Archive for the ‘neurotheology’ Category

LSD’s Albert Hoffman on the colorless substance of reality

Monday, May 8th, 2006

LSD and other pyschotropic drugs (including DMT; previous post) are likely to play a key role in any neurotheology research program. They evoke behaviors and experiences which clearly have much in common with the religious and are experimental design-friendly.

The New York Times ran an interview with Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD, on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The following struck me:

“I was completely astonished by the beauty of nature,” he said, laying a slightly gnarled finger alongside his nose, his longish white hair swept back from his temples and the crown of his head. He said any natural scientist who was not a mystic was not a real natural scientist. “Outside is pure energy and colorless substance,” he said. “All of the rest happens through the mechanism of our senses. Our eyes see just a small fraction of the light in the world. It is a trick to make a colored world, which does not exist outside of human beings.”

Science and Buddhism on craving and suffering

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

The magazine Utne has a series of articles in its June 2006 issue relating to topics such as neuroethics and neural implants. The one of interest to us, Saffron Robes and Lab Coats, discusses a recent Stanford forum entitled Craving, Suffering and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience , attended by the Dalai Lama, and presents some useful insights on the science and religion debate, specifically on the approach to craving and suffering. Quotes:

“The scientists and the Buddhists agreed that the type of craving that leads to an unhealthy life is a misapprehension of reality—desire taken to a destructive level. Buddhist practice holds that the correct view of reality comes through contemplation, while neurosicence focuses on localizing the brain activity associated with craving…”

“While their approaches to suffering may sound different, Mobley [William Mobley, director of Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute] said, neuroscience and Buddhism both acknowledge the Four Noble Truths regarding suffering. There is the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to end suffering.”

Glossolalia recordings

Friday, May 5th, 2006
, interspersed with singing and preaching (11MB). Any readers know of others?

Biology of zazen

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Giuseppe Pagnoni of Emory University (pictured) is doing fMRI studies of zazen (newspaper article ), comparing 15 experienced meditators and 15 controls, with a focus on attention and inhibition.

Pagnoni has also done neuroimaging studies of social interaction.

According to the newspaper article, Pagnoni is taking a more experimental approach than usually seen. Instead of simply looking at meditators’ brains and seeing what parts “light up”, he actually plans to put neurologically damaged subjects through a meditation training program so he can compare them to people with normal brain functioning. This is the kind of experiment we need many more of.

Brad Warner recently wrote about participating in this study (blog entry). Apparently Pagnoni is doing EEGs on meditators after having them do some cognitive exercises, followed by fMRI scans the following day involving the subject entering a meditative states and “doing some weird computer tasks”. The combination of EEG and fMRI sounds potentially fruitful. But how can you do mental exercises while “in a meditative state”?

Neurotheology researcher makes Time 100

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Richard Davidson, the Dalai Lama collaborator who scanned Tibetan monks’ brains, was named to the Time 100, the newsmagazine’s list of 100 people shaping our world.

Time noted that “his research legitimizes, for scientists as well as monks, the study of internal states of consciousness by linking them to the objective reality of electrical activity in the central nervous system. It also gives us a handle for understanding spiritual experiences that have heretofore seemed purely subjective and beyond the reach of scientific investigation.”

One can hardly imagine a better demonstration of the how the importance of the study of the biology of religion is increasingly being recognized in today’s world, but hopes that research on important neurotheology topics other than just the biology of meditation, which is Davidson’s focus, will also be given priority in the future—the biology of belief, to name just one.

Book Review: The God Delusion

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Amazon) is a snappy, readable book about, basically, how God doesn’t exist (or exists only with vanishingly low probability). Greater minds than my own have already reviewed the book (NYT ) and pronounced it brilliant or stupid or flawed or whatever. Here I’ll confine myself to neurotheological and Buddhist aspects.

The most basic problem with this book is that it completely fails to take into account the connection between religion and any process of personal development and/or the biological “correlates” of that process. To the extent religion is to some extent a highly corrupted version of meaningful, biologically-based insights about how to be happier, many of Dawkins’ points would need to be modified or recast.

On p. 37 Dawkins claims he will not be “concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems of philosophies of life.” That’s a great distinction to be made, but at the same time Buddhism and Western monotheism are similar in that they are both socially dominant systems of belief and thought, and rather than arbitrarily excluding one, why doesn’t Dawkins incorporate Buddhism into his thinking as a way to better define the topological contours of religion and religious behavior ?

Surprisingly for a biologist, Dawkins mentions “neurotheology” only once, in a dismissive tone. On pp. 168-169, he says:

The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain. I shall not pursue the neurological idea os a ‘god centre’ int he brain because I am not concerned here with proximate questions…If neuroscientists find a ‘god centre’ in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me will still want to understand the natural selection pressure that favoured it.

This seems like a particular devious way to dodge neurotheological questions. Perhaps the existence of a ‘god centre’ (more accurately, religiously-connected neural circuitry or structures) can be considered a “proximate” issue, but attempting to understanding it, rather than simply ignoring it, could help in grasping the “ultimate” cause, which for Dawkins is the Darwinian one. Would Dawkins focus on the evolutionary reason for the existence of the visual faculty without bothering to learn about the structure of the eye?

The cutest idea in this book, new at least to me, is that religion survives due an evolutionary tendency for children to believe what their parents say. This provides a scenario for a gradual decline over decades and centuries of Bible-thumping religions, as in each generation some percentage of believers, however, small, discard the religion of their parents and produce non-religious kids, as I did—to the extent that one day my oldest son came home from elementary school and asked me, “Daddy, who is this guy they were talking about in class today called ‘Cheeses’?”. Compare this to Dennett in Breaking the Spell, who provides no roadmap other than that people will or should stop believing just because he thinks religion is so stupid.

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Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns

Monday, January 30th, 2006

Mario Beauregard has fMRI’d nuns having semi-mystical states and found that a whole range of brain regions (including the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, left brainstem, and extra-striate visual cortex), demonstrating that mystical experience (or at least the memories of mystical experience these Christian nuns called forth) were involved, thus supposedly disprovnig the “God spot” theory.

Beauregard’s article in Science Direct uses the term “spiritual neuroscience,” which I had never heard before. We’re all eager for good new terms to replace “neurotheology,” but I don’t think this suggestion will fly. It evokes images of scientists in white coats having spiritual experiences as they do their neuroscience research.

I guess political correctness is catching on in the neurotheology biz. Here’s Beauregard’s disclaimer from the article:

With respect to this issue, it is of paramount importance to fully appreciate that elucidating the neural substrates of these experiences does not diminish or depreciate their meaning and value, and that the external reality of “God” can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed by delineating the neural correlates of RSMEs.

Beauregard also uses the term RSME, for “religious/spiritual/mystical experience”. Is this well-known terminology, or something he invented? It seems useful.

The research was supported by Metanexus , an organization which “advances research, education and outreach on the constructive engagement of science and religion.”

WebMD provides a brief overview of the research.

Meeting reality halfway

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

MIT World has put up a video here of Jeff Hawkins talking about Numenta and his Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM) model.

It’s a bit strange. On the one hand Jeff is a kind of naive realist. But then he develops a theory of brain functioning critically dependent on top-down, inside-out feedback and guidance systems. In other words, he says we see donuts because we already know what donuts are supposed to look like. He “understands” that “we” are copartners in constructing our experience of reality—but doesn’t “understand” that he “understands” it.

The same point, from a Buddhist, cognitive science standpoint, is the argument made in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela (details ), Evan T. Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. They present a post-cognitivist, post-connectionist view, integrating subject and object, which they call “enactive cognitive science”. Theirs is a “middle way”, between a mechanical view of cognition as a set of robotic sensors, and a simplistic “it’s all in your mind” mentalism. Varela, of course, is the late Chilean biologist known for, among other things, inventing the word neurophenomenology. This book may be one of the few philosophy books in the world with a lengthy explanation of animals whose visual color space is 2-dimensional, or even 5-dimensional (some birds)! The authors’ call for science to incorporate personal experience into its methodologies echoes that of the Dalai Lama—not surprising, since Varela was a student of Tibetan Buddhism.

Of course, Dogen is talking about exactly the same thing in Genjo Koan , where he tells us:

When we experience sights and sounds, body and mind outstretched, we do so directly, not as reflections in a mirror, not as the moon and the water.

The “outstretching” of our body and mind here is precisely the feedback loop down from our beliefs and learned patterns. The word “directly” is 親しく (shitashiku), which could probably also be translated as “intimately”. Dogen is giving us his basic model of cognition, still clear as a bell after 750 years. (Although you could never tell this from other translations.)

The last two phrases are not mere throw-away Zen-like images. Dogen is specifically contrasting his model with two alternatives. The first, “reflections in a mirror”, is the robot eye. The second, “moon and water”, is the “Matrix”-like simulacrum.

Dogen is saying, in other words, our outstretched body and mind provide a context which shapes and interprets sights and sounds—meeting reality halfway.

Jaynes on speaking in tongues

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a fascinating phenomenon with huge potential for teaching us more about the relationship between the brain and religion. Glossolalistic behavior has been reported in a wide variety of cultures, including Tibet, and is thus by no means specific to Christianity. Julian Jaynes (previous post), not surprisingly, positions it in the context of his bicameral brain theories. (Recent research supports this—showing greater right-brain activation after glossalalic episodes.)

Jaynes emphasizes that speaking in tongues inevitably happens in the context of groups and religious services, after various “induction” procedures such as prayer or ritual, and in the presence of strong charismatic figure. His explanation is that these factors are necessary to produce what he calls the “collective cognitive imperative” necessary to go into a deep trance.

The behavior is also widely viewed as being learned, whether consciously or not. Some researchers think it can be learned outside of a religious context: Nicholas Spanos found that 20% of subjects began speaking in tongues spontaneously after listening to genuine samples, the number rising to 70% after further training. Other reports are that people who learn glossolallia in a religious setting can then perform it anywhere, even while driving a car.

Jaynes cites research that glossolalics of any language, and from any religion, make the same, meaningless sounds, which are not human language but rather a pseudo-language, or, less charitably, “babbling”. The use of the term “babbling” is interesting because it’s often applied to babies’ speech acts, and some researchers believe that glossolalia is indeed a form of linguistic regression. They point out the the number of vowels and consonants uses is restricted (by one account, an average of only six phonemes used compared to the 30 typical of adult language).

Jaynes’ neurological explanation is that “rhythmical discharges from subcortical strcutures are coming into play, released by the trance state of lesser cortical control.”

All of the above, however, would seem to be overly objective in nature. Glossalalics themselves report a feeling of release and happiness after episodes—peace, joy, and inner harmony are some of the words that have been used (some also self-report that their speech was meaningful). Perhaps the relaxed, restored body/brain state resulting from speaking in tongues is related to that achieved through meditative practice. Maybe the practice ties into the neurochemical reward structure. (Other effects reported include relief of pain and a strengthened immune system.)

This is somewhat consistent with 1 Corinthians 14:1-14, where Paul emphasizes that a person who speaks in tongues is talking to “God”, and will grow spiritually in the process.

Art courtesy of Ola Rinta-Koski . Larger version is here.

The brain protein keeping you from enlightenment

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Neuroplasticity is a plausible—some might say obvious—hypothesis for the mechanism by which humans develop spiritually. For instance, the relatively slow speed of neurogenesis would account for the time required under development protocols such as meditation.

Now, Harvard scientists have identified a brain protein that may be responsible for the lack of plasticity in the adult brain—at least in rodents. Mutant mice lacking the protein, even after reaching adulthood, migrated eye function in the brain when the poor animals had one of their eyes sewn shut and light shined into the other, something heretofore seen only in young mice.

As reported in Science Express, the researchers found that mutant mice lacking a protein called PirB have more robust “cortical ocular dominance (OD) plasticity” at all ages. They note that “PirB is also expressed in many other regions of the CNS, suggesting that it may function broadly to stabilize neural circuits.”

Perhaps promotion of neuroplasticity will be one focus of future development of neurotheopharmaceuticals.

See also the press release, and Techorati links .

Image: neurons grown in culture and labeled to measure plasticity in a living system (courtesy of Liu Laboratory, MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences)