2004.04.30: April 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Central African Republic: Psychology: Religion: Baltimore Times: Central African Republic RPCV Evangeline Wheeler writes: Religious Experience and the Brain

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Central African Republic: Peace Corps Central African Republic : The Peace Corps in the Central African Republic: 2004.04.30: April 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Central African Republic: Psychology: Religion: Baltimore Times: Central African Republic RPCV Evangeline Wheeler writes: Religious Experience and the Brain

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Central African Republic RPCV Evangeline Wheeler writes: Religious Experience and the Brain

Central African Republic RPCV Evangeline Wheeler writes: Religious Experience and the Brain

"Spiritual experiences are so consistent across all cultures that it suggests the human brain is somehow prewired for this. Because life can offer serious unexpected and ongoing challenges, we survive better if we can maintain faith in an uncertain world. So, maybe, the theory goes, the highly developed and complex human brain has helped us to develop the capacity for faith. Eventually, researchers hope to identify a common biological core in the world’s many varieties of worship."

Central African Republic RPCV Evangeline Wheeler writes: Religious Experience and the Brain

Wired for Faith: Religious Experience and the Brain
by Evangeline A. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Baltimore Times
Originally posted 4/30/2004

Is the spiritual urge programmed into the brain’s neural structure? For more than a century, the nature of religious experience has been a topic of considerable philosophical debate, yet virtually nothing is known of its biological underpinnings. In other words, we know little about how the brain itself is involved in religious experience. Until the 1970s, religious experience and activity were believed to be purely cultural phenomena, a product of social conditioning, and not in any way biological. Little effort was made to investigate the physiological aspects of, say, ritual or chant.

What we do know is that when people deeply believe they will be helped (or hurt) by something, bodily changes occur from those thoughts that can affect your physical health. Our traditional African and African American faith communities have long been at odds with the scientific paradigm over the relationship between religious faith and physical healing.

The notion that faith heals, as in “laying on of hands,” was heretofore unfounded scientifically and was in fact considered a ridiculous subject of serious scientific research. But, fifteen or twenty years ago psychological research into the relationship between our cognitions and our physical health began to show that religious beliefs, including faith in a “higher power,” could sometimes have important effects on our physical states. For instance, heart surgery patients who are religious have 20 percent shorter postoperative hospital stays than nonreligious patients. Significant research shows that people who pray on a regular basis enjoy higher levels of psychological health than the public at large.

With the aid of new technology that allows them to watch the brain in action, a group of scientists described as neurotheologists are trying to explain how the function of the brain relates to religious experiences. Evidence from cognitive science research even suggests provocatively that the human brain is pre-wired for religious experience, since the discovery that there may be circuits in the human brain specifically involved in religious experience.

Spiritual experiences are so consistent across all cultures that it suggests the human brain is somehow prewired for this. Because life can offer serious unexpected and ongoing challenges, we survive better if we can maintain faith in an uncertain world. So, maybe, the theory goes, the highly developed and complex human brain has helped us to develop the capacity for faith. Eventually, researchers hope to identify a common biological core in the world’s many varieties of worship.

This new, controversial, research tries to uncover what is happening in our brains when we encounter religious, spiritual and mystical experiences. In one type of experiment, for example, brain scans examine parts of the brain that are activated or quieted during deep prayer or meditation. The interruptions in brain circuits due to focused spiritual contemplation effect changes in our thought processes and influence our subconscious mind.

In another kind of experiment, inducing bursts of electrical impulses to certain areas of the brain simulates mystical and religious experiences.

And besides causing seizures, temporal lobe epilepsy can lead to unusual, hallucinatory, mental experiences, with people sometimes reporting deeply moving spiritual experiences, and a subsequent preoccupation with religion. When parts of the epileptic brain are destroyed surgically, the seizures and the mystical experiences associated with them, go away.

Interest in the science of religious experience is linked to the observation that many of the aspects of mystical experiences are a regular part of everyday life for persons with certain brain dysfunctions. It was observed that persons with a certain kind of brain damage experience great difficulty in distinguishing between themselves and the rest of the world. This condition makes it difficult, for example, for someone to walk around, because he’s unsure of where the floor ends and his foot begins, or even to sit down, because he doesn’t know where his body ends and the chair begins. This is like the religious experience reported by deep meditators, of being “at one” with the universe.

Throughout human history, mystical techniques were intuitively devised by shamans and spiritual masters — ways like prayer, chanting, meditation or ritual — to trigger the process of “deafferentation,” leading to various degrees of unitary states, in turn perpetuating human spirituality. This could be why truly spiritual people tend to be calm, peaceful, compassionate and caring and lead healthy and happy lives. Their sense of oneness makes them emotionally balanced and spiritually developed. Ironically, the American Psychiatric Association listed “strong religious belief” as a disorder in their diagnostic manual as late as 1974.

The possibility that we are intrinsically wired for spirituality cannot be dismissed; the complexities of religious variation may well grow from blueprints in the brain that have evolved over the millennia. But, as has been the case with all past attempts to prove the presence of a higher power, brain scans and cerebral anatomy, so far, fall short of doing so.

Evangeline A. Wheeler, Ph.D. is the Associate Professor of Psychology, Towson University

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Story Source: Baltimore Times

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