I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology. It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions. Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions. Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.
Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.
This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.” What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.” This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence. During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.
Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.
In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear. Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.
Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health, better social relationships and a sense of well-being. Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.
How strong any of these trends are is not clear.
In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us. Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes. It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.
There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers. That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion. This isn’t so. We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight. It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.
Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this. I know I do. But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.