Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

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Neuroscience and Religious Cognition Project

Neuroscience and Religious Cognition ProjectThe Neuroscience and Religious Cognition Project proposes to identify the alterations in neural systems in patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) that could account for previously observed reductions in religiosity and in fluent access to religious concepts. The project uses advances in functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) techniques, new psychophysical cognitive priming techniques, and classical ‘on-off’ levodopa (LD) comparative techniques to identify brain system alterations linked with religious cognition changes in these patients. In addition, two doctoral students and one post-doctoral fellow are being trained in the scientific background and experimental techniques relevant to this project. The post-doc will receive advanced training in fcMRI analyses relevant to ‘religion and brain’ issues while the doctoral students will be integrated into all aspects of hypothesis testing procedures of the project. We believe our work with these patients will identify key sources of their deficits as well as illuminate fundamental issues in the neuroscience of religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences.

The Neuroscience of Religious Experience

Randall Stephens' video interview of Boston University and IBCSR neuroscientist Patrick McNamara

Dr. Patrick McNamara, Director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory in the Department of Neurology (BU School of Medicine), has published numerous books and articles on the neuroscience of religion and the evolution of religious behaviors. His work attempts to chart a middle course between scientific reductionism and the humanities' approaches to the study of religion. In the summer of 2009, Randall Stephens (Eastern Nazarene College) interviewed Dr. McNamara on his research, asking questions about how the neuroscientific study of religion has developed over time and where it might go in the future. This is part 1 of 2.

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Review: Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion

Neuroscience_Psych_RelAcknowledging the profound implications that recent research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have for our understanding of human nature, Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown consider the consequences of this research in the context of religion in their book Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion (Templeton Press, 2009). Accordingly, the underlying question throughout much of this work revolves around the relationship between science and religion, a subject consistently enmeshed amidst highly charged controversy. Jeeves and Brown, however, begin with a survey of numerous historical examples lending credence to the possibility of amenable partnership and, more importantly, firmly reject the idea that scientific analysis is somehow able to undermine the significance of religion.

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Religious belief reduces anxiety response

ANXIETYYou’ve felt it before: the embarrassed, self-conscious realization that you’ve just committed a major error, made a mistake when you should have been performing better. We all experience this unpleasant feeling. Measuring electrical activity in the brain, researchers call it “error-related negativity,” relating it particularly to a part of the midbrain called the anterior cingulate cortex. New research indicates that religiousness may reduce activity in this part of the brain, physiologically buffering people against their own mistakes. Most interestingly, the source of this effect may be the generation of meaning itself.

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The neurology of spirit writing

psychographyMediums – people who say they can channel spirits or other supernatural beings to communicate with the living – often get a bad rap. They’re the subjects of debunking attempts, they’re accused of fraud, and most people think they’re just plain odd. But what if we deferred our judgments and tried to find out just what’s actually going on physically and neurologically in the act of channeling? A team of researchers in the US and Brazil did just that, finding that, whatever else is happening, mediums show some very unique patterns of brain activity. And even more interestingly, those patterns differ depending on the mediums’ amount of experience.  

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Neuroscience and theology

There are many ways to study theology: read sacred texts, study great theologians, neuroimage someone’s brain – wait, what was that last one? In an attempt to develop a scientifically grounded theology rather than a purely speculative one, advocates of “neurotheology” believe that the study of the brain in connection with religious experience in fact plays an important role in theology and spirituality. However, the approach of neurotheology is readily met with criticism. Armin W. Geertz (Aarhus University, Denmark), for example, argues that neurotheology has deep flaws in terms of its scientific methodology and its religious assumptions.

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Review: Andrew Newberg's Principles of Neurotheology

neurotheology_2Until recently, the standard position in the perennial religion vs. science wars was one of truce. Stephen J. Gould, the late evolutionary biologist, coined the phrase "non-overlapping magisteria" to formalize the terms of the truce: religion would confine itself to its concerns with the immaterial soul and science would concern itself with the nature of the material world. Neither discipline would or should attempt to interfere with the other. Andrew Newberg, M.D.'s new work, Principles of Neurotheology, challenges this division.

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Review: Andrew Newberg's Principles of Neurotheology

principles_of_neurotheologyOne of the most fundamental quandaries in theology and philosophy is the pernicious difficulty of using the mind to examine itself. The trickiness of inverting conscious attention back towards itself has caused countless philosophers (and their students) to throw up their hands in despair, and it hasn’t made life easy for modern-day consciousness researchers, either. But one scientist claims to offer a new hope: in his new book, Principles of Neurotheology (Ashgate, 2010), Andrew Newberg attempts to outline a bold, even revolutionary, strategy for unifying the study of conscious, subjective experience with the objective research of neuroscience.

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