This is your brain on spirituality

Note: For these next few posts I am assuming that evolution by natural selection is true. If you still harbor notions that Mormonism and evolution are incommensurable or that intelligent design has any validity I invite you to revisit some of of the earlier posts on this topic here, here, here, and here. For now we will just stipulate Darwinism’s truth.

This staatement from modern neurobiology sounds unsettling: Spirituality takes place by activating areas in the frontal and temporal lobes and turning down activity in the right parietal lobe. In pioneering work by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili the brain’s activity during spiritual experience is being mapped with increasing detail and in fact a cottage-industry in exploring the relationship between brain and spirituality is being conducted by neurologists worldwide. Brain researchers are looking for something that’s been termed the God Module—components and structures in the brain responsible for giving us spiritual feelings. What does this mean for the LDS? Can we give place to such ideas? Should we feel threatened by such research? Should we dismiss it out of hand because we believe that spiritual experiences have their source from something outside ourselves? Let’s explore this. First a note on what they mean by spirituality. Newberg’s work, for example, is based on the spiritual practices of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns. Some may argue against this being ‘true’ spirituality because it’s not specifically Mormon. I hope that this kind of dismissal can be put aside. I believe that spirituality is something people of all faiths enjoy.

So let’s go all hypothetical for a moment and do an armchair thought experiment. Suppose we go to the MTC and hook a missionary up to a brain imager. Further (we’ll have to fast-forward to the future to do this—nothing like this really exists yet), let’s say that we have a brain scanning device that fits behind this missionary’s ear so we can do 24/7 surveillance on her brain. We keep notes on when the missionary says she was having a spiritual experience. She tells us that she felt the Spirit during testimony meeting that morning, during scripture study that evening while reading the Book of Mormon, and during a talk by the MTC Mission President that afternoon. So we go back to the brain scans recorded at those times and take a look at what her brain was doing. Sure enough, Sister X’s brain structures are all lite up or toned down according to the model of spirituality worked out by brain researchers. Furthermore they are only lit up in that fashion during those times she was claiming to have had a spiritual experience.

If we actually saw this should we bothered? One interpretation is that these experiences are self generated by the brain. That spirituality is nothing but certain brain states encountered during times when the brain thinks sensual input (scriptures, talks, etc.) warrant spiritual action. Another interpretation is that the brain is responding to real signals from another source, like the Spirit. Certainly, the eye, the ear, and other sensual apparatuses are responding to signals from things outside us: lightwaves, sound waves, etc. Why shouldn’t the brain have structures for processing things from a spiritual source. But how could you test that? It seems that the choice between these two cannot be answered with science. Newburg makes this point in his book, Why God Won’t Go Away. These experiments shed no light on the source of spirituality and cannot be used to bolster or dismiss either theistic or atheistic arguments. Meaning that which scenario is right, can’t be settled with an appeal to this kind of data. (For an exercise see if you can design an experiment that separates out which of these two scenarios is right. I think you’ll find without objective access to spiritual input you can’t answer the question. But try anyway for fun.).

Some members are bothered also by any claims that there is a physiological response when we feel the Spirit. Shouldn’t this be just Spirit to Spirit communication? However, when I feel the Spirit, I find my eyes watering, my heart beating more quickly, I feel in my body responses that make me want to pray or give thanks and other things that find expression in bodily acts. All of these are physiological responses. We should not be surprised by this. We know that one of the reasons we came to Earth was to get a body. We know that getting a body was important and part of the plan. During the resurrection our bodies will be fused permanently with our spirit (although I have no idea what that means exactly). Why should we be surprised that there are detectable physiological changes in our brain and body when we have a spiritual experience? Why should we be surprised that there are brain structures and pathways dedicated to spirituality? A large part of our brain is dedicated to vision. Why not spirituality? Conversely, I have trouble having spiritual experiences when I have a headache or am rushed or anxious. It seems to be a two-way street. I believe that our body, mind, and spirit are intimately linked. I find it interesting and important that scientists are finding that the brain has ways of processing the spiritual aspects of our lives. Rather than being threatened by current brain science, I find it wonderful and exciting.

Because we will never have scientific access to the spirit side of the spirit/body relation, I am skeptical that we will able to see how this works in completeness from an Earthly perspective. Subjectivity, as such, is only available to first person experience (think of Elder Packer’s famous reply, “Then you tell me what salt tastes like.” in response to a traveling companion’s attempt to dismiss Boyd K. Packer’s reports of personal spiritual experience). My point is not to speculate on how this works, but to remove the threat some people feel when confronted with these studies, which are often presented as if they they do away with spirituality or reduce it to just a brain state and nothing more.

Once again, we can embrace science without being threatened by its findings. We can defended our spiritual views of life without resorting to just casting suspicions on what science reveals.

Next time. Did these spiritual capacities evolve?

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9 Responses to This is your brain on spirituality

  1. DavidH says:

    The current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has, as its lead article, Do Genetic Factors Influence, Religious Life: Findings from a Behavior Genetic Analysis of Twin Siblings, by Matt Bradshaw and Cristopher Ellision 47 JSSR 529. It lists 8 measures in 4 dimensions. Interestingly, the outcome that appeared to have the strongest genetic component was “transformation and commitment”–whether the individual had a “born again/religious or spiritual commitment” (65%). Organization involvement (i.e., attendance) had one of the lower genetic correlations (32%)

  2. Jared* says:

    At some point, though, physical and spiritual must meet. That is, something has to initiate the firing of neurons. And not just any neurons, but a subset of neurons.

    Although I agree that an outside spiritual source cannot be disproved, progress in material explanations may render such a hypothesis increasingly irrelevant.

  3. Howard says:

    Active areas vs. inactive areas, it sounds like opening the hood of a car and looking in when we think something might be broken. Science must progress beyond brain geography if it expects to answer these questions.

  4. Cap says:

    In elders quorum this Sunday we had a great lesson regarding to finding truth in many things. Not only church approved things. I have found this to be very true. I learned many great things from people not of our faith. This, for me is one of those things. Where the church doesn’t have a statement regarding this particular thing.

    I think searching out the questions helps us to grow, and learn great truths. Thank you for the post. I enjoyed it and look forward to the next.

  5. Dan Knudsen says:

    “Conversely, I have trouble having spiritual experiences when I have a headache or am rushed or anxious. It seems to be a two-way street.”

    Several years ago when I was doing sealings every week in the Temple, I ran into several people who were ultra-sensitive and noticed things the rest of us didn’t; however, whenever each of them had a running-nose cold none of them noticed anything that the rest of us didn’t–without exception. So physical condition affects spiritual sensitivity, which is quite interesting.

  6. Pingback: Brains and Spirituality : Mormon Metaphysics

  7. ujlapana says:

    I think an experiment to test internal vs. External should be fairly easy, particularly with a hypothetical 24/7 scan. First, determine what a spiritual sense tells you. For hearing this is easy–it’s the oscillations of air molecules. For vision, photons emitted or reflected in front of you. For spirituality, it’s the “truthfulness” of your current thoughts (according to how I was raised, at least). So monitor a Mormon, Baptist, and Hindu, and at some point you should have a fairly large amount of mutually exclusive, but spiritually confirmed, concepts (if it’s internal, that is).

  8. Very interesting article. I’ve been thinking about this very topic lately and also wrote a blog post about it.

  9. Chris Paul says:


    Hope you read this even though this post is a little dated. I like your blog even though I’m an ex-theist agnostic atheist. I find it very interesting.

    I’m having trouble understanding how you hold onto faith with such a strong grasp of how science works. I’ve heard similar arguments in this post that have been used to defend non-religious faith – things like psychics, water-dousing, astrology, etc. So my point is, how do you distinguish true faith from human-made faith?

    I’ll be more on topic: how would you distinguish an authentic gods-induced spiritual experience from a mere human produced one? I assume that you believe that not all spiritual experiences are initiated by a god, otherwise you would be one of those all paths lead to god type person. But Mormonism specifically teaches that only it has the authority from God.

    I have other things to say but I’ll stop there… 😉


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