Religion and Neurobiology

Religion is a societal entity that has subsisted since the earliest record of man’s existence. There are a multitude of religions as well as varying degrees of faith. Many religious convictions are based on spiritual knowledge or simple belief. However, science often searches for physical and mechanical understanding of knowledge. There are many issues in which science and religion clash. These issues range from the beginning of life, evolution versus creationism, to the idea of existence after death. As the advancement of science continues, physical explanations for life’s occurrences are presented. Do these explanations disprove religious accounts? Will science eventually disprove religion and render it useless? This question is analyzed in the occurrences of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s).

An NDE is defined as “a lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death (1).” Death is the final, irreversible end (2). It is the permanent termination of all vital functions. The occurrence of an NDE is not a rarity. Throughout time and from across the globe NDE’s have been described by many, and in these accounts there are several similarities among them. The commonalities of an NDE include a feeling of peace and connection with the universe, a sense of release from the body (often called an Out of Body Experience or OBE), a movement down a dark tunnel, the vision of a bright light, and the vision of deities or other people from their lives (2). Not every NDE contains each of these events, these are merely the most common similar events described. An NDE can range in magnitude from having all of these events occur to having none of them occur (2). There are two theories explaining the similarities among NDE’s. The scientific explanation describes a situation in which a mixture of effects due to expectation, administered drugs, endorphins, anoxia, hypercarbia, and temporal lobe stimulation create a unified core experience (3). The religious explanation claims that they are a glimpse of existence after death. The unified core experience is due to there being a destination after the body dies with a similar path for all. These two theories debate whether an NDE is simply the neural activity preparing the body for death or a preview of the beyond. To further understand the occurrences of an NDE neurobiological research has believed to have mapped the neural activity of an NDE.

The most common similarity of NDE’s is the feeling of peace, tranquility, spirituality, and oneness with all (3). This occurrence has been discovered to be associated with the release of endorphins as well as reactions between the right and left superior parietal lobe (4) (5). The right portion of this area of the brain is known to be responsible for the sense of physical space and body awareness. It is responsible for orienting the body. The left portion of the parietal lobe is responsible for the awareness of the self. During an NDE neural activity in these areas shuts down. The result of this is an inability for the mind to have distinction between the self and non-self. All of space, time, and self becomes one (4) (5). Essentially one feels as being the infinite, rather than part of the infinite because there is no realization of self. However, other aspects of the brain are still functioning and thoughts are occurring. These other thoughts are believed to be associated with the visions perceived (4). If a persons thoughts are focused on a deity or personal relation, without the ability to comprehend self, time, and space, the person may in fact see an image of that focused thought because visual neurons are still intact. It is the relation of neural inactivity in the parietal lobe combined with other activities within the human brain that are responsible for most aspects of an NDE (2) (3) (4).

The understanding of neural relationships during NDE’s has culminated in the ability to reproduce each phenomena in a controlled setting. It has been found that the intravenous administration of 50-100 mg of ketamine can safely reproduce all features of an NDE (2) and electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus portion of the brain can safely reproduce an out of body experience (6). Scientific research has even explained why religion is emphasized during an NDE. Activation in the temporal lobe region, known as the “God Spot (7)” during an NDE is reported to stimulate religious themed thoughts (8). This research has major implications in the battle of science versus religion. It provides evidence that specific brain activity can create the perception of religion and divinity. If this is true than this brain activity can be turned off and in effect remove religion from our lives. Many wars would be stopped, borders would open up, life as we know it would change completely. However, there are many faults to this theory. The major error in the idea that understanding the mechanical brain activity of NDE’s and religion makes them useless is the assumption that the experience only exists within the brain. Begley (5) uses an example of apple pie to illustrate this point. Upon the site of a pie, the neural activity linking site, smell, memory, and emotion can all be mapped quite clearly. However, this mapping of activity does not disprove the existence of the pie. This is the precise reason the existence of God or any other religious deity or beliefs cannot be disproved. It is just as simple to believe that viewing the mechanics of the brain during an NDE or religious experience is like getting a glimpse of the tool or hardware used to experience religion (9). However, this does not prove the existence of a God, or any other belief, either. It is the principle that understanding the neurobiological mechanics of religion cannot disprove or prove the existence of God, religion, or spirituality that makes it improbable that science will eliminate religion.

Believing that science will eventually do away with religion wrongly assumes that knowledge of the mechanics of the brain and universe are capable of eradicating the importance of religion to humankind. Religion is present in society for a plethora of reasons branching far beyond the mere belief in an existence of a God. The multitude of religions, deities, and even atheism is evidence of this. Among many, the reasons for religion include fear, comfort, stability, and tradition. The NDE provides an excellent example of one of the importance’s of religion, the existence of life after death. Existence after death refutes the idea that we are simply organic material organized in a certain fashion with a certain time span of functionality. The religious belief than an DNE is a glimpse of our existence beyond life is valuable for peoples behavior in life, not just as evidence of a theory. In very few NDE’s do negative feelings occur. People often describe a “heavenly” light rather than a hell (1) (10) . This may be because of the power of suggestion (3) in that it is a common societal belief that when a person dies they are supposed to see a tunnel, a light, an angel, and heaven. So when an NDE occurs, this is what the person sees because it follows their thought process. Not many people believe that when they die they are going to go to hell. The idea of existence of a better place after death comforts and eases the pain of many who suffer in life. It can provide them with hope through troubling time whether they believe in Jesus, Buddha, Elijah, or no God at all. Religion is a tool of mankind to sustain a belief. The reasons for that belief vary among people and religions but the importance is in believing. Having a belief can instill a sense of pride, confidence, comfort, strength, and much more in a person. A single belief can provide a purpose for life. The actual beliefs of each religion are only important to the individual. However, the idea of belief itself is important to the foundations of religion. The importance of religion to mankind makes it improbable society will ever allow scientific understanding to overrule religion. Science may disprove religious stories such as Moses’ parting of the red sea, but the importance of religion goes beyond the stories. Religion is indispensable because it is a belief. For this reason science is incapable of eliminating religion.

 
References
1)Near-Death Experience, Religion, and Spirituality, a religion and spirituality article related to NDE’s
2)Ketamine Model of the NDE, Drug induced replication of the NDE
3) Blackmore, Susan. “Near Death Experiences,” Royal society of Medicine. Vol. 89. February 1996, pp. 73-76.
4)Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Excerpts from the author
5) Begley, Sharon. Religion and the Brain. Newsweek, May 7, 2001, p. 50.
6) Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., Seeck, M. Stimulating Illusory Own-Body Perceptions,” Nature. Vol. 419. September 19, 2002. pp. 269-270.
7)God on the Brain, An article on the cross between neurobiology and faith
8)Meridian Institute, Transformational experiences
9)Tracing the Synapses of our Spirituality, Examination of brain and religion
10)Susan Blackmore Home Page, Experiences of Anoxia

 

Can Science Replace Religion? Analyzing the Neurobiology and Neurotheology of the Near Death Experience, Bradley Corr
 

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