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Is prayer all in the mind?

by
03 February 2023

What happens when we pray? Naomi Wellings investigates the latest findings of neurotheology

ALAMY

A model illustrating the development of thought and reflection

A model illustrating the development of thought and reflection

WHAT part does the brain play in controlling or processing spiritual experience? This question is at the heart of neurotheology, a relatively new science. (The term was first coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 novel Island.)

The neuroscientist Dr Andrew Newberg, Professor and Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, is a pioneer in the field. His research includes taking brain scans of people from a range of religious faiths in prayer, meditation, and states of trance, in an attempt to build a picture of how religious experience shows itself within the brain.

The technology now exists to reveal discernible and complex patterns when subjects are undergoing a religious experience. In essence, Professor Newberg’s studies have shown that the brain’s temporal lobes are more active during religious practice. His analysis of brain scans shows that the amygdala (often responsible for emotional responses) and hippocampus (often linked to contextual, spatial memory, and learning) become active during visions, spiritual experiences, and meditation.

These areas are responsible for focusing attention and emotions, particularly in relation to words. This is significant when considering forms of meditation that rely on mantras and prayers.

While believers are engaged in practices that involve surrendering control, such as praying in tongues, activity decreases in the frontal lobes and increases in the thalamus, which controls information coming into the brain.

For example, Professor Newberg’s study of the brain imaging of Tibetan Buddhist monks during meditation revealed that the part of the brain associated with a sense of time and place (the parietal lobe) was far less active during this practice, which is consistent with the experience of transcendence. Similar results emerged for his Christian subjects.

Another interesting finding is that that the effects of religious activity on the development of the frontal lobes can be shown in brain scans after a relatively short time. Professor Newberg’s analysis found that, in his study sample of religious practitioners, the baseline levels of activity in these brain areas had significantly increased after just eight weeks of mantra-based meditating for a mere 12 minutes a day.

He is clear, though, that while neuroscience can tell us what happens physiologically within our brains when religious experiences take place, it cannot interpret whether those experiences link to an external reality.

That doesn’t prevent people coming to their own conclusions, as a story he tells shows. Following press coverage in 2010 of his research on the brain scans of meditating nuns, Professor Newberg received two phone calls: one from an atheist, and another from a nun. Each expressed gratitude that his research had provided conclusive evidence for their viewpoint. For the atheist, the evidence demonstrated that religious experience was “all in the brain”, and humanly constructed; for the nun, the same research proved that religious experience was tangible and therefore real: there was now objective verification of God’s Spirit at work.

 

THE British evolutionary anthropologist and author of Why We Love?, Dr Anna Machin, has also looked at studies in this field. From her perspective, this connection with the divine through religious experience is best understood when viewed through the lens of relationships.

Analysing a study of Carmelite nuns who underwent brain scans while meditating on God, she explored whether “what (they) feel for a god is akin to the love we have for our fellow humans”. She concluded that they all had brain reactions which tallied with “a truly human experience of love”. She has found that the patterns observed in brain scans when subjects are experiencing love are remarkably similar, whether that love is human or divine.

All the nuns tested shared the understanding that to keep a relationship strong required “reciprocity”, or a sense of the “relationship [being] . . . as two-way as any they experience with their fellow humans”. This was demonstrated by what Dr Machin called “the neural fingerprint of love”, observable on the scanner screen.

 

SO, WHAT do these scientific findings mean for evangelism? The Principal of St John’s College, Durham, the Revd Professor David Wilkinson, is someone whose work straddles the theological, missional, and scientific communities.

An an astrophysicist and former Methodist minister, he now leads the project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS), which seeks to empower Christian leaders to engage better with scientific discovery. He told me that developments in neuroscience mean setting the bar for authenticity and transparency ever higher to convince non-believers.

ALAMYA radiologist checks a CT scan

Christians have always sought to use human constructs to connect with the divine, Professor Wilkinson says, be it the very informal “have a coffee with God” phenomenon, the more traditional “quiet times”, or approaching God through sacramental routines. However helpful to the individual these practices may be, all need to be acknowledged as human constructs.

“Preachers and leaders can manipulate people and congregations by using various patterns of language or practice,” he says. “[The] Evangelical classic altar call, where you sing the hymn 15 times and you build up the emotional pressure, will lead to some coming to the front, even if they don’t actually want to make a direct commitment. We know in counselling that the interplay of personality, mental health, and religious experience [are areas] where one has to be extremely careful.”

Measuring “success” by the number of converts can be unhelpful, he says. “It’s not the only thing that tells you whether Christian ministry is authentic. There’s a whole number of other dimensions which are about transparency, authenticity, reliability — whether people are growing to find their full potential in themselves rather than being cloned into an experience.”

And if we believe — as John Wesley did — that the Holy Spirit prepares a person to accept God’s truth, then we should, perhaps, be humbler, and simplify how we engage in mission: we need to tell the stories — simply — as Jesus did. Professor Wilkinson argues that perhaps the reason people don’t do this in mission is that they don’t really trust them.

 

PROFESSOR WILKINSON has no doubts about the significance of this research: “Neuroscience is one the biggest issues for the dialogue between the scientific and theological communities in the next decade.” He explores some of the issues in his 2015 book When I Pray, What Does God Do?

Dr Mark Vernon is a philosopher, psychotherapist, theologian, and former Church of England priest. He contends that contemporaries struggle with the nature of spirituality, in a way that people did not in the past.

He believes that people are hung up on the idea of a soul — a concept that is not supported by scripture —­­ and also on the idea that the material is of a lower order than the spiritual. As soon as Christians start thinking that religious experience is all being processed through the material brain, panic sets in.

“Evangelical panic is a panic about where the Western mind has ended up,” he says. “It’s not a problem for Christianity per se. . . Why should seeing spiritual experience within the brain be viewed as a problem?”

Dr Vernon sees this attempt to try and clarify the relationships between mind, brain, spirit, and faith as a fundamental issue of how belief itself is approached. “People are so obsessed with objective truth [that] they want theology to be like a science,” he says.

Professor Wilkinson says that this is, in part, why theologians such as N. T. Wright have been at pains to argue for reclaiming a full understanding of the resurrection of the body. While Western Christian thought has denigrated the body ever since Augustine, if everything about us resurrects in the final analysis, then that is as true for the brain as it is for the soul.

“To argue the resurrection of the body in the Christian tradition is really important, because it’s an affirmation of God’s commitment to — and valuing of — the physical,” Professor Wilkinson says, “and that the world to come and our own existence will not be less than physical . . . but will be more than physical.”

 

AS FOR the future, an area that Professor Newberg sees as fruitful in years to come is ascertaining whether there are discernible brain patterns that can predict whether those showing a heightened religious experience are at risk of fanaticism, raising fundamental ethical and political issues about the application of neuroscience and its interpretation.

Meanwhile, Professor Malcolm Jeeves, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, suggests that the fields of neuroscience and theology can work together to understand more about degenerative brain conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Early findings seem to suggest that the temporal lobes’ impairment, and changes in the activity of dopaminergic neurons for those with these conditions, may affect their experience of God.

If “intact” brain function is necessary for spiritual experience, it is hard to argue for a “soul” or “mind” that is completely independent of the brain.

 

A COMMON thread when speaking to neuroscientists, psychotherapists, theologians, and anthropologists about neurotheology has been the modern preoccupation with whether something is “true”.

As Professor Newberg explains, everyone creates their own sense of reality. “Getting at what is really ‘real’ is the tricky part,” he says. But an experience can be “real” even if it’s not objectively verified. There is no clear objective/subjective divide between what is perceived by the brain, and by other senses.

What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is how habitual practice alters the brain. From Professor Newberg’s perspective, “having God over for coffee”, following daily devotionals, meditating regularly, or singing worship songs are all ways by which the brain develops its temporal lobes. We develop these, and, in so doing, in collaboration with other parts of our brains, increase our capacity for spiritual experience.

That experience does not prove anything materially; but, for the religious, in showing the tangibility of a relational divine encounter, the scans and the science may be seen as a powerful testimony to an often sceptical world.

Coming soon: Interview with neuroscientist Josh Brown on his experience of healing

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