A few years ago, I began exploring the connection between neuroscience and spirituality. I was shocked to find that there is a growing field of neuroscientists who are testing how the human body--and specifically, the human brain--responds to various spiritual practices. I published the findings of my study in a 2013 article, "This is Your Brain on Religion," but had no idea that this field of study would continue to grow and expand until today.
Now author Rob Moll, award-winning journalist and editor-at-large at Christianity Today, has collected the latest research on the connections between biology and spirituality into a single, accessible volume. In "What Your Body Knows About God," Moll argues that humans are hard-wired for spiritual experiences and connecting with God.
RNS: If prayer is visible on a brain scan, shouldn't we conclude that God is just a creation of our brains?
RM: No. The brain’s basic function is to perceive the external world and respond to it through the body. When it is hot your brain responds to your surroundings telling your body to sweat to cool off. Or you’ve just exercised and your body craves protein and carbs. Your brain is designed to use the senses in order to understand what’s happening around you.
If this is true of mundane, every day experiences, it seems entirely possible that every time you pray or belt out your favorite worship song, you simply are perceiving and responding to God in the way your brain has been designed to do. One researcher says that if God were to create us in order to be able to connect spiritually, we would expect the brain to operate just the way it does when we pray.
RNS: If all the aspects of our soul (love, faith, etc.) are actions of the brain, do humans have a soul?
RM: It might appear that both neuroscience and theology are overturning our traditional ideas of the soul. A lot of theologians would argue that, no, we don’t have a soul in the sense that we typically mean by the word soul. The word makes us think of some immaterial part of us that is inhabiting our bodies, the true seat of our “selves.” But the Hebrew word nephesh which is usually translated as “soul” might be better translated as person. And usually other words, like the Greek psyche, tend not to mean “soul” as we often understand it, but imply the deepest or most essential aspect of our personhood.
As a former hospice volunteer and author of a book on Christian dying, I believe that we do have an immaterial aspect to us. There are too many stories of people who are able to think even as they lay "brain dead" on an operating table. They are able to recount those experiences after being resuscitated. It’s hard to spend time around people who are dying and not believe that there is something to our humanity that goes beyond what a scientist can probe. Just because we can’t chart it on a scan, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
RNS: I ran across an interesting idea in your book. How do childbirth, love, and porn relate to stroke victims?
RM: While working with stroke victims, one researcher demonstrated how much our brains can change—brain plasticity. He figured out how to take someone who had massive brain damage and teach them to walk, or talk, or write again. Even when areas of the brain involved in walking have been destroyed, other parts of the brain can adapt and learn to command muscles they had never previously controlled.
These neurons can work in our favor in other ways as well. At childbirth or during orgasm the brain releases chemicals that make it more susceptible to change. It’s actually a beautiful way that God’s designed us to “become one flesh” with our spouse or adapt and connect deeply with a new, vulnerable baby. Our brains are designed to connect to the person we love.
Unfortunately, the same chemicals and brain changes take place by looking at porn. The brain is malleable for good or ill. [tweetable]In the same way that stroke victims relearn to walk, porn addicts learn to “need” porn.[/tweetable] This need can be highly addictive and debilitating. Thankfully, the brain plasticity that allowed for addiction can also provide the opportunity for change, given time and focused, faithful practice.
RNS: Why is our faith and our health so intimately connected?
RM: [tweetable]There are a lot of pathways through which faith and health influence each other.[/tweetable] Social experience is a big one. We attend church, meet in small groups, and we get to know people on an intimate basis. Having this kind of social network is helpful, whether you are sick and need someone to care for you, are looking for a job, or just need a friend. These relationships all affect our physical health. Faith-based friends also shape our behaviors, helping us live in ways conducive to good health, such as staying married, working, avoiding substance abuse, or other unhealthy behaviors.
Faith also affects the brain in positive ways, namely by reducing stress. Stress is awful on your immune system, raises your blood pressure, and adversely affects your body in a number of ways. [tweetable]Prayer, worship, and social interaction at church reduces stress.[/tweetable]
RNS: How does understanding all this neuroscience help us know God?
We often talk about the Bible as God’s “owners’ manual” telling us how we should live. For a car, the owners’ manual does tell you everything you need to know. But it also helps to know how an engine works, what the air filter is for, how the brakes work. It adds depth and context to the owners’ manual.
The same is true of our bodies. Knowing what we believe is important, but knowing our biology adds depth and context. We’re made to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. [tweetable]What we know from reading our Bibles, we see at work in our bodies.[/tweetable] We function best when we are living out the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. And our brains are designed so that when we connect with God in prayer, we strengthen our ability to live out these virtues.
Understanding neuroscience gives us a window into God’s magnificent design and intentions for us. As we learn more about our bodies, we can marvel at the care God gives to our lives, down to our very cells.