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Neuroscience and Mysticism
October 9, 2007 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Searching for God in the Brain. "Researchers are unearthing the roots of religious feeling in the neural commotion that accompanies the spiritual epiphanies of nuns, Buddhists and other people of faith." [Via MindHacks, which points out a few niggling omissions in the article.]
posted by homunculus (57 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related posts.
posted by homunculus at 4:15 PM on October 9, 2007


I think they're looking in the wrong place.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:20 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Are you there Brain? It's me, basicchannel.
posted by basicchannel at 4:24 PM on October 9, 2007


Theists of the various stripes shouldn't get their beads in a bunch too quickly. One could alway say 'God put the God-Module in the brain as a way of receiving his word, etc, etc.'
posted by elwoodwiles at 4:29 PM on October 9, 2007


I think they're looking in the wrong place.

John McCain recently spotted God in the Constitution.
posted by Poolio at 4:35 PM on October 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


My memory's a little bit fuzzy on the subject, but let me see if I can recall this correctly...

Brain is the super-intelligent lab mouse with the brilliant plans for world domination, and Religion is the bumbling idiot sidekick who always messes things up for him, right?

NARF!
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:37 PM on October 9, 2007


Theists of the various stripes shouldn't get their beads in a bunch too quickly. One could alway say 'God put the God-Module in the brain as a way of receiving his word, etc, etc.'

Or they could say "the existence of a portion of the brain that responds to something says nothing about whether or not that something exists."
posted by The World Famous at 4:37 PM on October 9, 2007 [4 favorites]


Like a spaceship behind the comet Hail Bop.
posted by disgruntled at 4:39 PM on October 9, 2007


I thought this had been settled: God is in the pineal gland, DMT is the Holy Spirit.
posted by Curry at 4:41 PM on October 9, 2007


Hail Bop: the disappointing follow-up to Mmm Bop.
posted by basicchannel at 4:42 PM on October 9, 2007


I am a frontal lobe epileptic. I became interested in religion 4 or 5 years after I started having seizures. I freaked out when I read an article indicating that frontal-lobe epileptics became more religious after they had their first seizures.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:45 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


But where's the the spot that gives me such pleasure when reading about evolutionary biology?
posted by washburn at 4:56 PM on October 9, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm fairly sure the Bush administration is not funding this.
posted by Camofrog at 5:05 PM on October 9, 2007


I think the point the article makes about phreneology is spot on. There is no single God part of the brain. Additionally, religious experience uses all different parts of the brain.

It seems to me that what they've discovered doesn't add up to much, and certainly doesn't prove or disprove God.

Although the temporal lobe epilepsy thing really is fascinating. There are quite convincing arguments that both St. Paul, and Mohammed had incidents in their lives totally consistent with temporal lobe epilepsy. Paul's bright light on the road to Damascus could easily be desconstructed as an epileptic seisure.
posted by MythMaker at 5:06 PM on October 9, 2007


Hearing voices? God talkin' to ya? Got a dog named Sam? Do not pass 'GO', go directly to Julian Jaynes' 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.' Close cover before striking.
posted by Kinbote at 5:09 PM on October 9, 2007


desconstructed

Heh. Clever.
posted by washburn at 5:10 PM on October 9, 2007


There is no single God part of the brain. Additionally, religious experience uses all different parts of the brain.

Cite, please. Unless you meant that to be eponysterical.
posted by LionIndex at 5:10 PM on October 9, 2007


But where's the the spot that gives me such pleasure when reading about evolutionary biology?


In your pants.

So. It's "all hands on deck" for you, Mister. Keep 'em where I can see 'em.
posted by tkchrist at 5:18 PM on October 9, 2007


Neuroscience and/or parrot enthusiasts: help Shelly Batts from the neuroscience blog Retrospectacle win a scholarship!
posted by homunculus at 5:21 PM on October 9, 2007


This is at least an improvement over those folks who have been claiming that religious people have no brains at all.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:30 PM on October 9, 2007


Does the simple fact that a region of the brain is involved in religious experience tell us that God exists or does not exist? Of course not. But it is one more nail in the coffin in the God of the gaps. Once we've shown how the universe came about, created artificial life in a lab, provided even more proof than already exists about evolution, shown that religious experiences can be induced by stimulating certain regions of the brain, and found scientific explanations for virtually all phenomenon we are aware of, what is left for God?

A watchmaker God who started everything running and never interferes or cares about it now? What's the practical difference between that and not believing in God at all?
posted by Justinian at 5:32 PM on October 9, 2007


Close cover before striking.

Hey, a Deoxy link. That's my cup o' tea indeed. Badass.
posted by Curry at 5:33 PM on October 9, 2007


Once we've shown how the universe came about, created artificial life in a lab, provided even more proof than already exists about evolution, shown that religious experiences can be induced by stimulating certain regions of the brain, and found scientific explanations for virtually all phenomenon we are aware of, what is left for God?

I guess that depends on what the supposed attributes of God are. For instance, I would think that creating artificial life in a lab would actually be evidence in support of the premise that there exists a being that can create life.
posted by The World Famous at 5:44 PM on October 9, 2007


The premise that there exists a being that can create life is trivial; anybody that has children has already done that. The question is whether doing it in a deliberate non-reproductive manner it requires an omniscient being. If we can do it in a lab clearly it does not require an omniscient being.

If you wan't to define god as some geeky alien dude a few billion years ago whose lab experiment escaped and turned into us, well, good luck.
posted by Justinian at 5:52 PM on October 9, 2007


Spiritual neuroscience studies also face the profound challenge of language. No two mystics describe their experiences in the same way, and it is difficult to distinguish among the various types of mystical experiences, be they spiritual or traditionally religious.

This is my biggest hangup with neuroscience/mysticism discussion. We monkeys can barely understand each other when going about the simple everyday shit. How can we begin a dialog about "connections with the divine" without addressing the semantic groundwork first?
posted by Curry at 5:52 PM on October 9, 2007


Now they need to cross reference this to some fMRI scans of people on LSD, mushrooms, and peyote.
posted by effwerd at 5:58 PM on October 9, 2007


If you wan't to define god as some geeky alien dude a few billion years ago whose lab experiment escaped and turned into us, well, good luck.

This is exactly what I mean about the semantic issue. "Defining" god is not a clear cut endeavor at all. Potential audience members at Jesus' alleged preach-ins would have absolutely no context for the kinds of things we are addressing now, not even a working knowledge of human physiology (still working on that, granted). I think conversations about "defining god" should be conducted in E Prime.
posted by Curry at 6:00 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


WTF? "Related posts" was suppossed to go here. Not sure how I managed that one.
posted by homunculus at 6:01 PM on October 9, 2007


Well this was what I had in mind when I recently read the fpp article here

Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

Because that would mean what, exactly? Some neurons firing a certain way in my brain? Some people need a big lesson in chemical manipulation of emotions. Then they might not be so fired up about what their latest feeling "means".
posted by dreamsign at 6:19 PM on October 9, 2007


ah. well maybe it can be cured then. you know, like teh gay. hell, it's *all* in the brain, eh?
posted by quonsar at 6:19 PM on October 9, 2007


No two mystics describe their experiences in the same way, and it is difficult to distinguish among the various types of mystical experiences, be they spiritual or traditionally religious.

A lot of spiritual & mystical people can, however, agree that the story of the blind men & the elephant is a perfect parable for this phenomenon.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:25 PM on October 9, 2007


Many people argue that the fact all cultures tend to believe in some kind of supreme being is evidence towards the existence of such a being. This shows that it is not evidence.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:40 PM on October 9, 2007


like teh gay. hell, it's *all* in the brain, eh?

No, the left big toe, I'm sure.
posted by dreamsign at 6:41 PM on October 9, 2007


What might be the root and soil of religious feeling in the most general sense, or transparence to transcendance, or epiphanies, or an inkling of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, or awe in the face of the power and beauty of nature, or the bell-like ringing of your entire brain when you apprehend some deep mathematical truth, what the experience of death actually is, or whether there is more than just meat, or how we find meaning in our lives: these are all things that we gain more by thinking about than by trying to capture under a bell jar.

Not that rational scientific inquiry should not be pursued. I just reckon we do more, for ourselves and those around us, by thinking about these things and figuring them out personally. More power to science transcending blind faith, yes, but even more power to introspection, seeking self-knowledge, and a lack of certainty about things.

Sure, the epiphanic moments I've had on clifftops looking out over the sea (or whatever) have been an experience of surging brain chemicals. The meaning of them to my mind (as opposed, in a sense, to my brain) is in no wise diminished by that knowledge, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:43 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Any godspot simply explains the emotional need to feel that someone is there when someone is not, which is then supplied by the brain as God. Whether it was a vestigial part of the brain is anyone's guess, but any clever big brain can figure out a way to supply to itself what is demanded in this way.

The act of validating oneself to one's peers by describing an epiphany provides the incentive to make the imaginary presence real. After the brain learns that it can produce the imagined being for comfort, it then learns that this can be socially beneficial as described, and this can happen in sincerity as a subconsciously supplied phenomenon. This explains the absurd jealousy and vindictiveness that is associated with a supreme being that would never have such emotions, all due to its original place in loneliness and fear in the brain.
posted by Brian B. at 7:14 PM on October 9, 2007


It's been a while since I have read the book, but how does this sit with Julian Jaynes' ideas in The Evolution of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?

Very interesting read, homunculus . :)
posted by snwod at 7:26 PM on October 9, 2007


It's been a while since I have read the book, but how does this sit with Julian Jaynes' ideas in The Evolution of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?
snwod
::cough::

I wonder if one day someone could make a pill/treatment/machine that would trigger religious experiences by stimulating the proper parts of the brain. You could pay to have the experience of an epiphany or transcendence or oneness with all things. I'm sure there's been a story about this.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:35 PM on October 9, 2007


Monk #1: "He speaks out of love for his friend. Perhaps that love in his heart is God."

Monk #2: "Oh, how convenient, a theory about God that doesn't require looking through a telescope. Get back to work!"

--- Futurama, Godfellas
posted by SPrintF at 7:47 PM on October 9, 2007


Any godspot simply explains that poking things in the brain makes the brain do weird shit.

I can fathom why a person might need or want to believe in a god. I can not fathom why people seem to need to quantify their gods, as if such a being would have a physical, observable, measurable dimension.

Why can't science be about the universe which we inhabit, and religion about the universe we may inhabit after we leave our physical form?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:54 PM on October 9, 2007


You could pay to have the experience of an epiphany or transcendence or oneness with all things.

Let there be light!
posted by dreamsign at 8:21 PM on October 9, 2007


I wonder if one day someone could make a pill/treatment/machine that would trigger religious experiences by stimulating the proper parts of the brain. You could pay to have the experience of an epiphany or transcendence or oneness with all things.

For best results, this pill or whatever should be able to combine with two other ingredients that have been integral throughout history in many kinds of mystical religious & spiritual practices - music & dance.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:36 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Curry - I thought this had been settled: God is in the pineal gland, DMT is the Holy Spirit.

The pineal gland is the seat of the soul.

What I glean from this study is that there are structures in the human brain that, when stimulated from afferents from different parts of the brain for whatever reason induces particular feelings - feelings that can be subsumed by other people as being 'religious' and hence tie into all kinds of other nonsense.

When I climed a mountain at Banff and took in the expanse of the Rockies and breathed in the purified (and rarified) air, I felt elated. At no point did I figure "god" (or even "God") into it. If I was "properly" indoctrinated, it's very likely that I'd describe it as a religious experience.

Sangermaine - I wonder if one day someone could make a pill/treatment/machine that would trigger religious experiences by stimulating the proper parts of the brain.

See if there's someone with a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation rig at your local university.

I signed up with a new researcher at my campus to be a "control" subject but they never got back to me. Goddamnit, I want to see what happens when I turn off (or on ) my brain!
posted by porpoise at 8:44 PM on October 9, 2007


eponysterical?
posted by treepour at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2007


I wonder if one day someone could make a pill/treatment/machine that would trigger religious experiences by stimulating the proper parts of the brain. You could pay to have the experience of an epiphany or transcendence or oneness with all things. I'm sure there's been a story about this.

Screw that. Give me enough of a suppressant to spike the water supply.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:59 PM on October 9, 2007


Once we've shown how the universe came about, created artificial life in a lab, provided even more proof than already exists about evolution, shown that religious experiences can be induced by stimulating certain regions of the brain, and found scientific explanations for virtually all phenomenon we are aware of, what is left for God?

What's left for us — Day One? Being the new kids on the block, I think we have a little ways to go yet.
posted by cenoxo at 9:14 PM on October 9, 2007


Y'all stop fucking with my acid trips.

I thought I learned something important.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:17 PM on October 9, 2007


"Don't take the brown acid?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:29 PM on October 9, 2007


Once we've shown how the universe came about, created artificial life in a lab, provided even more proof than already exists about evolution, shown that religious experiences can be induced by stimulating certain regions of the brain, and found scientific explanations for virtually all phenomenon we are aware of, what is left for God?


Snooze you lose.
posted by Brian B. at 9:43 PM on October 9, 2007


FMRIs and other are the worst thing to ever happen to neuroscience. All the FMRI does is show you were there is activity in the brain during a certain behavior on an extremely large scale. This is good for teasing out very basic functions. The limbic system lights of during emotional experiences for instance. But even so we knew all that stuff before.

What and FMRI or any other current brain imaging technology can't do is tell us how the brain works on a detailed level and this is the level that is most important. The large scale structure of the brain isn't that important, if you switched the positions of the frontal and the temporal lobe it probably wouldn't make much of a difference (as apposed to a organ like the heart where large scale basically determines everything).

Most of the interesting aspects of cognition probably are going to be understood when we understand how neural networks work, something we are very far from doing. An FMRI does very little to help you understand these networks. It will show you that two areas of the brain light up at the same time but it won't tell you anything about how these areas are interacting with each other. It will make a pretty picture that will help you sell newspapers.

Now to apply FMRIs to study a cultural behavior as complex as religion is useless because we don't even know the basic functions of the areas they are claiming cause religious experiences. Look at this sentence from the article.

In a 2006 study the recall by nuns of communion with God invigorated the brains caudate nucleus, insula, inferior parietal lobe (IPL) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC), among other brain regions.

What the hell does invigorated mean? What do these structures actually do? How are they networked together?

I've rambled on for to long, but it pisses me off that people doing bullshit science like this get all the press, while people doing the real work toiling away in cell/molec labs get no credit.
posted by afu at 10:53 PM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


Screw that. Give me enough of a suppressant to spike the water supply.

Holy shit, Pope Guilty is really Dr. Bad Vibes!
posted by homunculus at 11:16 PM on October 9, 2007


I wonder if one day someone could make a pill/treatment/machine that would trigger religious experiences by stimulating the proper parts of the brain. .

Like, say, the one mentioned on page two of the sciam article?

Persinger has been working on this for quite some time now- the unfortunate thing is it's not 100% successful, nor has it been succesfully replicated. But it's definitely an interesting line of enquiry.

'Neurotheology', however, is a deeply, deeply stupid neologism.
posted by Sparx at 1:46 AM on October 10, 2007


Daryl Gregory recently published an SF short story "Damascus" (Blog link, no download) that riffs on religion and neuroscience, with some bioterrorism thrown in. It's well worth a read.
posted by Jakey at 2:24 AM on October 10, 2007


Close cover before striking.

See also.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:19 AM on October 10, 2007


Once we've shown how the universe came about

I don't see how we could ever show that. There's always a why in there and a "what came before THAT" type questioning.
posted by agregoli at 10:06 AM on October 10, 2007


There is no single God part of the brain. Additionally, religious experience uses all different parts of the brain.

Cite, please. Unless you meant that to be eponysterical.


Um, it's in the article itself, page 4:

The quantity and diversity of brain regions involved in the nuns’ religious experience point to the complexity of the phenomenon of spirituality. “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain,” Beauregard concludes. “These states are mediated by a neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain.”

and

But using such vague structural clues to explain human feelings and behaviors may be a fool’s errand. “You list a bunch of places in the brain as if naming something lets you understand it,” opines neuropsychologist Seth Horowitz of Brown University. Vincent Paquette, who collaborated with Beauregard on his experiments, goes further, likening neuroimaging to phrenology, the practice in which Victorian-era scientists tried—and ultimately failed—to intuit clues about brain function and character traits from irregularities in the shape of the skull.


The only people who should think that this article argues that God exists in the temporal lobe are people who didn't get past page 1.
posted by MythMaker at 11:01 AM on October 10, 2007


Paging Oolon Colluphid to 65416, Oolon Colluphid to 65416, please.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:14 AM on October 10, 2007


The Physical and Mental Benefits of Daily Meditation
posted by homunculus at 12:17 PM on October 15, 2007


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