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The Spiritual Brain Print E-mail


Written by Heather Zeiger

The Worldview of Neuroscience

The popular worldview held in neuroscience, or the study of the brain, is materialism. Materialism says that humans are only physical beings, which means there is no possibility of an immaterial mind or a soul. On the other hand, non-materialists would say that humans have both a physical aspect and a spiritual aspect. As Christians, we are non-materialists, and would say that we are both physical and spiritual because God, a spiritual being, created us in His image. However, our physical bodies are important because God gave us bodies suited for us.

But what if materialism were true? First, self-consciousness would just be an evolutionary bi-product; something that randomly evolved to help our species survive. Secondly, we would just be a product of our genes and our environment, so free will or the ability to make decisions would be an illusion. This implies that our thought life, our prayers, and everything that dictates our identity is nothing more than neurons firing.{1} And from this we can conclude that our beliefs are unimportant because we really can not trust them anyway. They might be caused by a misfiring neuron. But is this what the data shows us?

In this article we will be looking at some examples in neuroscience that seem to contradict materialism, and to guide us we will be using the recently released book, The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary. We will look at some experiments materialists have tried to do to explain religious experiences and their effects on the body. Then we will look at some experiments that can only be explained from a non-materialistic worldview. Finally, we will see how the data from neuroscience fits within a Christian view of the mind and brain.

The Spiritual Brain does not take a distinctly Christian perspective. So while the studies within this book do not necessarily confirm or deny that Christianity is the “best” religion, it is still useful for apologetics. First, it allows us to break through the language barrier between a materialist and a Christian by looking at data in general neuroscience terms. Second, science studies the world around us, which is God’s general revelation, and while this gives us truths about the character of God and His creation, our interpretation of the data must be filtered through the lens of the special revelation of God’s Word.

Is God All in Our Heads?

Is there a part of our brain that creates God? Are some people genetically predisposed to being religious? A materialist would say “yes” to these questions. However, as the book The Spiritual Brain shows us materialists have not been successful in proving this.

Dean Hamer, geneticist and author of the book The God Gene, proposed that some people are more religious than others because they have one DNA letter that is different from non-religious people.{2} While this story was touted as a breakthrough in the media, the scientific community was not amused. Hamer’s experiments were not well-defined, and no one could replicate them.{3}

Another popular theory is that people that have a religious experience may be suffering from mild forms of temporal lobe epilepsy. Basically, a misfiring in the brain causes people to be obsessive about something, like religion. These scientists speculate that people like Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, and the apostle Paul are likely candidates for temporal lobe epilepsy.{4} Epilepsy specialists, however, do not believe that religious experiences are characteristic of temporal lobe epilepsy, and usually seizures are not associated with peace, tranquility, or religious visions. Also, temporal lobe epilepsy is quite rare, yet over sixty percent of Americans have reported having some kind of religious or mystical experience. And as we will see, many parts of the brain are involved in religious experiences, while temporal lobe epilepsy is much more centralized.{5}

Perhaps one of the strangest experiments to hit the popular media was that of the God Helmet. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger claimed that religious people were more sensitive to magnetic fields, and that electromagnetic radiation was what prompted religious experiences. He developed a helmet that produced strong electromagnetic waves. Several people who tried on the God Helmet reported having a religious or mystical experience of some sort. However, there were some fundamental flaws in the whole setup, including the fact that Persinger never published his results and did not have brain scans to back up his statements. Eventually, a group of scientists from Sweden, using a double-blind test, proved that the God Helmet was really the power of suggestion. The electromagnetic waves didn’t cause the religious experiences.{6}

Experiments That Don’t Mind

All of these failed experiments presumed that there is no God and there is no spiritual component to people. We have shown, however, how the evidence from neuroscience doesn’t seem to fit the materialistic worldview. As we will see, some experiments reported in The Spiritual Brain cannot be explained from this worldview. What we will find is that they fit nicely within a Christian worldview.

The first example is obsessive compulsive disorder therapy. Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, occurs when a person has distressing or unwanted thoughts that dominate their thinking, and these obsessions trigger an urge to do some kind of ritual behavior, also known as a compulsion. The interesting thing about OCD is that the person knows that the obsession is irrational and the ritual won’t really fix it, but their feelings tell them otherwise. Scientific studies have shown that the brain is actually misfiring. The part of the brain that tells a person, “There’s a problem, do something to fix it,” is firing at the wrong times. OCD is a clear case of a healthy mind and a malfunctioning brain.

A materialistic worldview would say that the only way to treat OCD is by physically fixing the bad neurons. However, the treatment that actually works involves the patients mentally fixing the bad neurons. Patients learn to take control of their OCD by recognizing when their brain is misfiring, and try to starve the urges to do the ritual. After treatment, brain scans show that the brain of an OCD patient is starting to fix itself. The patient is changing his physical brain with his mind!{7}

Similar kinds of therapies have been applied to depression and phobias.{8} In both cases, The Spiritual Brain reports instances where a patient’s brain chemistry was directly affected by their mind.

Another phenomenon that can’t be explained from a materialist’s worldview is the placebo effect. The patient is given a medicine that they are told will help them, but in actuality they are given a sugar pill. Interestingly, the patient’s belief that the sugar pill will help them has caused measurable, observable relief from symptoms. Many doctors say that a patient’s attitude oftentimes can help or hinder real medicines or therapies from working.{9}

The ability of the mind to change the brain’s chemistry does not fit within a materialistic worldview. But as Christians we know that our minds are very real and can have a very real effect on our physical bodies.

Can We Take a Brain Scan of God?

As noted previously, the popular worldview among neuroscientists is materialism, which essentially means they do not account for or acknowledge spiritual effects on the brain nor do they believe that there is a spiritual component to the person. This would mean that even religious experiences are just our neurons firing. Materialists would claim that either the effects of religious experiences, including prayer, are neurons misfiring, or the person is faking it.

On the other hand, Christians believe that there is a spiritual realm, and there is a spiritual component to human beings that we call the mind or the soul. We believe that when we pray that we are actually praying to God who is real and separate from us, not just a figment of our imagination.

Mario Beauregard, one of the authors of The Spiritual Brain, took brain scans of Carmelite nuns while they were remembering the deepest and most poignant religious experience they had had.{10} Using functional MRI and QEEG he hoped to see what parts of the nuns’ brains were active.{11}

Dr. Beauregard and his lab found that religious experiences involved many brain regions at once, which rules out materialists’ suggestion that there is some kind of “God spot” in the brain.{12} They also found that brain scans during these religious experiences were very complex and consistent with something other than merely an emotional state. Lastly, they determined that the data did not have any of the markers one would expect to see if the nuns were faking it or lying.

This is all that the data can tell us. Physical machines cannot prove the existence of a spiritual God. But as the authors of The Spiritual Brain point out, what these experiments do show is that certain explanations, namely materialistic ones, are inadequate for explaining the data in neuroscience. The nuns are experiencing something beyond what materialism can account for.

Prayer is complex and more than just emotional contrivances, so from a Christian worldview, the results are not surprising.

The Christian View of the Mind and Brain

Experiments such as the God Helmet and theories about temporal lobe epilepsy did not work because their premise was that God was something we made up ourselves. However, as Christians we know this is false. The Bible says that God is the creator and is distinct from His creation, not made from it.

The results of experiments with OCD, phobias, depression, and the placebo effect do not make sense to materialists because the mind seems to affect the physical brain. However, we know from Scripture that the mind, or the soul, is an essential part of our being. James 2:26 and Luke 8:55 show us that when the soul leaves, the body is dead, and when the soul returns, the body is alive. Also, passages such as Matthew 26:41 and Romans 8:10 and 11 tell us that our spirit can affect what our bodies do and keep us from sinning. Passages about the resurrection such as in 1 Corinthians 15 discuss the distinction between our spirit and our physical body.

Lastly, the experiment with the Carmelite nuns showed that during a deeply prayerful experience, their brains display signs of a very complex interaction that is going on. As Christians, we believe prayer is a way to interact with the Creator Who is separate and distinct from us. While this experiment does not prove God’s existence, it is reasonable to conclude that it is the level of complexity we would expect to see if someone were interacting with something distinct from themselves.

At one time people feared that neuroscience would be the death of God. The fear was that science might prove that everything that we do, including prayer and worship could be reduced to neurons firing in our brains. Hopefully, you are convinced that neuroscience actually points us towards God. There is evidence for a spiritual component of the human self. And, the evidence is consistent with what we would expect from a Christian worldview.

Notes

1. Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2007) 3, 4.
2. Ibid., 48-50.
3. Ibid., 51, 52.
4. Ibid., 58, 64.
5. Ibid., 72, 71.
6. Ibid., 79-100.
7. Ibid., 126-130.
8. Ibid., 133-140.
9. Ibid., 141-142.
10. For a detailed account of the Carmelite nun experiment see Beauregard and O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain, 255-288.
11. Two things we must keep in mind. First, usually the brain will take the same pathways when it remembers an event as when the event actually happened. Second, this experiment can't tell us what the nuns were actually thinking, but it can tell us what kind of brain activity was occurring.
12. Beauregard and O'Leary, 42-44.
13. For more articles and information on the subjects covered in The Spiritual Brain see Denyse O'Leary's blog, Mindful Hack, at mindfulhack.blogspot.com.
14. See also Kerby Anderson's article “Mind, Soul and Neuroethics” at probe.org/faith-and-science/general-science/mind-soul-and-neuroethics.html.

© 2008 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Heather Zeiger is a former Research Associate with Probe. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Dallas with a B.S. in chemistry and a minor in government and politics. She received her M.S. in chemistry, also from UTD; her research was in organic synthesis and materials. She is currently working part-time on a M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University while teaching and tutoring SAT prep classes. She is a regular contributor to Evolution News and Views and works with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. Her interests include science and culture issues, running, art and literature, and working with teens. She is married to David, another former Probe intern and teacher at Trinity Christian Academy. Heather can be contacted at hkzeiger@sbcglobal.net.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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