Faith and Brains: An Excerpt From ‘Finding God in the Waves’

Starting to read Mike McHargue’s (Science Mike for those who listen to ‘The Liturgist’s podcast) debut book has been on my to do list for awhile.  I’m quickly discovering that not only is the book an engaging read, it seems perfectly suited to our times with everyone talking about the rise of the religious ‘nones’.

A fascinating excerpt:

‘The human brain is the most intricate and mysterious arrangement of matter in the whole known universe- at least according to human brains.  Your brain is 86 billion neurons and trillions of supporters called glial cells. (We know this number because a team of researchers used chemicals to dissolve brain tissue without damaging the nuclei of neural cells).  Our 86 billion nerve cells create connections to one another via dendrites, which are like tiny organic wires that allow neurons to send and receive electrical signals.

These signals, along with corresponding chemical messages, are the stuff all your thoughts and feelings are made of.  Every song you’ve sung, every dream you’ve had, and every conversation you’ve lost yourself in originated as a burst of electrical activity in the trillions of connections among billions of neurons in your brain…

Biologically speaking, human brains are also really ‘expensive’.  Your brain can’t move, but it consumes up to 20 percent of your nutrients and 25 percent of your oxygen.  This is why humans’ brains are hidden inside thick, dense skull bones.  Your body is designed with the purpose of protecting and supporting its most important organ.

Ancient people believed that our heart and bowels were the seat of our thoughts and emotions, but today we understand that our thoughts and feelings originate and transpire in our brains.  There is nothing that is more ‘you’ than your brain. No other organ has the capacity to shape how you perceive the world or how your inner experience unfolds…

People tend to view their minds and spirits as being distinct from their brains, but research doesn’t support that idea.  If you break your arm, you don’t change much- a cast and some inconvenience usually are the extent of recovery.  A heart attack is terrifying, but those who survive are shaped more by their fear and recovery than they are by the actual injury.  But if you injure your brain, you change dramatically…

Henry Moliason, Phineas Gage, and Charles Whitman all are members of a long procession of unfortunate people who have shown us how important our brains are.  Everything that makes you who you are happens in your brain.  Your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, dreams, hopes, and fears all are held ethereally in a pattern of organic ‘wires’ and chemical bonds.

You are your brain, and your brain is you.  And that means spirituality and religion are rooted in the brain in the same way that thoughts and feelings are.

Scientists know there is a part of the brain responsible for anger and another part responsible for affection.  Your brain has a ‘spot’ for language and a ‘spot’ for vision, so some neuroscientists naturally wondered if the brain also had a ‘God spot’, a part of the brain that’s responsible for religious experiences.  Despite several published findings, no scientific consensus has been built around the idea- there doesn’t seem to be any one part of our brain responsible for God.

Still, whatever you know about God and whatever spiritual experiences you’ve had are held in your brain.  More-sophisticated brain-imaging technology has shown that people’s beliefs about God aren’t anything like a ‘spot’ it instead arise from a complex network in our brains.  The more someone thinks about God, prays, or has other spiritual experiences, the more developed this network becomes.

This is why belief in God is so robust in the minds of many Christians.  God is not something we believe in as much as something we feel and experience- and this is why the faithful and the skeptical find it so difficult to understand one another.  In the brains of atheists, God is a noun, a noun no more real than tooth fairy or unicorn.  But believers have a rich neurological network that encapsulates God through feelings and experiences that are difficult to articulate with mere language.”

So, 125 pages into Science Mike’s book and I very much recommend the read.  I think this is one of the only books I have encountered that doesn’t pit believers and atheists against one another in regard to a cheap version of a cultural war but more invites an understanding and dialogue between the two camps.  After all, Science Mike was a Southern Baptist turned atheist turned mystic Christian and has been on many sides of the debate himself.

You can order the book here.



About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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4 Responses to Faith and Brains: An Excerpt From ‘Finding God in the Waves’

  1. erdman31 says:

    Has he discussed Buddhism or meditation yet? If he’s done extensive neurobiological research, then I’m sure he’s looked into the effect that meditation practice and other similar spiritual disciplines have on the mind. Is he a meditator?

    [quote]…some neuroscientists naturally wondered if the brain also had a ‘God spot’, a part of the brain that’s responsible for religious experiences. Despite several published findings, no scientific consensus has been built around the idea- there doesn’t seem to be any one part of our brain responsible for God…[/quote]

    I would think a “God spot” could (and has been identified). If what we call “God” is ultimately an experience, as the author suggests (I agree), then couldn’t we simply isolate the nature of the experience and then measure brain wave activity?

    For example, many have spoken of God as the mysterium tremendum, the feeling of awe and fear and wonder at that which is vast and greater than one’s self, a sensation that one is caught up in something greater than mere self/ego and a part of a greater connection. Rudolf Otto in his classic The Idea of the Holy called it “numinous.” He’s worth citing:

    [quote]Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.[/quote]

    And then there’s love. I’d probably count as one of the “Nones” at this point in my life, but the one thing that keeps me coming back to Jesus and the Christian scriptures is the centrality of love. Love’s centrality is not necessarily the central element to all religions or spiritual practices. In Christianity, the primacy of love is stated, directly and categorically, as in 1 Corinthians 13 (among others), and love is demonstrated most remarkably in Jesus’ sacrificial laying down of his life for “the world.”

    But can’t we measure love, neurobiologically? Again, by monitoring brain wave activity during the experience of feeling love toward others — one’s child or partner, etc.?

    • Welcome back Mr. Erdman. In “The Liturgists” podcast (which features Science Mike and Michael Gungor- half of the musical group “Gungor”) they do indeed have an entire episode on meditation. So, yes. He does meditate, has a practice and talks (in that episode) extensively about the neurobiological research on prayer/meditation. He talks mostly about center prayer meditation but I think does other kinds.

      He does seem to be leaning toward God as an experience but I think he hints that it is more than that as well. Personally, I agree with Christian orthodoxy on the nature of God (as far as it has been revealed) and that God is separate (or transcendent) from creation but at the same time, very near (Per Acts and Jesus and Paul’s writings) or omnipresent. I do think orthodox folks (like me) have to realize there is a fuzzy line though in trying to describe God. We trust and believe the revelation of Scripture and Jesus….but obviously, those by no means give us the entirety of all that God is.

      My understanding is they can measure “love” as an emotion or feeling by the brain’s reaction to people we have fondness for or a familiarity. Would be fascinating to learn more science regarding this. I don’t think that necessarily changes anything. If people are holistic then are physical selves are intimately interwoven with our spiritual selves.

      • erdman31 says:

        I actually quite like the Christian orthodox idea that God is both transcendent and also immanent/omnipresent. It’s quite a beautiful paradox: it is at the same time both a linguistic and conceptual idea of God but also one that is not meant to confine one’s notion of God to a concept. When one holds a paradox (even a contradiction), you have to hold it loosely, and this loosening opens up the space for God to truly operate. What I’ve always found to be tragic is that most Christians don’t actually recognize and appreciate the paradox of their own orthodox beliefs. They fixate more on individual dogmas and definitions of God, preferring to pinpoint what we can know and what we cannot know, rather than simply recognizing that God is “in all and through all” while at the same time not equated with all that is. Put in the form of paradox: God is not the world but the world is not other than God and God is not an other to the world. There is simply no equating God with anything……except perhaps love…..I wonder if perhaps one of the defining characteristics of Christian mystics is that they embrace the paradoxes.

  2. Perhaps so. Yes, good thoughts. “God is love” 1 John 4:8

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