Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Brain: Organ of Science and Spirituality

Before I dozed off this afternoon for my nap, I was catching up on some interesting NPR articles online.  First I perused a story on the retirement of Helen Thomas - some people miss their exit from professional life. Next was a somber article on the Pope begging for forgiveness from God for the terrible abuses. Also read about Carly Fiorina's gaffe - apparently mocking a hairdo can derail political ambitions.

But the really, really interesting online article by NPR was titled: Is This Your Brain On God? It's a fascinating look at the most recent science on spirituality - particularly the role of the brain and chemicals.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote a book on the subject: Fingerprints Of God. The online article is a five-piece, interactive story including excerpts from the book and other sources exploring this subject of the brain and experiencing God.

As a Christian, a pastor, and someone that is kind of spiritual - and as someone interested in science and the ordering of the universe - I'm intrigued by scientists delving into the brain to satiate their curiosity on spiritual and chemical reactions.

Some Quotes from the five articles:
"research suggests that chemicals that act on the serotonin system trigger mystical experiences that are life-altering"
"Some epileptologists believe that many of the great religious figures, such as Moses and St. Paul, had epilepsy. Now neurologists believe they've found the sweet spot for spiritual experience -- in the temporal lobe. Some scientists say the temporal lobe, which is associated with emotion and memory, is the seat of spirituality. It's also where epileptic activity takes place."
"Can prayer have an effect on sculpting the brain? “Neurotheologians” – researchers who are studying the brain science of spiritual experience -- think so."
"Called "psychoneuroimmunology," the idea is that thoughts affect your body. But now scientists -- including those at the National Institutes of Health -- are engaging in research to uncover whether a person's thoughts can affect another person's body."
"Materialists say the visions that people report experiencing when they come close to death are hallucinations. But a small but increasing number of scientists posit that consciousness is related to, but not dependent on, the material brain."

Hagerty notes that for scientists on both sides of the issues, a lot of their conclusions are shaped by their bias towards spirituality and religion. It's hard to have a neutral perspective when it comes to such a personal and mystical topic - plus it's an emerging arena of science. But what is we're really learning?

Does the physical/chemical analysis prove that spirituality is just an extension of our material body? Does it mean there really is no God or goddesses, no nirvana or heaven - our spiritual experiences are manifestations of serotonin or epilepsy? Is religion becoming more and more useless when it comes to ordering life and explaining history?

Depending on your point of view, the scientific data either proves that God is a myth, or it can reassert what we've believed - that spiritual experiences connect us with a Divine Power outside of our material existence. I, admittedly, am already convinced that God exists, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected - so I want the science to come alongside and strengthen those positions.

But what I really want to know is the truth, to better understand reality. In some areas, science is very, very helpful. But we are also spiritual people - and sometimes what is most real is what we can't see or touch. There are limits to science, and to spirituality. So when they come together, I want it to be as friends - together we can discover reality.

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