Of two minds: Is the brain hardwired for faith?

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Article Faith and Science
If religious experiences can be seen on a brain scan or made more likely by a variation in a particular gene, what does that tell us about God and faith? It depends on who you ask.

Phil Jackson was raised in the 1960s and ’70s with what he calls a “pretty typical male upbringing in Chicago: type A, aggressive, and goal-oriented.” As an adult who had embraced these values, he was working in sales and taking medication for anxiety and depression. Then, in the late 1990s, he became interested in centering prayer, a form of Christian meditation that often involves focusing on a particular meaningful phrase. He now practices it twice a day for 20 minutes at a time, and he leads a weekly group at his parish, Mary, Seat of Wisdom in Park Ridge, Illinois.

“It really has changed my life,” Jackson says now. “It has been the most powerful force in my life.” He describes himself, convincingly, as peaceful, present, and empathetic. He is no longer on any kind of medication for mental health. “It pervades everything,” he says. “Some of it is very clear. Some of it, I don’t know if I can put my finger on why I’m different, but I know I am, and I know things don’t push my buttons like they used to.”

Millions of people throughout history have been convinced that prayer has changed their lives. Indeed, a traditional theological story about Jackson’s transformation might be that God has intervened to release him from the chains of depression and other ills. But in recent years, scientists have offered a competing—or perhaps complementary—explanation for experiences like his: By exercising certain “muscles” in his brain over time, Jackson changed himself by physically changing his brain.

“The more a person engages in a practice like doing the rosary, or saying prayers, the stronger those areas of the brain become,” says Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Like many of his peers, Newberg is interested in what belief looks like in the brain.

In one experiment, he used brain imaging technology to scan three Franciscan nuns while they performed centering prayer. His initial sample size was small, but his results were promising: The nuns reported a “loss of the usual sense of space,” and the scans showed higher blood flow to the frontal lobes. In other words, their spiritual lives had a physiological component.

Brain scientists in recent years have triumphantly pinned aspects of the human experience, including love, lust, fear, compassion, and criminality, to certain genes or specific regions of the brain. But many of these scientists, as it happens, have been relatively uninterested in questions of the brain and spirituality. “People spend more time praying and meditating than they do having sex,” points out Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist and geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis. Historically, however, it’s fair to say there has been more scientific interest in sex than in belief.

But these days there seems to be a new openness to studying the brain and spirituality. The last decade in particular has brought a steady stream of research locating aspects of spirituality in the brain. Various scientists have claimed to have discovered a “God spot,” a “God gene,” or a “God circuit.”

By the 1990s, some thinkers who were interested in the intersection between brain science and spirituality were beginning to use the term “neurotheology” to describe this kind of work. Coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 novel Island, the term was initially eschewed by many mainstream scientists—as was much of the early research itself. But the word is now coming into wider use, just as the subject area itself is becoming fodder for serious science. Newberg wrote his 2010 book, Principles of Neurotheology (Ashgate), intending to bring the field—and the practice itself—into wider respectability.

“Up until 20 years ago, the only way we had of talking about religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs and experiences, revelatory experiences—the only way we had to talk about them was from a doctrinal, theological perspective,” Newberg says. “Now we have an opportunity for a new perspective.”

The existence of this ever-expanding—and sometimes contradictory—body of research on how brains process spirituality is an encouraging sign for people interested in both science and religion. But this new wave of information raises significant questions, too. What are the implications of a “God spot” for people of faith? Can neuroscience really capture the full breadth of what it means to be a Christian? And does studying the brain point us to a particular image of God?

Quest for the ‘God spot’

Scientific—or quasi-scientific—interest in the brain and religious experience is not new. Nineteenth-century phrenologists, for example, thought they had identified particular skull bumps that corresponded to religiosity. Even some recent attempts to identify a “God spot” in the brain can have a sheen of silliness: In 1989 a neuroscientist named Michael Persinger developed a device that quickly became known by the press as the “God Helmet.” The device, a motorcycle helmet tricked out with wires and coils, was said to interrupt communication between the right and left temporal lobes, prompting the sensation of a variety of paranormal experiences, including visions of Mary and Christ. Alas, the notion that a scientist could simply push a “button” in the human brain to stimulate a religious experience has so far not stood up to attempts to replicate it.

But some neurotheology investigations have proven much more fruitful. The neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, who describes himself as a “nonmaterialist neuroscientist” in his 2007 book The Spiritual Brain (HarperOne), scanned 15 Carmelite nuns from Quebec in fMRI machines, which measure brain activity, to see if he could locate a “God module” in the temporal lobes. The results: Multiple brain regions, including the left brain stem and the visual cortex, are involved in mystical experiences. There is no one single “God spot,” but intense spiritual experiences can in some sense be described as “real” in the brain.

Analyzing spirituality in the brain is not just a matter of scans and machines. In the early 1990s, Cloninger developed a standardized personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), which laid the groundwork for future work on the brain and spirituality. The TCI is a 240-question test that measures a person’s self-assessment of seven personality traits, including persistence and cooperativeness. Another trait is self-transcendence.

There are two ways of looking at faith, Cloninger says. There’s adherence to a certain set of religious beliefs and practices. And then there’s something more like intuition, a sense that “allows us to listen to our own heart and what we find to be good, so that we’re listening to this inner voice rather than external authority.” Cloninger, a practicing Catholic, calls that “self-transcendence.”

His TCI assesses people along several scales, including “idealistic versus practical” and “spiritual acceptance versus rational materialism.” People who score high in self-transcendence feel a stronger sense that they are somehow part of something larger than themselves.

Cloninger says his work on the self-transcendence scale changed his own thinking about faith. “I was very devout as a child. Then as I went into college I thought since I was becoming a scientist, it was proper to be more of a skeptic,” he says. “But as I studied this and studied self-transcendence, it renewed my faith.”

Cloninger’s scale has also allowed for a wide variety of new research. Dean Hamer, a geneticist, used Cloninger’s scale to look for a genetic basis for spirituality. His research makes the case that a gene called VMAT2 influences “self-transcendence” on Cloninger’s scale: A variation in the gene seemed to be connected to a greater propensity to self-transcendence.

Hamer’s research made the cover of TIME magazine and became the subject of his 2004 book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes (Anchor). “The really important finding is that this spirituality measure, self-transcendence, which is supposed to measure a person’s underlying tendency to be spiritual, has a strong inborn genetic component to it,” Hamer says. “It’s not a result of environment or raising or thought or anything else; it’s just part of a person’s nature.”

Hamer makes clear that, at most, VMAT2 is “a” God gene—not “the” God gene of his book’s title. And indeed, the further neurotheological research progresses, the less grandiose its claims become. Brick Johnstone, a professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, is one of the latest to throw cold water on the idea of a single part of the brain being able to explain spirituality.

His 2012 study of 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe found that those with more severe damage reported feeling closer to a higher power. He also found that those who attended church more often showed increased activity in the frontal lobe. That suggests fascinating connections between the brain and spirituality—but it also disrupts a simplified notion of a single “God spot.”

“We are created as whole persons: body, soul, and mind,” says David Hogue, a professor of pastoral theology and counseling at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary who has written about neuroscience and belief. “As Christians, many will find it disturbing if they learn, for instance, that a lot of the body-soul dualism we’ve been raised with, the belief that the body dies and goes into the ground, and the soul is united with God immediately . . . that many of the things we’ve ascribed to a soul can now be ascribed to the neurosciences.” But the discoveries of neuroscience, he says, should shed light for Christians on the connectedness of body and soul. “That notion of our bodies being the temple of God suggests they’re of value to God, that they are central to who we are as human beings, as creatures of God.”

Still, the growing body of research raises an uncomfortable question for the average believer: If religious experiences can be reduced to glowing spots on an fMRI, or to a gene that happens to be toggled one way in a believer and another way in an agnostic, doesn’t that take some of the grandness, authenticity, and mystery out of faith? Is faith all in our heads?

Beyond the brain

Decades before scientists began analyzing fMRI images for flashes of spirituality in the brain, the great American philosopher and psychologist William James anticipated this kind of anxiety in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience: “When other people criticize our own more exalted soul-flights by calling them ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition, we feel outraged and hurt,” he wrote. James understood that there is something deeply unsettling about hearing our deepest beliefs and sensations dismissed as mere neural blips.

Celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have latched on to the idea that being able to observe spirituality in the brain means the experiences have no reality outside the brain. After all, if modern science indicates that spiritual sensations are, in James’ words, “ ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition,” then God is nothing more than a figment of the human imagination. But religious leaders, too, have claimed the latest findings as proof of the existence of God. If we are hardwired for belief, then perhaps God engineered the wiring.

Scientists, however, are almost universally adamant that neurotheology has very little to say about the existence of God. Hamer, for example, says his discovery of a so-called God gene “has absolutely no implications” for the question of whether God exists. “If you’re a Richard Dawkins, you look and say it proves there’s no God, and it’s just genetic. But that’s a completely and totally false argument that makes no logical sense whatsoever.”

There are brain activities that correspond to smelling a rose or sitting in a chair, but that doesn’t mean roses don’t smell good, or that the chair doesn’t exist. As Beauregard puts it in his book: “The only thing that neuroscientists can really determine is whether current neuroscience provides useful information about mystical states and experiences.” The fact that parts of the brain light up in states of prayer does not mean the object of those prayers exists only in the brain.

But if neurotheology has nothing to say about the existence of God, then what does it have to say about the nature of human belief? As fascinating as it is to know what parts of the brain light up during certain kinds of prayer, or whether certain kinds of brain damage predispose us to “self-transcendence,” the research so far has focused on an incredibly narrow definition of “spirituality.” Many faithful believers, after all, have never experienced the kind of transcendence that can be picked up on brain scanners.

John Haught is a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has written about brain science, materialism, and religion. He says that brain scans simply cannot capture the full spectrum of what it means to be a believer.

“Religion is a very, very broad thing,” Haught says. “We shouldn’t identify religion with a state of emotional feelings, or even a state of consciousness. Religion is many other things. As the Epistle of James says, it also means serving the widows and orphans. Religion enfolds the whole of one’s life, including one’s activities. Religion affects what we find interesting to explore. It’s not easy to pin down religion to a meditative state.” A religious life, he adds, can include dark moments of feeling abandoned by God. It can include intellectual epiphanies, friendships with fellow believers, and respect for saints. None of these factor into research on self-transcendence.

“Science only takes you so far,” Johnstone agrees. “You can measure things and analyze things, but asking a question on a seven-point scale, ‘Are you spiritual or not?’—you don’t get at the nature of what people feel, and the importance of spiritual experience to them.”

Newberg, who has also scanned meditating Buddhists and Pentecostals speaking in tongues, admits that these almost ecstatic states don’t represent the complete spectrum of religious experience. “I would love to go to a church and scan 50 people’s brains who are just there for a Mass,” he says. But the incredible variety of mindsets found in the pews—some would be praying, others contemplating the sermon, others drifting to the football game or what to make for lunch—would make it extraordinarily difficult to measure anything meaningful with current technology. “You get so much more variability that, from a scientific perspective, you’re not able to see something even though it may really be there.”

Some of these questions may be answered as science and technology progress; perhaps in a few decades, neuroscience will be able to capture much more of what it means to be a spiritual person. The bigger question, then, is whether neuroscience points to a specific vision of God.

All in your head?

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has written often about the cultural implications of the neuroscientific worldview, has written about how this body of research leads not to atheism, but to a kind of “neural Buddhism”—a mystical religiosity that emphasizes moments of “self-transcendence” over doctrine or church-going.

“The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits,” he wrote in one column. “Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.”

“One of my complaints about the way scientists have pursued this is to assume all religious experience ultimately pursued to its end is alike,” Hogue says. “This notion that regardless of faith tradition, we all end up in this state of absolute unitary being, this total merger with the universe . . . I’m not sure that is the end of all religious experience. In some forms of Christianity, it’s not about total immersion into God but about an encounter with God.”

Indeed, much of the current research seems to point to the psychological usefulness of belief in general—and a particularly warm-and-fuzzy, Eastern-inflected meditative version of it at that. Newberg, for example, likes to talk about certain beliefs as more “effective,” “productive,” and “beneficial.” That suggests a utilitarian approach: Believing in a uniformly benevolent version of God is good for our brains, therefore that is the truest version of God. “If people are going through depression, they may think that God is punishing them,” he says. “If we can redirect them, that could be very practical. How do we get people out of those negative practices and beliefs and into things that are more positive?”

But the practicality of talking yourself out of the notion of a punitive God says very little about what God actually wants from you. That does not mean, of course, that a chemically-based depressive episode is a divine punishment. It does not even mean that God ever intervenes in human lives in directly punitive ways. But if we follow Newberg’s logic to its conclusion, then what happens to powerful experiences of guilt, shame, and sorrow that can have profoundly reformative impacts on human lives? Is it only “practical” to imagine God as a nonjudgmental “positive” ball of light and love who is never disappointed in our actions?

I asked Newberg what it means if God really is angry sometimes, or even punitive. Does the fact that it’s “healthier” to believe otherwise have anything to do with the true nature of God? His answer was startling: Imagine it’s possible to somehow convince people who do believe in a punitive God that in fact, God is not punishing them. “If there was a punitive God, we wouldn’t be able to psychologically reverse that view,” he says. He compared it to someone who has a headache and believes a person is hitting him with a hammer; if medication is able to cure the headache, the chances the hammer attack is real go down drastically. In other words, yes, we can draw theological conclusions about the nature of God based on what we can convince ourselves into believing. If this is the future of neurotheology, it will be interesting to see how old-fashioned theology responds.

Meanwhile, believers like Jackson, who have experienced the “brain benefits” of particular kinds of religious practice, will carry on. “Most people run around their whole lives without being aware you can have silence and peace at your fingertips whenever you want,” Jackson says. Perhaps it’s not just at our fingertips, but in our brains.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 6, pages 12-17).

Image: ©iStock/wenht