Peering into the Brain

© Cecilia Picco, www.freeimages.com
© Cecilia Picco, http://www.freeimages.com

If Christians are called to “love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5), then what happens when neurological disease strikes? Dr Clare Redfern is running a project with neurologist Revd Dr Alasdair Coles, based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Faraday Institute. They are investigating whether degenerative diseases within the brain, in particular Parkinson’s Disease, affect people’s religious faith and spirituality. In this month’s guest post, Clare describes some of her work.

Parkinson’s Disease is well known as a disorder that produces physical features such as tremor, slowed movements and speech. The degeneration of neuronal networks in the brain also frequently produces emotional and cognitive effects. We are looking at how people with Parkinson’s Disease think and feel about faith and religious belief. If they are believers, might they lose interest in prayer or worship? Does God seem more distant, or possibly closer?

In reviewing the work of others in this field, I have been pondering whether neuroscientific studies of religion do teach us anything useful or new about faith? Neuroimaging studies have certainly given some broad indications about how different aspects of religiousness and spirituality are related to different functions within the brain. Just as we depend on both our brains and bodies for our conscious perceptions, reflections and actions, so also religious beliefs, practices and experiences are associated with neural activity in different areas of the brain.

A carefully-designed study in Denmark1 used fMRI2 to investigate brain activity in 20 devout Danish Lutherans during different kinds of praying: informal, improvised and ritualised (using the Lord’s Prayer). The researchers found that improvised prayer strongly activated parts of the brain that enable empathy, negotiation and awareness of the intentions of others. These are areas that would also be activated if you were in conversation with another person. As a control task, the participants also had to imagine they were asking Santa Claus for presents, but this form of imaginary conversation did not activate the same brain areas. In contrast, formal prayer activated areas needed for attention, memory retrieval and performing habitual actions.

These findings can be interpreted in several ways. One is about the naturalness of improvised prayer; it’s like talking to a friend! They might also have pastoral implications. If the social cognition part of the brain is impaired (as can happen in several neurological conditions), then informal prayer might become meaningless but participating in liturgical worship might retain meaning and be helpful.

Studies like this also counter the rather bogus idea of a religious hotspot, the ‘God spot’, or of specific parts of the brain being devoted solely to religious belief. Intense mystical experiences can be associated with particular regions of the brain (for example, see Tim Middleton’s post about the temporal lobes and mystical visions), but the more everyday practice of a faith becomes embodied throughout many areas. So we can worship God with all of our mind!

1 Schjoedt U, Stødkilde-Jørgensen H, Geertz AW, et al., Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2009; 4: 199-207.

2 fMRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging: a kind of scanning techniques that detects changes in blood flow, related to nerve cell activity, in different areas of the subject’s brain as they perform various tasks – reading, thinking, or even praying as in this study.

4 thoughts on “Peering into the Brain

  1. sarah November 6, 2014 / 10:02 am

    rEALLY INTERESTING stuff!

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  2. discoveringvashti November 6, 2014 / 9:26 pm

    I always read, and enjoy your articles as they are emailed to me. Thank you for this article on the effect of spirituality and the brain. I wonder sometimes about the ‘god-spot’ which you question, or whether DNA/inheritance has anything to do with one’s spirituality.
    When I turned seventy-two I decided to search for my mother. I was born on 7 December and adopted on 9 March – just three months later, and had spent those first three months with my mother – who had returned after my birth in London to her lover in Buckinghamshire. She then decided to return to her husband and so I was adopted by a family from the New Forest.
    As is often usual these days it took me just four days to discover her, her granddaughter and my half-sister. My mother had of course died.
    I was handed six of her journals – her personal thoughts on what she had read through the years and also collections of her poetry and her art. She was not reading Mills and Boon. She was, like myself, preoccupied with more serious literature. Some of her writing and her reading was deeply spiritual – she was reading von Hugel, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, St John of the Cross, Schweitzer – and she quotes the Christian mystics and, surprisingly, she wrote a few pages on the German White Rose Group. I too had been fascinated with the White Rose Group and had a deep respect, like her, for their idealism. She quotes Bertrand Russell on renunciation and it seemed that all her life she had been on a spiritual journey – briefly interrupted by an injudicious choice which she later deeply regretted and reflected in a quotation from one writer – and underlines it “. . . but shall not He . . . relight the lamp, and yet once more”.
    Both my mother and I have followed a spiritual path which is quite similar – we have often read the same books and been deeply affected by what we have read. Her journals take up some four hundred or so pages and each time I read them I see a reflection of myself – and yet I never knew her nor was I ever in contact with her except for those first three months of my life and those nine months spent in her womb. My adoptive mother had told me I had ‘come from the gutter’ so her comment discouraged me from ever making contact with my birth mother.
    There are so many questions which one has to ask when confronted with such similarities. They seem to all be similarities to do with the mind and one’s spirituality. Of course my daughter does look identical to her grandmother and also has that same thirst for spirituality.
    My adoptive parents were entirely different to my mother – my father could not be bothered by spirituality – and he died when I was eleven. My adoptive mother too was entirely indifferent to Christianity and forbad me to go near the Catholic church – something which I had done by starting a course on the catechism – at the age of fifteen. And then my stepfather was an atheist.

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  3. khendradm November 8, 2014 / 3:28 pm

    Great article and great response from discoveringvashti. Not surprised by the link improvised prayer has to empathy in the brain. And discoveringvashti’s personal account brings up how what we inherit and how our brains work may be tied to deeper questions regarding election, predestination, etc. Of course, none of that necessarily negates The Great Commission. I suppose a brain disinclined toward belief could still be reached given certain circumstances and approaches. And certainly a brain inclined toward belief cries out to be reached! Much to ponder and be of awe of here.

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