Recent research in neurotheology, a science that correlates
religiosity to neural processes, suggests that spirituality is
biologically supported and enhanced by chemical activity in the human brain.
Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter that is tied to motivation,
mood, personality and spiritual susceptibility. Now, new evidence has
emerged that religiosity has at least some biological underpinnings.
Swedish researchers have found a correlation between a brain receptor that regulates serotonin activity and openness to religious experiences. People with increased serotonin activity showed stronger spiritual tendencies than those with lower concentrations of the chemical.
Research in the United States shows that religious practices like prayer activate parts of the brain and shape spiritual experience, although most experts caution that cultural and personal backgrounds also determine individual religiosity.
Brain vs. Mind
The Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Spirituality and the Mind, Andrew Newberg, says his brain imagery of meditating Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns confirms that religiosity has a biological component.
"We have found specific changes in particular parts of the brain and
also particular chemical changes in the brain. But the research that
I've been working on seems to point to a fairly global kind of effect.
There isn't like one part of the brain or one molecule in the brain that
is responsible for religion," says Newberg. "Our whole brain seems to get involved.
But I don't think it writes-off religion as being nothing more than what
is in the brain. Some of the brain scans that we have done show what
happens in the brain when people are religious. It doesn't necessarily
prove that religion is created by the brain or that the brain is created
While some religious groups reject biotheological research, Newberg says many religious people welcome his work as proof that the brain is God's conduit to man.
But atheists also see Newberg's findings as further conformation that religious emotions are nothing more than brain circuitry. Psychologist Thomas Fikes of California's Westmont College says what makes this type of research controversial is how it is interpreted.
"What really does that [type of research] tell us? Does it allow us to conclude that there is no such thing as God or no such thing as true spirituality? These are completely separate questions," says Fikes. "What it can tell us is what some of the basic brain mechanisms and psychological mechanisms are that contribute to spirituality. There are things that can happen in the brain that reduce our sense of self. They kind of dissolve the perceptual boundaries of where we perceive ourselves to be. In many people this can produce a transcendent state. And that state has traditionally been very important in a lot of religious traditions."
Where is the Soul?
Most religions maintain that a spirit or soul inhabits the human body. The traditional scientific view is that consciousness and the mind are products of the brain, as Boston University neurologist Patrick McNamara explains. "The consensus is that most of the things or processes that we call the mind depend on or are at least mediated by processes in the brain. So the mind is, at a minimum, an expression of the brain. That's the consensus in the scientific community, although there is a lot about the mind that we don't know about," says McNamara. "But in general we think that most functions of the mind like the imagination and creativity, language, emotion, memory are processes of the brain."
McNamara considers religion central to the structure of the mind and a defining characteristic of the human search for spiritual transcendence. But he says the body is equally important and he faults theologians for focusing only on nurturing the spirit.
"We're not just spirits. Many theologians forget this. We have bodies
and bodies have brains, and they put constraints on the form and the
type and the range of spiritual experiences people are capable of. So
any theology needs to develop some understanding of how the brain
contributes to the range and the form and the content of spiritual
experiences," says NcNamara. "Human beings are a combination of spirit, mind and body.
And if you leave out the body, your theology is not going to be complete."
Many theologians argue that science ignores human experience in favor of empiricism. Georgetown University's John Haught, a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, calls for a multi-layered scientific approach to spirituality. "We need to learn to think about it in other ways than traditional dualism -- that reality consists of two types of substances: soul and body. We need to develop what I would call a layered explanation in which we allow different methods and different sorts of sciences to deal with the brain," says Haught. "And this allows me as a theologian to encourage neuroscientists to push a neuroscientific explanation of what's going on in religion and the brain as far as you possibly can. Religion and theology are in no way in conflict with science on this point."
The University of Pennsylvania's Andrew Newberg shares this view and suggests that a dialogue between science and religion is necessary to help interpret neurotheological findings and put them in context. That would help shed more light on the nature of spirituality, says Newberg, and might further the understanding of religious extremism.
"The implication from the neurosciences helps us to understand how those
[spiritual] experiences may affect our physical or mental well-being.
And if we get some perspective on what serotonin is doing or the
directions of causality, we might actually be able to make some more
definitive statements about the true nature of our realities and where
God and religion fit in that and how all of that interacts together," says Newberg.
"And when it comes to some of the negative sides of religion and
fundamentalism, I do hope that by showing people some of the
similarities that we all have in the ways in which we form our beliefs,
that perhaps we can better understand what happens when religion goes
Newberg cautions against concluding that one part of the brain or one chemical or one molecule is solely responsible for spiritual experiences. He says a much more complex process is likely at work and one that will require an integrated response from science and theology.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.