God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp
Neurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.
If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.
After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.
“There isn’t a separate religious area of the brain, from what we can tell from the data,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Penn university hospital and author of several books on neuroscience and religion. “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God. When you look at religious and spiritual experiences, they are incredibly rich and diverse. Sometimes people find them on the emotional level, sometimes on an ideological level, sometimes they perceive a oneness, sometimes they perceive a person. It depends a lot on what the actual experience is.”
In their research, Newberg and his colleagues have scanned the brains of Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns to see if their long experience of meditation and prayerhad left its mark on their brains. One thing they noticed was that their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to concentration and decision making, seemed to be more active than usual even in a resting state, and more active still while meditating. Some studies showed it was even larger in long-term meditators than other people. “It’s almost like a muscle,” he said. “If you exercise it every day through meditation, you enhance and increase its function.”
Rather than being located in separate areas, religious and spiritual phenomena “tend to be built upon the existing framework of how the brain works”, said Newberg (photo left). “So if we have an experience of the love of God, there is an underlying biology of that experience that is probably the same as how you feel love for your wife, for example. On the other hand, what we also tend to find is that there seems to be a larger network of structures that do tend to get involved. The data seem to suggest that (faith) probably activates these structures to a slightly stronger degree.
“If you’re doing math, your frontal lobe turns on. If you’re doing meditation, your frontal lobe turns on. But if you’re solving math, the frontal lobe turns on and that’s about it, you solve the math problem and then you’re done. With meditation, the frontal lobes turn on, but based on our research, then there’s activation in the temporal lobes, the parietal lobes are changing, and then it starts to activate the limbic system, the emotional drivers of your brain. So a lot more is happening.
“There are some people who says this is evolutionarily adaptive,” Newberg observed. “I try to get away from that because, unfortunately, there’s no real way to prove that. You don’t know what happened 100,000 years ago, whether religion became a part of us as human beings because of the mystical experiences people had, because people were afraid of dying and wanted to know what happened afterwards, or because it created a system of morals and ethics for people and helped enhance socialisation. It does all of those things, sure, but we don’t really know if it was all of those things or one or two of them. To some degree, I get worried about how much we can take that argument.
“My favorite discussion is what does this really mean. Does it mean we’ve found how God interacts with our brain or have we found that God is nothing more than a manifestation of our brain? I don’t have an answer for you yet …”
It isn’t all just lectures at the Boot Camp. We’ve also visited the university hospital’s fMRI scanner, where patients are slid into a narrow tunnel surrounded by a huge and powerful magnet. That’s me in the picture above entering the hospital’s mock scanner used to accustom patients to the claustrophobic feel of the machine before they actually enter the real one to have their brains scanned.
I’ll have more from the boot camp in coming days about religion, ethics and other issues. Anyone interested in getting a closer look at the conference can follow the Bloggin’ from Boot Camp entries by Francis X. Shen on the Law and Neuroscience Blog. Shen, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Government, is writing daily wraps on the day’s discussions for the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.