Tom Gilson

“Spirituality: Is it all in your head?”

Neurotheology strikes again, this time in an article that begins,

Jan. 4–Having a spiritual experience may be all in your head — or at least part of it. A group of University of Missouri researchers recently completed a study that claims a particular area of the brain is linked to spirituality.

At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, here’s what’s wrong with studies like this one. First, correlation does not equal causation. Knowing what part of the brain is involved doesn’t mean that you know the whole story of what’s happening. Second, strong evidence some of which I’ll have to post later today (please come back in a few hours) shows that the physical brain is not the whole story.

Dr. Brick Johnstone led the study reported on here. His take on spirituality is rather, well, patronizing. Comically so, actually, if the article has represented him accurately.

Dr. Johnstone said he believes the finding is important because it means people can learn to become selfless by decreasing activity in that part of the brain.

If only we’d known that a long time ago! Instead of pre-frontal lobotomies we could have been practicing right parietal lobotomies. Then, finally, everyone would take care of each other and we would all get along at last! Of course Dr. Johnstone doesn’t recommend that–he says prayer and meditation are the way to decrease that activity. But hey, if the mind/brain is just a machine, why not go ahead and do some serious tinkering with it? Well, maybe that’s not fair to Dr. Johnstone. After all,

he cautioned against reducing spirituality to a mere brain function.

No, its not just a brain function. It’s a brain function and a feeling.

“Just because the brain is shutting down, allowing you to be more selfless, that doesn’t take away from the spiritual experience you feel,” Dr. Johnstone said in several news sources.

As the song goes, “Feelings… nothing more than feelings”-–with some selflessness thrown in, by the neat mechanism of turning off some neural circuits and switches. I wonder if he has considered that there is a spiritual core to reality, and that connecting with that spiritual core is a reality too, not just a feeling?

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8 thoughts on ““Spirituality: Is it all in your head?”

  1. Isn’t this just like saying “scientists have found that a particular part of the brain is responsible for vision. By prodding that part of the brain, the person might see a frog, or a pink elephant”? Or “by prodding a certain blob in the brain, people feel sad”?

    I don’t quite see why putting the word “spiritual” in suddenly makes it any different.

  2. Phil C, my understanding is that they can probe a part of the brain and turn off vision, or turn off hearing, but they cannot probe the brain a create a vision. They have probed brains, but they have never artificially create a thought or an idea or an emotion by the probing.

    I find that fascinating. JP Moreland has referenced the research on the items above. I have not looked into his sources (and I don’t know that he sited them), so take that with the respectable dose of salt.

  3. havoc,

    Antonio Damasio (Looking for Spinosa) reports about the case of “a sixty-five-year-old woman with a long history of parkinsonian symptoms.” The researchers, while stimulating a part of her brain that seemed to help relieve her symptoms, accidentally stumbled on a location where, when stimulated, “[t]he patient stopped her ongoing conversation quite abruptly, cast her eyes down and to her right side, then leaned slightly to the right and her emotional expression became one of sadness. After a few seconds she suddently began to cry. Tears flowed and her entire demeanor was one of profound misery. Soon she was sobbing. As this display continued she began talking about how deeply sad she felt, how she had no energies left to go on living in this manner, how hopeless and exhausted she was…

    “About ninety seconds after the current was interrupted the patient’s behavior returned to normal. The sobbing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The sadness vanished from the patient’s face. The verbal reports of sadness also terminated. Very rapidly, she smiled, appeared relaxed, and for the next five minutes was quite playful, even jocular” (67-68).

    Yes, this doesn’t demonstrate neural reductionism, but neural stimulation can indeed trigger emotions. I’d certainly be interested in what Moreland thinks demonstrates otherwise, though I’ve personally learned not to uncritically accept much of what Moreland says in relation to the mind-body relation.

  4. As another poster implied, I think – it’s absurd to suggest that spirituality is ‘all in your head’ as a result of experiments like this. As if sight would be ‘all in your head’ just because there is brain activity involved in vision, etc.

    Though to be honest, considering the doctor is cautioning against such reductionism, and even linking positives to meditation and prayer.. I would think this article is almost more positive than most when it comes to the Christian perspective, even if there’s a need to warn against incorrect implication or oversimplification.

  5. Joseph:

    I agree with you that because the ever-useful, hide-behind qualifier “MAY be all in your head” was used, the article isn’t that bad. However, it’s what hides behind the qualifier—the implication of reductionism—that captures the imaginations of the unsuspecting. So, because I’m feeling a bit ornery, I’ll give myself liberty to go after the illicit implication.

    Did it ever occur to the practitioners of the pseudo-science of neurotheology that if faith is reducible to being “in your head” (meaning: reducible to the complex, time-dependent, electrochemical signals crossing synapses), then:

         (1) it’s question begging: is faith the same ontological kind of being as electrochemical components? (Cue crickets, wind, and rolling tumbleweeds…)

         (2) it’s much worse, in fact, than question-begging because the notion undermines itself: if faith is reducible to processes in the brain, then isn’t it much more so that the reductionist claim itself reducible to being “in your head”? If faith is meaningless because it is merely “what the brain does,” then Dr. Johnstone’s reductionist claim has even less meaning.

    Consider the latter when Dr. Johnstone laughably claims, “people can learn to become selfless.” “Selfless”?!? Isn’t “selfishness” also merely “all in one’s head”? By applying Johnstone’s own “logic” back against his claim, doesn’t he do a great disservice to love, bravery, logic, naturalism, atheism, altruism, truth, not cooking one’s laboratory notebook, calculus, evolutionary theory, Dungeons and Dragons, DL and Paul’s silly uber-predictionism, and even the scientific method by reducing them to being “in your head.”

    Moreover, did it ever occur to Dr. Johnstone that as soon as he uttered such self-defeating nonsense, he was no longer doing science but incompetent philosophizing? (Lurking in the background is an assumed epistemological privileging of the natural sciences.) Philosophical interpretations, if true, demand rigorously-supported deductive arguments (demonstrations or at least dialectical) even more strongly than the inductive natural sciences demand empirical verification of hypotheses. So, why, without substantiation, does Dr. Johnstone’s reductionist claim make the news? Ahh, because it sounds “cool” (a rocket scientist… err, neuroscientist said it, so it must be true!) … when in fact it’s just as foolish and self-serving as the false-dilemma, voodoo-like pronouncements of brain-in-a-vat proponents.

    I might agree the brain is a necessary aspect of all these concepts… but surely it cannot be sufficient.

    “Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? [C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe]

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