The Science of Religious Experience

… then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 ESV)

Did you know that scientists have looked at the how the brain works during religious experiences? In Scientists Bridging the Spirituality Gap, MSNBC reported:

In one study, Newberg and colleagues used imaging technology to look at the brains of Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues — known scientifically as glossolalia — then looked at their brains when they were singing gospel music. They found that those practicing glossolalia showed decreased activity in the brain’s language center, compared with the singing group.

The imaging results are suggestive of people’s description that they do not have control of their own speech when speaking in tongues. Newberg said scientists believe that speech is taken over by another part of the brain during glossolalia, but did not find it during the study.

Other recent studies looked at the brains of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer, then compared the results to their baseline brain activity levels.

Among other changes, both groups showed decreased activity in the parts of the brain that have to do with sense of self and spatial orientation — which suggests the description of oneness with God, of transcendence sometimes experienced in meditation or prayer.

Prayer and meditation also increase levels of dopamine, often referred to as the brain’s pleasure hormone.

“The mind and the body are the flip side of the same coin,” said Dr. Daniel Monti, head of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s integrated medicine center. “Now we know some of the mechanisms by which that occurs, and it’s becoming better and better understood.”

This does not upset me in the least. We are physical beings. Our reasoning, conceptualizing, feeling, and experiencing – even our ability to be self-aware and God-aware – all take place within a physical brain and nervous system. We are made of matter, and there is nothing about us that is not connected to our “phusis” – our “stuff.”

There’s a lot more to learn. Whatever science discovers about my brain in the future, I still won’t be able to deny Descartes’ famous dictum: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I can doubt everything except my own existence. How could I doubt that there is an “I” to do the doubting? Sometime, scientists may figure out where in my brain the electrons are dancing to allow me to have that thought, but that knowledge doesn’t diminish the wonder or beauty of my existence on bit.

It’s amazing that God made us thinking, feeling biological machines, but biological machines we are. We are glorious biological machines, able to choose how to act, able to build loving relationships with others and able to connect with the creator in whose moral and spiritual likeness we have been made.