Sunday, July 01, 2001

Hardwired for God?

Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

By: Christian de Quincey, Ph.D.


The subject sits meditating. He is alone in the room, but wired to instruments that monitor his blood flow and brain waves. In the next room, a couple of scientists wait patiently for a signal. Eventually it comes: The meditator tugs on a piece of kite string trailing between the two rooms “I’m peaking, I’m peaking.” The scientists hit a button on their state-of-the-art brain-monitoring device, and take a photograph of God. 


This description on the first page of the first chapter of Why God Won’t Go Away could be a metaphor for the challenge that confronts neuroscientists investigating meditation—or, indeed, any state of consciousness. There sits the meditator, with his subjective experience; and there sit the various instruments for measuring his brain activity, blood flow, and heart rate. But the actual link between all this objective, high-tech paraphernalia and the meditator’s experience is a decidedly low-tech piece of string. It is the tug on the string that tells the researchers “Now! I’m peaking!” and they note what their instruments are recording at that moment. 

No matter how sophisticated the instruments, they cannot measure subjective experience; at best, they can measure brain states that we assume are correlated to consciousness (this brain state, therefore this mental event). There’s the rub; because, for these correlates to have any meaning, the researchers must rely on a report from the meditating subject—in this case, a report via a yanked length of string. Thus, scientists can acquire substantial data on what goes on in the subject’s brain and nervous system whenever the subject reports a particular mental state, but no amount of probing and monitoring will ever yield direct information about the subject’s consciousness. Not even the report is a direct line to consciousness. 

Like the kite string, all reports of consciousness are necessarily objective: We communicate by transmitting signals to each other via some physical medium (for example, words as sound vibrations). The experimental data, therefore, are not even secondhand; they are thirdhand, at two removes from the actual experience. First, there is the experience, then the report, and only then the measurement of the physiological correlates at the moment of that report. Since it always remains possible that the subject could be mistaken or even deliberately misleading in his report, we can never be sure with what the physiological measurements actually correlate. We have no “Chalmers’ consciousness meter” for detecting the presence of consciousness—just a piece of twine, or some other thirdhand piece of low- or high-tech instrumentation, to indicate “I’m peaking, I’m peaking.” 

In his book The Conscious Mind, philosopher David Chalmers drew attention to the mind-body “hard problem” of how brains could produce consciousness or, more generally, how consciousness could be related to the physical world. A few years ago, he amused a conference audience by digging into his backpack, pulling out a hair-dryer, pointing it at various celebrities in the audience, and manipulating the green and red buttons on his lectern. When “green” flashed, it supposedly indicated the presence of consciousness in the person targeted by the hair-dryer; “red” indicated the absence of consciousness. Chalmers used the prop to underscore the glaring gap between technology and consciousness and the absurdity of even imagining we could ever devise such a “consciousness meter.” Incidentally, when Chalmers pointed his device at philosopher Daniel Dennett, renowned for explaining away consciousness, the red light flashed. 

The mind-body problem, so vigorously debated by philosophers and scientists in recent years, seems to register only faintly on Newberg and D’Aquili’s radar in Why God Won’t Go Away. Although they acknowledge the problem of linking mind and body (“Neurology cannot completely explain how such a thing can happen—how a nonmaterial mind can rise from mere biological functions”), they fail to grasp the severity of the explanatory gap. This is not merely a problem that neuroscience cannot yet “completely” explain; it is a problem that neuroscience cannot even begin to explain. 

Apparently unaware of the philosophical difficulties involved in measuring consciousness —not just its correlates—Newberg states: 

Years of research, however, have led Gene and me to believe that [peak] experiences like Robert’s are real, and can be measured and verified by solid science. That’s why I’m huddling, beside Gene, in this cramped examination room, holding kite string between my fingers: I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture. 

But, as we have just seen, detecting and measuring consciousness is precisely what researchers cannot do. The authors confuse the correlates of consciousness, which they can measure, with the actual experience itself. They can no more take “its” picture (a snapshot of mystical transcendence) than they can take a photograph of God (the title of the chapter in which they make this claim). Their “photograph” is an image taken with a state-of-the-art SPECT camera (single photon emission computer tomography), but unfortunately, even with such technology, “solid science” cannot, as the authors claim, verify the presence of mystical experience—or any experience. 


This confusion between correlates and experience is the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise fascinating book. Although Newberg and his co-authors do present the results of some intriguing brain research on the nature of religious experience, the key claim of the book—that science now has solid research data to support the reality of spiritual experiences—cannot be coherently defended. In a footnote, the authors acknowledge the difficulty: 

While we realize it is much more complex than simply “taking a picture,” this is the gist of what is being done. Actually capturing the precise moment of an intense mystical experience is not easy, or likely, because in spite of the planned meditation our subjects performed, it is very difficult to know or predict exactly how long or how strong a given state will be. It, nonetheless, seems possible to begin to unravel the brain mechanisms that underlie the process of meditation and obtain a clear view into the fantastic workings of the brain, during these practices. 

Let us examine this statement. The authors claim that the “gist of what is being done” is “taking a picture” of mystical states. In fact, all their SPECT technology can do is take a picture of a brain while the subject claims to be having a peak experience. The researchers can hope and trust that the “precise moment” that they take their snapshot of the brain coincides with a moment when the subject is actually experiencing a peak state. But they cannot rightly claim that such SPECT data qualify as “solid science” “verifying” mystical experience. Yes, SPECT technology may indeed yield a clearer view of the “fantastic workings of the brain”; it may even help us begin unraveling brain mechanisms associated with meditation. But here again the authors talk of “brain mechanisms that underlie the process of meditation,” as though it were foregone knowledge that the brain “underlies” (in the sense of “is the physical basis for” and therefore produces) consciousness. 

We simply do not know this. It is a metaphysical assumption of materialism that all experiential events are ultimately reducible to physical events—more specifically, to brain events—an assumption that has confounded philosophers and scientists for centuries with the unresolved mind/body problem. The authors proceed from the assumption, which is shared by many neuroscientists and philosophers, that the brain creates the mind. From there, it is a matter only of experimental details to discover how the brain could be responsible for spiritual experiences. These details are what we get in this book; and, if we ignore the problematic foundational assumption, Newberg, D’Aquili, and Rause build a persuasive case for how and why the brain has evolved to generate myths, rituals, the religious impulse, and even mystical experiences.


One of the most commonly reported characteristics of mystical experience is a sense of egolessness, a loss of the sense of self, along with a dissolution of the sense of space and time. The authors present an intriguing hypothesis to account for this experience. They propose that during meditation nerve stimuli to a particular area of the brain (the posterior superior parietal lobe, or, as the authors prefer to call it, the “orientation association area,” OAA for short) are inhibited by another area of the brain (the hippocampus). When this happens, they suggest, the OAA has been “temporarily ‘blinded,’ deprived of the information it needed to do its job properly”:

The left orientation area is responsible for creating the mental sensation of a limited, physically defined body, while the right orientation area is associated with generating the sense of spatial coordinates. . . . [T]he two sides of the orientation association area are able to weave raw sensory data into the vivid, complex perception of a self and into a world in which that self can move. 

If true, this certainly seems to provide support for a materialist explanation of how the brain produces mind. At a minimum, the correlations suggest that the brain is responsible for “organizing” consciousness so that, during normal operation, it generates an experienced distinction between the self and the outside world. During meditation, especially during peak states, this organizing function is suspended, and the meditator experiences a sense of loss of self, along with a similar loss of orientation in space and time. 

Can we assume, then, that discovering more about certain brain functions may enlighten us about the organization or processes of consciousness? Yes, if the experiment can be repeated consistently, then we should be able to predict specific mental states—including mystical experiences of the divine—solely by observing measurable activity in the brain. 

We may observe that certain brain states predictably correlate with certain reported mind states. But how do we know the correlation holds? Only because participants self-report their subjective experience.

Without the subjective report, no such correlation could be made, and the measured data could inform us only about brain states, telling us absolutely nothing about the mind. Third-person data of brain events depend on second-person reports of first-person experiences even to begin to yield correlations, and thus inferential knowledge. We may infer that certain brain states reflect particular states of mind—provided that the second-person reports and their interpretation accurately represent the first-person experience. Hardly “solid science.” 

Nevertheless, we do have this intriguing observation that inhibition of some brain activity correlates with the mystical experience of selflessness, oceanic oneness, and transcendence of space and time. What, then, if this relationship is more than mere correlation? Is there a causal relationship between what happens in the brain and someone’s first-person mystical experience, and, if so, what is that cause? Is it upward causation of brain-to-mind (materialism), or downward causation of mind-to-brain (idealism)—or some other alternative? 

Dualism allows for either path: brain causing events in mind, or mind causing events in the brain. But if this happens, the nature of the causal interaction remains utterly mysterious. No one, since Descartes firmly established philosophical dualism nearly 400 years ago, has even come close to providing an explanation of how such mind/brain interaction could occur. Another option for dualism, of course, is what we call “psychophysical parallelism.” Here there is no causal exchange between mind and brain; each series of events unfolds in its own separate domain, and observed correlations are “explained” as due to a pre-established synchrony. But this calls for theology, not philosophy or science. 

Yet another alternative is panpsychism: The brain does not cause consciousness, and consciousness does not cause the brain. Instead, according to this view, the matter of the brain itself, all the way down to its most elemental constituents (whether electrons, protons, quarks, quanta, or superstrings) possesses some trace of interiority, subjectivity, experience, consciousness. Panpsychism is a form of ontological fundamentalism that says consciousness goes all the way down. 

Taking this view, a state or quality of consciousness will reflect the organization of the hierarchy of constituents that make up its associated brain. If, for example, the part of the brain responsible for orienting a person in space and for generating the boundary of the individual self is inhibited, its associated consciousness will likewise and concurrently lack a sense of an individual self. In short, changes in brain events will result in corresponding mental events, just as neuroscience says. 

“Gradually, we shaped a hypothesis that suggests that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology. That biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge,” write the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away. The first part of this hypothesis is warranted by the data, but the second, that “biology compels the spiritual urge,” is not. It is a theoretical addition based on a particular world view—in this case, materialism or biologism. The neuroimaging SPECT evidence does not support this biological reductionism. In fact, later in the book, the authors explicitly shy away from both materialism and biological reductionism when they, quite correctly, conclude that such materialist-based epistemology would throw into question not only mystical experience and the status of God, but all experience or knowledge—including all the data and theories of science itself.


Trying to make room for a real spiritual presence beyond the brain, the authors do their best to shake loose the shackles of materialism. They are at pains not to conclude from their neurological data that minds are nothing but the “flesh and blood machinery of the brain.” But despite their best intentions, we still hear the rattle of those chains. They attempt to soften the impact of the problem by offering their own straightforward and simple definitions of “brain” and “mind.” Having, yet again, let the materialist world view slip through by claiming that “the structures of the brain operate harmoniously to turn raw sensory data into an integrated perception of the world outside the skull,” they go on to define brain as “a collection of physical structures that gather and process sensory, cognitive, and emotional data,” and mind as the “phenomenon of thoughts, memories, and emotions that arise from the perceptual processes of the brain.” 

Their definition of brain is straightforward enough, but to say that mind arises “from the perceptual processes of the brain” presupposes an understanding of mental perceptual processes: How, we may ask, could brain processes “perceive” anything if they did not already possess some kind of mind? So the authors’ definition of mind comes down to this: Mind arises from mental processes in the brain. Now, while that is undoubtedly true, it scarcely informs us of anything useful. The hard question still remains: How are mental processes formed in the brain? 

Seemingly unable to wriggle from under the weight of materialism, and left struggling with their tautological definition of mind, Newberg, D’Aquili, and Rause try to simplify things still more, declaring: “In simpler terms, brain makes mind.” Right there, they have committed themselves to the materialist dogma. 

It does not soften this position to say, as they do, that their data support the hypothesis that it is inherent in the nature of the brain “to strive to create the mind.” Yes, they are telling us, the brain has primacy; but it is compelled to create mind. Not only that, this book tries to persuade us: “The second characteristic, which was hinted at in our SPECT scan studies, is the ability of the mind to interpret spiritual experiences as real.” Brains are hardwired for minds that can experience the transcendent and the divine. Brains are hardwired for God. 


The hypothesis that God is hardwired in the human brain raises a critical question: Is God merely an experience generated in the brain’s neural pathways or has the brain evolved to detect a genuinely divine presence greater than itself? In either case, according to the authors, “There’s no other way for God to get into your head except through the brain’s neural pathways.” Thus we arrive at the book’s thesis. 

The rest of Why God Won’t Go Away deals mostly with details of the brain structures and functions that support this thesis. The authors make a persuasive neurological case that the brain has indeed evolved to process spiritual experiences. Then comes the deeper question:  

Are these unitary experiences merely the result of neurological function—which would reduce mystical experience to a flurry of neural blips and flashes—or are they genuine experiences which the brain is able to perceive? Could it be that the brain has evolved the ability to transcend material existence, and experience a higher plane of being that actually exists? 

In the final chapters, Newberg, D’Aquili, and Rause emphasize that they do not intend to imply that God exists only in the brain’s electrochemical events. Although it is beyond the scope of science to prove or disprove God, they say that their research inclines them to believe that religious experiences in the brain are representative of a genuine spiritual presence beyond the brain. They reason as follows: Every experience we ever have must pass through the brain and nervous system. This is as true for an everyday experience such as seeing a tree outside your window as it is for a mystical experience of God. Now, we must accept that the tree actually exists “out there” and not only in our brains and minds, otherwise all of our experiences, including the whole of science, would be a solipsist illusion—all in our minds. But since there is no intrinsic neurological difference between an experience of a tree or an experience of God in the brain, we have no rational justification for believing the tree to have a reality independent of our brains while doubting the independent existence of God. 

Philosophically, the authors are on sound ground with this conclusion. While they offer what seems to be scientific support for the truth of spiritual experiences, however, they undermine their conclusion by the assumption that mind exists only as a product of the brain. Yes, God can “get into your head” only through the brain’s neural pathways, and yes, “God cannot exist as a concept . . . anyplace else but in your mind.” But no, neither experiences of God nor any experiences whatsoever “are made real” only “through the processing powers of the brain” and the “cognitive functions of the mind” produced by the brain. 

I believe that the assumptions that, first, brain produces mind and, second, mind is found only in the brain and/or nervous system, often unquestioned in neuroscience, are in fact highly questionable and philosophically deeply problematic. As the authors acknowledge, neither science nor philosophy can satisfactorily answer how objective neurons and brains could produce subjective minds. The best that contemporary materialists can offer is the miracle of emergence: getting the wine of consciousness from the water of the brain, as philosopher Colin McGinn put it. Exactly how this “miracle” occurs is left unexplained. 

Without an adequate explanation of how brains could give rise to minds, we have no solid ground for assuming that minds exist only in brains. If they do exist in brains (and we can be sure they do), then it is at least plausible and coherent to assume that minds exist in association with whatever brains are made of—neurons. But then the same line of argument could be extended to neurons, too. In short, since the matter of the brain’s cells is no different from the matter of other cells in the body (not the cells’ architecture or functions, but their constituents) then we may assume mind or consciousness is there, too, and so on, all the way down to the cells’ molecules and atoms, and beyond. God, as an experienced reality, then, certainly exists in the mind; but this mind may be anywhere in the body (or even beyond it). The authors’ conclusion at the end of their chapter “Brain Architecture: How the Brain Makes the Mind” is, therefore, unwarranted: “The evidence…compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.” 

Let us, instead, let go of materialism for a moment. What we call God, or spirit, or universal consciousness, may manifest anywhere: not only in human brains, but in all living cells, in all nonliving molecules and atoms, anywhere in the whole natural cosmos. Of course, if we wish to entertain ideas of the divine, and not merely experience its presence, then the tangled neural pathways of human brains appear to do the job very well. In the end, human brains may harbor the secret of why the “idea” of God won’t go away. We may be hardwired for ideas, but not for experiences. 


From Why God Won’t Go Away by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause ©2001 by Andrew Newberg. Reprinted with permission of Ballantine Books. 

Science can demonstrate no way for the mind to occur except as a result of the neurological functioning of the brain. Without the brain’s ability to process various types of input in highly sophisticated ways, the thoughts and feelings that constitute the mind would simply not exist. Conversely, the brain’s irresistible drive to create the most vivid, sophisticated perceptions possible means that it cannot help but generate the thoughts and emotions that are the basic elements of mind.

Correspondingly, God cannot exist as a concept or as a reality anyplace else but in your mind. In this sense, both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way—through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of spiritual experience might be—whether it is in fact a perception of an actual spiritual reality, or merely an interpretation of sheer neurological function—all that is meaningful in human spirituality happens in the mind. In other words, the mind is mystical by default. We can’t definitively say why such capabilities have evolved, but we can find traces of their neurological roots in some basic structures and functions, primarily the autonomic nervous system, the limbic system, and in the brain’s complex analytical functions. 

If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as “mere” neurological activities, you would also have to distrust all of your own brain’s perceptions of the material world. On the other hand, if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is “only” in the mind. 

The neurobiological roots of spiritual transcendence show that Absolute Unitary Being is a plausible, even probable possibility. Of all the surprises our theory has to offer—that myths are driven by biological compulsion, that rituals are intuitively shaped to trigger unitary states, that mystics are, after all, not necessarily crazy, and that all religions are branches of the same spiritual tree—the fact that this ultimate unitary state can be rationally supported intrigues us the most. The realness of Absolute Unitary Being is not conclusive proof that a higher God exists, but it makes a strong case that there is more to human existence than sheer material existence. Our minds are drawn by the intuition of this deeper reality, this utter sense of oneness, where suffering vanishes and all desires are at peace. As long as our brains are arranged the way they are, as long as our minds are capable of sensing this deeper reality, spirituality will continue to shape the human experience, and God, however we define that majestic, mysterious concept, will not go away. 

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Bill Glovin, editor
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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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