brain & mind – where matter meets metaphysics

01 What is Neurotheology?

(This is the first chapter in a treatise. Each chapter will be released separately)

What is Neurotheology?

The term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in recent years scientific research papers1 as well as in popular media including books, magazines, and web sites. The word “neurotheology” combines the words “neurology” and “theology”. Neurology is the science of the brain. Theology is the study of religion and the views that religions espouse. Though there is no official definition for the word, for the purpose of this essay, we will define “neurotheology” as the study of neurological correlations 2 with spiritual, religious or other metaphysical experiences. In other words, “neurotheology” is the study of what happens in the brain when we have transcendental experiences.3

Keep in mind that it is not assumed that the experience is caused by brain activity. Though there are those who say that the brain causes the experience and those who say that something of a spiritual nature causes the brain activity, it is generally said that transcendental experiences correlate with brain activity, that is that the brain activity and the experience coincide.

The single word “transcendental is meant to convey a host of terms including; spiritual experiences, religious experiences, “higher” states of consciousness, the death experience or near death experience (NDE), apparent encounters with non-physical beings such as “spirits”, “deities”, non-physical and/or inter-dimensional aliens, out of body experiences (OBEs), and astral travel.4

In this paper, the use of such terms as “spirits” or “out of body experiences” does not suggest that there is an objective reality behind the experience. Rather, these terms are meant to indicate subjective experiences as such. When we say that someone had an out of body experience we are not suggesting that they “really” left their body; we are saying that their experience was that of leaving the body.

Some would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of the neurological basis or cause of these experiences while others would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of what occurs in the brain as a result of these experiences. In other words, some prefer to think that these experiences are only physiological events in the brain and others prefer to think that what occurs in the brain is a result of a spiritual event. Again, for the sake of science, it is better to use more neutral and objective terms such as “correlate” and “coincide” because it does not speculate beyond the facts. It is far too early to argue that one is the cause of the other. In the future we may be able to say that one causes the other. But we may never be able to say that one causes the other. As in quantum physics, we may need to think beyond the “either/or” categorization.

Though the term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in both scientific and popular media, much of what may considered to be part of “neurotheology” does not actually use the term and thus

may evade the notice of writers such as myself. We may see others use the word “neurotheology” invalidly, whether by mistake or to further some agenda. The word “neurotheology” is not official or established like geology, spectrometry, or geometry. The field, if we can call it that, is relatively new and undefined. In this article, I include research that deals with the relationship between neurology and transcendental experiences whether or not the term “neurotheology” is used.

Also, in this work, “neurotheology” often appears in quotes to remind the reader that it is not an established term in science and academia like such terms as neurology or pharmacology. Even Andrew Newberg, M.D. who, as we will see, arguably has done the most to establish “neurotheology” as an actual science has stated, “I have never been comfortable with the term, ‘neurotheology.’ This is, of course, a great problem for someone who is frequently engaged in the field of neurotheology. There are a variety of reasons for my trepidation. However, my greatest concern has always been the lack of clarity about what neurotheology is and what it should try to do as a field.” [Newberg, 2010] To be fair, Dr. Newberg has done tremendous work towards establishing neurotheology as a science.

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Notes

1. A scientific research paper is a formal description of a scientific study. These are often printed in scientific journals to report new research and are for other scientists and not the general public. These are peer reviewed. In other words, qualified persons who were not involved in the study or the writing of the research paper and decide if it meets the demands of the scientific method and the standards of the journal in question. To meet the standards of the scientific method, the paper must contain enough details for an other researcher to repeat the experiment so that it may be verified or refuted conclusively. These papers are in effect part of the scientific record which began with the first scientific journal in 1665 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in English and Journal des sçavans in French.

Scientific papers are often prefaced with a summary of the paper which is called an abstract. Often these abstracts are available for free whereas the full paper may need to be purchased separately or the full journal issue must be purchased.

In the notes to this article, I have disclosed when only the abstract (and not the full research paper) was available as a reference in writing this article.

2. correlation – 1. a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things 2. the process of establishing a relationship or connection between two or more measures. Oxford Dictionary Online 

3. I have no rigid definition of “transcendental”. I use the word for the sake of brevity and simplicity; to avoid having to write “spiritual/religious/paranormal/hyper-dimensional/near death/out of body” and so-on. But a rough approximation of what I mean by the “transcendent” is that which seems to be beyond the physical – the metaphysical. I would like to emphasize that what may seem to be beyond the physical may turn out to be physical. Therefore, my definition of the transcendent is malleable. If we shine a light into the darkness, that which is lit is no longer darkness, but there would still be darkness beyond that which is lit.

Author Marcus Boon writes “By ‘transcendental,’ I mean that which goes beyond materiality, and materialist explanations – that which has traditionally, but by no means exclusively, been the concerns of religion and spirituality.” Furthermore, Boon writes that scientific and cultural study “without this transcendental impulse is merely another part of the modernist materialist mythology, which places a boundary around nature and culture, and then situates the transcendental outside of it, as though that would be the end of it. If that really were the end of it, there would be no feeling of being trapped, no feeling of emptiness, no craving for an outside…What interests me is to affirm an inclusive, polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for itself that would integrate transcendental experiences within the realm of the possible.” [Boon, 2002]

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant defined the transcendent as being beyond possible experience. But this effectively renders it meaningless. All we know is experience. What is beyond experience may or may not exist. If we have no experience of something we can not say it exists, let alone define it. Therefor, I assert that we can have transcendent experiences; that is experiences of what seems to be beyond the physical. Not only does this seem like common sense, but it seems to stand up to scrutiny as well.

4. “The role the human brain plays in any experience cannot be assessed without recourse to the human neurosciences…Hence, neuroscience, specifically, studies of the live human brain, may have something important to contribute to the non-neuroscientific literature on the topic of religious experience. The question of interest from a neuroscientific perspective is” ‘What is going on in the brain when a person reports having a religious experience?’” [Azari, 2006]

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Bibliography

Azari, Nina P. (2006). Neuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review in Patrick, Ed. Where God and science Meet – How Brain and Evolutionary studies Alter our Understanding of Religion 2006, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Newberg, Andrew. (2010). Principles of Neurotheology

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Comments on: "01 What is Neurotheology?" (4)

  1. Boy oh boy do you folks love Andrew Newberg. You’d think he invented the field when he came along six years after Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century laid it out, and not a single reference? It’s a Newberg fan club, it is. Newberg’s work was financed by Templeton Foundation because it suggested that there was a identifiable brain response to the experience described as spiritual. Templeton won’t even fund Buddhists, they have to believe in God.

    Andrew Newberg started as more of a technician in those days,while his older partner D’Aquiii seemed to be the one with the religious bent. They publlshed their work in Zygon, which is the journal that accommodates speculation broadly. When I published Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century I ran a full page advertisement in Zygon. Six years later Dr. Newberg attempted to use the same exact title on his first book … we had a correspondence. he gained a new publisher (one more suited to the popular market) a good editor and a new title “Why God Won’t Go Away” … which starts with the premise that God, in fact, exists as a phenomena that a human brain could identify, and communicate with.

    My own background is far broader and included early associations and meetings with folks like Stan Grof when he first arrived, Carlos Casteneda. Timothy Leary, Sascha Shulgin, Richard Evans Schultes, and Andy Weil. Rick Doblin, who founded MAPS, worked out a questionnaire in my kitchen. Once you understand the varieties of religious experience at a neurobiochemical level, then you see what you can do without the extra chemicals. Mescaline is 3,4,5 trimethoxy phenyethylamine, Wasson throught Soma was the extract of the Amenita Muscaria mushroom. I’ll bet Dr. Newberg never tried any of them. Yes, it’s important to note the differences. Schultes tried them all too. So did Weil. Talk about altering consciouness and finding God in the molecules … and then realizing that God WAS the molecules?

    But this is why Newberg & Aquilit got the Templeton grant … because real neurotheology makes it perfectly clear that most of the questions which we leave to God (do we go to heaven) are not spiritual but neurological (heaven is too similar in all religions to be any more than the description of the stages of consciousness experienced during brain death)

    In fact this site seems, when it deals with the term neurotheology, to swing from the fascinating and prescient science fiction of Huxley and the “polymath” Aleister Crowley (hey, I’m a polymath, Crowley was just plain weird and left nothing of lasting value) to a leap to Newberg’s hypothesis that there a spiritual dimension at work … and yet neatly avoids the first book by that name which lays it all out. Incidentally, we got nice comments from both Arthur C. Clarke and the Dalai Lama, not to mention real theologians and real neuroscientists.

    Now you know why I called that book Neurotheology.

    I was afraid that apologists for some science-fictiony – Aleister Crowly-ish, find the God-Spot religiously driven clinician with a PET scanner and an agenda would write a book and call it “Neurotheology” without a real grounding in both cognitive neuroscience and comparative religion. Dr. Newberg had neither, but you don’t know it unless you lack that background … which is why I’m re-writing hunks of Neurotheology as “You’re Going to Heaven Whether You Like It Or Not” and see if we can help out those boomers facing mortality.

    Yes, Virginia …. there s a heaven, but it’s closer to brain stem than heavenly gates. Still, it’s still eternal bliss, so it’s moot. right? That’s an example of real neurotheology. What happens when we die? We go to heaven, because that’s an example of typical neural phenomena – no God required,

    • I appreciate your comments, however you seem to be ranting at a number of people and not this blog specifically.For example;

      “Boy oh boy do you folks love Andrew Newberg.”

      What do you mean by “you folks”? I am one person with one blog. I am only an uneducated amateur with a new found interest in this growing field (if we can call it that). I am not in a group or in cahoots with Newberg supporters or anything like that. Does my writing seem to subjectively favor Newberg or something? Please inform me if I am unfair or unbalanced.

      If you actually read my blog you will see that much of what you seem to suggest is preposterous. I think I did a very good job as an uneducated outsider who started from nothing and did all his own research.

      “You’d think he invented the field when he came along six years after Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century laid it out, and not a single reference? It’s a Newberg fan club, it is.”

      Did I not go into William James? Huston Smith? Huxley? Leary? etc. You yourself acknowledge that I mentioned Crowley’s experiments that were conducted decades before Newberg. So why would you say something like “You’d think he invented the field…” etc?

      You seem to have a lot to say and may have a lot of valid points. However, you seem to have read very little of my blog and you seem to be ranting about a lot more than just what I wrote. It seems you are upset at a lot of people. Perhaps you are justified, I don’t know. But I do see that you have not paid attention to my writings here specifically. Not only that, but it was I that mentioned you in the Wikipedia page on Nuerotheology. Please go read the page over at Wikipedia where I wrote about you and others (taking issue with Mario Beauregard at one point). Was this unfair in some way? You DO have the option of editing the Wikipedia page if you feel that your contributions should be written about at length. If I could afford your book, I would LOVE to read it and write about it, by the way (hint!).

      Notice that I do mention you in my own blog where I wrote “Studies with neuroimaging demonstrate that activity in specific areas of the brain coincide with religious feelings and experiences. [McKinney, 1994]” See? I cited you.

      “My own background is far broader and included early associations and meetings with folks like Stan Grof when he first arrived, Carlos Casteneda. Timothy Leary, Sascha Shulgin, Richard Evans Schultes, and Andy Weil.”

      Well, that’s great. I wish I had known that before I wrote about Grof, Leary, Shulgin, Schultz and Weil. The fact that you are connected with them is very relevant and I would like to include these connections in my blog. However, my knowledge is limited. Perhaps this info is in your book?

      “But this is why Newberg & Aquilit got the Templeton grant” Well, now you are moving into an arena that I know nothing about. It seems there is much to be said about this sort of thing, but I am unqualified to do so. I hope you do not think that I favor anyone.

      Crowley was just plain weird? Maybe so, I guess, but that’s a gross oversimplification. He had nothing to offer? You must be unfamiliar with his works. He deserves credit for treating eastern mysticism, western magic, yoga and brain-changes induced by substances like hashish and mescaline in a rigorously scientific way in a time when only a few (like William James) had the insight to do so. I suggest you read the essay “The Psychology of Hashish” (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo) in which he does a pretty good job of maintaining a detached objectiveness when discussing the altered states that heavy hashish doses affords. Give me an example of anything coming close to this even 20 years after the essay was written. Try reading what he wrote about yoga, various states of “higher consciousness” one gets from meditation. Notice his rather objective and level-headed thoughts on the neurology behind these subjective states. Then tell me that he was just weird and not worth reading.

      You mention that Newberg lacks “a real grounding in both cognitive neuroscience and comparative religion.”

      If this is correct, you DO have an important point. I think I make it quite clear that in my opinion, “Neurotheology” should be approached in a multidisciplinary fashion. One must consider things like comparative religion, ethnopharmacology, cognitive neuroscience, neurochemistry, anatomy, DMT, psilocybin, etc. etc. etc. Certainly. If I have not made this clear, I am sorry.

      I look forward to any further commentary from you. Thanks you.

  2. […] senior project on neurotheology just about did me in.  (If you want to know what neurotheology is, this is a good overview.) Who picks that as a subject? WHO?  This crazy person right here, […]

  3. Thanks for the overview! I chose neurotheology as my senior project at the University of Oklahoma. Most people have no idea what the term refers to, so I linked your article in my blog. Neurotheology is fascinating to me, but don’t ask me to write another sentence about it! Thanks for the info!

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