Paul D. Miller on Tue, 19 Jun 2001 16:28:45 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Is the religious impulse a neuro-chemical condition?

A quick side-viewpoint on the genomics of the imagination.... 
phenotype/genotype - the structures encoded  in the hardware of how 
we live in the world. Corpus delecti.... Again, the idea becomes a 
modification of the body in an environment conditioned by culture AND 
nature. Trace the routes that people use language to map onto 
neurochemistry. Prosthetic Realism meets Ali Babba and the 40 
Thieves... Who speaks through you? Genomics should be fun, and 
probably will be soon....

Tracing the Synapses of Spirituality

By Shankar Vedantam

In Philadelphia, a researcher discovers areas of the brain that are 
activated during meditation. At two other universities in San Diego 
and North Carolina, doctors study how epilepsy and certain 
hallucinogenic drugs can produce religious epiphanies. And in Canada, 
a neuroscientist fits people with magnetized helmets that produce 
"spiritual" experiences for the secular.

The work is part of a broad new effort by scientists around the world 
to better understand religious experiences, measure them, and even 
reproduce them. Using powerful brain imaging technology, researchers 
are exploring what mystics call nirvana, and what Christians describe 
as a state of grace. Scientists are asking whether spirituality can 
be explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters and brain 

What creates that transcendental feeling of being one with the 
universe? It could be the decreased activity in the brain's parietal 
lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical 
orientation, research suggests. How does religion prompt divine 
feelings of love and compassion? Possibly because of changes in the 
frontal lobe, caused by heightened concentration during meditation. 
Why do many people have a profound sense that religion has changed 
their lives? Perhaps because spiritual practices activate the 
temporal lobe, which weights experiences with personal significance.

"The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences 
and religious experiences," said Andrew Newberg, a Philadelphia 
scientist who authored the book "Why God Won't Go Away." "Unless 
there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality 
will be here for a very long time. The brain is predisposed to having 
those experiences and that is why so many people believe in God."

The research may represent the bravest frontier of brain research. 
But depending on your religious beliefs, it may also be the last 
straw. For while Newberg and other scientists say they are trying to 
bridge the gap between science and religion, many believers are 
offended by the notion that God is a creation of the human brain, 
rather than the other way around.

"It reinforces atheistic assumptions and makes religion appear 
useless," said Nancey Murphy, a professor of Christian philosophy at 
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "If you can explain 
religious experience purely as a brain phenomenon, you don't need the 
assumption of the existence of God."

Some scientists readily say the research proves there is no such 
thing as God. But many others argue that they are religious 
themselves, and that they are simply trying to understand how our 
minds produce a sense of spirituality.

Newberg, who was catapulted to center stage of the 
neuroscience-religion debate by his book and some recent experiments 
he conducted at the University of Pennsylvania with co-researcher 
Eugene D'Aquili, says he has a sense of his own spirituality, though 
he declined to say whether he believed in God because any answer 
would prompt people to question his agenda. "I'm really not trying to 
use science to prove that God exists or disprove God exists," he said.

Newberg's experiment consisted of taking brain scans of Tibetan 
Buddhist meditators as they sat immersed in contemplation. After 
giving them time to sink into a deep meditative trance, he injected 
them with a radioactive dye. Patterns of the dye's residues in the 
brain were later converted into images.

Newberg found that certain areas of the brain were altered during 
deep meditation. Predictably, these included areas in the front of 
the brain that are involved in concentration. But Newberg also found 
decreased activity in the parietal lobe, one of the parts of the 
brain that helps orient a person in three-dimensional space.

"When people have spiritual experiences they feel they become one 
with the universe and lose their sense of self," he said. "We think 
that may be because of what is happening in that area – if you 
block that area you lose that boundary between the self and the rest 
of the world. In doing so you ultimately wind up in a universal 

Across the country, at the University of California in San Diego, 
other neuroscientists are studying why religious experiences seem to 
accompany epileptic seizures in some patients. At Duke University, 
psychiatrist Roy Mathew is studying hallucinogenic drugs that can 
produce mystical experiences and have long been used in certain 
religious traditions.

Could the flash of wisdom that came over Siddhartha Gautama – 
the Buddha – have been nothing more than his parietal lobe 
quieting down? Could the voices that Moses and Mohammed heard on 
remote mountain tops have been just a bunch of firing neurons – 
an illusion? Could Jesus's conversations with God have been a mental 

Newberg won't go so far, but other proponents of the new brain 
science do. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at 
Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has been conducting 
experiments that fit a set of magnets to a helmet-like device. 
Persinger runs what amounts to a weak electromagnetic signal around 
the skulls of volunteers.

Four in five people, he said, report a "mystical experience, the 
feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or 
near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become 
frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits.

"That's in the laboratory," said Persinger. "They know they are in 
the laboratory. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened 
late at night in a pew or mosque or synagogue?"

His research, said Persinger, showed that "religion is a property of 
the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there."

Those who believe the new science disproves the existence of God say 
they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power 
of religion. They say that religious wars, fanaticism and intolerance 
spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are 
unique, rather than facets of universal brain chemistry.

"It's irrational and dangerous when you see how religiosity affects 
us," said Matthew Alper, author of "The God Part of the Brain," a 
book about the neuroscience of belief. "During times of prosperity, 
we are contented. During times of depression, we go to war. When 
there isn't enough food to go around, we break into our spiritual 
tribes and use our gods as justification to kill one another."

While Persinger and Alper count themselves as atheists, many 
scientists studying the neurology of belief consider themselves 
deeply spiritual.

James Austin, a neurologist, began practicing Zen meditation during a 
visit to Japan. After years of practice, he found himself having to 
re-evaluate what his professional background had taught him.

"It was decided for me by the experiences I had while meditating," 
said Austin, author of the book "Zen and the Brain" and now a 
philosophy scholar at the University of Idaho. "Some of them were 
quickenings, one was a major internal absorption – an intense 
hyper-awareness, empty endless space that was blacker than black and 
soundless and vacant of any sense of my physical bodily self. I felt 
deep bliss. I realized that nothing in my training or experience had 
prepared me to help me understand what was going on in my brain. It 
was a wake-up call for a neurologist."

Austin's spirituality doesn't involve a belief in God – it is 
more in line with practices associated with some streams of Hinduism 
and Buddhism. Both emphasize the importance of meditation and its 
power to make an individual loving and compassionate – most 
Buddhists are disinterested in whether God exists.

But theologians say such practices don't describe most people's 
religiousness in either eastern or western traditions.

"When these people talk of religious experience, they are talking of 
a meditative experience," said John Haught, a professor of theology 
at Georgetown University. "But religion is more than that. It 
involves commitments and suffering and struggle – it's not all 
meditative bliss. It also involves moments when you feel abandoned by 

"Religion is visiting widows and orphans," he said. "It is symbolism 
and myth and story and much richer things. They have isolated one 
small aspect of religious experience and they are identifying that 
with the whole of religion."

Belief and faith, argue believers, are larger than the sum of their 
brain parts: "The brain is the hardware through which religion is 
experienced," said Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist 
who studies the effect of religion on people. "To say the brain 
produces religion is like saying a piano produces music."

At the Fuller Theological Seminary's school of psychology, Warren 
Brown, a cognitive neuropsychologist, said, "Sitting where I'm 
sitting and dealing with experts in theology and Christian religious 
practice, I just look at what these people know about religiousness 
and think they are not very sophisticated. They are sophisticated 
neuroscientists, but they are not scholars in the area of what is 
involved in various forms of religiousness."

At the heart of the critique of the new brain research is what one 
theologian at St. Louis University called the "nothing-butism" of 
some scientists – the notion that all phenomena could be 
understood by reducing them to basic units that could be measured.

"A kiss," said Michael McClymond, "is more than a mutually 
agreed-upon exchange of saliva, breath and germs."

And finally, say believers, if God existed and created the universe, 
wouldn't it make sense that he would install machinery in our brains 
that would make it possible to have mystical experiences?

"Neuroscientists are taking the viewpoints of physicists of the last 
century that everything is matter," said Mathew, the Duke 
psychiatrist. "I am open to the possibility that there is more to 
this than what meets the eye. I don't believe in the omnipotence of 
science or that we have a foolproof explanation."
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Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid
Music and Art
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