About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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March 10, 2004

In Neurons We Trust?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

The Economist reported last week about a group of researchers who are exploring the neurobiology of religious experiences.

Until recently, religion and spirituality were deemed as 'cultural, a product of social conditioning, and not biological'. Religious beliefs and spirituality was the 'playing field' for theologists and philosophers, not biologists and scientists. Many scientists were skeptical and unwilling to consider the spiritual as science.

Building on the pioneering work of Michael Persinger, researchers are suggesting that "religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there." Those who believe in neurotheology are trying to disprove the existence of God say they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power of religion. They say that religious wars, fanaticism and intolerance spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are unique, rather than facets of universal brain chemistry.

"It's irrational and dangerous when you see how religiosity affects us," said Matthew Alper, author of "The God Part of the Brain," a book about the neuroscience of belief. "During times of prosperity, we are contented. During times of depression, we go to war. When there isn't enough food to go around, we break into our spiritual tribes and use our gods as justification to kill one another."

While Persinger and Alper count themselves as atheists, many scientists studying the neurology of belief consider themselves deeply spiritual. James Austin, a neurologist, began practicing Zen meditation during a visit to Japan. After years of practice, he found himself having to reevaluate what his professional background had taught him.

"It was decided for me by the experiences I had while meditating," said Austin, author of the book "Zen and the Brain" and now a philosophy scholar at the University of Idaho. "Some of them were quickenings, one was a major internal absorption -- an intense hyper-awareness, empty endless space that was blacker than black and soundless and vacant of any sense of my physical bodily self. I felt deep bliss. I realized that nothing in my training or experience had prepared me to help me understand what was going on in my brain. It was a wake-up call for a neurologist."

The ethical implications of neurotheological research could be quite profound. Indeed, some researchers are now using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to induce "god-like" experiences. Whether or not "God" is an emergent property of interacting neurons or not, one thing is for sure, I doubt we'll ever see the replacement of "In God We Trust" with "In Neurons We Trust" on US currency. Thank God's Neurons.

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurosociety


1. Denny on March 10, 2004 10:50 AM writes...

There ARE varieties of religious experience. Spirituality is not one thing. It can take many forms, depending on the individual, so the experience of it among a variety of brains may be quite diverse. I wonder if the researchers will acknowledge this and seek to expand their sample to include a broad spectrum.

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2. projecttrinity on March 10, 2004 11:31 AM writes...

here's my humble opinion...
Thank Neurons It's Friday ;)

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3. Mike on March 11, 2004 5:38 AM writes...

Atheists have concluded that spirituality is bunk. Wow, that's a surprise.

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4. Rob on March 12, 2004 2:51 PM writes...

I've always questioned any spiritual feelings I have had since I read about people with temporal lobe epilepsy becoming deeply religious.

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