fact is not that 93% of the NAS are nonbelievers, but that 7% still are.

      Of course “God belief” certainly varies, so we must try to define different varieties before examining aetiologies. For instance, we must distinguish between the non-thinking believers (who haven’t examined their belief but rather just adopt it from parents and tradition), and the thought-out believers, who are familiar with the philosophical and scientific arguments against their position. The latter group cannot be merely influenced by the typical religious upbringing most of us are exposed to. There will be another group of believers for whom belief is intertwined inextricably with their social network, and here it cannot be denied that environment is the more important factor. So the genes vs. environment question can be rather complicated when trying to generalise about belief, which I think you’re alluding to.

      God belief, it must also be said, involves many different “parts”. Again speaking mainly about the thought-out theists, my personal theory is that the major antecedent of theism is belief in cosmic purpose (innate teleology, see Deborah Keleman), which we all have but this I believe is exaggerated in the theist. There is also the innate belief in unseen entities (see Pascal Boyer). There is the religious experience ability as described in this article. And lastly there are the psychological traits of hopes and fears. All these mental aspects work together to form a complicated god belief in the theist’s mind. The pure rationalist is able to see these mental traits for what they are and look upon the world (and indeed themselves) more objectively. It seems to me that genetics plays a large role in developing many of these (except perhaps hopes and fears which wax and wane with life events).

      “don’t you think “numinous ability” is vestigial and many a times may even be dangerous to the agent and the species too,considering this , does it deserve the same respect or appreciation as say art or music?”

      What I’d obviously like to see is the ability stripped from any irrational transcendental or mystical correlative belief. If this CAN be done, I don’t see why it would be dangerous. For example, it would be great if we could look at the ability to meditate (which we know produces unusual brain wave patterns unseen in the normally functioning brain) as something like a skilled, practised ability rather than something mystical. Whether we respect such abilities as much as art or music, as with anything aesthetic or cultural, will depend on individual taste.

      Rgds,

      Jonathan

  • I have to thank Jonathan to lay out Neurotheological research so artfully for a lay person to understand. From your article, I can understand that the both psychdelic drugs and the seratonin 5-HT1A receptors that is hardwired in our brain (inhibiting the effect of seratonin) play a role in the spiritual experience that an individual is capable of. I would like to know what makes Seratonin addictive, that spiritual enthusiasts seem to want more and more of it, even when faced with threats of social isolation.

  • “…the typical monotheistic description of a God who gives us the ability (free will) to choose to worship him becomes problematic…since we find that the capacity for religious experience seems to be as varied among the population as any other personality trait, individual characteristic or innate ability. Some people are simply born with a brain that has a greater chance of finding God, as they are “wired up” that way.”

    Not what neuroscience or Newberg would say. Because the brain is plastic you have the responsibility to simply “leave it open” to an experience so that if such a God exists you would have full opportunity to receive such an experience.

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