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Science and Metaphysics -7 : "Religion and The Brain"

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  • Aparthib
    Greek philosopher Socrates said know thyself The emerging new discipline called evolutionary psychology is just trying to do that. Through this scientific
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 15, 2004
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      Greek philosopher Socrates said "know thyself" The emerging new
      discipline called evolutionary psychology is just trying to do
      that. Through this scientific discipline humans are trying to
      reflect on itself and gain knowledge about the way they think,
      act and behave. Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to
      understand human mind based on objective evidences and
      observations using the insights of evolution. It does so in a way
      devoid of the vague mysticism, verbosities (that eventually end
      up in circularities) that were typical of past endevours to do
      the same. This new field is trying to offer credible explanations
      for the way we feel, think and behave, form moral judgements and
      values in the light of evolutionary principles. An important
      subfield of evolutionary psychology is the new field of
      neurotheology, which attempts to explain the ubiquitous
      religious belief among the human species across all cultures and
      race, in the light of the evolutionary working of the brain and
      genetics. The fact that religious beliefs and mystical feelings
      are rooted in the evolutionary biology of the brain is well
      established from neurological research now. Both mysticism, a
      form of religious experience and traditional religious beliefs
      are rooted in the neuronal substrate of brain consciousness.
      Mysticism involves mostly the limbic system of the brain. More on
      that later. It seems common sensical today to biologists and
      science savvy folks armed with the knowledge of evolution that
      like all human traits, religious beliefs must also be a product
      of evolution, to increase the odds of survival of the human
      species. It would not have been so obvious before evolution was
      known. But even as far back as 1899, John Fiske, the American
      philosopher said in his 1899 book "Through nature to GOD" : "
      Would it not be strange if suddenly, after humans crossed the
      magic threshold to speech and self- awareness, the appearance of
      religion in all primitive cultures would have had no survival
      value?" (From p-381, The Whys of a Philosophical scrivener -
      Martin Gardner). A remarkable insight for his time. More recently
      Matthew Alper in his book "The God part of the Brain"
      (see http//www.godpart.com/premise.html) has argued very cogently
      in favour of a God module in our brain, much like Noam Chomsky
      suggested a language module in our brain 40 years ago. He
      proposes that beliefs in God, the afterlife, mind-over-matter
      and superstitions have a physiological origin and may be encoded
      into human DNA, evolved as a defense mechanism to help people
      cope with the anxiety that comes from being aware of our own

      The late Eugene d'Aquili, a pioneer in neurotheology, suggested
      neuropsychological mechanisms behind the universal existence of
      religions and behaviors involving a brain structures performing a
      specific function. That structure generates(Or explains) reality
      for us when our senses cannot. Gods, spirits, etc. are then
      automatically generated by our brains, even if we cognitively
      reject the idea of their existence, we still experience them in
      our dreams and fantasies, ie, our subconscious. This is a
      universal human trait - of believers and non-believers alike.

      A result of the actions of this brain area is the construction of
      myths and power sources to explain our existence and orient
      ourselves within the universe. This allows us to deal with the
      world in ways we know how. d'Aquili proposes that this aspect of
      religion is a means of controlling our environment
      psychologically so that we can control it externally and
      ultimately survive in it. So ultimately it is the evolutionary
      survival strategy that creates this religion module in the brain.

      Modern evolutionary biology views human brain as an evolved organ
      just any other, crafted by the selection pressure of evolution.
      Thus the manifestation of the working of the brain, i.e mind is
      also a product of evolutionary pressure. The way humans think,
      behave and feel is shaped by the forces of evolution, acting over
      time. It is an illusion to believe that "we" the humans create
      the values, morals etc. There is no "we" outside of the brain
      existing independently and controlling the brain. There is no
      "soul", controlling the brain. The brain controls how humans think,
      behave and feel, and the brain itself is controlled by
      evolutionary forces, which ultimately is the result of the laws
      of Physics at work acting together with the contingencies of
      nature(environment). (Please refer to my earlier essay: "Soul,
      Brain and the Laws of Physics at:
      Environment here refers to all the collection of human brains
      forming a network of brains in a given community.

      Neurotheologists are trying to explain spirituality in terms of
      neural networks, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. A general
      consensus view of what creates the transcendental feeling of
      being one with the universe is that it may be due to the
      decreased activity in brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate
      the sense of self and physical orientation.

      As far back as 1980, A. Mandell in the article "Toward a
      Psychobiology of Transcendence: God in the brain", in
      "Psychobiology of Consciousness", was already talking about
      the neuronal basis of mystical experience.

      A more recent article in Time Magazine of Aug 4, 2003 cites the
      studies of Dr. Gregg Jacobs of Harvard, showing that meditation
      produces enhanced theta waves, deactivates frontal area and
      lowers activity in parietal lobe leading to feeling of oneness (
      Unitarity), a common experience reported by all mystics.

      Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in neurotheology, who worked with
      another pioneer, the late Eugene d'Aquili, and with him wrote
      the book "Why God Won't Go Away." , says: "The brain is set up in
      such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious
      experiences,". In other words the notion of God is hardwired in
      human brain.

      In their research Newberg and his team found that during
      meditation, part of the parietal lobe of their volunteer
      meditators was much less active than when the volunteers were
      merely sitting still. Newberg and d'Aquili realised that this was
      the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self
      and other originates. and the sensory deprivation of the parietal
      lobe makes the person feel that the boundary between self and
      other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context
      also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and

      Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer,
      showing the same pattern of shutting down the same regions of the
      brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness peaked.

      The sense of unity with the Universe is accompanied by a feeling
      of awe and deep significance. Neurotheologists believe that this
      sensation originates in the limbic system, also known as the
      "emotional brain" in common parlance, that lies deep within the
      temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.

      The limbic system is the more ancient part of the brain in the
      evolutionary sense than the parietal or frontal lobe. During an
      intense religious experience, researchers believe that the limbic
      system becomes unusually active, attaching great significance to
      everything around them during such time

      When neurosurgeons stimulate the limbic system during open-
      brain surgery they say their patients occasionally report
      experiencing religious sensations. Not surprisingly Alzheimer's
      disease which tends to impair the limbic system, is accompanied
      with a loss of religious interest.

      There is evidence that the limbic system is important in
      religious experiences. People who suffer epileptic seizures of
      the limbic system, or the temporal lobes in general, sometimes
      report having profound experiences during their seizures. Jeffrey
      Saver, a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles
      says. "This is similar to people undergoing religious conversion,
      who have a sense of seeing through their hollow selves or
      superficial reality to a deeper reality,". He says that
      epileptics have historically tended to be the people with the
      great mystical experiences.

      The limbic system is hardwired by evolution to evoke a belief in
      deity to cope with the severe stress and insecurity that a crisis
      can bring about. It is a purely evolutionary adaptation for
      survival, much like the reflexive retreat of our hand from a red
      glowing object, or our reflex on seeing a snake like object in
      dark etc. Rational thoughts from our cortex area loses control.
      At that tiem all humans revert to raw animal reflexes, blurring
      the distinction between theists, atheists etc that are results
      of the difference in neural connections in cerebral cortex due to
      both both genetic differences as and differences in
      environmental effect of upbringing.

      This reflex action of our brain via limbic system is
      respsonsible for providing us an artificial consolation of a
      protector to get past the crisis without suffering a heart attack.
      Whether the crisis ends in eventual catastrophe or in an
      eventual clearing of danger does not depend on the state (Or a
      change in state) of the belief of the distressed people. More
      than one incidents of disasters, plane crash, shipwreck with
      religious people on board (A Saudi plane crashed with Hajj
      pilgrims all dying in the crash sometime ago). Hence the hard
      wired reflex causing an atheist to instinctively switch belief in
      moments of severe crisis does not prove at all that God exists.
      It only reinforces the fact that the feeling of "God" is hardwired
      in the brain.

      Neurotransmitters can also stimulate mystical experience, besides
      sensory deprivation of the parietla lobes or the electromagnetic
      stimulation of the temporal lobes. Psychiatrist Roy Mathew of
      Duke University has studied hallucinogenic drugs that can produce
      mystical experiences and have long been used in certain religious
      traditions, for example the "Soma" used by ancient Hindu ascetics.

      Perhaps no other neurotheologists have gone to the length that
      Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian
      University in Sudbury, Ontario has gone. It may seem to be
      trivializing the divine, but essentially he has devised his
      virtual spiritual helmet to experience God (He calls it "sensed
      presence") at one's calling. Persinger has been using stimulatioin
      of the temporal lobe of his subjects using a technique called
      transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate a wide
      assortment of experiences, some surreal (The New Scientist, 19
      November 1994, p29 carries a detailed account of it)

      With a series of Electromagnetic pattern he calls the Thomas
      pulse, he can stimulate in the subject wearing the helmet to a
      sensed presence (Of something divine), something similar to the
      fruition of the lifetime goal of an ancient mystic to unify with
      the divine.

      The 900 or more subjects that Persinger has tickled the temporal
      lobes of, labelled this perception of sensed presence with the
      names that reflect the culture that they have been reared in -
      Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit etc,
      while agnostic UFO enthusiast talk of having experienced alien-
      abduction! If a loved one has recently died, they may feel that
      person has returned to see them. "This is all in the laboratory,
      so you can imagine what would happen if the person is alone in
      their bed at night or in a church, where the context is so
      important," Persinger says.

      Persinger has extrapolated his research on the effect of
      Electromagnetic (EM) fields on the temporal lobe of individual
      subjects to the effect of natural fluctuations of EM field due to
      natural events like earthquake, (i.e techtonic strain), solar
      flare, meteor shower or due to even man made effect like building
      a huge dam, oil drilling etc can lead to mass hallucinatory
      perceptions. For example, the classic case of the apparition of
      Mary over the Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, in the 1960s which
      lasted off and on for several years, and seen by thousands of
      people, seemed to precede the disturbances that occurred during
      the building of the Aswan High Dam.There were multiple examples
      of reservoirs being built or lakes being filled, and reports of
      luminous displays and UFO flaps abounded then. He has also
      published a paper called "The Tectonic Strain Theory as an
      Explanation for UFO Phenomena," in which he maintains that around
      the time of an earthquake, changes in the EM field could spark
      mysterious lights in the sky.

      Many books and papers have appeared based on the results of
      neurological research that are reinforcing this new paradigm of
      the neuronal basis of religious beliefs.

      On page 15 of their book "Where God resides in the brain"
      authors Allbright & Ashbrook states: "Humans are meaning seeking
      animals. Faith is built into the activity of our biology, our
      nervous systems, our neurocognitive processes, our humanizing

      Neurologists are now convinced that every belief/propensity etc
      are mapped into specific neuronal patterns in the brain.
      Biologist Richard Dawkins first introduced the idea of memes,
      units of belief that is firmly entrenched in human brain and is
      capable of being propagated laterally among the society of
      brains. On page 323 of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins
      mentions that meme is a neuronal wiring up as confirmed by
      brain scientist Juan Delius of University of Konstanz, Germany.
      Much has been learned and studied since then on the cerebral
      basis of religious memes.

      Dr. James Austen in his monumental tome of 844 pages : "Zen and
      the Brain" states on page 18 "The sense of great Self (Mystical
      Experience) must come from the brain, since it is the organ of
      the mind. Dr. Austen is a neurophysiologist who has also practiced
      Zen meditation!

      Some quotes from "The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of
      Religious Experience" by Eugene G. D'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg:

      p22-24: Says brain is the source of all religions/mystical
      feelings/experiences. Cites brain imaging studies as the proof

      p-79: Myth making is seen as a behaviour arisining from the
      evolution and integration of certain parts of the brain.

      p-142: Temporal Lobe simulation is behind seeing light at the end
      of a tunnel in nera death experiences(NDE). Also ,emtions that
      hippocampus in the brain is responsible for Seeing near relatives
      and a panoramic view of life in such experiences.

      "As long as human beings are aware of the contingency of their
      existence in the face of what appears to be a capricious
      universe they must construct myths to orient theselves within
      that universe. Thus they construct Gods, demons, spirits and
      other personalized power sources with whom they can deal
      contractually in order to gain control over a capricious
      environment... Since it is unlikely that humankind will ever
      know the first cause of every strip of reality observed it is
      highly probable that it will always generate Gods, powers,
      demons and other entities at first causes to explain what it
      observes. Indeed people cannot do otherwise."

      Some references:

      1. Newsweek May 7, 2001 (God and the Brain)
      2. Looking for the neurological roots of the religious experience
      By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post 7/1/01
      3. New Scientist magazine, 21 April 2000: "In search of God" by
      Bob Holmes
      4. Readers Digest March 2002 (Newberg : God is hardwired in brain)
      5. Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, Eugene
      d''Aquili and Vince Rause (Ballantine Books, 2001)
      6. "The neural substrates of religious experience" by Jeffrey Saver
      and John Rabin, The Journal of Neuropsychiatry, vol 9, p 498 (1997)

      7. Biological roots of religious belief :

      8. http://www.csicop.org/si/2000-11/beliefs.html

      9. Raj Persaud, God's in your cranial lobes - Financial Times,
      May 8/9/1999

      10. Lee Hotz - Seeking the biological basis of Spirituality, L.A Times,
      Apr 25, 1998
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