I recently received a phone call from a producer of the TechKnow program on Al Jazeera. She was doing a story about research going on at the University of Utah involving studies of brain activity during religious experiences,1 and she wanted me to comment on the research. She had read my article on the neuroscience of religiousness on the website of the International Society for Science and Religion2 and wanted my perspective on the relationship between brain function and religiousness, and on what this sort of research can tell us about religion. What is the nature of religiousness and what does it have to do with the brain?
Being a neuropsychologist at a theological seminary, this is the sort of issue about which I am often asked to comment. We are in a scientific era in which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is making it possible to observe distributions of activity throughout the brain while people are mentally doing interesting cognitive, social, and emotional tasks—such as viewing pictures showing social interactions, solving moral dilemmas, or imagining an emotional experience. We are in a cultural phase in which brain and neuroscience are buzzwords invoked in many conversations with a certain degree of cachet. The answers I give to questions about the brain and religiousness constitute a part of my contribution to the larger work of the School of Psychology on the integration of theology and psychology.
As described on “The Religious Brain Project” website, this study at the University of Utah aims to find “answers to fundamental questions, like ‘What happens in the brain during religious or spiritual experiences?’ and ‘How is the brain changed by religious experience?’ We also want to understand which brain networks contribute to religious feeling.”3 This study is similar in design and experimental questions to a number of other studies of the neuroscience of religiousness. Typically, these experiments involve having persons see, hear, and/or meditate on religious stimuli or themes, during which the patterns of activity in the brain are measured using fMRI or other measures of brain activity. For example, studies of brain activity have been done with respect to meditation (both Christian and Buddhist), prayer, listening to Scripture passages, and judging theological statements to be true or false.4 Since it is pretty clear that all of human life and experience is tied up in some way with the functioning of our brains, it is not surprising that something is seen in each of these brain imaging studies. However, each study finds a different pattern of brain activity associated with the religious condition, and thus different forms of religious activity or experience are related to different patterns of activity in the brain. There is not a particular area of the brain that is always active during mental processing that is experienced as religious.
There are two implicit assumptions of this sort of study that I find questionable. One is that brain activity associated with a religious experience will be functionally unique—that is, that the brain will function in a way that is unique to religious experiences and distinct from other forms of brain functioning. The other problematic assumption is that human religiousness can be adequately telescoped down to a form of subjective internal experience elicited by certain “religious” stimuli. The presence of these assumptions means that religious life gets reduced to nothing-but brain states associated with internal experiences elicited by a few decontextualized stimuli.
WHAT ABOUT BASEBALL?
I once wrote a book chapter that I entitled “The Brain, Religion, and Baseball.”5 It was the last chapter of an edited book involving chapters describing studies on the neurology of religious experience (not unlike the Religious Brain Project at the University of Utah). My chapter was the conclusion, and my job was to review and discuss points made from the other chapters. In order to convey a perspective on the neuroscience of religiousness, I wondered what it might be like to substitute “baseball” for “religion” in these research projects—i.e., a neuroscience of baseball. Moving to a different domain of life helps us see more clearly the issues surrounding the neuroscience of religion.
The point of using baseball as a comparison was to signal the fact that the religious lives of people are incredibly complex and diverse, involving all sorts of situations, responses, engagements, and life perspectives. In this respect religiousness is much like baseball, which also encompasses a great many engagements, behaviors, and experiences. So, what form of engagement with baseball would one choose to study? Playing baseball? But what sort of playing: small-scale friendly games or professional baseball? And what aspect of playing: fielding, batting, pitching? Watching baseball? But what sort of watching: watching a group of friends playing, or attending a professional game, or watching on TV? Would one study being the umpire, talking about baseball with friends, betting on the outcome of games? All of these events and experiences will have different and diverse patterns of neural activity and bodily engagement. One cannot imagine that a particular neural system or neural pattern is involved with all of baseball, or even that the various patterns will always include particular brain area—a “baseball module” somewhere in the brain. The point is that it would not make much sense to go looking for a unique and particular neuroscience of baseball. Human religiousness is at least as wide-ranging in its contexts, behaviors, and experiences—such that, though it is embodied (I believe), there is not a particular aspect of brain activity that is universally related to religious experience or behavior.
The problem with studies of the neuroscience of religiousness or religious experience is that, when a particular pattern of brain activity is found to be relatively consistently present across individuals when they are processing a specific form of religious stimulus or task, it is concluded that this pattern of activity must be the neural basis of all religious thoughts and experiences. The complexities of religious life are thereby reduced to patterns of brain activity associated with a temporally and situationally limited event. An important background presupposition driving this research is the assumption that there must be an evolutionarily endowed tendency for humans to be religious. The idea (sometimes only implicit) is that religiousness is uniquely human, and everything that is uniquely human must have come about through a history of natural selection of genetic mutations expressed in biological organization. Thus, there must be something we can find in brain activity and organization that is the expression of the genetics of this characteristically human behavior. Entangled in this assumption is also a commitment to “inside-out” with respect to human behavior—the idea that the causes of all behavior originate inside the individual.
“My latest work is dealing with the growing pathologies related to digital overuse. . . . I’m working with universities with students who are potential digital addicts in the lives that they live. Our programs really need to pay attention to the digital pathologies that are emerging, because they are not going to go away, and we’re facing severe pathologies in the future.”
+ ARCHIBALD HART was the third dean of Fuller’s School of Psychology and currently a senior professor of psychology. This quote is taken from a Fuller panel convened for the School of Psychology’s 50th anniversary.
Philosophical ideas about brain and mind (or brain and religiousness) have their root in one of two basic positions. One idea quite common in religious circles is that religiousness is not about the body or the brain at all. That is, our religious lives are the manifestation of a nonbodily, nonmaterial thing or property called a “soul” or “spirit.” This answer has a long history in philosophy and Christian thought, extending back from René Descartes to St. Augustine and eventually back to Plato, with lots of nuances and variations along the path. Since the soul/mind is understood as inner, this position also entails a view of religion as inside-out. Considered on its own, and outside of integrative considerations involving neurology and neuropsychology, this view is reasonable and certainly not incoherent. However, for many (me included), this Cartesian framework is inadequate when faced with the impact of brain disorder on many forms of religiousness and religious-like life experiences. For example, temporal lobe seizures are, in some cases, accompanied by deeply religious subjective experiences. Hallucinogenic drugs that alter neurotransmitter systems can produce experiences that in some cases seem richly spiritual. Certain forms of frontal lobe brain damage can loose the moorings of a person’s moral compass. Dementia confuses not only everyday cognitions, but also one’s religious cognitions and experiences. The dulling of life in Parkinson’s disease also impacts religious experiences. Thus, the thesis of a dual nature, according to which religiousness is a matter of the spirit and not of the physical body or brain, just does not resonate well with so much of what is known about the relationship of the body to spiritual life.
The other basic position provides an alternative answer—that religious mental processing (and religious experiences) are no more than the outcome of brain events. All of mental life is caused by the electrical activity of brain cells, and nothing more. Thus, for example, if the anterior temporal lobe gets abnormally active (due to epilepsy or electromagnetic stimulation), we have an experience that we interpret as religious although, in reality, it is just the electrical activity of the brain. Moral sensitivities are no more than the wiring of the frontal lobes. One’s beliefs are mostly the consequence of a pre-wired brain. This is a reductionist answer—that is, complex mental or religious experiences are reduced to nothing-but the activity of particular neural systems. It is also another version of inside-out—all behavior and experience is caused exclusively by the inner brain.
As you might expect, there are some significant problems with this sort of answer as well, some of which are built into the premises driving the interpretation of the results of neuroscience research. The first problem is that there is a lot of variability between people in what they experience during the experiment. Averaging patterns of brain activity across people easily draws us into over-simplification and assumptions about uniformity in brain processes. Second, it is never the case that these studies are able to test all of the events and experiences that are similar to the religious variable in the experiment but that persons would not consider religious— and being similar would likely elicit the same pattern of brain activity. Is what is being shown in the pattern of brain activity described in the results of these studies really unique to religiousness, or is it common to other domains of life? Finally, due to the necessities of research design, religiousness and religious life get concatenated to some predefined, contextually isolated, and very diminished event or stimulus, which, with respect to the research at hand, come to stand for the whole of religious life.
+ “We are in a cultural phase in which brain and neuroscience are buzzwords invoked in many conversations with a certain degree of cachet. The answers I give to questions about the brain and religiousness constitute a part of my contribution to the larger work of the School of Psychology on the integration of theology and psychology.” —Warren S. Brown
RELIGIOUS LIFE AS EMBODIED, EMERGENT, EMBEDDED, AND EXTENDED
So, my first response to the producer from Al Jazeera was to try to sort out for her the Cartesian and biological reductionism alternatives, and to suggest why I think that both hold some elements of truth, but are in the end inadequate. However, there are other positions than these alternatives that are both reasonable and more consistent with what is known about brain processes. The view that I (and others) believe provides the greatest resonance between a neuroscientific view of human nature and all that is experienced by religious persons can be represented by four descriptors: embodied, emergent, embedded, and extended. Each term embraces a large literature of theory and discussion that cannot be reviewed and discussed herein.6 However, I will try to sort out these ideas in a brief and comprehensible way.
To say we are embodied is to move away from the Cartesian idea of a disembodied soul as the source of our religiousness and spirituality. To say we are embodied is to move away from the Cartesian idea of a disembodied soul as the source of our religiousness and spirituality, and toward the idea of humankind as nested in God’s physical creation. We were created by God as beings inescapably implicated with the physical and biological world. What is more, a lot of recent research and theory suggests that we are truly em-bodied and not just em-brained. That is, our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, memories, etc. are grounded in our bodily existence. We think by remembering, rehearsing, and simulating sensations and actions from our history of bodily interactions with the world—including acts of speech. Thus, what we experience as inner thought (or religious experiences) is built upon, and continues to draw upon, our memories of ourselves as behaving and interacting bodies. While religiousness may be considered a particular subdomain of the operation of these embodied mental capacities, it is more true to say that all of our capacities participate in our religious selves, and which capacities participate depends on which of the great variety of religious contexts that engages us at the moment.
As we have seen, it is possible that we are embodied in ways that support a reductionist view that all the properties of the human mind are nothing but the firing of neurons. However, this idea is becoming increasingly improbable in current research and theory where behavior, experiences, thoughts, ideas, motivations, and so on cannot be reduced to the firing of neurons or even activity in neural subsystems without the disappearance of the important properties of mind one wishes to explain. While neural activity is critical, the higher properties of the human mind emerge from broad patterns of interactions within the brain, and between the brain, the body, and the world. The interesting properties are not in the parts (neurons), but in their vastly complex and temporally extended interactions. The idea of emergence, therefore, means that out of the neural patterns of interaction emerge genuinely new complex, rational, intelligent, and interpersonal mental properties. While this idea of emergence seems mysterious, there are many demonstrations and theoretical arguments regarding how individual parts (like individual neurons) can interact together in ways that result in the emergence of new properties (like mind) that cannot be reduced to the functions of the parts. The causes of the properties of mind are patterns of interactions among neurons, not the neurons themselves. In this view, our mental and religious (soulish) lives are bodily processes that entail complex neural patterns that embody nonreducible aspects of us as acting, thinking, and relational agents.
While human properties like mind and religiousness are (in this framework) embodied and emergent, it is also critical to recognize the social, cultural, and congregational embeddedness of an embodied and emergent person. Even when we are alone in our thoughts, we exist in the context of our extensive history of physical and social engagements, and we interact with these memories as the basis of our thoughts and meditations. We don’t think, feel, believe, desire, hope, or emote entirely alone as isolated persons, but rather, our thinking, feeling, and believing is always embedded in life contexts.
The concept of embeddedness leads to a recent idea in the philosophy of mind—extended cognition. The idea is that we frequently become engaged with objects and persons in our environment such that they become an indistinguishable part of the processes of mind. In this view, once such engagement occurs, there is no clear functional boundary between the brain, the body, and the environment. While such engagements are temporary and transient, nevertheless the capacities of mind are for the moment enhanced by interactions with things or persons outside of the individual person. For example, a notebook or smart phone can expand our memory capacity in ways that are not functionally different from using the memory structures in our brains. Even more so, when we are extended into the ongoing processes of social interactions, a great deal of what constitutes our mind at the moment emerges from the nature and experience of ongoing interpersonal interactivity. My mind is supersized for the moment by my engagement with other persons in conversation and interaction. The recent work that Brad Strawn and I have been doing considers the embodied, embedded, and extended nature of our personhood with respect to the nature of Christian life. If these concepts are true, what are the implications for the church?7 What if human religiousness and spirituality (and baseball) do not exist inside individual persons, but exist within coupled systems—when we are engaged with other persons, or with God?
AN IMPORTANT THEOLOGICAL CAVEAT
My answers to the journalist from Al Jazeera, as well as the context and content of the discussion in this article, are admittedly naturalist. That is, the discussion has been about the nature of persons (anthropology), concentrating our attention on the sort of persons God has created. What has not been included in this discussion is recognition of the presence and work of the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit is not embodied in the manner of the religious and spiritual lives of his human creatures. Thus, this essay has left bracketed the nature and work of the Spirit of God for the sake of this discussion of the relationship between religiousness and brain function. However, if interactions with a physical or social world are so critical for the nature of the human mind and religious experiences, then it is coherent to consider our interactions with the Spirit of God as the critical context for the emergence of spirituality in embodied persons.
Through the neuroscience of religious experiences we can know a bit about ourselves as creatures, but due to the limits of scientific investigations, we can only know about a contributing part to a larger whole that is human religious life. What is more, this research will leave untapped (and unresearchable by neuroscience) the deeper theological questions about the nature and work of the Spirit of God within his creatures and created world.