Hard-wired for God?
Brain scans taken during certain religious experiences indicate a detachment from the physical world. What are the implications?
A new flurry of books, magazine articles and television documentaries announces the discovery that the human brain is apparently ready-made for spiritual experiences. One article on the subject was in Reader’s Digest last December entitled “Searching for the Divine.” It claimed boldly, “There is new evidence that humans are hard-wired to believe in God.” Let’s take a brief look at that new evidence, and then consider what it means in light of what the Lord has revealed.
The evidence cited in that article includes the results of research done by Professor Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who teamed up with psychiatrist and anthropologist Eugene d’Aquili. The latter proposed a theory that brain function could produce a wide range of experiences, including the religious experiences reported by those having what they believed to be communion with the infinite, or being “one with the universe.” They came up with the idea of doing brain scans of Tibetan monks meditating and Franciscan nuns engaged in deep prayer. And sure enough, they got the pictures they wanted.
There is part of the brain’s left parietal lobe which they call the “orientation association area.” It is apparently the region which helps recognize where the line is between the physical self and the rest of the universe. It requires a constant stream of neural information flowing from the senses to maintain that distinction. The scans showed that during the peak moments of prayer and meditation the neural information flow was dramatically reduced. They reasoned that with the brain deprived of information about the “real world”, the person would experience the sense of the limitless feeling of unity with the universe, reported by those having the religious experience.
What are the implications of their discovery that physical changes occur in the brain during spiritual experiences? As might be expected, a wide range of conclusions have been drawn both by them as well as other researchers and authors.
Preparing to do research for this article, I checked the internet for articles and books on this topic and found that there is no shortage. The book which led to the above-cited article is entitled Why God Won’t Go Away. Other popular-level books have titles like The “God” Part of the Brain, and Where God Lives in the Human Brain. There are also several higher-level presentations with titles that include words like “neuropsychology.” So I drove to my local bookstore to look these books over, thinking to buy the best one as further source for this article. After perusing several, there was no way I would spend money for any of them. Why? Because they not only did not contain many more real results than I have already reported, they all suffered serious drawbacks.
The two most serious problems with the results which have been drawn from these brain scans are the following. One sentence from The “God” Part of the Brain illustrates the first problem: “God is a concept created by our brain, and therefore has no external reality.” Indeed, that sounds similar to what the original researchers postulated, that changes in the brain function would actually cause the perceptions of oneness with all things. In other words, this is a rehash of the time-honored “religious hallucinations” theory, cloaked in pseudo-scientific garb.
The second problem is the other extreme. It appears equally unfounded to claim this is a proof that God created the brain in such a way as be able to experience the infinite. It may well be true that God did indeed do such a thing, but this is certainly not a scientific proof of that hypothesis. It is only a proof that physical body changes can be photographed during a spiritual experience. Researchers could also have monitored heart beat rates, or brain waves shifting from beta to alpha to theta to delta waves. But human physical changes don’t prove God exists. I personally don’t expect a truly solid proof of God’s existence to emerge before the Second Coming, because at present we are here to have our faith tested. We probably shouldn’t expect a conclusive scientific proof of God just yet.
So what do these results prove? To me, they indicate that something physical is associated with an experience which may have been thought to be entirely spiritual or mental. For an atheist who assumed that one professing spiritual experiences must be lying, these results provide a rational explanation of why a person would indeed feel detached from the physical world during meditation. So they provide evidence for the mini-step in the spiritual enlightenment of the non-believer that at least the religious zealot is not necessarily lying. But this small step could be negated by a giant step backward if one then concluded that therefore God has been discovered to be nothing more than a temporary shortage of “reality” data arriving at the needed place in the cranium! To me, the experiment proves nothing about God at all.
On the other hand, to the believer, these results could be encouraging. It may mean that is not only great prophets who can have spiritual experiences. Apparently all of us are “wired” in a way that, given the right environment, such as a formal meditation or prayer setting, God has provided a mechanism to block out the physical world long enough for us to glimpse the eternal. That is an encouraging thought which is what I believe I have learned from researching this article.
Brain or Mind?
To me, what appears to be at the heart of this and similar questions has to do with a gross confusion of the two words “brain” and “mind.” What is the difference in meaning between these two words? In principle, they have clearly distinct meanings. The brain is, according to one dictionary, “the anterior part of the central nervous system enclosed in the cranium of vertebrates, consisting of a mass of nerve tissue organized for the perception of sensory impulses, the regulation of motor impulses,” etc. It clearly has an important function in running our body and being a central routing station for all the impulses coming in through the nerves.
On the other hand, the word “mind” is defined to be the “conscious element, part, or process in a human or other being that reasons, thinks, feels, wills, perceives, judges, etc.” That is, it is the part of us we think with. The distinction between it and the brain is emphasized in one of the lesser definitions in one dictionary: “the psychic or spiritual being, as opposed to physical matter.” The point here is that we have two distinct words which need not be confused: the mind is what we think with and the brain is the gray matter found in our skull. The confusion arises when we assume that all thinking occurs in the brain. For materialistic atheists, the equality of those two words is a “no-brainer” because most don’t believe in spiritual matter. But there is a mounting corpus of evidence which implies that the mind and brain are not the same at all. The many out-of-body and so-called “near death” experiences indicate that the “mind” with which people think and remember is not in the brain after all, which may be part of a body lying lifeless on the operating table, but rather is in the spirit which can be separated from the body.
I personally try always to make a clear distinction between the concepts of “mind” and “brain”, and it is amazing to see how much the two concepts are confused in everyday speech. We have been conditioned to believe that we think with our brain and that thought is only some sort of chemical reaction. Clearly chemicals and drugs can influence our thought processes, and electric probes into our brain can stimulate certain memories or actions, but there is still much to be learned in the complicated interaction between mind and brain. The two are clearly closely related; my only point is to attempt to maintain a distinction between the two words, yet not be surprised that atheist scientists tend to equate them.
What has God told us about the brain and the mind? It turns out that the word “brain” is not found anywhere in the scriptures, so we won’t learn much about the brain there. The Lord tends to use the word “mind” when referring to the part of us which thinks. The word “heart” is also used, but that seems to refer more to the “feeling” part of us, which is also a kind of thought. Sometimes he uses both together, apparently to emphasize two witnesses or aspects of the same truth. For example, the Lord told Oliver Cowdery , “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.” .
In conclusion, it is wonderful that scientists are performing experiments which provide clues to what occurs physically during spiritual experiences. But surely any explanation will fall short which does not take into account both our physical and spiritual aspects.