The Spiritual Brain
Well, here goes a quick, shallow dive into neuroscience that inevitably brings oversimplification to complex phenomena. While we may speak of certain brain regions being more active or less active during different states of consciousness, those regions cannot be the sole cause of such states. That’s because the brain works as an integrated whole with connections between its various parts or modules.
Different Quakers worship differently during a meeting. Some may carry on a silent but wordy conversation with God, others may fantasize and daydream, some may allow recent events to pass through their consciousness, others may be half- or even completely asleep. However, many Friends engage in a process remarkably like, probably the same as, meditation. When we speak of “centering down” during a meeting, we are concentrating on clearing the mind just as meditators do in so-called “centering prayer.” That may involve focusing on an object or sound (Om) or may simply be a process of “brushing away” various random thoughts in order to arrive at an “inner emptiness.” This focusing involves the frontal brain lobes, where reason and morality largely reside.
As meditative emptying continues, respiration and heart beat slow. Blood pressure drops. If my memory of Biological Psychology serves me, the hypothalamus and the brain stem modulate this process. At some point, a significant release of dopamine is triggered in our Friendly brains. Dopamine has been called the “pleasure molecule” as it is also involved in the response to addictive drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine.
If our Friends continue to center down, PET brain scans reveal that their parietal lobes become less active. Among many functions, the parietal lobes orient us in space and time and appear to be instrumental in our sense of personal identity. When time, space, and identity disappear because of parietal silencing, people often have a sensation of oneness and unity with the Universe. They experience a mystical state that is sometimes interpreted as being with God. Consider a recent study of some thirty patients with traumatic damage to their right parietal lobe. These patients were more likely to express feelings of Universal Oneness than were “normal” subjects.
So, what can we make of all this? Is God merely an illusion produced by an abnormal brain state? Or is the brain capable of sensing two different realities: our daily, normal reality and a transcendent reality that is no illusion at all? There’s no way to know the answer to this question. Speaking for myself, I have faith that a spiritual brain can bring us into contact with a transcendent reality—God, the Eternal, Being Itself, Spirit, whatever you want to call it. It is, in my opinion, the same Reality that speaks to us in Meeting for Worship.
Much of this post relies on a Teaching Company video course taught by Dr. Andrew Newberg. The same material probably appears in his book, Neurotheology , which—however—I haven’t read.
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