Friday, January 13, 2012

The God of Mind: Neurotheology

Why do some individuals believe in God and others do not? From Nirmukta:
Neuroscientists have discovered curious truths about religious experience and their potential enhancement through drugs, disease or even practice. In this article I explore the implications of the apparent malleability and non-universality of religiosity.A relatively new area in neuroscience gaining momentum rapidly is neurotheology – a field which investigates the notion that within the brain are neural structures which give rise to the potential for religious experience. More studies are beginning to show not only that neural correlates exist, but that they have susceptibility to pharmacological and pathological modification and potentiation, much as the same as we have found for many of the complex emergent properties of the brain.
The neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has extensively investigated a curious condition known as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Studies have shown that after TLE patients undergo an epileptic seizure, they uniquely describe having a profound “spiritual” experience. They claim to understand their place in the cosmos, and how everything suddenly becomes saturated with significance and meaning. Such experiences occur independently of prior beliefs held by the patient. Ramachandran has explained that the phenomenon is not evidence for “God module” as the media initially popularised. Rather that there are perhaps a variety of structures which work together to give rise to such spiritual experiences, which is the case with other specific systems of the brain. The visual system for example has many quite distinct components (colour, movement, object recognition, facial recognition) working together to produce vision, rather than a “vision module” located in a single area. TLE patients also show a reduced response to normally provocative images (such as sexual images), but a heightened response to religiously-loaded words or imagery.
The serotonin (5-HT) system has long been of interest in biological models of human personality. Psychopharmacological research has investigated the effect of psychedelic drugs in relation to religious experience. The drugs which have been studied include adrenaline derivatives (e.g. mescaline) and serotonin derivatives (e.g. LSD, psilocybin, DMT). It has been found that these drugs cause transcendental or spiritual experiences as well as intense visual hallucinations. The remarkable finding is that all of these drugs act on one specific type of neuroreceptor called serotonin 2A (or 5-HT2A) receptors, which are found all over the cortical surface of the brain. 5-HT2A receptors are stimulatory, which means when these drugs acts on them they increase production of serotonin in the brain, and this gross overstimulation of the 5-HT2A receptors leads to what are interpreted as religious experiences.
The most significant question that arises from these discoveries is the implications on the theistic account of free will in choosing faith. In other words, the typical monotheistic description of a God who gives us the ability (free will) to choose to worship him becomes problematic, since we find that the capacity for religious experience seems to be as varied among the population as any other personality trait, individual characteristic or innate ability. Some people are simply born with a brain that has a greater chance of finding God, as they are “wired up” that way. We are restricted in our choice, much the same as we are restricted in our choice to prefer chocolate or vanilla, Bach or Mozart, men or women. Neuroscientific studies have consistently shown that all the choices we make in life are far more greatly influenced by genetic makeup, rather than our environmental influences. In this regard, we are certainly not equal in finding pathways to God.
This issue dovetails with the book I recently reviewed called The "God" Part of the Brain, by Matthew Alper, which is much more complete thesis on the neurotheology or "biotheology."  Morality has a biological basis, free will is an illusion.

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