Can an MRI scan tell anything about spiritual experience?
Some neuroscientists at the University of Utah decided to put Mormons in an MRI scanner and watch their brains light up when they felt spiritual. Science Daily describes the experiment:
During fMRI [functional MRI] scans, 19 young-adult church members — including seven females and 12 males — performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. The hour-long exam included six minutes of rest; six minutes of audiovisual control (a video detailing their church’s membership statistics); eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders; eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon; 12 minutes of audiovisual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes, and other religiously evocative content); and another eight minutes of quotations.
During the initial quotations portion of the exam, participants — each a former full-time missionary — were shown a series of quotes, each followed by the question “Are you feeling the spirit?” Participants responded with answers ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”
The neuroscientists measured a connection between self-professed spirituality and activity in the prefrontal cortex, involved in rational decision making, and in the nucleus acumbens, a part of the brain involved in reward feelings. “Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music,” the article says. Here’s how the headlines came out:
This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits (Science Daily)
Spiritual Mind: What a Religious Experience Looks Like in the Brain (Live Science)
Rachael Rettner at Live Science cautions, “The researchers noted that more studies, including those that look at people from different religions and cultures, are needed in order to identify other brain regions linked with religious experiences.”
Philosophers warn that correlation is not causation. What does the experiment signify? What does it mean? Can any conclusions be drawn? If Mormon spiritual feelings produce the same results as gambling, drugs or sex, does the experiment mean anything at all?
Apparently the radiologists forgot to include a control group. If any of the scientists were non-Mormons or atheists, they should have scanned themselves when thinking about nothing at all, or when thinking about doing science. Others could be measured when thinking about their favorite football team scoring a touchdown, having ice cream, or petting their dog. If all these things produce similar levels of reward activity in the brain, what could the scans possibly signify, other than the observation that human beings are easily aroused by pleasurable thoughts of all kinds?
Such measurements certainly could not speak to the truth or falsity of a religion’s truth claims. Yet the authors of the paper in Social Neuroscience focus on the “evolution of complex religious systems” as if those are distinct from complex scientific systems within a materialistic, evolutionary framework. Here’s their conclusion:
Theoretical models of religious cognition have proposed that networks comprised of ventral striatal and prefrontal regions may play a critical role in the development and maintenance of religious ideation.…
Given commonalities in brain architecture across individuals with limited neural mechanisms for representing euphoria, a search for shared neural mechanisms for intense religious and spiritual feelings across cultures may provide insight into the evolution of complex religious systems and opportunities for cross-cultural understanding of deeply held religious beliefs and experience. Ultimately, the pairing of classical reward responses with abstract religious ideation may indicate a brain mechanism for attachment to doctrinal concepts and charismatic in-group religious leaders.
How, exactly, did doctrinal concepts (concepts being in the realm of rational thought and logic) become attached to purely physical pleasure responses? Do concepts even fit into an evolutionary worldview? Where did concepts come from? How did they evolve by mutation and selection?
If religion evolved, so did Darwinism. If religion is an epiphenomenon of neurons, so is Darwinism. That implies that any “pairing of classical reward responses” with abstract scientific ideation may indicate a brain mechanism for attachment to scientific concepts and influential in-group scientific leaders. Let these scientists prove otherwise, using only Darwin’s toolkit of natural selection on random variations.
We would like to know the motivation of these scientists. Why are they performing such experiments, which are doomed from the start to be meaningless? Knowing the mindset of today’s naturalistic secular scientists, we suspect their motivations include trying to prove that religion is nothing more than a neural activity in the brain that evolved because it makes people feel good. Like Marx, they want to show that religion is an opiate of the people, producing the same response as drugs. If so, let us remind them that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. That self-refuting motivation equally implies that doing science is nothing more than a neural activity in the brain that makes scientists feel good.
This research was funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health. If anyone thinks this was a well-designed scientific activity, let’s start asking some questions:
Why did they choose only Mormons and no control group? The paper astonishingly says that “each subject served as their own control,” hardly a good model of experimental setup.
Why did they not compare feeling-based religions like Mormon with rational-based religions like Presbyterianism, and atheism as an outgroup? How about scanning a Christian suffering persecution? or a PhD theologian writing a book on systematic theology?
Why did they measure only self-induced “spiritual” activities and not rational activities like a debate on the truth claims of Mormonism?
What is the significance of a pleasure response if it applies equally well to all kinds of non-spiritual activities, including drugs and gambling?
How do they know that the fMRI activity was not a secondary response to some other concurrent stimulation?
Why didn’t they measure the brain activity when the subjects thought about fear of hell or concern they are involved in a cult?
Can they point to fMRI signatures of other intense feelings, including hate, pride, anger, fear, or laughter? Are those always distinct from pleasure responses in predictable ways?
If natural selection would prevent harmful activity like taking drugs, why would it reward it? It could kill the individual before he or she could pass on their genes.
If the scientists are secularists and believe that religion evolved because it produces pleasure, why would natural selection reward anything they would presume to be irrational?
Are the scientists presuming that the more the response, the better the religion? or that all religions that produce the same fMRI scan are equivalent? On what basis?
Would the scientists be willing to get into the scanner and let religious people run scans on them? Why not?
If the scientists were scanned and showed responses, would they be upset if religious people drew conclusions that the scientists were sinners and this was their guilt manifesting itself in their brains? Why not?
I say it’s time to put the neuroscientists in the scanner and analyze them. We need to cure their Yoda Complex. We need to teach them about the argument from reason for the existence of God. We need to warn them about the danger of engaging in self-refuting belief systems.
Exercise: Add to our list of questions that scientists never ask who perform these kinds of experiments on “the evolution of religion.”
A note to Mormon readers: If your religion makes you feel warm and happy, that’s nice, but it has nothing to do with the truth of your church’s doctrines. You can get the same warm fuzzies from sex and drugs. The same warning applies to all religions and systems of ideas. Better do your homework on what you believe.