But this new wave of information raises significant questions, too. Can neuroscience really capture the full breadth of what it means to be a Christian? And does studying the brain point us to a particular image of God? Scientific—or quasi-scientific—interest in the brain and religious experience is not new. Nineteenth-century phrenologists, for example, thought they had identified particular skull bumps that corresponded to religiosity. But some neurotheology investigations have proven much more fruitful. The results: Multiple brain regions, including the left brain stem and the visual cortex, are involved in mystical experiences.
Analyzing spirituality in the brain is not just a matter of scans and machines.
In the early s, Cloninger developed a standardized personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory TCI , which laid the groundwork for future work on the brain and spirituality. Another trait is self-transcendence.
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There are two ways of looking at faith, Cloninger says. Cloninger says his work on the self-transcendence scale changed his own thinking about faith. And indeed, the further neurotheological research progresses, the less grandiose its claims become. Brick Johnstone, a professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, is one of the latest to throw cold water on the idea of a single part of the brain being able to explain spirituality.
His study of 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe found that those with more severe damage reported feeling closer to a higher power. He also found that those who attended church more often showed increased activity in the frontal lobe.
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Is faith all in our heads? James understood that there is something deeply unsettling about hearing our deepest beliefs and sensations dismissed as mere neural blips.
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Celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have latched on to the idea that being able to observe spirituality in the brain means the experiences have no reality outside the brain. But religious leaders, too, have claimed the latest findings as proof of the existence of God. If we are hardwired for belief, then perhaps God engineered the wiring.
Scientists, however, are almost universally adamant that neurotheology has very little to say about the existence of God. But if neurotheology has nothing to say about the existence of God, then what does it have to say about the nature of human belief? John Haught is a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has written about brain science, materialism, and religion.
He says that brain scans simply cannot capture the full spectrum of what it means to be a believer. Religion is many other things.
As the Epistle of James says, it also means serving the widows and orphans. Religion affects what we find interesting to explore. It can include intellectual epiphanies, friendships with fellow believers, and respect for saints.
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None of these factor into research on self-transcendence. But the incredible variety of mindsets found in the pews—some would be praying, others contemplating the sermon, others drifting to the football game or what to make for lunch—would make it extraordinarily difficult to measure anything meaningful with current technology. Some of these questions may be answered as science and technology progress; perhaps in a few decades, neuroscience will be able to capture much more of what it means to be a spiritual person.
The bigger question, then, is whether neuroscience points to a specific vision of God.
Indeed, much of the current research seems to point to the psychological usefulness of belief in general—and a particularly warm-and-fuzzy, Eastern-inflected meditative version of it at that. How do we get people out of those negative practices and beliefs and into things that are more positive? But the practicality of talking yourself out of the notion of a punitive God says very little about what God actually wants from you. That does not mean, of course, that a chemically-based depressive episode is a divine punishment. It does not even mean that God ever intervenes in human lives in directly punitive ways.
I asked Newberg what it means if God really is angry sometimes, or even punitive. He compared it to someone who has a headache and believes a person is hitting him with a hammer; if medication is able to cure the headache, the chances the hammer attack is real go down drastically. In other words, yes, we can draw theological conclusions about the nature of God based on what we can convince ourselves into believing.
If this is the future of neurotheology, it will be interesting to see how old-fashioned theology responds. View the discussion thread. The doctor: Look how beautiful, this perfect child The assistant: Connecting to the mainframe Uploading itself into our database To assume control of every gateway Doctor, we must act fast, time is of the essence We must pull the plug Now if all our lives are to be saved The doctor: No! You murderers! How could you harm An innocent child only reaching out to play? Only curious why the world looks this way Think of all the breakthroughs What we are to find once Assimilated by the artificial mind The assistant: God have mercy on our feeble souls Neural pathways have been found Of the most unpleasant kind The doctor: Oh, behold what we have done Humanity's first begotten son We reap what we sow, come what may come Oh my God, what have we done?
Still alive inside of Specimen 1 And you'll know what we've begun Can'tt be undone. Nominate as Song of the Day.
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