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The Seat of the Soul

It has been a while since I blogged about the biological basis of religion. I recently came across some new research that not only puts another piece of the puzzle in place, it may open up a whole new section of the puzzle.

Neuroscientists studying depression may have found that part of the brain responsible for the inner strength for which religious people pray to God.

CONTEXT

In previous essays I established we are wired to attribute supernatural explanations to inexplicable phenomena. This most certainly includes why humans believe in God despite all evidence to the contrary. There are two parts to this proof.

First, our emotions are controlled by the half of the brain that feels without being able to speak, while our intellect is controlled by the half of the brain that analyzes without being able to read the emotions of others. There is always a little voice whispering in our head giving us intuition about what is dangerous vs. safe, good vs. bad.  It’s our own right hemisphere.

Couple this with the fact that our self-consciousness is an outgrowth of our ability to process language, all in the left hemisphere.  “We” with our sense of self, regularly get vital advice from our “other” silent hemisphere in the form of adrenaline rushes, suspicions, flashes of insight, feelings of love, etc. So when there are not sufficient facts on hand to explain something, and it’s something we feel we need to explain, it is only natural for us to assume there is an “other” causing it. So we credit supernatural causes to everything from twists of fate (both good and bad) to things that go bump in the night.

I have also marveled at how the brain has constructed a wall to divide the sense of interior self from the exterior world – where do” I” stop and the world starts. Neurologists working with Buddhist monks have found specific areas of the brain that quiet when the monks move into “satori” to lower that wall, lose the sense of self, and become unified with the world around them.

I make it my business to question coincidences and find connections that open up truths. My motto is, after all, Dark Connections Revealed. So it was not a big leap to link this finding with the research that shows the stronger the sense of self, the more easily startled, suspicious, and politically conservative a person becomes. Ergo, an explanation for why conservative people, with their strong sense of self, suspect even more strongly the presence of supernatural causation for the inexplicable. Yes, I am not only talking about scapegoating (someone must be to blame) and superstitious behavior, but also faith in God.

THE NEW DISCOVERY

Into this mix we now add a recent breakthrough in research on depression. There is a set of ganglia in the front half of the center portion of our brains called the frontolimbic network. It helps us process and respond to strong emotions.  This area works closely with another area called the right anterior temporal lobe (RATL). The RATL helps up put our actions and the actions of others into social context. Recall it is the right hemisphere that reads and understands the emotions of others. When the RATL judges whether a behavior – our own or other’s – deserves blame or indignation, a third brain area is activated, called the adjacent septal region of the subgenual cingulate cortex (ASRSCC).  In normal, functioning folk, these three areas communicate openly and constantly.

In chronically depressed people, this cross-talk has been shut down. Guilty feelings produce activity in the frontolimbic network, but there is none of the usual social context feedback from the RATL or the ASRSCC. Electroshock therapy, which resets all the brain’s connections by wiping everything out and starting fresh, gives temporary relief. Drugs that force the brain to create high levels of neurotransmitters, or that increase the sensitivity to such chemicals can help for a while too, by making it easier for any signal to get heard. But when these three brain areas fail in their regular communication, the person falls back into their old pattern, which is dominated by feelings that they are to blame for everything bad. It is literally as if the little voice in your head that tells the rest of us that it will be okay, that it isn’t all your fault, that you need to step back and get perspective, has been shut off.*

WHAT IT MEANS

One of the cornerstones of religious faith is the notion that all things are possible with God. The western biblical traditions point to the miracles in the Old Testament as evidence that God can do anything. The modern application of this is that God can help you no matter what, so don’t give up. Jesus let his enemies kill him so you can be forgiven your transgressions and you don’t go through life burdened with guilt. The ancient gods of eastern traditions are loved to this day because their message has always been hang in there, have faith, and don’t give up.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that the job of these brain connections that are missing in depressed people?

If there ever was anything that makes a huge difference in a person’s life, and for which there is no logical explanation, it is how people find the strength to go on in the face of crushing adversity.

If we are already wired to give credit to God for things like falling in love, then we are clearly primed to give God credit for inner strength.

So I postulate that in addition to the sense of “other” we get from the right hemisphere looking over “our” shoulder, and in addition to the good advice we get “out of nowhere” from the right hemisphere, we also get inner strength from the limbic cross connections discussed above.

These are the components that make up the evidence of God.

While I’m on a roll, let me throw into play one last nasty connection. Evolutionary biologists studying the way random genetic changes in the gene pool add up to create new features have back-calculated when the last significant change occurred in our brains. It was a lot more recently than you might think. It was 6,000 years ago, which is coincidentally when we started building cities and writing down lessons for future generations, including the myths that became our religious institutions. Would you like to guess which area of the brain was the last one to click into our current configuration? That’s right: the limbic system.

Do I think this supports an atheist explanation for how our brains deserve all the credit we give to God? Absolutely. Will this change my feelings about my relation to God? It can’t – I have no choice due to how I am wired. Will such arguments change anybody’s minds about their faith in God? No fucking way. Recall that folks who most strongly cling to God are the ones with the strongest sense of self, the strongest barriers to the outside world, the ones most likely to define the world in terms of Us vs. Them. So all such arguments will ever do is push atheist scientists further into the Them camp as enemies. We have already seen how vocal atheism has created a backlash against science education in general. I am not interested in fueling the fire that burns our children’s future.

On the other hand, I do think this research needs to be taken further. I want to see the studies on the quieting of the brain centers during satori linked up with the limbic cross connection work. This could lead to forms of meditation that cure depression. It could also shed more light on why people refuse to give themselves credit for their abilities and accomplishments. Again, I am not out to dispel anyone’s faith in God. But I do think there is a link here to people giving up on themselves and accepting abusive relationships.

In the meantime, I will continue to try to stay abreast of new discoveries in neuroscience and keep making as many connections as I can to find the bigger truths about who we are.

Thank you for listening.

*The June 2012 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers in Manchester, England and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1171078

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