Archive for the ‘neurotheology’ Category

Serotonin and religiosity

Thursday, January 5th, 2006

Serotonin receptor density in the brain was tied to religious orientation in a 2003 study by a Swedish team (full report and summary ).

But what is “religious orientation”, and what does low serotonin receptor density mean?

The metric used for “religious orientation” was the so-called “self-transcendence” component of the Temperament & Character Inventory, defined as “the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole.” Self-transcendance breaks down further into subcomponents; it was the “spiritual acceptance” subscale which was found to correlate (negatively) with serotonin receptor density in various brain areas. People with high spiritual acceptance numbers “tend to endorse extrasensory perception and ideation,” while “low scorers…tend to favor a reductionistic and empirical worldview.” The scale includes yes-or-no questions like, “I have had supernatural experiences” and, “I believe in a common, unifying force.”

It’s anybody’s guess what this bizarre scale is actually measuing. I’m imagining people who believe in UFOs and astral flight would probably score pretty high. On the other hand, there is no shortage of reductionist Zen masters who would score zero.

Andy Newberg weighs in with a weird comment which seems to say that we might be able to use these results to decide which religion people should be. Do a prenatal brain scan to decide whether to raise Baby as a Scientologist, Methodist, or Wiccan? He opines that the research “may be useful in a number of ways, including guiding people to practices that might better suit their disposition by understanding how people are spiritually different.”

The study’s author puts a politically correct spin on his results:

Farde also indicated that understanding the role of the brain in religion and spirituality may create more respect for plurality and the way we are religious beings. While the research does not explain whether a person has a belief system, Farde said, it might indicate why the person may be more attuned to a charismatic church as opposed to one with more order and tranquility.

But how might the serotonin system affect spirituality? “My favorite interpretation,” Farde told Psychiatric News, “is that the serotonin system regulates our perception and the variety of stimuli reaching our awareness. A person with a weak ‘sensory filter’ is used to various perceptions and may be more likely to accept religious world views.”

Before we even get there, we have to figure out what low serotonin receptor density means. As the study’s authors themselves point out, we don’t really know. It could mean the person has a fewer number of receptors that are more efficient, or a fewer number of receptors to counteract higher levels of serotonin, or lower serotonin levels. They don’t know.

The most generous thing that can be said about this study is that it “points the way to more study”.

Religion on the Brain: California ScienCenter event

Thursday, January 5th, 2006

The first event in the California ScienCenter’s “Science Matters” series was Religion on the Brain, held on November 4, 2006. It was attended by a thousand people. What an outpouring of interest in the biology of religion! What were these people looking for? Judging from the questions from the audience, some appeared to be scientists, but most were “seekers” in the informal sense—still trying to figure out what all this means. I doubt they were satisfied.

The selection of panelists looked promising: VS Ramachandran, as well as Joan Roughgarden (pictured) from Stanford (author of “Evolution’s Rainbow”), Michael Schermer (Wikipedia ) of the Skeptics Society, and Warren Brown (link), a psychologist and writer on science and religion issues.

Unfortunately, this panel ended up generating neither much heat nor light. VS was given a brief 15 minutes to present some basic research on the brain and religion, then Conan Nolan (bio), a reporter who served as the moderator, dove right into a series of unstructured questions.

Schermer, with whom I’m not familiar, is an agnostic, but apparently adopts a very simplified sociological/anthropological view of the origins of religion. The narrator failed to ask him to clarify his views on the differences between a brain-based view of religion and a societally-based one (or, to state the question another way, which aspects of religion might be brain-based and which societally-based).

We never managed to figure out what Joan Roughgarden’s agenda was, since all we heard from her were answers to ad hoc questions. Judging from those, she seems to be missing a few marbles. She claims that neurobiology (I guess she meant neuroimaging) is over-resolving. In other words, it’s seeing stuff that’s not really there? Or the stuff it’s seeing is random, or doesn’t matter? She made the incredibly odd analogy that having a religious experience is like eating a chocolate bar, and of course both affect your brain. Does it really take a PhD to figure out all the ways that eating a piece of chocolate is distinct from thinking you’ve seen God? Then she made the startling asserting that there’s nothing really extraordinary about the relationships between the brain and God. One is left to assume—she never bothered to tell us—that she thinks that God is out there somewhere and we use our brains to perceive Her in the same way we use them to perceive a butterfly. If she believes that, why did she bother to accept the invitation to the panel discussion?

We know from the blurb on her new book “Evolution and Christian Faith” that she’s “an evolutionary biologist and a Christian,” and the book “offers an elegant, deeply satisfying reconciliation of the theory of evolution and the wisdom of the Bible.” She has “scoured the Bible and scanned the natural world, finding examples time and again, not of conflict, but of harmony.” In a way I’d sort of like to read this book, but unfortunately I have to draw the line somewhere. Her previous book, “Darwin’s Rainbow,” which discusses evolution and sexual diversity, might be more fun.

Nor was Warren Brown, from Fuller Theological Seminary, given any more of a chance to say what he thought, which is apparently something about of the integration of neuroscience and Christian faith. He has edited a book called Whatever Happened to the Soul, which is said to present a nonreductive physicalist Christian anthropology, whatever that might be.

What was missing at this forum was your basic unapologetic reductionist. Ramachandran doesn’t fill the bill: he resolutely refuses to take a stand on whether God really exists. He even, in answer to a softball question about whether a future God pill would or would not give rise to ethical issues, refused to answer on the grounds that that was not a scientific question.

Perhaps in the future such worthy events can be better planned, better structured, and better executed, perhaps with the participation of a leading blogger about religion and the brain. 🙂


Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

The NYT reported in its Oct. 3 edition that your brain is to blame for out-of-body experiences (article).

According to the article: “Scientists investigating out-of-body experiences and other eerie sensations have found no sign of the supernatural. Instead, they are discovering that the feelings are the product of brain chemicals and nerve cells.”

These guys obviously forgot the Newbergian mantra that “our research in no way proves or disproves the existence of {fill in your favorite supernatural figure or religious experience here}.” They better be careful. If people start saying OBEs are the product of (not just “correlated with”) brain chemicals and nerve cells, what will be next?

The article seems a little light, especially coming from Sandra Blakeslee; maybe she was in a hurry. It fails to distinguish between OBEs, which involve “your own” body, and other presences, including those of important people like God. And it resolutely fails to mention Persinger.

25 top neurotheology research topics

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

I’ve chosen to celebrate the first anniversary of Numenware—thanks to all my avid readers for their support—with a list of 25 top neurotheology research issues, along with an index to posts that relate to each topic.

  1. Meditation. What are the short- and long-term effects of meditation of brain function and structure? (How meditation improves brain function, Meditate and thicken your cortex, Two types of meditation, two types of brain patterns?, Meditation stabilizes perception)
  2. Transcendental experience. What are the neurological analogs of transcendental experience—for instance, a particular balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems?
  3. Mental illness. Can we map the relationship between religious-themed behaviors on the part of mentally ill people such as schizophrenics and “normal” religious behavior to the neurological factors underlying that mental illness?
  4. Brain pathology. Can we correlate changes in religious behaviors with neuroarchitectural changes and pathologies, such as lobotomies? (Lobotomobile, Religion in the minimally conscious)
  5. Hallucinogens. Can we correlate religious-like behaviors that arise under the influence of hallucinogens with the know neurochemical effect of such substances? (Freedom of neuroreligion, Supremes OK getting high at church, LSD’s Albert Hoffman on the colorless substance of reality )
  6. Age. Can we correlate the development of “religious” belief (belief in the supernatural and/or afterlife) with the development of the brain in children? ) Is there a neurological correlate to the fact that major religious leaders have had their ephiphanies in their thirties? (Studying children’s belief in the afterlife, Developmental neurotheology, Neurological basis of average age of enlightenment)
  7. Species. Can we correlate the difference between primates’ primitive religious behaviors (or those of other advanced mammals) and those of humans with our knowledge of how the human brain has developed over theirs? (Neurozootheology)
  8. Gender. How do men and women differ in religious belief and behavior, and can we establish a correlation between that and how they differ in brain structure? (Neurotheology of gender)
  9. Polytheism. Can we correlate the difference between monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs with neurological factors?
  10. Motor systems. Do “religious people”—in particular meditators—have identifiable differences in motor functioning which can be related to brain structure? (Motor systems, Mirror neurons and neurotheology)
  11. East vs. West. Can a relationship be found between known differences in brain structure and function in Occidentals vs. Orientals and the types of religious beliefs and behaviors that have emerged in West and East?
  12. Agent hypothesis. Can we design experiments to prove the hypothesis that belief in God is a “spandrel” or “exaptation” of natural selection for a bias for humans to see agency in the world? (Is God an accident?, Why do humans believe in religion?, Pascal Boyer on neurotheology)
  13. Dreaming. What is the correlation between experiences of God or the supernatural while dreaming vs. while awake and known differences in neurological processing in the two states? (Dreaming of God)
  14. Hypnosis. Is religious belief a form of, or share mechanisms with, hypnosis? (Hypnosis and cognitive processing)
  15. Music. Religious ceremony often involves music, and music may evoke religious feelings; meaning that the neurology of music may be able to provide insight into the neurology of religion. (Neuromusicology , Mozart effect II, Religious music in your brain)
  16. Zen. Can we find neurotheological references in historical Buddhist literature such as the writings of Dogen? (The sound of one hemisphere clapping)
  17. Genetics. In addition to historiocultural, “meme”-like factors underlying religion, could there be specific genetic factors as well, such as ones that might predispose certain people to religious behavior or belief? (Gautama’s Darwinian boost, The Mystical Mind)
  18. Aliens. Could belief in aliens or UFOs share an underlying neurological mechanism with the belief in God or the supernatural? (What is it like to believe you were kidnapped by an alien?)
  19. Fringe phenomena. Are phenomena such as possession and stigmata real, and if so can we understand their neural basis? (Neurology of possession , Stigmata)
  20. Emotions. Emotions are a hot area in neuroscience; can we relate the knowledge gained to religious emotions, such as love of God? (Neuroscience of divine love)
  21. Near-death experiences. What is the neurology underlying NDEs and how does it connect to the fact that they often involve religious imagery? (Adaptive value of near-death experiences
  22. Speaking in tongues. What are the neural mechanisms related to glossolalia, and how are they related to neurology known to be religiously relevant?

Neurology of possession

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

54% of Americans believe in demons, demonic possession, and exorcisms (Wikipedia). That’s not surprising, because most believe in the Bible, which tells many stories (especially in the New Testament) of demons. In one famous case, Jesus cast out a legion of malevolent spirits from a man into 2000 pigs who then leaped into the ocean (Mark 5)—offering a new twist on the old koan about dogs possessing Buddha-nature.

Possession and exorcism are enjoying increased visibility. This year we had another exorcism movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (IMDB), based loosely on the true story of a demonic possession in Germany. And it was widely reported that Pope Benedict XVI spoke to a group of exorcists right after his investiture, praising their “important work”.

Exorcisms play an important role in Roman Catholic theology. Baptisms, actually, are a kind of mini-exorcism . In the past, the church also taught that every newborn was possessed by an indwelling demon because of its intimate contact with its mother’s birth canal, a demon which had to be exorcised with a special prayer. Pope John Paul II is reported to have performed three exorcisms during his 23-year papacy. New exorcism guidelines were issued by the Church in 1999, the first revisions in more than 350 years. Devils can now be cast out in local languages, not just Latin. The new rules counsel that less than 1% of people coming to the Church for exorcisms are really possessed—the rest merely need psychiatric treatment. (Of course, other flavors of Christianity as well as non-Christian religions—including Hinduism and Islam—have possession-related theologies as well.)

The “official” secular view of exorcisms, in contrast, is that alleged cases of demonic possession are “merely” brain disorders, such as epilepsy, Tourette’s, schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder. However, these medical explanations of the possession phenomenon may not be able to explain some aspects of possession, such as great physical strength (reported in both Biblical and more recent episodes of possession). Of course, as with stigmata, there may be cases of people faking possession, or acting out possession, but it seems highly unlikely that all demonic infestations could be written off as fakery.

Like other religious manifestations, demonic possession is of deep interest to neurotheology. It’s known to be connected to other phenomena like speaking in tongues (some of the possessed speak in unknown languages). You can think of it as a sort of converse to religious megalomania. Most importantly, it’s a known, identifiable phenomenon which can be studied and measured.

In fact, that’s just what Channel 4 in the UK attempted last year, performing an exorcism on live TV while monitoring the subject’s brain (Telegraph article). At the outset, this project seemed profoundly promising. According to an article in Scotland’s Sunday Herald, C4’s Matthew Robinson “highlighted the programme’s scientific elements and insisted the experiment was legitimate”, saying

This is a unique scientific investigation of a much-misunderstood religious practice. Exorcism remains shrouded in mystery. It has always been considered off-limits as far as scientific investigation is concerned, like most apparently inexplicable religious phenomena. But the emergence of neurotheology is changing that.

According to the pre-event publicity, Dr Peter Fenwick (Google search), the noted NDE expert, would monitor the subject’s brain activity. The TV exorcism would be performed by an Anglican priest while cutting-edge neuro-imaging technology monitored activity in the adult male subject’s brain.

The reality was much less enlightening. Inexplicably, C4’s own website appears to contain no content about the show other than some background information about neurotheology. Dr. Fenwick disappears, and instead we are left with the unknown Dr. Jonathan Bird, a “neuro-psychiatrist” who said he observed “very little activity in the parietal region of the brain”, this analysis not based on the promised “cutting edge neuroimaging technology” but rather a plain old electroencephalograph. He also noted “some asymmetry in the temporal lobe”, concluding, “whether that is a brain process or a spiritual process, I leave to the experts.” Where are those experts when you really need them!?

Other aspects of the on-the-air stunt also don’t ring true. We are told that the subject, named “Colin”, claimed he had been “possessed by evil spirits” for many years—but are given no information on his symptomology. The “deliverance” consisted mainly of prayer, strangely devoid of rotating heads or projectile vomiting. Afterwards, Colin made the odd comment that “it was the most relaxed deliverance I have ever had.” Well, how many exactly has he had?

A robust theory of neurotheology will include a compelling story about diabolical possessions . Too bad C4’s program failed so miserably in helping us arrive at one.

The Mystical Mind

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

In The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religous Experience, Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg (picture) sketch out their framework for neurotheology. Famous for their neuroimaging studies of meditating monks and praying nuns, the pair’s work is considered ground-breaking. None other than Fraser Watts lauds their ideas as “the best available neuropsychological theory of religion,” and Publisher’s Weekly called the book “exhilarating” and “fascinating”. Not content to just illuminate the biological aspects of religion, the researchers conclude their book with a discussion of how neurotheology could serve as the basis for a “metatheology” or even a “megatheology”. At the same time, they assiduously maintain a facade of evenhandedness, claiming not to know or even care whether God really exists, and stridently denying anything reductionist about their approach. It’s like saying you’re going to study the Man in the Moon, then professing complete ignorance about whether he actually exists or not, claiming that you are just studying the lunar features that may or may not constitute his face.

If this book represents the state-of-the-art in neurotheology, we are in deep trouble. It’s intellectually sloppy, disorganized, selective, and unscientific.

The problems start with the book’s title, and the word “mind” used therein, which the authors admit they have no idea how to define. They say, “The mind is the name for the intangible realities that the brain produces.” They don’t do much better with the word “mystical” in the title, giving new meaning to the word circularity with their definition that “the idea that the brain and mind are mystical suggests that the function of the brain and mind can lead to mystical experiences.” They then bounce to the idea that the mind/brain is just, well, intrinsically mystical.

But perhaps those are just semantic quibbles. The problems deepen when they start actually laying out theories, starting with the so-called “cognitive operators.” These are

primary functional components of the mind, specific functions that specific [unspecified] parts of the brain perform as part of the mind..analogous to the operators used in mathematics. The functioning of the cognitive operators is what produces a sense of “mind.” The brain structures and neurons that work to generate the functions of the operators are part of the overall structure and function of the brain. Thus brain function results in the function of the cognitive operators and therefore results in the function of the mind.

I quote at length to demonstrate the utter incoherence of their writing.

The seven primary cognitive operators that “comprise the most basic functions of the mind” are:

  1. holistic
  2. reductionist
  3. causal
  4. abstractive
  5. binary
  6. quantitative
  7. emotional

Newberg and d’Aquili present no justification for these operators—they are made up out of thin air. They provide no neural correlates of them. They present no evidence that any of these actually exist, or that their list is comprehensive. One can only conclude that they worked backward to come up with these particular operators. Let’s see, we have transcendant states, so there must a holistic operator; we have images of God as the ultimate mover, so that would need a causal operator; primitive myths involve good and evil so let’s put in a binary operator.

I think phrenology would probably do at least as good a job of helping us understand religion as these made-up operators.

In a future post, I will review Newberg and d’Aquili’s specific theories as to the neurophysiology of (one kind of) religious experience.

Developmental neurotheology

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Children respond easily and naturally to the concept of God. They assume his omniscience, for instance, as a matter of course. In one study which asked children what kinds of beings could know everything, specifically what was in a closed box, 5 and 6-year-olds answered that only God and an orange kitty with special vision could. They had already figured out that their mothers did not know everything (which is what the 3 and 4-year-olds had believed). Other studies have shown that children associate God with the creation of natural objects, as opposed to the humans who create artificial objects. Yet additional studies in cultures with a hierarchy of supernatural beings showed the children could order the beings by their power, from God on down to the sun and rocks. Most studies contradict the notion that children build their notions of God as superpowerful versions of their parents.

At the same time, a prodigious amount of research in the field of developmental neuroscience is gradually illuminating the incredibly elaborate process by which our brains take shape in the womb and develop through puberty.

What’s remarkable is that no one has pulled together these two threads—children’s concepts of God, and the development of children’s brains—into a science I will call “developmental neurotheology”. A robust research program could track the parallel development of the child’s brain and his concept of God to find key linkages, expanding our knowledge of both fields. This, not transcranial stimulation or made-up theories of God modules in the brain, is what neurotheology should be about.

Book review: The Sacred Neuron

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

With a title like The Sacred Neuron, and the subtitle “Extraordinary new discoveries linking science and religion”, this book would seem to be of potentially crucial importance for our nascent field of neurotheology.

This book does indeed deserve a prize: for the most misleading packaging of the year. The brain is discussed on no more than half-a-dozen pages, and at that is just warmed-over basics from Ledoux, Damasio, and Rolls. Looking up “neuron”, the alleged subject of the book, in the index yields a mere five entries. Bowker’s knowledge of neuroscience could have been obtained from browsing this blog for about five minutes—basic stuff about dual pathways and the amygdala. There are no “extraordinary new discoveries” presented.

What the book does do is something some people might be interested in—to adopt a religious perspective in asking why humans form ethical and aesthetic judgments, or why they fight wars. Apprently, it began life as a lecture series given by the author at Oxford on the theme “The Appeal to History as an Integral Part of Christian Apologetic.” Gives you a flavor.

No doubt there is a much larger market for a book on neurons and religion than on English-style musings on ethics and values and history and religion. But that is no excuse for engaging in such gross mislabeling of a book. Shame on the publisher, who presumably suggested this, and the author, who must have agreed with it.

Reductionist neurotheology

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

A friend to whom I was explaining neurotheology asked me what the major competing hypotheses or schools of thoughts were in the field. I think there are two: reductionism vs. holism; and direct vs. indirect instrumentalism.

Reductionism (in the scientific sense) says that religious experiences are an entirely physical process we can (eventually) explain scientifically; holism posits there is “something else” there.

The second contrast is between direct instrumentalism, which says that the brain contains evolved structures which directly relate to, or “cause”, religious behavior and experience. Indirect instrumentalism, on the other hand, says that the “hard-wired circuits” in the brain support certain generic human behavioral patterns from which the religious behavior or experience in turn derives.

But today let’s take a look at the reductionist vs. holist dichotomy. Persinger is often cited as an advocate of the former, which, informally, holds that religious behavior/experience is derived from, and explained by, physical characteristics and behaviors of the brain (or entire organism). Newberg, in contrast, represents the holistic viewpoint, which asserts, or at a minimum leaves open the possibility, that “brain scan images are merely detecting the effect of a divine presence or fundamental level of reality on the human brain.”

Of course, philosophers have spent entire careers investigating the meaning of, and types of, reductionism. That’s because it’s complicated. Some of the problems in reductionist explanations include:

  • How does an identifying an underlying construct constitute an “explanation”? If we say the construct is the “cause”, then we still need to explicate the meaning of causality.
  • The explanation may itself need to be explained. We run the danger of recursing endlessly, or at least down to the subatomic level.
  • If the explanation dissects the phenomenon into components, we also run the risk of missing non-compositional (“emergent”) aspects of the overall phenomenon.
  • The explanation must demonstrate that it is superior to other, competing explanations.
  • The explanation could be successful but not useful. For instance, most people have some degree of existential wonder or doubt, that they feel the need to comprehend or assuage, but a reductionist account of religion might not help them.
  • Finally, a reductionist explanation may be perceived as insulting, or belittling value systems that some hold dear. Although this objection is political in nature, to the extent that science itself is political, it may be best not to alienate such people with an overly reductionist standpoint.

In the case of neurotheology, regardless of the abstract merits of a reductionist approach, to which I am sympathetic, Persinger and his fellow reductionists do themselves no favors to the extent they trumpet neuroimaging results of meditators without asking what intermediate explanatory structures might exist or how meditation relates to religious experience and behavior as a whole; they identify “God genes” based on skimpy statistical evidence; and they fail to place religious behavior and experience in a social, historical, and anthropological context that might lead to alternative renditions.

The so-called holists, however, hardly come out looking better. Wrapping themselves in the cloak of religious acceptance, some attempt to make a virtue out of fence-straddling. Typical of this fuzzy-headedness is Newberg’s statement that “whether the brain may be derived from some fundamental or divine level of reality is a question that remains to be clearly answered”, a bizarre assertion given the absence of any clue about what that “fundamental or divine level of reality” could possibly be. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he is simply pandering to believers in supernatural beings or unspecified universal forces.

Personally, I believe that as the study of the biology of religion progresses, with more innovative hypotheses and carefully designed experiments, eventually leading to a coherent theoretical framework, generating verifiable predictions such as demonstrably more effective types of meditative practices, we will reach the point where we do understand the physical processes that “explain” religious behavior and experience, probably as mediated or influenced by generic human behavioral structures. At the same time, however deep that scientific understanding is, it will not satisfy the human yearning to understand existence, which, after all, the current depth of scientific knowledge about cosmology or evolution has not managed to satisfy either. Humans will doubtlessly continue to pursue a variety of fruitful, meaningful ways to quench their thirst for existential knowledge.

The picture above is since Matisse’s Joie de Vivre, considered an examplar of reductionism in art, from the way it breaks the underlying scene into its component physical or visual aspects.

God and the brain in your gut

Monday, January 24th, 2005

You’ve got neurons all up and down your alimentary canal. They monitor digestion and track enzyme levels. They control peristalsis. They give you that tight feeling in your stomach when you’re scared. And they’re responsible for bringing back up that bad burrito you had.

This is the “enteric nervous system” (ENS), dubbed the second brain by Dr. Michael D. Gerson, author of the book by the same name. It’s the neural equivalent of the second steering wheel at the back of a fire truck. Consisting of hundreds of millions of neurons, it’s a miniature version of the brain in your head, embedded along your entire digestive tract from esophagus to anus.

One hundred years ago, Dr. Byron Robinson, an early ENS researcher, waxed poetic in his book “The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain”:

…in the abdomen there exists a brain of wonderful power maintaining eternal, restless vigilance over its viscera. It presides over organic life. It dominates the rhythmical function of viscera…it has the power of a brain…it is the center of life itself.

The study of this abdominal brain has important real-world applications. The ENS has been tied to migraine headaches, autism, Alzheimer’s, and even depression—although you’d probably be depressed too if you had irritable bowel syndrome. Understanding the intelligence in the gastrointestinal tract could be key to solving these stubborn medical riddles. For instance, in one study a thorough bowel cleansing resulted in notable improvement in children suffering from autism.

Then there are the rarer diseases such as the horrifying Chagas disease found in Mexico and South America, where a parasite crawls under your skin, triggering an autoimmune response which attacks the ENS, eventually leading the intestines to self-destruct.

What are the implications for those of us interested in biology and God? Will enemas help propel us to enlightenment? I hereby christen this field neurogastroenterotheology, after “neurogastroenterology”, the term for study of the abdominal brain itself.

Religion is intimately connected with the digestive system. For instance, the three major monotheistic religions all have a tradition of fasting. This is commonly interpreted as an pseudo-ascetic practice, but could the real point be to give your abdominal brain a rest? Catholicism also calls its holy days “feasts”, and of course has communion, although that probably wouldn’t be enough food to kick the ENS into gear.

Zen aficionados don’t meditate on a full stomach—the common wisdom being that that ensures your stomach isn’t stealing blood flow from your real brain. But perhaps there is a more direct connection to the state of absorption. After all, many biological theories of meditation hold that the samadhi-like state derives from understimulation (or overstimulation, depending on who you ask) or the parasympathetic nervous system, or balance between it and the sympathetic nervous system. Well, the ENS is often regarded as the third non-cerebral nervous system, after the sympathetic and parasympathetic, so maybe it is involved in the pattern of lowered stimulus in meditation. In addition, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are connected to the enteral nervous system; they are the pipeline over which it talks to the brain in our head, much like two networked computers, in one analogy.

Perhaps those Buddha statues with big fat stomachs are trying to tell us they had achieved intestinal satori. And the focus on the hara (stomach) in Zen is certainly no coincidence—except instead of focusing on it you can focus with it, now that you know it’s got a mind of its own.

Intriguingly, the digestive system is associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, which is in turn associated with religious-like behaviors such as thinking that you’re Jesus.

According to researchers:

Temporal lobe seizure activity usually arises in or involves the amygdala. It is not surprising, therefore, that patients who have seizures involving the temporal lobe have GI symptoms, since discharges arising in the amygdala can be transmitted to the gut via dense direct projections to the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus. In addition, sympathetic pathways from the amygdala to the GI tract can be activated via the hypothalamus…there are direct sensory pathways from the bowel via the vagus nerve to the solitary nucleus of the medulla which is heavily connected to the amygdala. These can be activated during intestinal contractions.

Another researcher notes:

Another example of the abdominal connection in epilepsy is the aura which is common in certain types of epilepsy. For example, temporal lobe epileptic seizures frequently begin with an aura. In neurological terms, an aura is actually a mild seizure which precedes the primary seizure. It can be thought of as a warning that a seizure is about to happen. Most often, auras manifest as an altered consciousness or peculiar sensation. The most common aura is of vague gastric distress, ascending up into the chest.

All this is quite circumstantial, so we’ll have to add ENS-related topics to our program for neurotheology research. A better understanding of our gastro-brain might allow us to revise the meditation instructions Dogen gave us in Fukanzazengi for the first time in 750 years.