Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Considering the Effects of Spiritual Practices on the Brain

Since I’m starting up a new semester (but the kids haven’t started school yet), I’ve been dividing my time equally between course preparation and parenting (my son is in my office with me as I write this). Thus, I don’t have much time to work on the blog these days. And so, in lieu of something more time-consuming, such as the next (and likely final) chapter in my biblical inerrancy series, I invite readers to read and share their thoughts about a Reuters article that appeared yesterday: “Faith Rites Boost Brains, Even for Atheists.”

The article discusses a recent book by Andrew Newberg (How God Changes Your Brain) that addresses some current research into the impact that religious practices—meditation and meditative prayer in particular—have on the brain. The research discussed in this article isn’t totally new (I’ve read about similar findings off an on for a few years). But it is interesting and worth reflecting on. What follows are a few of the questions and ideas that reading the article generates for me (to the extent that I can express them clearly while a six-year old builds an elaborate tunnel system in my office using the packing boxes I haven’t yet filled with books for the impending office move).

The obvious lesson in this article is that science is able to discern, through its empirical methods, effects that certain religious practices have on the brain—effects that, at least in terms of their correlation with states of consciousness, most would judge to be positive. Beyond this obvious lesson, there is much that deserves reflection and debate.

One such issue relates to the positive value that is generally attributed to the psychological products of the spiritual practices in question: greater compassion, a deeper sense of connectedness with the world and other beings in that world, greater “peace of mind,” etc. Of course, these things are widely desired and valued. But is that all there is to it? Or are they things that ought to be valued? Is there a reason why they should be valued, even by those who, as a matter of contingent psychology, fail to value them? And if so, what are those reasons? More basic contingent desires? Then we can ask the same questions at a deeper level. If we think that some things ought to be valued apart from contingent desire (as I do), we need to look for an answer to the question, “What makes these psychological states categorically valuable?” The answer will not rest in empirical facts about the brain. As such, and insofar as the positive value of the states produced by spiritual practice is integral to what makes them significant, we cannot fully appreciate the fruits of spiritual practice through brain science alone.

A second issue relates to a point that some readers of this blog are likely to make: namely, this research demonstrates that the positive benefits of religious practices can be divorced from the metaphysical beliefs about reality which so often operate as both motivation and interpretative framework for these practices. I essentially agree with this. I don’t think you have to, say, believe in God or in a universal spirit or in the illusory nature of the world of ordinary experience in order to benefit from meditative practices. The same is true about a lot of things. Food nourishes you regardless of your specific beliefs about eating and what it does to your body. Drinking plenty of water is beneficial regardless of what beliefs you have about what happens to you when you drink water and why drinking it is good for you. The real question is not whether these practices impact the brain in discernible ways, ways that correlate with beneficial changes in consciousness, but what implications this fact has, if any, for the reasonableness of various metaphysical beliefs.

There is also the question of describing what is going on in the agent, at the level of consciousness. That is, what are we, as conscious agents, doing when we meditate? Simone Weil, whose provocative and challenging reflections on her own mystical experiences have been deeply influential on my own thinking, describes meditative prayer as an exercise in absolute attention—an attention that isn’t directed towards anything in the field of empirical experience nor to any construct of the imagination. In her view, it is a matter of opening up a place in consciousness that is free from all the things that usually vie for our attention—sense experiences as well as our inner thoughts and ideas and imaginings. Meditation is about paying absolute attention to that which is not these things, and as such is really a matter of opening up an empty space in consciousness, a space of quiet waiting.

Of course, Weil interprets what happens next in the following way: the “God” that transcends human concepts and categories, that transcends empirical experience, floods into the empty space that we have made. As such, she’d interpret the current brain science as offering a picture of how the brain responds to the inflow of the divine. By contrast, many naturalists will argue that current brain research belies this interpretation, because there is no reason to suppose that any such grand encounter with a mysterious and otherwise inaccessible order of reality is happening when we can just explain religious experience as nothing more than the by-product of a distinctive sort of brain activity.

My own view is that there is a reason to interpret religious experience in something falling within the broad family of interpretations to which Weil’s belongs (even if, all things considered, that reason may not prove decisive). The reason is provided by what the experience “feels like” from the inside, so to speak. It feels like a veridical encounter with something other than what we are connected to in ordinary experience.

The naturalist account of spiritual experience is, I think, inspired by a suspicion of taking such subjective “feelings” as having any evidentiary value worth attending to. On a more basic level, it seems to be rooted in the insistence that the same kinds of evidentiary standards that drive science should be followed in all domains of human inquiry—even when the questions we ask are ones to which such standards simply cannot be applied (and hence become questions that it is either pointless to ask, meaningless to ask, or about which the only answer we should ever give is silence). But this leads to yet another question: What is lost, and what is gained, by such an insistence?

In some ways, different answers to this question may lie at the root of the disagreement between metaphysical naturalists and those progressive supernaturalists who treat science as authoritative but not exhaustive in its account of the reality we inhabit.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    A very nice post, and I mostly agree. I finally read your book and will be posting a review this weekend.

    The naturalist account of spiritual experience is, I think, inspired by a suspicion of taking such subjective “feelings” as having any evidentiary value worth attending to.

    Very cleverly put. Feelings should be attended to, especially if they are those of others. But what are the evidentiary of? Of how we feel! While feelings have direct evidentiary value in virtually all cases, the referents are always internal- hunger, pain, empathic pain for someone else, joy in happy events or successes, boredom about nothing to do ... the list goes on and on. Why one feeling suddenly tells us how the cosmos works is a little hard to understand, given what the rest signify.

    As to the contingent should's and ought's, I fail to see why you and theists generally continually look for a monster under the bed, as it were. Why aren't our own long-term happinesses sufficient? Suppose through some stroke-derived defect a person experienced pain everytime they tried to meditate, and got a migrane every time they read more than a page of mystical philosophy? In that case, it would not be good, and though they might be missing some kinds of peak experiences, perhaps mountain climbing is still open to them and a source of deep pleasure. The only possible criterion is our individual and communal happiness, integrated over time and numbers of people.

    I'd agree that brain science is far from either telling us the least of what makes spiritual practices significant and moving, or definitively elucidating their origin ... other than failing to find any origin outside the brain itself. Make of that "gap" what you will.

  2. Burk, can you email me your review of Eric's book? For some reason(s), my laptop recently won't load your blog page - it freezes faster than a deer in headlights!

    - Pat

  3. Hi, Patrick-

    Sorry, you have no discernable email on your blog site or message.

    Here is the direct link. Sorry if my site has become overly busy.

  4. Sorry Burk, that's my fault. I should have given you my email address! Fortunately, the link you provided works.

    Also, for some reason, my laptop is once again able to go to your blog without a problem!

    Stupid laptops are a grave injustice