Happy New Year, Seekers! Welcome to another year of Searching for an Answer to the Ultimate Question.
The Big Banana has proved particularly slippery to locate in a lab, which doesn’t stop people from trying.
So far, lab tests for God have attacked religious phenomena from two flanks – as what William James in his classic Varieties Of Religious Experience called “healthy-minded” and “sick-minded.”
On the former track, studies in the 1960s showed church attendance correlated with better health. That this effect wasn’t due solely to social support was later verified in comparisons of secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.
Also in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard began to study the “relaxation response,” the physiological benefits of mental states such as prayer and meditation. And a generation later, as brain imaging equipment grew smaller and cheaper and the West rediscovered Tibet, meditating brains (including the Dalai Lama’s) were subject to even greater scrutiny. They were found to have higher baseline levels of activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the brain’s center of attention and well-being.
In addition, practiced meditators were calmer, less easily startled because their “amygdalas are less trigger-happy,” in the words of Harvard neurohistorian Anne Harrington.
Starting at the turn of the millennium, researchers shifted from observing states of relaxation to “explaining” religious phenomenon.
In a well-known experiment conducted in 2001 by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, meditators and nuns were strapped into a jet engine-like machine called a SPECT scanner and injected with radioactive dye at peak moments.
The scans also showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. More interestingly, there was decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region in the top rear of the brain responsible for orienting us in space.
Conclusion: the feelings of “unity” and “oneness” reported by mystics in many religions may be caused by prayer-induced spatial disorientation.
Speculation abounded, with one team of neuroscientists even suggesting that the Christian trinity and the historical evolution of religions mirrored the three parts of the human brain – the brain stem (survival), limbic/hippocampal (emotion), and neocortex. (In the 4th century, Augustine already made a connection between the trinity and a three-part human brain, although he claimed the cause-and-effect flowed the other way: that we mirrored God.)
One of the original SPECT researchers, Andrew Newberg, cautioned in a 2010 interview: “One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that.”
Next Time: Is God just an epileptic brain lesion?!