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Is there a 'God spot' in the human brain?

Scientists seek connection between the spiritual and the neurological

<p>Picture: U.S. Catholic</p>

Picture: U.S. Catholic

  • Ruth Graham for U.S. Catholic
  • International
  • June 17, 2014
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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?

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.

Full Story: Of two minds: Is the brain hardwired for faith?

Source: U.S. Catholic

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