Neurotheology: Making Sense of the Brain and Religious Experiences

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studies the brains of religious people. His work is a remarkable window into how religious practices affect and shape the brain.

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This is important work, and I support such studies. However, I wonder where we are headed with physical studies that purport to possibly discover the “soul” (as traditionally understood)? Are we going to assume that all aspects of being human can be reduced to physiology? --Rev. D. Wray

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Neurotheology has the potential to take William James’s work to a new and exciting level. Fear is one of our greatest roadblocks to progress, and when I’m told we need to defend truth and right, I think truth and right do not need to be defended, only discovered. It’s people that need defending, and what better way to do this than to discover truth? I would love to better understand what’s happening to my brain when I have powerful spiritual experiences.

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Interesting.
I’m curious about many things related to this article and area of science.
One question I wonder about, is whether this sort of research will eventually tend to present relgion as another helpful therapy, because we can see the benefits we can find on a brain scan.

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Your question made me ask, if we took the practice and removed any specifically religious overtones or if religious practices ‘as is’ were practised by a person of no particular faith would we see the same results?

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I guess I’m assuming they’d be the same, but thinking more, faith/belief seems like it would likely have an effect on experience. I would think that the way we think about the practice we engage in could effect the experience of the practice. That is, if I believe I am communing with God somehow, I would expect that to be different from the experience someone without faith would have, by say, using texts of prayer.
Now you have opened up a real can of worms, and the questions are just branching in every direction.

Someone with an MRI machine and a research grant may already have thought the variations through. Whew.

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I wonder if a brain scan could prove the peace of God that passeth all understanding? If so, how would you get the two together (having a brain scan would probably disturb the peace?)
Would that also prove the influence of God?
I am really not sure whether I want to go here or not.

Richard

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IMO, no. Sure, chanting or meditation will have some kind of relaxing effect, but surely we’re not just talking about chilling out here? Rather, something on a deeper level? I cannot imagine someone who doesn’t believe would achieve this trough some singing or reading out a prayer they don’t believe in? Only a few days ago I saw a non believer say she’s jealous of religious people for all the mental health benefits they experience (as a side note, she believes in ghosts, so go figure) so it looks like what we’re talking about here is actually common knowledge - even people without particular interest acknowledge that practicing religion can be beneficial to our mental health…but only if it’s a genuine belief.

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That sounds like a non sequitur – how do you remove the object of prayer, our Father God, and still have the practice?

  • On Nov. 16, 2019, a member of another forum posted this statement:
    “Gratitude is the basis of any rational morality. Any other explanation is nonsense. It’s not religious or philosophical… it’s rational.” That statement has circled around in my mind since then.
  • Recent forum interest in “What are you grateful?” led me to ask Bard, “To whom are you grateful?” The limited resonses given revealed a shift in focus, from “To whom” to “For what” are you grateful. And it occurred to me that the atheist is unable to give a rational and reasonable answer to the question that goes beyond humans. Feel free to prove me wrong.
  • Expanding my interest, I searched online for a “Gratitude-Morality” connection and came across this article:
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There are some brain imaging experiments that are rather disturbing from a Christian viewpoint.

When a subject is asked to press a button whenever they want to, there is a surge of brain activity shortly before the subject is aware of making the decision to press the button. What does this imply about free will?

When a Christian subject is asked what they think some famous person believes about some issue, a certain part of the brain is activated. When the subject is asked what they themselves believe about it, a different part is activated. When the subject is asked what they think God believes about it, the part of the brain activated is the same as when they are asked what they believe. This suggests that our thoughts about God are more projections of of our own thoughts than of another being.

  • A surge of energy before wanting to press a button just implies that making a decision that you’re going to act on requires “brain energy”. Dead bodies don’t make decisions and act on them. In other words, the surge of brain activity before pressing a button tells the technicians that you ain’t dead yet.
  • What does this imply about free will?
    • Nada, zip, nothing.
    • Is there any brain activity in a monkey before it presses a button or in a rat before it decides which route to take to get through a maze?
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I don’t see a necessary problem with that. ‘Some famous person’ I would expect to maybe have some visual implications of the person as well as thoughts and images about their locale and other contextual information (what are they famous for?), aspects of thought that would not be expected when thinking about God.

As above, that might not necessarily follow. (I got my PhD in neurology via a coupon on a cereal box. ; - )

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Yeah…and? Of course they are! How can your thoughts about anyone be thoughts of another being? And it’s rather obvious people hope their opinions line up with God’s opinions. People project onto others all the time. I cannot see what’s the big deal about it.

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Terry

I don’t think you take account of the implication that the subject’s brain has made the decision before the subject is aware of having made it.

Marta

I don’t know if you profess a particular faith, but as a Christian myself, it’s somewhat concerning to me that God would be perceived as more of a projection of one’s own thoughts than of another person.

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Hi Mark,

The original free will experiment(s) you refer to seems to have been done by Libet in the 1980s. I haven’t read his original papers, but have read some secondary sources discussing them. A fascinating question but things get complex and technical very quickly if one is not a neurologist (I’m a biologist but not a neurologist). But many have disputed the “lack of free will conclusion”, pointing to alternate interpretations of Libet’s experiment. And many subsequent experiments have been done, with much debate about what they really show. Suffice to say, the idea that we have real (libertarian) free will is not dead yet! Wikipedia under “Neuroscience of free will” has a long section on the science in this field with citations of the original articles there (series of experiments and rebuttals), if you want to machete your way through that.

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Biblical scriptures seem to paint a picture of humans as whole entities - body, mind, soul entangled into a whole rather than being separate parts. Our relationship to God should be loving with all our heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) / all our heart and soul and mind (Jesus in Matthew 22:37). A visible reaction in brain scans, physiology and other measurable phenomena in a human is what I would expect from a connection with the Holy Spirit.

A total physical reaction may be somewhat misleading in the sense that it does not separate well causes and effects. A connection with God can cause positive changes in the mind and body, but apparently comparable changes could be produced by mental religious practices, without a connection with God. Even the religious practices and feelings of Christians may sometimes be just religious practices and feelings, without a true effect of the Holy Spirit.

Neurotheology may be a positive track in scientific research but we should recognize the limits and caveats in studying the physical reactions associated with religious experiences.

I see, so you are concerned these kinds of experiments somehow disprove God? If you do, then I can relate to this. Perhaps not now, but in the past various headlines, like “God experience is just a brain activity” (not a real headline, just made it up lol) caused me a lot of distress. You’re not alone there.

Going back to this experiment, @Dale has already raised some issues that I think are valid. How would the results change if you knew exactly what the “celebrity” thought, and how different would it be if you had no idea?

And did people in the experiment though that God’s opinions were the same as theirs? Did anyone thought they were entirely different? If so, did that affect the results?

As a disclaimer I am not a neurologist or psychiatrist, it would have been great to hear an opinion from someone knowledgeable about this subject, but from my point of view the worst case scenario is that people project their own ideas onto God, that is, they imagine God to be what they want Him to be. And obviously that will involve having same opinions as them. It seems a very natural thing to do, and I cannot see how this somehow disproves God? We do very similar thing with many people in our lives, but they do exist. Just because you are projecting your own thoughts about someone, this doesn’t change reality of their existence or what their true character is like.

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The validity of spiritual experience does not depend on independence from the brain. Music lessons measurably shape the brain; that does not make music less authentic.

I would prefer the term neurospirituality, which tilts to subjective experience, over neurotheology, which usually implies propositional revelation. I would fully expect spiritual experience to exhibit physiological response, but I am dubious any metaphysical insight can come of it. I already accept that we are shaped by social and physiological factors, so registering physical imprints of spirituality doesn’t change anything.

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