God - Of God, Science, and the Human Brain
by Sharukh Vazifdar & Luis Vas
There was a time when scientists had nothing to do with God. They left Him (Her). It, take your pick) behind when they entered the labs along with their overcoats and hats. But a funny thing happened on their way to the truth. God sneaked in and left imprints of His presence everywhere. Biologists discovered the God spot in the brain, the medical fraternity discovered that prayer healed, physicists discovered that the material ground on which they stood, did not really exist. Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke and discovered the right brain – the zone of existence, consciousness and bliss (sat-chit-ananda as the Vedic sages would say). And so it goes…
At the time of going to press, the dispute rages on. Scientists are still unwilling to concede that the truth they seek is the same truth that the mystics proclaim. Is there a worldview that can reconcile the two stands? We say yes. Mystics were (are) scientists in their own right. The only difference is that their lab was their own selves and their tools were nothing but the practice of awareness. Their discoveries, however, made thousands of years ago, uncannily echo the latest scientific discoveries. The western scientist is handicapped by approaching spirituality and religion through the focal point of Western-interpreted Christianity. If he were to widen his horizons he may find a worldview compatible with his own. Here below we give you some of the cutting-edge discoveries postulated by science along with the spiritual perspective that reflects it.
The God spot
Is God located at some part in our brain? Is the religious belief that God is an absolute and independent being an illusion? Does He needs us to project Himself?
Since the `80s, cognitive neuroscience researcher Michael Persinger was able to artificially induce ethereal perceptions by applying magnetic fields to a person’s brain. A specific part of the brain, the temporal lobe, has received special attention in these experiments. The temporal lobe contains the limbic system, which is responsible for the sound, smell, some part of vision, memory and emotions. When people have a seizure in the temporal lobe, normal emotions heighten, because so many nerve cells are firing in rhythm. People may hear snatches of music – drawn from their memory bank – and sometimes interpret it as music from heavenly spheres. They may see a glimpse of light and think it’s an angel. So how do you know that what you’re feeling in the middle of a spiritual high is true or merely the work of some misfiring synapse?
The ‘God helmet’, designed by Michael Persinger, is designed to stimulate the right temporal lobe and create the feeling of another presence inside one’s head. Eighty per cent of the participants who have tried on the ‘God helmet’ experience a presence beside them in the room, which ranges from a simple sensed presence to God. “What is the last illusion that we must overcome as a species?” asks Persinger theatrically. “That illusion is that God is an absolute that exists independent of the human brain – that somehow we are in His or Her care.”
Persinger’s inspiration for this contraption came from studying temporal lobe epileptics, whose rare form of epilepsy causes them to have temporal lobe seizures during which they report having intense mystical experiences. This ‘God helmet’ gently creates miniature versions of temporal lobe epileptic seizures by causing short-lived increases in the neuronal firing in the temporal lobes. The magnetic field, no stronger than that produced by a computer monitor, rotates anticlockwise in a pattern around the temporal lobes creating micro-seizures.
Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain’s left hemisphere, specifically by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted – by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure – our left brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a ‘sensed presence’. Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God. Religion or our experience of God, Persinger’s research suggests, might be a cerebral mistake.
It has never been a spiritual contention that God exists independent of the human. The fundamental truth of the Universe proclaims the oneness of the Creator and the created. God exists in every atom of creation, including the human being. The experiences made accessible through the God helmet only highlights the potential the human being has to have a direct experience of God. Communion with God, then, is hardwired into our brains. However, the God Helmet is no substitute for sustained spiritual practice which alone can bring about the self-transformation which is the purpose of the spiritual search.
Correlating neural phenomena with surreal spiritual experiences may seem like a passive hobby to most, but for researchers in the field of neuroscience, like Andrew Newberg and Mario Beauregard, neurotheology is the next frontier.
Through the use of brain imaging technology, Dr Andrew Newberg, author of How God Changes Your Brain, an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted research in an attempt to find answers to questions on the scientific basis of spirituality. The participants in his study were Buddhists well-versed in meditation. Newberg used a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to make an image of the brain of an individual at the moment he reaches the climax of meditation. Such a picture would enable us to look at the brain as it “experiences God”.
In addition to his studies of the spiritual experiences of meditators, Newberg also looked at the brains of Franciscan nuns as they engaged in prayer. The SPECT scans revealed similar data about changes in the activity levels of the posterior, superior parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. The analogous brain scans of the Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns suggest that religious experience, in terms of neurobiology, transcends religion. Michael Baime, a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years, was studied by Newberg. During a peak meditative experience, Baime said he felt oneness with the universe, and time slipping away. “It’s as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity,” he explains, “that there has never been anything but this eternal now.”
When Baime meditated in Newberg’s brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen. After all, meditation is sheer concentration. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime’s parietal lobes went dark. “This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world,” he explains. “When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area,” adds Newberg.
Newberg set out to demonstrate that “mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real”, and he has succeeded in doing so. Although his research cannot prove whether or not God exists, it does lay to rest the long held misconception that spiritual experience is the result of either emotional distress, delusion, or a pathological state. As Newberg eloquently concludes, “Neurology can reconcile the rift between science and religion, by showing them to be powerful but incomplete pathways to the same ultimate reality”.
Materialists would say that brain scans prove that prayer is a physical process, nothing more, and there is no need to bring an external being into the equation. But Newberg points out that brain scans do not necessarily exclude an external being. If Newberg took a brain scan of you as you bit into a piece of applie pie, various parts of your brain would light up – the areas that register smell, taste, form, and shape, as would the area that recalls the memory of the time you tasted pie this good when you were six years old. But just because your brain is activated in a certain way, does that mean the apple pie isn’t real?
The brain’s activity is a consequence of the stimulus, not the cause of it. We are more than matter. Matter is born out of consciousness; consciousness is not born out of matter. The subtle can never be created out of the gross. Dr Andrew Newburgh is one scientist who uses his scientific skill to solder a link between science and spirituality, instead of using scientific evidence to drive home a deterministic and materialistic explanation for spiritual experiences.
Did man create God?
Dr David Comings, author of Did Man Create God? Is Your Spiritual Brain at Peace With Your Thinking Brain?, an internationally renowned physician, human geneticist and neuroscientist, proposes that spirituality is genetically hardwired into a specific part of the brain, is pleasurable, is critical to the evolution and survival of man, and will never go away. He strives to allow readers to develop a rational spirituality in which the fact-based rational brain and the faith-based spiritual brain can live in peace. He suggests it is critical to dispassionately examine the question – did man create God? The answer he arrives at is a resounding no.
Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, says, “There’s now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired.” Much of that evidence comes from experiments carried out on children, who are seen as revealing a ‘default state’ of the mind that persists, albeit in modified form, into adulthood. “Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life,” says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.
Geneticist Dr Dean Hammer, author of The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, talks about belief in the Creator being in our DNA. He likens spirituality to the capacity for language. Humans are genetically predisposed to have it, but the language people speak, and the religion they practice are learned rather than inherited characteristics. People are designed to communicate through language, but they speak English, French or Chinese because of the part of the world they grew up in. Similarly, genetic make-up urges people to believe in a Creator or find spiritual fulfilment, but culture, history and environment determine whether one is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew or Buddhist. Although people can change or abandon that religious affiliation, they cannot rid themselves of the genetic propensity to be spiritual. But people can build on and develop that innate spirituality through meditation, prayer and creative arts such as music and painting. These practices can be done inside or outside organised religion.
Makes sense to us. The capacity to commune with God is an innate drive in all human beings and indeed represents the next stage of human evolution, when mankind will transcend the materialistic perception of life and discover the truths of the universe and self.
Where is God?
Dr Mario Beauregard is a neurologist at the University of Montreal. His groundbreaking work on the neurobiology of mystical experience has received international attention. In his book, The Spiritual Brain, Beauregard presents his case for why a materialist view of mind is incomplete, but not incorrect. He proposes the existence of the non-material self, or the soul. From computer games of chess (and their ability to ‘duplicate’ human behaviour) to evolutionary psychology to quantum mechanics, academics continue to attempt to provide a purely mechanistic account of all things. Yet, the public at large continues to doubt these claims. He also raises the question of whether all events require a material cause as a necessary explanation. Are spiritual experiences delusions created by a misfiring brain? No, says Beauregard. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings. There is, however, a mystical state of experience that is not quite the same thing as an emotional state. That does not prove that the mystic contacts something outside herself, but it is consistent with it.
Rowland Griffiths says all the studies in the world can’t answer his central question about spirituality, “Why does this occur? Why has the human organism been engineered, if you will, for this experience?”
Dr Mario Beauregard is on the right track. The sages of ancient India had long ago opined that the basic material of the universe is consciousness. It is consciousness alone that exists and which is the cause of matter, not vice versa. Even quantum physics theories state that consciousness caused the universe to be realised in its current form.
The God trip
Science cannot tell us if God exists only in our imaginations or as an entity beyond our comprehension. So why do some scientists continue the search for the roots of religious experience? Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, they could lead to methods, or mystical technologies, that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment. Electrodes implanted in the brain that electrically stimulate specific regions are now being tested as treatments for depression and other mental illnesses; conceivably this technology also could be used to induce mystical states.
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT or mescaline, similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin, induce states of altered perception which can also be experienced through a meditative state. The first major rigorous study of psychedelics and spirituality took place in 1962 at Boston University. Researchers from Harvard gave ten divinity students LSD to see if the sacred setting, combined with drugs, would spark a mystical experience. It did. Soon afterward, researchers at other prominent universities began administering psychedelic drugs to volunteers in controlled settings. But because of many ‘uncontrolled’ experiments, the use of such drugs was banned in the early '70s.
Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence, would we want that power? Before LSD was touted as a route to profound psychological and spiritual insight, the CIA was studying its potential as a brainwashing agent. Persinger warns that in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine, capable of implanting beliefs or signals that seem to come straight from the Almighty, could be the ultimate mind-control device.
Spiritual experiences are not an end in themselves. Science may possibly be able to give us ecstatic experiences but the purpose of the spiritual journey is to grow and mature in our capacity to love, give, compassionate and be selfless. No scientific gizmo can ever do that for us.As William James writes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Shouldn’t such claims of oneness with a God be judged by their fruits, rather than their roots?”
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