Thoughts on neurotheology

I don’t mean to repost all of Pharyngula’s links, but here’s an article about neuroscience experiments into religious experience. One scientist claims to be able to produce religious sensations in 80% of subjects by applying magnetic fields to their brains. This doesn’t surprise me very much; more amusing is that he gave the test to hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins and it had no effect. The article speculates that this might be evidence of a kind of “talent for religion”, but I wonder if it could be the opposite: since Dawkins never goes to church, he doesn’t exercise that part of his brain so it becomes less sensitive. I know I’ve seen experiments that show that certain types of mental exercise will have a measureable effect on brain physiology. But you neuroscience people can correct me if I’m just making this up.
One issue that I haven’t seen raised is that, at least in my experience, the sensations one has in a religious context aren’t unique to religion. Back when I was a believer and a regular churchgoer, I would have feelings of oneness and a kind of glowing happiness that I thought at the time came from the presence of God. But I also get these feelings while out running, or at a good rock concert, or when I have some new insight about physics (either through my own experiments or hearing about some new and interesting result). So is this the kind of feeling that the neuroscience experiments are inducing? The article also mentions a “sensed presence”, which I’ve never had in church or elsewhere (except for sleep paralysis experiences, but I think that’s a bit different). So do most people get the sensed presence in church, and I’m just insensitive to it like Dawkins? It’s an interesting thought, that the experiences of most religious people might be qualitatively different from those I had when I was religious.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on neurotheology

  1. Mason

    Dude, can we also prevent religious moments by applying magnetic fields?
    I think I’ve just been given a new application to investigate… ;P
    Also, this thing immediately made me think of a recent Ig Nobel recipient (the 2000 prize in chemistry):
    Donatella Marazziti, Alessandra Rossi, and Giovanni B. Cassano of the University of Pisa, and Hagop S. Akiskal of the University of California (San Diego), for their discovery that, biochemically, romantic love may be indistinguishable from having severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. [REFERENCE: “Alteration of the platelet serotonin transporter in romantic love,” Marazziti D, Akiskal HS, Rossi A, Cassano GB, Psychological Medicine, 1999 May;29(3):741-5.]

  2. Katie

    I love this and agree whole heartedly. I experienced true love for the first time in my life recently and it was not in a strict church or among people like I grew up around.
    It was among bohemians who were into the drug crazed psychedelic life in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Now they are older and wiser and some have given up on substance abuse but they all are big essential question thinkers. I guess you can’t label me GenX or GenY and I make my own label based on cultural absorbtion (Warner Bros. cartoons 1930-1959, Old time radio and vaudeville, the circus, classical music, improvised music).
    These folks showed me who I am.

  3. Chris L-S

    Interesting, because I rarely feel any kind of “religious” experience, other than the occasional urge to behave in particular manners, and that could simply be my conscience. My religious experiences tend to be more analytical (if you can apply such a term to spiritual experiences) and thoughtful. This contrasts with the group that Laura grew up with – they were a highly emotional group: big on the “Jesus loves us” and “Be good, mmkay”, not very focused on big question spiritualism.
    If he can reproduce near-death type experiences, then I’ll be interested. Touching death is the closest that we in this realm get to truly experiencing the spiritual world.

  4. Mason

    The world has seen lots of people who can produce near-death experiences—and lots of people who produce death experiences… However, I think I may be using the terms in a slightly different manner than you are. :)
    Undeath experiences are the best, however. I had one of those in the fall. I miraculously ended up on campus even though I was bed-ridden. The only explanation I can give is because that’s where I could find the most brains. Mmmm, braaaaaaaaaaains…

  5. Arcane Gazebo

    Chris: Coincidentally, there was an unrelated article recently about a finding that near death experiences are related to the sleep-wake cycle, and something called REM intrusion. I don’t know if NDEs have been induced with magnetic fields, but at least one researcher has claimed to produce them with the anesthetic ketamine, and they have also been reported by military pilots undergoing centrifuge g-force simulations.

  6. Katie

    I guess it goes back to how do you know who you are and how lucky you are. You may have to lose everything to know it. If you lose your health and are very sick for two years, you understand what wellness feels like and you work to stay healthy.
    Perhaps this is why so many Americans have to go bankrupt to understand how much money they actually need to live on.

  7. lidarose

    Sorry I’m coming in to this discussion a little late…I’ve been away…
    I’m going to assume you’re asking a serious question here, though I’m not at all sure that’s so, about the sensed presence. I’m as likely to feel that outside of a church as in one; it’s more a matter of my spiritual/mental/emotional disposition at the moment than the physical “where”.
    But a larger issue is that of the article about the neuroscience experiments: it stands to reason that there will be physical evidence of what is going on with a person spiritually, as we are not disconnected spirits who happen to live in a body sometimes, but human beings whose body is integral to who we are. Although I am a Christian, I am not sure what happens at death — does the spirit leave the body, can the spirit or the human person exist without the body, etc.? — but I consider that to be one of the many questions to which I don’t have to know the answer…
    As for your later post about Samuel, Saul, God, et al., I am intrigued and will try to find out what I can about how respectable bible scholars deal with this. There are many things about the bible that seem not to make sense, or that run contrary to judeo-christian ideals, but it isn’t like nobody has thought about them before and tried to make sense of the contradictions… I’m interested to see what they have to say. Thanks for the challenge.

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    I was quite serious with my question about sensed presence. It seems plausible to me that this could be a common feature of religious experience even though I’ve never felt it.

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