Thursday, April 16, 2009

This is your brain ... on God

Last month I highlighted an article stating that neuroscience could be a future fault-line in religion vs. science debates. Although not referencing this potential conflict, Michael Gerson had a great Washington Post op-ed on the relationship between neuroscience and faith. Gerson interviews Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and the author of How God Changes Your Brain. Saith Gerson:
Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." ... And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."

Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to "imagine a better future."
This research, however, does not invalidate the possible existence of God:
"Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist," Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.
But, Newberg offers a critical analysis of faith, as the image of God that people choose to worship profoundly affects the brain:
Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain -- particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate -- where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is "filled with aggression and fear." It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.
While Newberg provides numerous other - too many to post here - riveting observations, he does offer this thought on the nature and purpose of faith:
Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider.
Whether believer or not, spend a few minutes reading the whole op-ed.


Katie said...

I wonder what, in discussing the various neurological benefits or effects of faith, the effect would be on those who seek religion/faith but do not find it?

He discusses that "religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain" among other things. If I seek, but have not yet found, what kind of benefits can I strive for? Furthermore, is there a threshold of belief or doubt, above which benefit is found, but not below?

Anonymous said...

"The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not."

That is a sobering thought. What I find intriguing, after commenting on your post about Bradley Rees for Congress, is this: "Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort." That goes against Locke, no?

Robert Westafer said...

Brain Identity

Suppose we have all been misled by language invented by our predecessors and the simple truth turns out to be that we are not “human beings” or “persons” but rather human brains that are intimately connected to all the organs and other parts of the particular human body in which we reside.
What if the word “person” and the “personal pronouns” we commonly use such as “I”, “me”, “we”, “you”, etc. are only linguistic inventions of human brains that for one reason or another were unable to identify themselves correctly as actually being human brains?
It can be shown that a human brain has the ability to create and use spoken and written language through the use of certain areas of cerebral cortex located usually in its left hemisphere. Strokes or other damage in these areas cause impairment or loss of a human brain’s ability to produce and understand spoken and written language. Precisely which linguistic abilities are impaired or lost in any given instance and to what degree depends upon the exact location and extent of the brain damage.
We know that every human brain and body has been built from a new combination of parental DNA that resulted from the union of a particular egg and a particular sperm which formed a single new cell; and over about a nine month period the information stored in the DNA inside that first new cell allowed it to divide and grow into trillions of new cells of various types, all of which were organized into the complexity of nature that we incorporate into just two words: “newborn baby”.
We also know that having been built by DNA, each brain and body – beginning even during the building process and continuing ever after - has been continually modified by an enormous amount of environmental variables and experience, up to and including the present moment.
Suppose for the sake of argument that I actually am a human brain that is continuous with a spinal cord and connected through nerves to all the organs and other parts of the body in which I reside, with both brain and body being composed of an enormous complexity of atoms and molecules all built from the information stored in my DNA and modified by a huge amount of environmental variables and experience.
Getting used to that kind of an identity for oneself might take some time. But if that is my true identity, does my realization of that fact somehow mean that it is not possible for anything else to exist that is not made of atoms and molecules like I am? Or is it possible that something might exist that may be many orders of magnitude more intelligent and powerful than I am that is not composed of atoms and molecules? Is it possible that something exists that is in some way related to the awesome complexity of nature that is evident in the enormity of the cosmos and can be seen in incredible intricacy of the living world on our planet of which I am a part? Is such an entity something that human brains might choose to call a “Supernatural Power”, or perhaps “God”?
I am thrilled to be able to understand the basics of what I am and how I came into existence. Having such an understanding, however, does not somehow automatically enlighten me as to the nature of everything else that may or may not exist and how it all came about, but it sure makes me wonder.
If I am only linguistically a “human being” or a “person” - a fictional entity invented by my predecessors that does not exist except in language, and that can be theoretically thought of as perhaps “owning” a brain and a body - but in reality I am actually a particular human brain that has been built by my DNA and modified by a ton of experience and that is intimately connected to and living within a particular human body, my body, then the brain inside my head – the brain that thinks precisely what I think, feels exactly what I feel, remembers everything that I remember, knows what I know, and has experienced everything that I have experienced - that brain located behind my forehead and inside my skull cannot be called “my brain”, as if I am somehow a separate entity that “owns” that brain, because that brain is, in fact, “me”.