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Neuroscience and the religious self


The field of Neuroscience is changing our understanding of the way we live, move and have our being. When I studied Neuroscience many years ago, the brain was considered to be a three-pound organ of gray and white matter.  Once it reached adult size, it was believed that the brain remained unchanged throughout adult life.  Injury to the brain was considered irreversible due to the impenetrable blood brain barrier.  A mechanistic view of the brain as an integrated series of parts made the mind-brain problem virtually insoluble.  The French mathematician, Rene Descartes, reasoned that the mind is distinct from the material brain in the same way that the soul is distinct from the body.  The separation of mind from brain led to the understanding of self as a “thinking subject”:  cogito ergo sum.

In the last twenty years discoveries in Neuroscience have raised many questions for philosophers and scientists alike, as primary assumptions in the field regarding the immutability of the brain have proven to be incorrect. Two points, in particular, have been repealed: first, that the adult brain is fixed and cannot generate new neurons; and, second, that the function of brain structures are determinate. Scientists are now discovering that the brain can change.  The brain’s potential for modification is known as “neuroplasticity”—that is, the brain has the ability to adapt, grow new neurons, and develop new connections, even in adult life.  Rather than being fixed and immutable, scientists are realizing that we are wired for creativity and novelty.

In his 1994 prize-winning book, Descartes Error:  Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio revealed the interplay between emotions and cognition in the construction of self, a revolution insofar as mind, consciousness and self were thought to be distinct from body and emotions. Damasio showed that emotions provide the scaffolding for the construction of social cognition and are required for the self-processes undergirding consciousness: feelings are essential for rational thought.  In his recent book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, Damasio suggests that feelings are the basic elements in the formation of the protoself and core self; hence, a change in emotional life, for example, due to brain injury, can induce a change in self.

Damasio’s work has led to a new understanding of “mind” that is not so much a higher level of brain but a flow of information throughout the entire nervous system, including the body, senses, emotion and environment.  The notion of mind as information suggests that most of mind is outside of our awareness at any given time.  It is more like a field of information that, at every moment, orients the emotional and cognitive self in tandem with the environment through integrated levels of consciousness.  The old adage, “mind over matter” no longer holds true.  Rather, the material world is as much as part of mind as the thinking self.

The idea that mind includes the material world and that the brain can change in response to the environment is further supported by studies on Buddhist monks after long periods of meditation. Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in the area of Neurotheology, has shown that the practice of meditation enhances blood flow, as well as function, in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, an evolutionary newcomer that mediates our experience of empathy, social awareness, intuition, compassion, and our ability to regulate emotion. This structure sits in the front of the brain and wraps around the front part of the corpus callosum, the thick network of neurons that bridges the two hemispheres together. The anterior cingulate mediates communication between the amygdala, one of our most primitive brain structures, and the prefrontal cortex, that is, between emotions and cognition. Newberg has shown that meditation integrates or centers emotional and intellectual life, increasing blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, evoking compassion, sympathy and care for others. Meditation strengthens the cingulate to be more effective in shifting one’s focus on positive values, for example, on love, peace and compassion.

On the other hand, anger shuts down communication to the prefrontal cortex as mediated through the anterior cingulate. Emotion and fear take over in determining behavior; anger therefore interrupts the functioning of the frontal lobes.  Newberg writes: “Not only do you lose the ability to be rational, you lose the awareness that you’re acting in an irrational way. When your frontal lobes shut down, it’s impossible to listen to the other person, let alone feel empathy or compassion.” Bridging our primitive emotional response areas with our highly evolved prefrontal cortex allows the anterior cingulate to mediate how we perceive ourselves and our actions in relation to others and to the rest of the world, and beyond.  Because the function of this circuit is enhanced by meditation, Newberg believes, “there is a coevolution of spirituality and consciousness, strengthening circuits that allow us to envision a benevolent, interconnecting relationship between the universe, God, and ourselves.” The neuroplasticity of the brain and the positive role of meditation on the emotional brain points to a dynamic interplay between brain, mind and ethical orientation.

Neuroplasticity and neurotheology are changing the way we view the human person.  Advances in brain research will be among the most significant in the 21st century.  What will be the role of religion in light of the changing brain?  Three points are worth noting: 1) The self is not fixed but mediated by repeated patterns of information—hence even the religious self can change by altering the fields of information; 2) Prayer and meditation can focus the brain on positive values such as peace, justice and compassion; 3) The more the brain is exercised for a particular function, the more it develops cells and connections for that function.  Considering these points in terms of interreligious dialogue sheds new light on the importance of dialogue.  Strengthening lines of communication may not only be educational insofar as we learn about the other; rather, we may now suggest that new brain is forming.  By sharing beliefs and values through continuous dialogue, new neural connections are sprouting.  As the Canadian psychologist Don Hebbs claimed, “those who fire together wire together.”  Each choice we make creates a focus for the brain and guides neurons to talk to each other, creating new connections or reinforcing old ones. Training the brain for a world of peace is now within our reach.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin posited a convergence of world religions as the way forward toward Omega. The convergence of religions through ongoing dialogue will lead to new neural networks and, we might say, new religious brain.  Neuroplasticity coupled with sustained dialogue suggests that a new type of religious person will emerge in the future.

Ilia Delio, OSF is Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Delio’s research concentrates in science and religion, with a focus on transhumanism, nature and ecology, and evolutionary theology. Her book, The Emergent Christ (Orbis, 2011) explores the meaning of Christian faith in light of evolution. Her new book The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love (Orbis, 2013) was released this spring.

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