Religion and the Brain!


David Walczyk!!

There is perhaps nothing tha...
dealing with abstractions (human interpretation) of abstractions (the “images” produced by the
information technologies) a...
In the studies of religion and the brain, meditation for ‘religious’ reasons (i.e., not mindfulness as
a sort of cognitive...
mechanisms. Instead the binding of religious practice, experience, and belief seem to differ
widely in both cognitive and ...
Johnson SC, Baxter LC, Wilder LS, Pipe JG, Heiserman JE, Prigatano GP (2002). Neural correlates of
self-reflection. Brain, ...
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Neurospirituality: Religion and the Brain


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some of my work on the neuroscience of spirituality...

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Neurospirituality: Religion and the Brain

  1. 1. Neurospirituality:! Religion and the Brain! ! David Walczyk!! |————|! There is perhaps nothing that differentiates Jungian analytical psychology from other psychological modalities than its acceptance of, and respect for, a religious orientation and a corresponding God-image. Jung himself is rather explicit in his opinion of the value of religion to life:! ! ! “I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life - that is to say, over 35 - there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” (Jung - Modern Man in Search of a Soul)! Science seems to concur, as research has shown that a “religious outlook on life” tends to provide significant health benefits (Koenig et al., 2001).! ! The question that this short review seeks to answer is: What, if anything, is the neuroscience of religion and what, if anything, might it mean for Jungian analytical psychologists in their work with patients who bring to, or seek, a “religious outlook on life” wholly or partial by way of their therapeutic process? Pursing this global question lead to some answers. These answers lead to more specific reflections. A recursive process thus ensued.! ! ! Contextual Frame for Religion and the Brain! Given the enormity and complexity of the subjects of religion and neuroscience, a frame is needed to provide a contextual grounding and point of orientation. In general, a religious orientation tends to include the binding of religious practice, religious experience, and religious belief (Livingston, 2005) with varying combinations of emotion and reason (Schjoedt, 2009) experienced individually and/or collectively.! ! Likewise the methodologies used by religion and the brain researchers need a contextual grounding. Overall, research on religion and the brain have used the imagine technologies SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), PET (Positron Emission Tomography, or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining). The interpretations (“images”) made by these information technologies are then further interpreted by humans. So, to be clear, we are Page 1 of 5 © David Walczyk
  2. 2. dealing with abstractions (human interpretation) of abstractions (the “images” produced by the information technologies) and these “findings” are considered to be “scientific.”! ! ! Religion and the Brain! Areas and systems of the brain that have been found to be associated with religious experiences include the temporal lobe, the frontal lobe, the (right) parietal lobe, and the limbic system.! ! The activation of the temporal lobe has been associated with the felt presence of a spiritual reality while the right parietal lobe has been associated with the subjective experience of a transcendental experience (Urgesi et al, 2010) or unity with (Beauregard and Paquette, 2006), what in Jungian analytical psychology is called the God-image. Along these lines, talking to God seems to activate the same regions of the brain that human-to-human relatedness does. For individuals who believe in a God-image, talking to it (i.e., prayer) activates the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of the frontal lobe and the temperoparietal junction where the temporal and parietal lobes meet (Schjoedt, 2009). As far as the brain is concerned, if a person believes in a God-image, talking to it is like talking to another person. Extending the relational aspect of religious belief, there is evidence that the perceived emotionality of the God-image towards oneself (i.e., loving or wrathful) activates areas of the prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal regions of the brain. Specifically a ‘loving God’ seems to be localized within right middle frontal gyrus of the frontal lobe while an ‘angry God’ seems to be localized within the left middle temporal gyrus of the frontal lobe. These are both areas of the brain that have been associated with episodic memory, imagery, and the making of meaning (Kapogiannis, 2009). The type of relationship an individual has with the/a God-image seems to strongly influence the neuroprocesses that are activated when they are engaged in that relationship. Likewise, the type of neuroprocesses that are activated in a relationships with the/a God-image seem to influence the perceived ‘behavior’ of the God-image in relationship. It’s a bit chicken-and-egg.! ! It has been hypothesized that a balanced functioning of the MPFC is necessary to maintain healthy (i.e., non-hyperreligiosity) religious activity although it is not the generator of religious experience (Muramoto, 2004). This is an area of the brain associated with rules, customs, compliance to social norms and self-reflection (Johnson et al, 2002). Recognizing that belief and experience are different, it has been concluded that, religious experience informed by the protocols of religious belief, is a cognitive process mediated by pre-established neural circuits (Persinger, 2008). This would seem to indicate that each religion has it’s own preferred neural circuit that is built though learning protocols and reinforced by way of experiencing them - a selfreinforcing feedback loop. Perhaps not so surprising, neurochemical patterns of “spirituallyinclined” individuals tend to favor the right-hemisphere dominance (Kurup and Kurup, 2003). ! ! Page 2 of 5 © David Walczyk
  3. 3. In the studies of religion and the brain, meditation for ‘religious’ reasons (i.e., not mindfulness as a sort of cognitive therapy) has received a lot of attention. These studies seem to indicate that, during meditative states there is increased activity in the frontal lobe while, concurrently, the amygdala of the limbic system goes dormant. At the pinnacle of meditative states, there is a noticeable decrease in activity in the parietal lateral lobe (Newburg and D’Aquili, 2001). It seems that during these pinnacle state, spatiality (our location in space and time), which is maintained by the lateral parietal lobe, collapses and a person is actually no-where and therefore in some sense every-where (at one with the/a God-image of every-thing). ! ! When presented with verbal protocols refuting the existence of a God-image, there seem to be neurological processes that become activated that may help to avoid such a conclusion (Persinger, 2008). Interestingly, Persinger’s research seems to have used a methodology similar to an association test. His results seem to prove the neuroscientific existence of, at a minimum, a God complex and if we want to extrapolate a bit, perhaps the Self too.! ! Overall, it seems, that there are specific areas of the brain that are involved in ‘religious experiences’ and that these are the same areas that are involved in emotion, motivation, and sexual behavior (D’Aquili and Newberg, 1999). Yet, the analysis of data seems to indicate that a “religious outlook on life” is, to a great extent, a culturally determined phenomena (Azari et al. 2001). This seems to imply that there is a developmental component (practice and experience) to belief and this may be one reason why indoctrination begins at such an early age. For instance, Catechism starts as early as three years of age. Catechism is a purposeful form of brain sculpting and modification. As is capitalism in it’s religious form.! ! There are also neurocognitive processing differences between “believers” and “nonbelievers.” Specifically, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area associated with selfrepresentation, emotion, reward, and goal-driven behavior, is more active in “believers” than in “non-believers” (Han, 2009; Harris et al. 2009). This seems to suggest that religious belief does provide some sort of container for interpreting some forms of meaning within and between oneself and the world. ! ! Age, religion, and the brain also seems to have a correlative relationship. Research has concluded that certain aspects of religion serve to reduce and buffer against orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) atrophy in later life (Hayward, et al.,2011). However, Hayward’s research concludes that just attending religious services does not affect OFC atrophy. Rather it is belief combined with experience that affects OFC atrophy. You’ve got to believe to experience the effect.! ! ! Conclusions! While religious outlooks on life are neurologically consistent phenomenon (they ‘happen’ in the brain), there is little evidence for religious outlooks on life being determined by universal neural Page 3 of 5 © David Walczyk
  4. 4. mechanisms. Instead the binding of religious practice, experience, and belief seem to differ widely in both cognitive and affective content and their neural correlates. There does seem to be evidence that differing orientations of religion (i.e., Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and different modes of experiencing them (i.e., meditating, reading, singing, contemplating, etc.) are associated with, and activate different parts of the brain, and also release and/or inhibit different neurochemicals. Yet affect and it’s purposeful regulation (up, down, homeostatic) does seem to be a common goal and how you go about achieving it (the context) also seems important.! ! The data seems to suggest that, for individuals, some sort of (un)conscious attunement between (1) a type of religion, (2) types of experiential modalities, and (3) ‘preferred’ cerebral activity and structure, is necessary for the (1) creation, (2) development, and (3) maintenance of a “religious outlook on life.” Again, an outlook that Jung considered to be fundamental to (the second half of) life. ! ! We seem to be wired for something we have labelled religion. Humans seem to be homo religio and all humans seem to have the capacity for capax Dei. We are grace-full. Or at least we have the innate capacity to be.! ! ! References! Beauregard, M. and Paquette, V (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters, 405: 186-190 ! ! Burgess, Aaron (2011). What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Religious Consciousness? A Complex Adaptive Systems Framework for Understanding the Religious Brain. American Political Science Association Conference, Current Research in Bio-Politics. ! ! D’Aquili, E. and Newberg, A (1993). Religious and Mystical States: A Neuropsychological Model. Zygon, 28:2: 177-200! ! ! Delio, Ilia (2003). Are We Wired for God? New Theology Review. February, 31-43! Han, S. (2009). Religious Belief and Neurocognitive Processes of the Self in The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior. Springer-Verlag.! ! Harris S, Kaplan J, Curiel A, Bookheimer S, Iacoboni M, Cohen M (2009) The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PloS One ,vo. 4, is. 10: 1-9! ! Hayward D, Owne A, Koenig H, Steffens D, Payne M (2011). Associations of religious behavior and experiences with extent of regional atrophy in the orbitofrontal cortex during older adulthood. Religion, Brain & Behavior. 1:2, 103-118! ! Page 4 of 5 © David Walczyk
  5. 5. Johnson SC, Baxter LC, Wilder LS, Pipe JG, Heiserman JE, Prigatano GP (2002). Neural correlates of self-reflection. Brain, 125:1808-14 ! ! Johnstone B, Bodling A, Cohen D, Christ S, Wegrzyn (2012). Right Parietal Lobe-Related “Selflessness” and the Neuropscyhological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, vol. 22, is. 4: 267-284! ! Kapogiannis, Dimitrios et al. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. PNAS, vo. 106, no. 12: 4876-4881! ! Koenig HG, McCullough MH, Larsons DB. Handbook of religion and health. New York: Oxford University Press; 2001.! ! Kurup RK and Kurup, Pa (2003). Hypothalamic digoxin, hemispheric chemical dominance, and spirituality. International Journal of Neuroscience, 113: 383-393 ! ! Livingston, Kenneth R. (2005). Religious Practice, Brain, and Belief. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 5.1-2: 75-117.! ! Muramoto, O. (2004). The role of the medial prefrontal cortex in human religious activity. Medical Hypotheses, 62, 479-485! ! Newberg, A. and D’Aquili, E (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books.! ! Persinger, M.A. (2008). Are our brains structured to avoid refutations of belief in God? An experimental study. Religion, 39: 34-42! ! ! Schjoedt, Uffe (2007). Homeostasis and Religious Behavior. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7: 213-40! Schjoedt, Uffe (2009). The Religious Brain: A General Introduction to the Experimental Neuroscience of Religion. Methods and Theory in the Study of Religion, 21: 310-339.! ! Urgesi C, Aglioti S, Skrap M, Fabbro F (2010). The spiritual brain: selective cortical lesions modulate human self-transcendence ! Page 5 of 5 © David Walczyk