Tuesday, June 12, 2007

God on the Brain; the Brain on God

When I was little I wanted to be St. Bernadette. One of my prized possessions was a worn, newsprint comic book depicting her short life - her impoverished childhood in Lourdes, her visions, her illnesses. The visions, of course, were what captivated me. To see a supernatural person, someone from heaven - wouldn't that have been the most amazing thing ever? I remember trying to find vision-friendly spots in our garden - a grotto-shaped pile of rock, a hospitable arrangement of brambles. Similarly I would look for arrangements of tree branches or hedges that might make good portals to magical worlds like Narnia. Needless to say, I never had any visions, and when I was reminded that sainthood often involved suffering greatly for one's faith, I got over it.

As an adult I didn't have too hard a time letting go of some of my childhood "magical thinking" (I've happily clung to some of it - like the thought, "If I get all my resuscitation drugs ready, maybe I won't need to use them.") In high school we had a required course in scripture during which we were encouraged, as our church teaches, to undertake a contextual rather than an insistently literal interpretation of the Bible. Rather than objecting to or resisting this, as many of my classmates did, I found this approach emancipating and, in fact, spiritually enriching, opening up more truths and insights for me than I would have gleaned otherwise.

I wasn't bothered, either, when neuroscientists began to study religious experience and connected religious visions with temporal lobe epilepsy. By then I had spent time as a medical student in psych wards and, though the various disorders of the DSM-IV and the way we seem to be at the mercy of our neurotransmitters made me really question the nature of human will, I didn't necessarily connect sanity with validity. Some of the most psychotic people I saw spoke uncanny truths and had remarkable insights that the "rational" caregivers, supposedly more connected with "objective reality," didn't have.

A few months ago when our church was planning a retreat for young people who were about to get confirmed in our faith, one of the suggested activities was a "Saint Buffet": a time and space set aside for story-telling and visual exhibits about people's favorite moral heroes and heroines. During the discussion of which saintly people we might highlight, I remember saying, "Can we not do Joan of Arc?"

"Why not?" one of my team-mates asked.

"Um, because she was crazy?" I replied, hoping she would hear my tone as affectionate and not disrespectful. Then, fearing that the other folks in the group who didn't know me well, and didn't realize the deep love I had for our faith and many of its elements, might not realize I was NOT trying to be irreverent, I dug myself deeper by saying, "Don't get me wrong, she was an amazing person, but she was psychotic. Or, she had temporal lobe seizures." Thankfully, people seemed willing to chalk this up to me having to interpret everything through the lens of modern medicine, and no one ejected me from the retreat-planning team.

Bishop Stephen Sykes of the University of Durham said during a BBC program, "There is a very interesting dispute at the moment about whether one can have a talent for religion and whether that is something like a musical talent which some people have and some people don't have." This relates to other issues I've often wondered about - the issue of talent in general, and creativity, and their origins / sources / relations to experience and learning. I've often heard that faith is a gift. There may now be scientific proof of that, in the observations regarding our temporal lobes and the other parts of the brain that interact to produce/interpret spiritual experiences. I do think many of the traditional saints, and people who have had profound mystical experiences, had/have highly active, perhaps unusually active, temporal lobes. Some people seem to have temporal lobes that are innately (i.e., genetically?) more "receptive" to religious experience than others'.

As someone who has to interfere with the brain a little bit every day - chemically reduce anxiety, promote indifference to painful stimuli, induce lack of consciousness, and even cause some amnesia - I am acutely aware of how neurotransmitters can be manipulated. I do it for a living! And yes, I did hear about the Johns Hopkins study that found that the psilocybin in psychedelic shrooms can act on brain receptors, induce mystical experiences, and produce positive changes in the study subjects. Clearly the brain is the gateway to human perception and thus has a great deal to do with what we consider spiritual experience. As many pieces in the emerging field of "neurotheology" have pointed out, our spirituality, in large part, is in our heads.

The thing is, I just don't mind. It wouldn't make sense for the brain NOT to show these responses. Also, I've gotten to the point, I think, where I don't feel I have to be RIGHT about everything I believe. There are some truths that lie beyond human belief, and whatever science reveals should only enrich my understanding, not destroy it.

By now neurotheology has its prominent names - Drs. Vilayanur Ramachandran, Michael Persinger, Andrew Newberg, and Matthew Alper, to name a few. Some scientists interpret the growing data about the neurobiological basis for spirituality as suggestive of God being a human construct, with the " 'God' part of the brain" being a genetically-enabled product of evolution which helps self-aware creatures cope with the knowledge of their own mortality - the fruit of Eden's tree. It's the old chicken-and-egg conundrum: did God create the brain, or did the brain create God? Some people of faith argue that God, being a smart one, would obviously create a neurobiological substrate for divine revelation - a natural, physical way for humans to perceive and interpret a relationship with the divine.

What would be really neat is if both were right and true somehow.

My understanding of neurobiology, rudimentary as it is, goes something like this: the brain is "hard-wired" to learn, all experience counts as learning, and learning creates changes in the cellular architecture, gene expression, and electrochemical interactions in the brain. Everything we experience changes our brains from moment to moment, and sometimes cumulatively those changes can be significant. Reading a book, hearing an oboe concerto that moves me, being hurt by an ex-boyfriend, playing cards with my family, practicing tendus repeatedly at the ballet barre, internalizing grammar rules in a new language, smelling roasted peanuts while walking down a Manhattan sidewalk, these all make their mark in our minds, and therefore on our bodies, because our brains are, after all, body. The idea that they are separate is illusory.

And maybe we have some evidence. Dr. Andrew Newberg's work with SPECT scans of people from various religious traditions in deep meditation showed not only increased blood flow to the temporal lobes but also decreased flow to those areas in the parietal lobes that were related to our perception of time and spatial orientation. This finding may explain what those who meditate often describe as an experience of "loss of self," a liberation from the limits of space, time, and individual personality, or a mystical union with a greater reality. I wonder if the perfusion changes were a cause or an effect? In any case, these studies lend support to the fallacious nature of thinking of mind and body as separate. Mind IS body.

This is why I love the story in Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus heals a woman of a chronic hemorrhage. I love the juxtaposition of medicine and faith in this chapter, and the way the healer, Christ, felt a transformation in his own body - the healing power draining from it, into the woman - while at the same time the woman felt the transformation in the depths of her body as the flow of blood dried up completely, all because she reached out and made a very physical, hopeful connection by touching the hem of Jesus' clothes. Both healer and healed were physically and emotionally changed by the healing. I love this story so much I wrote a poem about it. (I know -what a dork. Or, as someone who loves me a lot says, what a super-duper-dork!)

Now I gotta go to bed and give my temporal and frontal lobes a little rest.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Fascinating post to which I've linked today.