The Spiritual Brain

Human beings appear to have spiritual brains that are capable of feeling deeply connected to something greater than themselves and that can develop intense beliefs about religion and God. The human brain can engage in practices such as prayer or meditation that result in powerful spiritual experiences that have been described in every tradition and society.

Spirituality also appears to have positive, and sometimes negative, effects on people’s mental and physical health. Spiritual practices, beliefs, and phenomena are expressed and experienced in all kinds of ways, but no matter how human beings are spiritual, modern neuroscience can offer new insights into the meaning and nature of spirituality.

We want to know how and why the mind moves human beings to be spiritual, to contemplate God, and to develop and follow religions. Because religion and spirituality can have a tremendous effect on people, there should be some physiological manifestation of that effect in the most important organ in our body—the brain. Neuroscience studies the human brain, by extension, we can learn how religion and spirituality affect the human brain. If science can measure or quantify that effect, then perhaps we can even learn something about how and why we are spiritual.

Brain Scans of Franciscan Nuns

In 1993, a study was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania that focused on the examination of brain activity while participants engaged in a type of Christian meditative prayer called centering prayer. The religious participants were a group of cloistered Franciscan nuns.

To prepare for the study, the nuns allowed researchers to put intravenous catheters into their arms so that the researchers could inject a small amount of radioactive material, which would allow researchers to scan the brains of the nuns and determine which areas were more or less active during prayer.

The researchers wanted to make sure that each person had enough experience doing the centering prayer, so they set a lower limit of 15 years to qualify.

One by one, each nun engaged in a prayer session for 45 minutes. The tracer was injected in the last five minutes of the practice to capture the peak of the practice. When the tracer is injected, it circulates for a few minutes and gets locked in the brain, so it captures a snapshot at a particular moment in time.

The brain scans showed many different changes, including changes in the parts of the brain that are involved in the sense of self, the ability to focus attention, and emotions—evidence that prayer has a measurable effect on the human brain.

One of the things that scientific experiments do is, as you pursue the answer to one question, the experiment opens your mind to a slew of great questions you hadn’t thought of before. In this case, the questions that the brain scans raised were even more fascinating than the conclusions that could be drawn from the preliminary data.

If prayer causes a very specific pattern of activity in the brain—a pattern that can be detected by scanning technology—the sort of questions that are raised are as follows.

o Are these changes in brain activity just for prayer, or do they apply to other practices as well?

o If researchers compare the brain scans of different individuals, can they learn anything about the different ways the individuals conceptualize God?

o What might these brain scans tell us about the relationship between spirituality and health

Are these the kinds of questions that science can actually answer? Researchers can use the latest and greatest in medical technology to see which brain areas are more or less active during prayer, but can that really tell them anything about the spirituality of the person who does the praying? Is spirituality even a proper subject for scientific examination?

Science is all about understanding the world and ourselves, and few things seem more persistent and fundamental to the study of ourselves than human spirituality.

The History of Religion

Human beings have pursued religion from our earliest origins. For example, 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals were burying their dead—and not only the bodies. Some graves also included various instruments, jewelry, and other adornments. This suggests, at the very least, that they had some belief that the dead went somewhere and may need those objects. However, it was not the body that had departed, so it must be something nonmaterial—a soul, perhaps.

About 30,000 years ago, people were painting detailed scenes on cave walls in France and Southern Africa. These scenes included unusual figures that combined humans and animals. Several scholars suggest that these paintings actually represent mystical experiences. If they are correct, then human beings were already capable of profound spiritual states.

Roughly 11,000 years ago, a temple was constructed at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. The temple is comprised of large circular structures with walls made of unworked drystone and numerous T-shaped monolithic pillars of limestone that are up to 10 feet high. A bigger pair of pillars is placed in the center of the structures. There is evidence that the structures had a roof. Perhaps most interesting are the reliefs on the pillars, which include all sorts of animals, including foxes, lions, cattle, hyenas, wild boars, herons, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, snakes, and a small number of human-looking figures.

The temple at Göbekli Tepe suggests that civilization did not precede religion, but that religion preceded civilization. In other words, it is a religious temple that was built thousands of years before the first cities began to appear, which seems to show that cities arose around the temple.

The ancient Egyptians, 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, developed a rich mythology with many types of gods that helped control the world and especially the afterworld.

When you consider the origins of monotheistic religions 5,000 years ago—as well as the emergence of Buddhism and Hinduism and the later development of Christianity, Islam, and other religions—all of this clearly demonstrates that throughout time and across the globe, human beings have thought about and struggled with the notion of a spiritual realm or God.

One way to look at this long history is that religion is just the way things get explained before science comes along, but as a scientist, you might also look at this and see an undeniable pattern. Humans exhibit a persistent tendency to believe in things like God, the afterlife, and the soul. Maybe there’s something in the way our brains are put together—the way we’re wired—that makes us believe.

In the 19th century, thinkers such as Nietzsche told us that God was dead, and many people thought that the development of science and universal education would lead people away from religious and spiritual ideas

Many years ago, the ancient Egyptians believed in the existence of many gods and that the gods helped them in their journey into the afterworld. This led to the building of pyramids and all of the accoutrements that went along with them.

However, despite those thinkers, large percentages of people throughout the world still describe themselves as religious. Depending on the survey, about 85 to 90 percent of people in the United States believe in God, and surveys of the world population usually put the percentage of religious individuals between about 80 and 85 percent.

Even agnostics and atheists are defined by their beliefs about God—or a lack of God. Almost everyone has thought about this topic at one point in their lives and has come to some conclusion about what belief, or non-belief, to incorporate into their lives.

The Intersection of the Brain and Spirituality

Science has to play a role in the exploration of spirituality. Given the universality of the human impulse to believe, how can science really understand our species unless it’s willing to explore the spiritual brain? Studies like the one involving the Franciscan nuns aren’t scientific sideshows; they can actually help us get to the core of what it means to be human.

In fact, some of the most exciting research in all of science is occurring in a new field known as neurotheology, which is essentially the study of the relationship between the brain and spirituality.

The tools of neurotheology are brain-imaging techniques and other physiological measures of the brain and body, such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate, or immune function. Other tools include studies and experiments that measure subjective experience, including thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Neurotheology is a new and expanding field of research that has certainly caught the attention of both scientists and religious scholars in addition to the public at large.

Of course, neurotheology isn’t the first attempt to describe the links between the brain and spirituality. In fact, the wisdom of many ancient traditions includes powerful intuitions and surprising insights about the nature of these elusive links.

For example, Eastern religious traditions have long shown significant interest in psychology. Buddhist and Hindu writings made extensive evaluations of the experience of the self, our emotional attachment to that self, and how the human psyche can be altered through various practices. These traditions recognized the importance of using the brain to help us achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Ayurvedic medical practices were developed in India with an emphasis on the body’s energy. According to this tradition, the brain, body, and spirit are intimately connected by an energy, or a force, known as Chi. Ayurvedic medicine long ago incorporated a concept that the material brain is deeply connected to the spiritual experiences of the mind.

Ancient religious texts in the Western world did not deal with the brain’s relationship to spirituality per se. The Bible speaks little about specific body physiology or mental processes. However, the description of human beings, their frailties, and the evil actions they commit clearly signifies deep interest in human psychology.

The Ten Commandments are basically a treatise on moral psychology. They specify what we are to think and how we are to behave. However, we must remember that it is the brain that makes moral guidelines intelligible to us. Furthermore, it is the brain that drives us to behave in ways that either satisfy or violate those intelligible guidelines.

Questions about the relationship between body and soul, and brain and mind, have been central to the Western philosophical tradition. From Descartes to Spinoza to Kant, people have wondered whether there is something inherent in the human mind that allows it access to ultimate reality.

People have argued for centuries about how we can have knowledge of ultimate reality, recognizing that such knowledge is the key to understanding the nature of the universe. This is one of humanity’s ultimate goals—to explore and understand how the universe works—and we must realize the critical role our mind plays in achieving this understanding.

Science is constantly giving us new techniques to address the great questions of human life—questions relating to God, the soul, and the nature of belief—and this research is beginning to shed light on the questions regarding the relationship between the brain and human spirituality.

Ashbrook and Albright, The Humanizing Brain.

Beauregard and O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain

Patrick McNamara, Where God and Science Meet

Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain

Newberg, d’Aquili, and Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away.

Questions to Consider

1. Over the centuries, how have we, as human beings, come to understand the persistence and nature of our religious and spiritual beliefs?

2. How can a scientific perspective of the human brain provide a new and deeper understanding of how and why human beings have religious and spiritual beliefs?

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