Brain Damage Increases ‘Spirituality’
I’ve maintained that religion and spirituality are inversely correlated with high-functioning intelligence. Â (previous article, Religion Rots Your Brain And We Must Say So) There are plenty of notable exceptions such as Francis Collins, current director of the National Institute of Health (NIH). My answer to this is that such individuals have to work even harder to keep the critical thinking part of their brain separated from the part that holds scientifically untenable beliefs. CollinsÂ believes he has a personal relationship with the mythical character of Jesus Christ, and that God had a hand in guiding every stage of evolution. I think it’s pretty strange to have someone with those strongly held beliefs managing a $30 billion/year science budget, and I’m not the only one.
Yesterday I also became aware of scientist Robert Lanza, MD, a high achiever–even a genius–by any standard. Lanza is currentlyÂ Chief Scientific Officer ofÂ Advanced Cell Technology(ACT) and AdjunctÂ at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine,Â Wake Forest University School of Medicine.Â For some inexplicable reason, Lanza has decided to break scientific protocol and engage in wild speculation about the spiritual and philosophical implications of quantum theory that would never pass scientific scrutiny. His book on the subject is called Biocentrism. His beliefs are so far outside the mainstream of his field, he’s managed to earn both the praise of Deepak Chopra and the scorn of Daniel Dennett and other “real” brain scientists. Lanza is also promoting a kind of new-age fundamentalism in the garb of (pseudo) science:
Will kind people be rewarded for their good deeds? Will the wicked be punished? Yes, according to a new interpretation of recent experiments. Although our science is too primitive for us to fully comprehend, there is a direct and proportional price to pay for any act of cruelty or injustice.
Science suggests that there are consequences to our actions that transcend our ordinary, classical way of thinking. Emerson, it turns out, was right: “Every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.”
I remember fishing on a warm summer night. Now and then I could feel the vibrations along the line linking me with the life prowling about the bottom. At length I pulled some bass, squeaking and gasping into the air. It was a puzzle to feel a tug, and to be conscious in that precise moment of a part of me, which, as it were, was not a part of me, but scale and fin, circling the hook, slow to strike.
Surely this is what Spinoza, the great philosopher, meant when he contended that consciousness cannot exist simply in space and time, and at the same time is aware of the interrelations of all parts of space and time. In order to have knowledge of a pout or a pickerel, I must have somehow been identical with them.
This may not unsettle you, except perhaps on a warm moonlit night with a fish gasping for life at the end of your rod. I knew then, at that moment, that Pagel’s conclusion was right. Only it wasn’t my consciousness that was the only one, it wasÂ ours. According toÂ biocentrism, our individual separateness is an illusion. Remember the words of Omar, who “never called the One two,” and of the old Hindu poem: “Know in thyself and All one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.”
There was no doubt; that consciousness which was behind the youth I once was, was also behind the mind of every animal and person existing in space and time. “There are,” wrote Loren Eiseley, noted anthropologist, “very few youths today who will pause, coming from a biology class, to finger a yellow flower or poke in friendly fashion at a sunning turtle on the edge of the campus pond, and who are capable of saying to themselves, ‘We are all one âˆ’ all melted together.’”
Yes, I thought, weÂ are all one. I let the fish go. With a thrash of the tail, I disappeared into the pond. [emphasis added]
Physorg is now reporting that this sense of “oneness with everything” that underlies so much new-age mumbo-jumbo has been correlated by experiments with damage to the right posterior parietal region of the brain.
Selective brain damage modulates human spirituality
Although it is well established that all behaviors and experiences, spiritual or otherwise, must originate in the brain, true empirical exploration of the neural underpinnings of spirituality has been challenging. However, recent advances in neuroscience have started to make the complex mental processes associated with religion and spirituality more accessible.
“Neuroimaging studies have linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortexes with spiritual experiences, but information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking,” explains lead study author, Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy.
Dr. Urgesi and colleagues were interested in making a direct link between brain activity and spirituality. They focused specifically on the personality trait called self-transcendence (ST), which is thought to be a measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors in humans. ST reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole.
The researchers combined analysis of ST scores obtained from brain tumor patients before and after they had surgery to remove their tumor, with advanced techniques for mapping the exact location of the brain lesions after surgery. “This approach allowed us to explore the possible changes of ST induced by specific brain lesions and the causative role played by frontal, temporal, and parietal structures in supporting interindividual differences in ST,” says researcher Dr. Franco Fabbro from the University of Udine.
The group found that selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase in ST. “Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” offers Dr. Urgesi. “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”
These results may even lead to new strategies for treating some forms of mental illness. “If a stable personality trait like ST can undergo fast changes as a consequence of brain lesions, it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas,” suggests Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti from Sapienza University of Rome. “Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders.”
Since my mother was a world-famous “spiritual” performer who claimed to speak for a pantheon of disembodied spirits, and who was also diagnosed with lifelong epilepsy, eventually dying last year of Alzheimer’s disease, this article is incredibly relevant and explanatory for me. This really was all in her brain, and there was nothing whatsoever she could do about it.
But getting back to Lanza–who just might have similar brain damage–I would respond that the very essence of life is individuality. The very goal of life is self-actualization. We are not all one with everything. And our self-awareness is not transferable–at least not with current technology.Â Of course it is good to feel empathetic, and to recognize that we are all made of the same basic particles. But I am not you, you are not a fish, a bicycle is not the same as a multi-barrel machine gun.Â It is making such distinctions, and keeping categories and identity straight that is one of the main goals of human knowledge.
An existential understanding is also vital for life, that we neither promote false hopes, nor fail to apprehend our limitations. Having a realistic assessment of self-other-world, is vital to our outlook and mental health. Now we see it’s also dependent on having a healthy physical brain.
If Lanza really thinks he is onto a new “theory of everything” that will render space-time putty in our hands, make us all one, and make death obsolete, he should be willing to subject that science to the same scrutiny and incremental discipline as every other scientist who came before him. Otherwise, he’s neither promoting self-awareness nor science. His public work so far has shown a reckless disregard for his intellectual debt to others, abdication of his responsibility not to pollute the integrity of the scientific method in public discourse, and above all a stark failure to know his rightful place on the mountain of ideas.