Skip to content

Toward a science of spirituality

The idea of seeing life through someone else’s eyes has long been a theme in our fiction and our fascination. The opportunity to access the inner world of another human was accounted famously in the cult classic, Being John Malcovich. Variations on the theme have been showcased in a lengthy roster of Hollywood productions, such as, Freaky Friday, The Change Up, and an unfortunate number of Look Who’s Talking productions, to name a few.

I’m pleased to say that we are on our way toward technologies that are converting past fiction into present reality.

Mind reading
In June of 2009, the CBS show 60 Minutes reported on the work of Marcel Just and Tim Mitchell at Carnegie Mellon University. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they realized that individual words elicit unique activation patterns across the brain, and that these patterns are so similar from person to person, that the activation patterns can be used to predict a word that someone is thinking, based solely upon the pattern of brain activity detected in that individual. It is a thrilling application for brain imaging that has set the stage for numerous other brain decoding ventures.

In June of 2010, the New York Times reported on the work of Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, who is doing similar work to decode brain patterns associated with pain and basic emotions. Dr. Wager’s work has myriad potential applications, including investigations into the placebo effect, as well as investigations in chronic pain, and psychiatric examination of mood.

Another hotly active area of research into decoding the brain pertains to sophisticated methods for using fMRI in lie detection. A landmark legal case in 2010 submitted evidence from functional brain imaging into the courtroom in order to establish the likelihood that testimony given under oath was deceptive. Although the court deemed the technology inadmissible, a host of academic and commercial enterprises are pursuing the ability to discern intention and reliability of testimony, based on neural patterns of the witness.

Visual reconstruction
Perhaps the flashiest foray into decoding the human brain comes from the laboratory of Jack Gallant, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Gallant and his colleagues built video “dictionaries” by downloading about 18 million seconds of video footage at random for YouTube. They then had volunteers enter into an MRI scanner and begin watching clips from the video dictionaries, recording patterns of neural activity in the visual cortex for each of the clips. Next, volunteers were shown new video segments that did not correspond to any of the videos in the YouTube-based “dictionary.” For each new video clip, the brain activity pattern of the subject during viewing was paired with the 100 closest matches for brain activity patterns from the video dictionary. The video images from the dictionary were then averaged together in proportion to their resemblance of the brain pattern elicited by the dictionary clip and the novel clip, and a video approximation of what the viewer is seeing is constructed solely from an assessment of their brain activity patterns, second to second (see video link above). This is a remarkable accomplishment. Think of it: by only looking at the brain activity patterns of someone, we can create a streaming video that approximates what the individual is seeing.

Putting it all together
Make no mistake: these technologies are in their infancy. But with the combination of word recognition, emotion decoding, perception of intention, and streaming visual reconstruction all derived from brain imaging, one can imagine the refinement of these technologies culminating in a full-scale, multi-sensorial recreation of how another human being is experiencing their world. How long will it take to get there?–it’s anybody’s guess. There will be deeply important applications for such technologies, though, in understanding the mental life of victims of stroke, locked-in-syndrome, persistent vegetative and partially conscious states, medical applications for understanding psychiatry more deeply, possible opportunities for parents to more fully connect to the inner world of a child with autism, in addition to myriad interfaces between these burgeoning technologies, and the domains of law and justice. As with any technology, opportunities for abuses are high, and careful consideration must be taken to ensure the ethical use of all neural technologies as they come to fruition.

But consider, if you will, the potential for peeking into some of humanity’s most mysterious, vexing, and elevating experiences: those described as spiritual, religious, and mystical.

Consider, for example:

  • What does a Sufi mystic really see and feel when they go into a deep trance state?
  • What is the qualitative sensory correlate when a Hindu yogi accesses Bhakti, universal love?
  • What is a Carmelite nun experiencing when she says that she hears the voice of Jesus?
  • When someone claims a spiritual encounter, to what extent are they faithfully recounting authentic internal events?
  • When a believer says they know something to be true, what is the nature of this gnosis?

What if, instead of Being John Malcovich, we were privileged to peek inside the mind of spiritual leaders, and get a direct glimpse at Being Tenzin Gyatso, Joseph Ratzinger, or Thomas Monson?

Perhaps disappointingly to some, the answers to the questions do not deal directly in either confirming or denying the existence of God. Both believer and skeptic might hope to find a smoking gun amidst the firing of synaptic transmissions.  However, as articulated in the 25 September 2006 publication of Neuroscience Letters, the primary objective for a neural study of spiritual and religious experience is neither to prove nor to disprove theology. Rather, it is to vibrantly expand our understanding and, consequently, an appreciation of our humanity. On the one hand, mechanistic detail can add richness to our humanism. At the same time, those believing that we are formed in the image of a Creator might revere the expanding scientific details of our deeper nature as glimpses into the contours of divinity.

Research in meditation
This work is in its fledgling stages. Perhaps the most established in this general arena is the research of Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. Among their many forays into the neural outcomes of longterm Buddhist meditators, findings have demonstrated, for example, substantial increases in the amplitude of gamma frequency waveforms in the brains of experienced meditation practitioners. This both confirms the possibility that qualitative state changes reported by spiritual disciplines may be searchable in physical paradigms, and creates valuable scientific questions about the basic functioning of the neural system itself. To date, Davidson has received the largest research grant from the National Institutes of Health for investigating meditation–a nod to the possibility that practices derived from spiritual traditions may be applicable for the health and wellbeing of a general population.

As we consider spiritual, religious, and mystical experiences, their value isn’t confined to the ecstatic moment proper. Such a valuation designates the religious phenomenon as a sort of cognitive and emotional masturbatory event. However, a primary reason these experiences have become culturally prized is because of what the experiences point to, and what they lead toward. They are seminal events through which a conception of the transcendent is implanted. It gestates inside the individual who has experienced the spiritual or mystical occurrence. And ultimately, birth is given to a new paradigm; new well-being; abiding peace; Tao; moral realization; Bhakti; the Comforter; interconnectivity; enlightenment. In the broadest terms, spirituality–at its best–produces transformative wisdom.

I would submit to you that we are on the cusp of an era wherein we can approach the neurobiological mechanisms involved in experiences that have traditionally been relegated (if not scorned) beyond the margins of empirical inquiry, such as spirituality and wisdom. Such an inclusionary approach may offer the two-fold benefit of helping to mediate fundamentalisms that lead to extremism, while at the same time enlivening a general societal discourse in which these questions of transcendence and wisdom are revisited with renewed vigor and productivity. It represents a potential complementarity between tradition and modernity, and a strong bridge between the disparate realms of humanities and physical sciences. The way I see it, that future looks very bright.

As Gay As Jesus

ImageI am deeply fascinated by myth. The ubiquity of myth in human societies bespeaks its rootedness in human universals, like the brain. (For my treatment of the emergence of myth from the neural system, please see my blog post about neuroanthropology.)

Human beings have always had myths. Throughout pre-civilization and civilization, myth systems have been one in the handful of constants of the human experience.

As religious scholar Joseph Campell has explained, the term “myth” is not derogatory. Some may presume that there is a condescending implication when we refer to a story as a myth, particularly when the word is used to describe stories told by religious groups that are functioning today.

On the contrary, though, Joseph Campbell identified a vital, fourfold purpose for myth Read more…


Video: Dynamical stability of intrinsic connectivity networks

I posted the video from my 2011 Society for Neuroscience presentation to YouTube. Here is a video fly-through of the research and findings, which are reported in greater detail in the October 2011 Neuroimage paper of the same title. This will most likely be the basis of my thesis work, so stay tuned for more reports on model refinement, and applications toward disease identification and clinical relevancy. The PubMed portal to the full-text article may be found here.

The Scanner on the Mount: a neural challenge to “love thy enemy”

I’m currently reviewing fMRI publications about empathy. In surveying the existent literature on empathic neural dynamics, I came across Tania Singer’s 2006 publication in Nature that explores the human brain’s tendency toward conditional empathy. Subjects were recruited to play an economic game in which their opponent was either a cheater or a fair player. Following participation in the game, subjects observed the other player receive painful electrical shocks to their hand. In the circumstances where the opposing player was a fair opponent, there was a clear activation of the neural circuitry responsible for empathic responses to pain. Subjects easily empathized with the pain of their opponent, if their opponent had treated them fairly.

However, when a subject observed a cheating opponent receive a painful shock, the activity of the neural circuitry involved in empathy was significantly reduced. In other words, there was considerably less empathy generated by the brain when the person in pain was known to be an unfair individual.

Going the extra mile, the men who participated in the study–in contrast to the women who participated–not only demonstrated a reduction in the neural circuitry controlling empathy when a cheater received painful shocks: the men in the study actually showed activation of their reward pathways when the unfair opponent was observed to be in pain. It appears that at the neural level, men took pleasure in seeing an unfair person suffer. Read more…

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011): hail to the prophet?

Steve Jobs: extreme visionary, charismatic leadership, early death, commitment by those leading the organization that he started to forever keep his spirit as their foundation…it certainly has some fun parallels with the inception of a religion.

Especially on the heels of a NYTimes article saying that–neuro-technically speaking–people are literally in love with their Apple products, can anyone doubt the unusual impact that Mr. Jobs had on the world? It will be interesting to see him become transfigured into a mythic persona in the modern legend. Read more…

9/11: 10th anniversary contemplations

Ten years to the date. I was serving as a full time missionary for the LDS Church when the planes hit the Twin Towers, unaware at the time that my own religious heritage bore the pockmark of faith-based fanaticism and violence (the so-called ‘Mountain Meadows Massacre’ oddly taking place on the same calendar day nearly 150 years earlier). I am left to wonder at the forces that deplete us of our sense of shared humanity, and cause the collective brotherhood of our species to stumble into a destructive, chaotic “us versus them” divide. Looking at our DNA, 99.99% of what is inside of you is inside of every other human being. Contemplating the long trajectory of our evolutionary past, we share billions and billions of years’ worth of common ground in becoming the upright, conscious species that we are today. The ideologies and dogmas of just a few hundred or thousand years seem so immovable and so rigidly intractable in the day to day shuffle of current events. But the cosmic telescope shrinks those millennia of cultural speciation to just a blip of happenstance divergence, when framed by the greater context of our wild journey into being. May we ever voyage together toward increasingly beautiful vistas of our human potentiality, and let the reserves of charity and benevolence latent in our Inner Voice guide our steps along the unfolding future.

Seeing “the code”

@positiveneuro’s message to @LH:

I had a transcendent experience watching ants the other day that I doubt I will be able to communicate well. But I was watching ants file back and forth on the sidewalk, and–seriously–it was like I saw everything going on in front of me as a stream of computations running on biological hardware. It was wild. I reached down and smooshed one of them and left the body there to see what the other ones would do, and–again–saw the responses to the dead body as more computations…the probing, withdrawing, renegotiating of path. It made me want to understand so badly the principles of computation and the biological hardware that life uses.

@LH’s reply to @positiveneuro:

So cool — you just saw The Code… I think of these as Neo moments…

Matter itself is a computational substrate, running an enormous physical program.  The reason the Matrix appeals to so many people is that it is truth — we are running inside an enormous computer, it just turns out that that computer computes with molecules, not with transistors. At many layers above the physical layer, yes, biology is running its own very complicated program.  I really wish I understood even just one tiny part of that program: how development unfolds to create a physical body. Seriously, where is that program even stored in the DNA, or how is it represented?  And behavior is so many levels of complexity above even that level that I don’t think we’ll understand it for a hundred years…

Into the nitty-gritty: gradients in brain networks

The world of functional imaging research is on fire right now with connectivity studies. (See my post here for an introduction to the domain of functional connectivity as a tool for studying the brain.) Although we have miles to go before we sleep, the study of distributed networks in the human brain is the forefront right now in bridging the field of psychology with the discipline of neuroscience…a bridge which science will be trying to build in a comprehensive way for the foreseeable future.

The most recent work that I will be presenting at the Human Brain Mapping (HBM) conference in Quebec addresses the relationships between two of the major functional networks in the human brain. Namely, the default mode network, and Read more…

That Pesky Apocalypse

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.” -writings found on Assyrian clay tablets, circa 2800 BC (Book of Facts by Isaac Asimov)

Latter days? Corruption and degeneration? The frequency and ubiquity of this theme in the social milieu of modern conservative religion would be difficult to overstate. Hence my interest at seeing the same sentiment expressed in the ancient medium of clay writing some 5,000 years ago.

In my own relatively short stint in corporeal existence, I’ve heard a constant, rumbling undertone of world-ending, Jesus-coming, apocalyptic anticipation, with occasional attribution to specific world events–from Soviet Read more…

Ode to the Brain!

Jill Bolte Taylor, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, and VS Ramachandran? Oh my! The folks at Symphony of Science did not disappoint with their latest autotune montage: Ode to the Brain!