It just stands to reason that what we almost know the least about scientifically to some degree is the closest to us — our own minds. It is something neuroscience has been trying to uncover in recent decades and in particular there is still plenty of curiosity as to whether we are hardwired for religion or if religion has changed “our wiring” for the better.
While these questions remain intriguing, the answers are still elusive. This month we are looking at the mind/body connection through the lens of mental illness. There are many struggling with mental illness today both in the pews and in our communities. In many instances individuals have discovered the support that only a church family can give. Studying trends more broadly, there are scientists who are taking a greater interest in the connections between faith and brain activity, in addition to the recent University of Utah. In some ways, these studies’ findings may be interesting from the standpoint of showing the physicality of meditation or prayer, but in other ways they seem to lessen the uniqueness of the experience by comparing it to brain reward centers that light up during sex or gambling.
Could simply lighting up the right reward center in the brain, help those struggling with mental illness? Could it also trigger a spiritual experience? Brain chemistry is indeed addressed in treating some aspects of mental illnesses such as bipolar depression and schizophrenia.
It is also worth asking what the scientists hope to accomplish with their research on religious experience. Do they hope to find proof that God’s love is located in a specific part of one’s brain or are they seeking to “cheapen” the experience by comparing it to other rewarding activities?
It seems that on the one hand scientists are trying to put more measurable characteristics to the religious experiences that are separate from ‘self-reported’ spiritual experiences, which could be helpful. Then on the other hand, it may be that some want to explain religion away as a simple function of brain chemistry.
Either way one looks at it, the argument is a powerful that our beliefs can shape how we view ourselves and those around us. If one is a Christian, there seems to be more hopeful outlook when it comes to being part of a community and in relationships as revealed in the findings of the Chicago Social Brain Network. Proving that hypothesis is nearly impossible though as it is difficult to measure, and correlation does not necessarily equal causation. In the recent large Nurses Study conducted in relationship to suicide, for instance, the findings that those that attended church were less likely to commit suicide is noteworthy but don’t seem all that compelling. It doesn’t address the taboo across religions of taking one’s life, for example. Nor does it demonstrate that a church community helped in addressing individual problems more than one’s friends if a person doesn’t attend church services.
While all these bits of research seem to have lofty aims, the actual findings generally raise more questions than they answer. It may just be that some of the feelings experienced by individuals praying or worshiping are not measurable or even comparable to one another. Is a Buddhist more spiritual than a Baptist? What does the fMRI say?
Still, if one is battling problems related to brain chemistry, having a friend and one’s own faith as companions seems to be crucial in bringing hope to the hopeless. That kind of hope undoubtedly is one of the most noteworthy aims of religious life. Let’s pray that we can offer that hope to one another when and where it is needed most. While those outcomes may be unverifiable on a scientific basis, it still is a reasonable aim of congregational life.