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Four Ways Our Brains Experience God

Matt's Blog

I don't read blogs, so I don't know why I expect you to read mine.  But every now and then I'll run across something that I think SOMEONE SOMEWHERE might enjoy reading.  Like maybe my wife.  So Michele, here's some random thoughts you might enjoy.

Four Ways Our Brains Experience God

Matt Herndon

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a former Christian Scientist who grew up believing that a mysterious divine force could heal her body through prayer, and that medicines should be avoided.  She left Christian Scientism as a young woman when prayer didn’t help her get rid of a fever, but Tylenol did.

To her surprise, her religious quest was only then beginning.  Bradley Hagerty never left her spiritual roots, and became a mainline Christian when, on a cool night in 1995, she met God.  (At least she thinks she did.)  A journalist working for the LA Times at the time, she was conducting an interview with a cancer-stricken woman named Kathy who shared with her the message of Christianity.  In the middle of the interview, while sitting outside Kathy’s church, something happened:  

I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart start beating a little faster.  Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean.  The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us.  I glanced at Kathy.  She had fallen silent in mid-sentence.  Neither of us spoke.  Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but not touch.  I was paralyzed.  I could manage only shallow breaths.  After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away.  We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. 

Bradley Hagerty wanted to believe that God had “broken and entered” her life, and she did.  But as a trained journalist—working now as the religion correspondent for NPR—she was skeptical.  Had she, in fact, experienced God?  Or was it something else?  If something else…then, what? 

Bradley Hagerty: A skeptic who wants to believe...

Bradley Hagerty: A skeptic who wants to believe...

That was the question that drove Bradley Hagerty’s research, compiled in her 2009 book "Fingerprints of God."  She wanted to get to the bottom of whatever had happened to her, and the countless other people who claim to have brushed up against the divine.  She read every book she could about the nature of spiritual experiences.  She interviewed people from all types of faith traditions with all types of encounters.  She also met with every type of scientist--believers and skeptics--who might have something to say about this type of thing.  Along the way, the author discovered the growing field of “neuro-theology,” in which religious experiences are subjected to the rigors of brain scans, personality tests, and psycho-analysis. 

I read Bradley Hagerty’s book because I, too, am interested in the phenomenon of religious experience.  I’ve never been paralyzed by the numinous.  I’ve never been miraculously healed or had a vision of Jesus on a horse in the clouds.  But I’ve felt God, and even think I’ve actually heard his voice from time to time. 

But did I, really?  Just because something seems divine doesn’t mean it’s evidence of a transcendent Power.  I imagine things all the time—like my imaginary childhood friend Bubby, who felt as real as the bullies who helped create his consoling, fictional presence in the first place.  Plenty of the scientists Bradley Hagerty interviews explain away such experiences as nothing more than neurological events (such as epilepsy or migranes) triggered by certain circumstances.  The release of serotonin can activate certain regions of our brain, causing us to lose touch with our surroundings and experience what we perceive to be another reality.  This often includes sensing disembodied forces and hearing voices that have other perfectly natural explanation, considering the evolutionary forces which have conditioned our brains to interpret reality in supernatural, yet fictional, way. 

Are these scientists right? 

Bradley Hagerty concludes that while they might be right, they probably aren’t.  There are just too many stories of divine encounters with elements that can’t be explained naturalistically.  (You should read her book to see if you agree with her.)  As she reasons, just because spiritual experiences take place in the brain doesn’t mean they’re not divine events.  Like when Harry Potter is dead in the train station at the end of The Deathly Hollows and asks Dumbledore, “Is this real?  Or is it just happening inside my head?” As the good professor explains, “Of course it’s happening inside your head.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” 

This is as real as the dead Voldemort baby under the bench, Harry.

This is as real as the dead Voldemort baby under the bench, Harry.

In other words, if God is real, then he gave us brains, and our brains are how we experience life—and also how we experience God.  Along those lines, Bradley Hagerty explains that lots of things can trigger those parts of our brains that allow us to experience the divine.  In reading her book, I identified four of them.  I should say at the outset, though, that I do not recommend all of them.  You’ll see what I mean. 

1.  Be born with a certain type of super-spiritual brain. 

According to the author, some people are just born spiritual—like Bradley Hagerty herself.  By her own admission, the author comes from a family of devout believers that have a surprising ability to channel power from the unseen other side.  She and her mother both had identical and very strong scores on a test that measured their “self-transcendence”—an inclination toward spirituality.  Her review of twin studies suggests the same: some people are just born with an ability to connect with God. 

My brain's more spiritual than your brain...

My brain's more spiritual than your brain...

This sounds weird, but it makes sense.  If spirituality is mediated in the brain, and our brains are given to us as genetic offspring of our parents’ brains, then some people have brains more able to connect with the divine.  They have bigger antennas and are better able to receive messages from the other side.  We all know people like that—people who seem to have an innate ability to sense God’s presence. 

I definitely do NOT have one of those brains.  My brain is really good at other things, like sleeping.  Maybe your brain is like mine.  But that’s why I try to hang out with people who DO seem to have this type of neurology, and not be skeptical about what they sense from the Spirit.  Maybe they know things I don’t know.  In a wonderful phrase, Bradley Hagerty calls these people “spiritual virtuosos.”  Spiritual virtuosos are those people whose super-spiritual brains enable them to connect with the divine.  If we’re not one, we should all get to know one. 

Well that's ONE way to meet Jesus.

Well that's ONE way to meet Jesus.

2.  Try psychedelic drugs. 

In a very interesting chapter, Bradley Hagerty visits a Navajo Indian reservation to observe a Native American ritual in which participants received peyote—a controlled psychedelic substance—to reach an altered state.  One of the participants—a woman named Mary Ann—claimed to have met a dead person during the encounter, and have been healed of painful shingles.  Countless people who have tripped on LSD or enjoyed an illegal mushroom or two claim similar, transcendent experiences. 

To be sure, I am not recommending taking drugs to meet God.  (As a friend’s bumper sticker wisely says: “Say No to drugs, and Yes to Jesus.”)  For now, taking drugs is illegal.  But if there is another layer of reality all around us that can somehow be mediated through certain regions of the brain, and if certain controlled substances can activate those regions, can you blame Mary Ann (or your college roommate) for trying?  And are we surprised that sometimes it seems to work? 

3.  Die.  Then come back to life a completely changed person. 

Move towards the light.  Or not....

Move towards the light.  Or not....

Several chapters of the book are devoted to NDEs, or near-death experiences.  (Again, not something I recommend.)  Bradley Hagerty interviewed dozens of people who were pronounced dead and then came back to life—but not before having some sort of experience on the other side.  The experiences involved all the classic components of NDEs: floating above their bodies, seeing dead relatives, meeting God, seeing light at the end of a tunnel, and feeling at complete peace and at one with the universe.  According to the neuro-theological research, these people had experiences which permanently altered the neural pathways in their brain.  Their brains tended to look more like those of super-spiritual people.  And sure enough, many of the subjects of NDEs report a complete change in outlook after seeing the other side.  It’s as though the NDE “jump-started” their spiritual lives. 

There is, of course, vociferous debate over the validity of these near-death experiences.  Many scientists dismiss these studies as fringe science, at best.  We are right to be skeptical.  But the evidence is hard to interpret from a purely naturalistic framework.  And while we can’t plan trips to the other side, we sometimes do have sudden moments that force us to reconsider the divine: a particularly powerful sermon, or a dramatic encounter with life or death.  Not all NDEs are created alike. 

4.  Practice, practice, practice.  Preferably with Buddhist monks. 

Even though there are spiritual freaks who are given spiritual brains at birth, the rest of us are not hopeless.  As neurologists have discovered, the brain is highly plastic.  It can be molded and rewired, allowing us to develop parts of our brain that serve certain functions.  Just like we can build our biceps with curls, we can improve those parts of our brain that allow us to sense something more. 

Anyone can pray.  (With the right-colored robe, that is.)

Anyone can pray.  (With the right-colored robe, that is.)

But like any virtuoso will tell you, it takes practice.  Bradley Hagerty writes of Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin.  Davidson worked with the Dalai Lama to measure the brains of some of his monks, who have spent between 10,000 to 50,000 hours communing with the divine.  (At least, they thought that’s what they were doing.)  As suspected, their brains are different from your average Joe’s.  Their ability to reach altered states of consciousness has been well-honed after decades of discipline.  Their lives of peace and love confirm it. 

Of course, who has that kind of time and discipline?  Every time I try to pray I struggle to stay awake, until I am rudely interrupted by the sound of my forehead hitting the floor.  But much can be accomplished over many years.  Living life mindful of God’s presence all around us does not take hours of meditation every day.  It takes place in little prayers, here and there.  It takes place when we get to the office in the morning and decide to open up to God before we open up our computer.  It takes place as we slow down on the highway, and trust that God will get us where we need to go and when we need to get there.  It takes place when we turn off the TV and head to church to meet more spiritually-minded people than the ones we see on reality television.  We learn to pray by practicing. 

So are spiritual experiences neurological events, and nothing more?  Are they interactions with a Personal God, or some impersonal transcendent force?  Are they connections with the “something more” that humanity has always believed is there?  You’ll have to decide that on your own.  I recommend "Fingerprints of God" as you do your research.  Maybe you won’t buy it.  But maybe Bradley Hagerty will make you think that even though we can’t necessarily see God, we might at least be able to see his fingerprints. 

What about you?  Are God-experiences real, in our heads, or both?  Why do you think so?  I'm curious to know how you interpret your own experiences of touching the other side.

Matt Herndon is a pastor in St. Louis at Rooftop Church.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at @MattHerndon12.