by Alberto Carrara (translated by Adrian Lawrence)
What is a cloistered Carmelite nun doing kneeling with her eyes closed, connected to dozens of cables plugged into an EEG machine?
The question seems legitimate. The answer, however, is not so simple.
Indeed, many nuns and Buddhist monks have been recruited starting from the ’90s for neuroscientific studies on the religious experience. One must remember that the years 1990-2000 were designated by the U.S. president “the decade of the brain.” Along with the justified enthusiasm to achieve in a short period of time the unraveling of all the mysteries relating to our brain, the decade 2000-2010 has testified to the impressive growth of experiments for neurobiological research. Such development and advancement of global import, the result of interdisciplinarity and the cooperation between different scientific viewpoints, hasn’t stayed in the laboratory, but has literally invaded our daily lives.
Today the technological capability to visualize brain areas activated by determined circumstances has produced a veritable sea of studies that have created differing results.
The development of neuroimaging techniques, among which stands out the famous fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), could not be confined to the mere, but crucial, clinical area useful to diagnose brain diseases. Studies multiplied according to the fantasy and genius of each scientist. So, from wanting to understand the neurophysiological basis of human activities such as memory, language, vision, and personality, they began to investigate, as José Manuel Giménez-Amaya stated, “the most distinctively human thing of man”: religious experience (“God in the brain? religious experience from neuroscience,” Scripta Theologica magazine, March 2010).
As in all social milieu the suffix neuro is already taking the role to promote, sell, convince, and in the wake of this real neuromania, new words have been proposed and have started to circulate side by side such as neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuropolitics, and also the term neurotheology.
What is this all about? And above all, what does neuroscience reveal about God and our natural tendency towards the transcendent?
One should first consider briefly some of the experiments in this area to judge the conclusions and interpretations made by contemporary scientists.
Dr. Mario Beauregard from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal in Canada published in 2006, in number 405 of the Neuroscience Letters, an article on the neural correlates of religious experience. The experiments described involved perfectly healthy cloistered Carmelite nuns, who were requested to recall their experiences of union with God in prayer. While they were doing this, the scientists were recording the brain activity of the sisters through the use of fMRI and electroencephalography. Two years later, in 2008, the same scientist in the same journal published a contribution outlining the data of electroencephalography during mystical experience.
These studies, as several others that cannot be described here in detail, arrived at the conclusion that during religious experiences many brain regions become activated, especially around the cortex. This involves complex neural networks, cognitively structured, with significant activation compared to a standard (nuns who were not praying) of the famous AAA (Attention Association Area), the brain area associated with concentration. The scientists also showed reduced activation of the OAA (Orientation Association Area) or area of association and spatial orientation. Already in 2004, Olaf Blanke, from the Department of Neurology of Geneva (Switzerland), had published in the journal Brain an interesting work on the involvement of this area with “out-of-body” experiences.
As scientific data these results precisely show this. During a spiritual experience many areas of our brain are modulated (activated or deactivated). What is measured is not the mystical experience itself, but intense intellectual-emotional activity. The wealth of the religious experience, natural in every human being, is manifested in a bodily dimension at the level of complex neural networks that come into play.
From a scientific datum one often passes to its interpretation that in the end can even become a real manipulation. Thus Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (USA), performing the same experiments with Buddhist monks and Franciscans, and reaching the same scientific results, wrote a book entitled God in the brain: Why God Won’t Go Away, which reduces religious experience to something produced by our brain. Newberg and other reductionists interpret the data of the experience of the transcendent as if the brain itself was the direct and ultimate cause of such experiences. Hence one could conclude as does the “father” of contemporary neuroscience, Michael S. Gazzaniga: if our brains produce the religious experience, God is in the brain, and in the end, the brain becomes God. Simple, almost a perfect syllogism. This view was successfully popularized by the Spaniard E. Punset in his book The Soul is in the Brain.
The truth is, unfortunately for these types of scientists (who are the minority), that neuroscientific data do not show directly the human experience of God, but rather try to identify its neurophysiological bases associated with the phenomenology of such religious experience.
The false interpretations of the results at the level of functional magnetic resonance imaging are not easily unmasked by the lay public. So when one interprets data, it requires great care and great balance. Remember that human experience, precisely for its being “human,” is characterized by remarkable richness and complexity.
An important statement of Thomas Aquinas comes to mind, relevant today more than ever in the context of the reduction of human beings to mere materiality: “hic homo singularis intelligit” (S. Th. I, 76, a.1, c.), it is the man who thinks. It is not his brain that has an experience of God, but it is he himself, in his totality, who is in contact with a reality not measurable or empirical. A truth cannot be imprisoned by an MRI machine, even if it is “functional.” According to the Viennese philosopher Günther Pöltner this approach of Thomas to the practical life represents a contribution to the contemporary debate imbued with psychological and neurological reductionism.
In conclusion, if we understand by the term theology what it has always meant, intellectus fidei (scientia fidei or fides quaerens intellectum), that science, that knowledge of the ultimate foundation of everything, that is, namely, God by the light of faith, then one can surely see the inappropriateness of the concept neurotheology.
What is now considered neurotheology is a reflection on the neuroscientific results, fruit of a religious or mystical experience seen from its intellectual-emotional side. Instead of neurotheology it would be more correct to use another term, such as the neurophenomonology of the religious experience.
As José Manuel Giménez-Amaya said so well in his article “God in the brain? Religious experience seen from neuroscience”, published in March 2010 in the journal Scripta Theologica
, University of Navarra, Theology has the role of “a correcting function required by thought.” Since “science, in general, is knowledge with foundations, i.e., premises known to us,” and that “the very idea of science refers to the existence of an ultimate foundation of all that is,” then “this is where theology is at stake as a discipline that studies the ultimate foundation of all reality.”
We need to open the full potential of our rationality and not reduce it to the size of our brain organ.