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The neuroscience of the Holy Ghost

July 12, 2010

I should begin this post with a disclaimer that I have no delusions that this is a “final theory” on religious experience, nor do I even assert that this is a comprehensive model for the highly variable phenomena which people ascribe to Christianity specifically, much less religion generally. I’ve had several people comment that I would do well to read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which I well may do.

That being said, I wanted to jot down a couple of ideas about the neural underpinnings of certain religious and spiritual experiences. The bottom line for my budding thoughts about the phenomenon of the Holy Ghost–commonly referred to in Christian parlance as the “fruit of the Spirit”–is that it is the affective resonance of cognitive prediction. (Note to reader: stop and re-read that last sentence if it didn’t click the first time, because it is important.)

As an example, let’s say, that someone is imagining something non-spiritual…say an upcoming trip to the Cayman Islands. As I think through and forecast the possibilities of aesthetic beauties in the landscape and oceanscape, or the sensory pleasures of good food and warm sunshine, or the social reward of interactions with friends–each of these “cognitive forecasts” creates a positive affective response. The more that I engage in forecast-thinking, the more strongly reinforced that neural circuits pertaining to the predictive paradigm become, and the corresponding affective response becomes more intensive. In lay parlance, the more I think about something, the more excited I become about it.

Now consider this–the cognitive triggers for specific positive affective reactions are wholly dependent upon the wiring of the neural reward mechanisms, which are a finely-tuned gaggle of pathways. This can result ultimately either in an “excitatory” or an “inhibitory” affective phenomenon. For example, let’s say I grow up with my reward system attuned to the subtle pleasures of choral music and singing as reinforced by years of participation in music. If that is particular to the “reward identity” of my dopaminergic system, then of course when I read accounts about angels singing at the enunciation of a Messiah to shepherds or when I participate in the act of singing about singing and shouting with the armies of heaven, that’s going to be intensely pleasurable empathic and forecastive cognition. On the other hand, let’s say I had really bad experiences participating in grade school music classes because I wasn’t quite as tonally gifted, and the notes were never fully explained to me and I always got confused and frustrated when my teacher would try to expect musical performance from me on the same level of virtuosity as my peers in the class. The cognitive forecasting of participating in angel choirs is probably NOT going to juice much dopamine into my synapses. Let’s say that on top of that, that during my late adolescence I had discovered the amazing experience of a full-bodied red wine, and my neural reward pathways became intimately sensitive to the subtle interplay of tannins and flavonoids derivative from really good grapes. In this situation, if someone comes to me and describes this “awesome” way of life where I don’t drink alcohol, my forecastive cognition is not going to stimulate dopamine release at all in response to this thought. Quite the opposite. In other words, since so much of the pleasurable “warm glow” I experience secondary to forecastive cognition is derived from extrapolating the memory of previous experience forward toward imagined outcomes for a particular set of behaviors, the amount of warm glow that I feel toward a particular narrative is going to be intimately connected to the realtime snapshot of my reward composition. To put heavy-handed religious spin onto this phenomenon, it is only the “righteous”–i.e., those whose life behaviors correspond to the demands of the religion–who will “feel the Spirit” when the gospel–i.e., the particular forecastive narrative of that religious group–is being taught to them. It’s circular–the more similar your reward system is to the reward schemata written into the subtext of the narrative presented to you, the more strongly your affective arousal will be. (Incidentally, the term “warm glow” is actually a phrase that is used in the published literature on prosocial biology.)

As a friend of mine noted to me, the mechanism is probably more complex than just conditioning from experience. Quoting:

Undoubtedly some of what we experience is conditioned by actual past events. There is also evidence that such triggers can be derived without direct “bad” or “good” experiences, but rather through the cognitive schema we set up (i.e. our implicit value system).  There is a lot of work showing that implicit and explicit experiences provide input to this value system and this system in turn automates behavior and feelings.  For example, say you hear that certain experiences (e.g. reading scriptures) are good and should make you feel good. Repeated reinforcement or increasing “value” is put on this, even if you don’t feel good doing it.  Eventually, in the way you propose, reading scriptures makes you feel good because your schema has been programmed that way.

Lastly for now, there’s the canonical phenomenon explicit in Christianity that the Holy Ghost will “bring all things to your remembrance.” There’s a book by Brian Boyd about the origin of stories in human evolution that’s really interesting. It asserts, “Recent research strongly suggests that our memories of past experience saturate our present thought: cognition partially reactivates, almost simulates, the multimodal nature of our prior experience. Still more importantly, the apparent weakness of memory, in reconstructing rather than passively recording experience, seems an evolved design that allows us to recombine freely our past experience so that we can imagine or presimulate our future.” In other words, the more we try to predict or forecast the future, the more intensely this cognitive activity draws upon and reconstructs our memories, and even searches actively to find novel combinations of memories from what we have previously encountered or learned. The mental “loom” that weaves the conceptual tapestry of the future draws upon the neural threads of the past. Is it any wonder, then, that as the fabric of our fantasies is quickly spinning through the machine of our mental future-making, this creative animation will flash old memories before our mind’s eye as it frantically, masterfully sorts through old cloth that is suitable for revamping into new clothing? Add to this the affective arousal of a desirable fantasy, and indeed, the neural process of future-making will logically become more attention-driven, focused and efficient, and the Holy Ghost will indeed “bring all things to your remembrance.”

So what to make of this? What is the take-home? This, I believe, approximates the physical and neural substrate for some spiritual phenomena. But I’m not convinced that it negates the relevance of using the “spiritual” machinery, or in other words, I’m not convinced that scientific models of spiritual phenomena necessarily demand an abandonment of spiritual practices…not any more than understanding the way an Audi “really” works calls for us to abandon driving them…or even experiencing them at the psychological level of a “magical driving experience” inside of the sleek, branded automobile, as opposed to only allowing for a psychological experience that is perpetually mechanically-conscious. Maybe it’s the same principle that modern psychologists describe as “flow,” or “being in the moment”–and I do wonder how we can proceed forward in the age of enlightenment, knowing full-well the mechanisms of “spirit” within us, without losing our ability to feel and practice the powerful and rewarding processes associated with being spiritual organisms.

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2 Comments
  1. Orian Marx permalink

    Very interesting piece. One thing you might want to consider is the cognitive load required to experience something as its constituent parts rather than as some greater whole. With your Audi example, it is extremely difficult for the human mind to consciously appreciate each and every mechanism in the car that is in play at the time of driving it, but quite easy to consciously appreciate the “experience” as a whole. Similarly while the mind may be drawing on a great deal of memories to interweave into predictions about the future, it is only a select few which encapsulate the essential experiential elements that relate to these predictions that will enter our conscious. Recalling one powerful spiritual event is perhaps a much more efficient system for influencing future spiritual experiences than recalling a thousand little bits of meaning that suddenly “came together” to generate that first powerful spiritual event. Perhaps this is why so many people can recall having “moments of enlightenment” when in reality they were probably building up to these moments over a long period of time.

  2. michael@positiveneuro.com permalink

    Orian–I like the idea of focusing on the encoding of holistic representations. Yes, I agree that the “aha” moments of enlightenment are likely the neurocognitive tipping points from countless accumulated synaptic transmissions. Because of the apparent reduction in cognitive load when a set of minute representations are converted to a holistic representation, holism would be energetically favorable and efficient, and thus an adaptive mode of information representation. (I’m sure there is good neurocog work out there on this conversion process…I just need to find it…)

    My point is that in this framework, it would indeed be adaptive and biologically rewarding to have epiphanies, thus helping us to understand why we evolved to experience spirituality in preference over technicality. (And why the cognitive fallacies incumbent with spirituality can be a bugger to iron out.)

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