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Divine chemistry

Neuroscience can tell us a lot about what happens in our brains when we experience God. But it still isn’t able to tell us why.

By Therese DesCamp

The nun

Sister John of the Cross, the central character in the novel Lying Awake, has spent long, dry decades in a Carmelite cloister outside Los Angeles, praying and waiting for a tangible sign of God. As the book opens, she has finally begun living the contemplative’s dream: daily ecstatic union with the Divine, effortless writing that inspires others.

Sister John of the Cross has also begun to have migraines.

It is on these headaches that the story turns, because these are no normal migraines, but headaches related to a tumour in Sister John’s right parietal lobe: a tumour that is, according to her doctor, the source of her felt connection with God as well as her prolific essays and poetry. She is faced with the shattering thought that her life’s work and joy has been only delusion. She is faced, too, with a devastating choice: to remove the tumour is to surely lose her experiential connection to the Divine; to refuse surgery is to become a burden on her small community as seizures and debility increase.

Mark Saltzman, the author of Lying Awake, presents a cautious and thoughtful exploration of how religious experience and neuroscience claim their truths. But you won’t find many contemporary authors exhibiting the same prudence in their discussion of these subjects. Much of what’s found on the display tables of the local bookstore is written aslant — blatant attempts to harness neurological science as proof, or disproof, of the existence of God. Whether a specific brain activity is characterized as pathology or God consciousness seems to depend primarily on a given author’s beliefs.

For this reason, a thoughtful sorting out of what neuroscience can and can’t actually tell us about the brain is in order.


The neuroscience

Modern neuroscience can tell us that lesions in certain areas of our brains may affect our speech, our sight or our ability to relate to others. It can tell us that we can sharpen our aging minds by learning to play the piano, and it can tell us that mindfulness meditation builds connections in the brain that allow us to better regulate our emotions. And modern neuroscience can tell us that activating our right parietal lobe might make us feel like we are in contact with God.

But does this really mean anything about God?

In some ways, neuroscience is the new God of our age, the place where contemporary society looks for salvation. Neurological advances have begun explaining and solving previously intractable problems, such as mental illness, massive stroke damage and addiction. To claim neurological grounding these days is to claim authority. A recent study showed that people who are presented with an argument containing neurological data consider the argument more compelling even when the data is irrelevant.

But what we may miss in this explosion of information about the brain is the fact that we still know very little. Neuroscientists readily admit that their field is in its adolescence: looking at the MRI of a meditating monk’s brain can show that certain areas are more active than others, but extrapolation from lab to life is fragmentary and conjectural.

Our knowledge is fragmentary because of the brain’s extraordinary complexity. The brain has about 100 billion neurons, each of which has the capacity for about 10,000 different synapses. This adds up to more than 10 to the millionth power of potential connections that can be made in the brain. That means there are more connections possible in the brain than there are known particles in the universe. Because of this, it is not yet possible to know exactly where activation is happening or how many neurons are involved when we watch brain function in an MRI or other test.

Then there’s the issue of conjecture: the problem of how we get from the brain to our conscious mind. Even if we could know that when the monk meditates, a charge in this neuron will activate these other neurons in this particular way, we still have no way of knowing how a particular synaptic connection causes the monk to feel compassion. Let me say that again: we do not know how the biochemical activity in our brains creates thought. We can reasonably assume that our brain pulses do create thought, and we can reasonably say that activity in a specific area will probably make us feel a certain way. But we don’t actually know how this all comes about.                                   


The apple

Let’s say that a neuroscientist watches your brain very closely while you eat an apple. And let’s say her equipment is so sophisticated that she is able to pinpoint exactly which neurons fire when you bite through the skin, which neurons fire in response to crispness or tartness or sweetness, which neurons fire when the bits of apple land in your stomach. And then let’s say she records all this data carefully. Later, while you’re still hooked up to the equipment, she plays back the data, causing your neurons to fire in exactly the same way again. You will feel like you are eating an apple.

But did you eat an apple?

Of course, the answer is no. You did not ingest a piece of fruit; you did not take its flesh into your flesh; your body did not incorporate its sugars and starches. But your mind thought you did, at least for as long as the stimulus lasted.

This is the essential fallacy of the arguments that use neuroscience to argue that God is a delusion. There is no doubt that there is a portion of the brain that lights up in a specific

 way — experiences heightened activation — when someone has a felt experience of God. There is no doubt that a scientist can stimulate this particular area and cause someone to feel like they are experiencing the Divine. But when people then conclude that because we can simulate a mental state, a phenomenon is therefore only a mental state, that’s sloppy thinking and no longer deserves to be called science. Such arguments assume that the scientific interpretation is always the most reliable. But what’s more real to a hungry person: brain stimulation that mimics the experience of eating an apple, or actually eating an apple?


The Divine

We might say, “But an apple is a concrete object, and God is not.” And we’d be right. But if we were truly interested in learning rather than just advancing an agenda, we’d look at the very impressive body of literature — which could be called a science of its own — of mysticism. In every religious tradition, for thousands of years, religious practitioners have been exploring and testing what they find when they pray and meditate. Across traditions, we find description after description of felt connection. It’s not always defined the same way — it could be communion with all beings, with nature, with a personal God or with an impersonal reality beyond this life — but the effect is the same: a sense of peace, wholeness and compassion.

Spiritual people have consistently said that what we perceive as everyday reality is not and has never been the only reality. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, commenting on his return to France after working with refugee children: “Every time we come back from such a contact, we see that the city of Paris is not very real.” And Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.” And Mother Teresa, on the poor: “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” And Richard Holloway, retired Anglican bishop of Scotland: “From time to time, I have crossed invisible thresholds into other dimensions of reality.” And Julian of Norwich, who saw the world as a hazelnut in the palm of God’s hand and realized “everything has being through the love of God.” These are not scientifically verifiable viewpoints. Are they therefore wrong?


The nun again, and us

I don’t think I’d wreck the story if I told you the ending of Lying Awake: Sister John has the surgery. Her ecstatic visions end. In their place comes a deepened appreciation for the women who share the cloister: a sense of belonging, a humble shouldering of mutual responsibility. She begins to find joy in a no-less-real but smaller, subtler sense of the Divine.

Every time we allow ourselves to be moved — by compassion for a difficult neighbour, by joy at the sight of a quaking aspen, by grief at the suffering of a hungry child, by the sense of the body of Christ as we stand at the communion table — we step into a dimension of reality that cannot be fully described by science. This contact with what many of us call God is not just the province of the spiritually adept, exemplars like the Buddhist monk who has been meditating for 40 years or the cloistered nun who prays the psalms seven times a day. It’s the birthright of us ordinary folk, too. The fact that science can record my increased heartbeat when I am taking communion or my slowed breath when I am meditating or the pattern of neural firing when I am serving dinner at the homeless shelter does not explain the feeling I have that God is present. It merely shows that there is a material component to my experience of the Divine.

This dim path is the way for the vast majority of us. Most of us see fleetingly, strain to hear the small still voice, question our perceptions when we’re touched by the ephemeral. We long for answers and certainty. At a recent conference on neuroscience and spiritual practices, I had a discussion with a neuroscientist about just how much one could extrapolate from lab tests to religious experience. He told me, “You don’t need us to justify what you do.” He understood, I think, the limits of his field, and he wanted me to honour his work by refraining from hijacking science to prove something it can’t. I believe that neuroscience and the Divine intersect, but to understand how requires a mystic’s insight.

We need not feel threatened by the new neuroscience, and only mildly irritated by the rash of opinionated interpretations flooding the market. Because, like Sister John, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Richard Holloway and Julian of Norwich, we too have glimpsed the hidden wholeness. Our challenge is to cherish these glimpses.


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