Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

'Love the Lord with All Your Mind': Explorations on a Possible Neurobiology of the Experience of God and Some Implications for the Practice of Psychotherapy

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

'Love the Lord with All Your Mind': Explorations on a Possible Neurobiology of the Experience of God and Some Implications for the Practice of Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

A central suggestion of this article is that humans are designed to relate to God. The coordinated activation and deactivation of diverse brain systems provide the matrix for a neurobiology of the experience of God. A review of the literature in neurobiology, developmental and cognitive psychology is organized and guided by a Christian perspective on spirituality. The experience of spiritual thirst is hypothesized to relate to the neurobiology of the Seeking System. The relational aspect of the experience of God is assumed to be organized by the Attachment System. Finally, the Theory-of-Mind system is postulated to inform who humans believe God to be like. Clinical examples are provided to illustrate potential applications of this model to a spiritually informed psychotherapeutic process.

Jesus' command to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37, New International Version) might today be translated by some theologians and neuroscientists as "Love the Lord your God with all your brain." One of the central suggestions of this paper is that we are designed to relate to God, and that the human brain is "wired for God." This design is a necessary element within the context of human beings' capacity to make choices and act upon the world around them, making the experience of a Transcendent One a possible reality. We believe it to be similar to play activities as a species specific experience (Panksepp, 1998); some form of play activity is present in every culture, but not every culture plays, say baseball. We suggest that the human brain is designed to experience a god, as it is programmed to naturally engage in play activities. Culture and human choice, however, will determine the nature of the god to be experienced, or the type of game played, or not.

We do not believe there is a "God spot" in the brain, no unavoidable conclusion in favor of believing in God; humans must choose to relate to God. To make an argument for design reflects our Christian worldview, and guides our basic conceptual understanding. Newberg and Newberg (2008), by contrast, use the term "being hardwired for God" to signify that the brain structures necessary for religion and spirituality are built over individual development. Religious and spiritual development minor the developing brain's evolving capacity supported by basic neurobiological processes. While some see religious experience only, or primarily, as a result of stimulating specific regions of the brain (see Beauregard & O'Leary, 2007 for a detailed discussion of competing theories), others see a potential interaction between a spiritual soul and the brain (Seybold, 2005).

The coordinated activation and deactivation of diverse brain systems (Boyer, 2003) may well be involved with a variety of religious experiences and behaviors. Illuminating projects are providing more refined hypotheses (McNamara, 2006; Newberg, 2006; Ratcliffe, 2006). For instance, Hall (2002) postulates specific cognitive mechanisms associated to theoretical developments in emotional information systems, whereas Azari (Azari, 2006; Azari, Missimer, & Seitz, 2005) reports on her neuroimaging studies suggesting "distinct cognitive neural patterns, involving nonlimbic neocortical areas" (p. 271).

Current theorizing can be broadly classified (Barrett, 2007) as following the paradigm of Neurotheology, which asserts that religious phenomena are the result of multiple factors, including: evolved neural circuitry (Persinger, 2003), biological group selection resulting from the evolutionary advantage of developing pro-social tendencies (Wilson, 2002), and the cognitive science of religion suggesting that the biology of human minds generates cognitive processes (for instance, religious beliefs; Boyer, 2003). Some authors are relating the neurobiology of religion and spirituality to their own disciplines, such as evolutionary psychology (Hay & Socha, 2005), psychoanalysis (Ostow, 2007), narrative studies (Teske, 2006), and religious studies (Yong, 2005). …

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