(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 papers
1 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.
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.
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.”
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, 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