The fascinating new field of neurotheology studies the effect of religion on the brain
By Abak Hussain
In Bangladesh, as well as the rest of the Muslim world, Ramadan is known as the most spiritual of months. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for all 30 days of the month, engage in special night prayers (Tarawih), and generally try to refrain from impure thoughts. This month of reflection and restraint ends in Eid-ul-Fitr, one of the two major festivals in the Muslim calendar, and without a doubt, one of the most joyous days of the year for the Muslim community.
Even those who do not fast tend to treat Eid as a very special day, as there tends to be a festive air all around, with new outfits being worn and lavish dishes being prepared and consumed in households. But for those who do fast, the occasion marking the end of Ramadan takes on an entirely different significance – the experience is meaningful on a spiritual plane.
This is because the process of fasting, even just one or a few fasts, let alone a whole month of it, changes something within the seat of the brain, transforming mind and body, heightening a sense of spiritual well-being – whatever that may mean to the individual in question.
Inquiries of a religious nature and our place within the world have been made by humans since the beginning of civilization, and the “big questions” in life are not likely to be definitively answered soon: Where did we come from and where are we going? Is there a creator? What does the creator want from us? Is there an afterlife, and if so, what is it like?
Contending answers to these questions will continue to battle it out, but there is no doubt about one thing – the “religious experience” is very real. In spite of predictions to the contrary, over the past few centuries, neither scientific advances nor changes in culture have caused a downfall of religion. On the contrary, religion and faith are growing rapidly, and are here to stay.
But what exactly is spirituality or religiosity from a neuroscience standpoint, and how does brain research explain religious experience? Though this particular line of inquiry is still fairly young, some fascinating insights have been offered by scientists in recent years.
THE EMERGING FIELD OF NEUROTHEOLOGY
The American neuroscientist Andrew Newberg is uniquely qualified to spearhead investigations into this field. He holds a degree in chemistry as well as an MD, and has worked intensively in matters concerning the human brain. Due to his extensive work in religion, he has also been an adjunct assistant professor of religious studies, and has served as the director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind. His intersection of interests has led him to write Principles of Neurotheology (2010), where he boldly tries to wade into avenues often ignored by science.
Across various religions, in prayer, chanting, or meditation – certain states that may be described as “religious states” – there is much in common. Newberg studied the brains of people in these deeply religious modes, conducting brain scans on them. Those brain studies are then compared to baseline or “normal” states, and the differences that have been found are profound. We can say with some certainty then, that independent of one’s view of larger questions regarding the universe, bringing about a certain spiritual state of being can change a person in a very real way, physically altering our hardware.
After a mere eight weeks of meditation, for example, participants claimed that they were thinking more clearly, and were able to recall things better. Memory tests confirmed that their memory had indeed improved – and this is only within a highly controlled, short-term test. One wonders what the changes are of a lifetime of a habit of meditation.
Fasting and prayer, then, quite possibly, also hold benefits that science does not yet fully understand, including purging toxins from mind and body, honing focus, or achieving a sense of calm and possibly a fully-focused state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow.”
People have been delving into questions about religious, sensory, and mystical experience for centuries, expressing wonder at the durability of faith, or the power of prayer, fasting, and belief to transform a person from the inside, but what exactly makes neurotheology a new branch in a very old avenue of inquiry?
Newberg writes: “[…] neurotheology requires an openness to both the scientific as well as the spiritual perspectives. It is also important to preserve the essential elements of both perspectives. The scientific side must progress utilizing adequate definitions, measures, methodology, and interpretations of data. The religious side must maintain a subjective sense of spirituality, a phenomenological assessment of the sense of ultimate reality that may or may not include a divine presence, a notion of the meaning and purpose in life, an adherence to various doctrinal processes, and a careful analysis of religion from the theological perspective” (Principles of Neurotheology).
This explains why the field took so long to truly take off: A scientific examination of religiosity must be an interdisciplinary field, with expertise that cuts across religion and science. And the investigations must be conducted not with a view of debunking this or that, or conversely, to promote any religious agenda, but for a better understanding of the life of the spiritual mind.
FASTING IN ORDER TO SLOW DOWN THE MIND
Unlike some of the trickier avenues of neurotheological research, the physical and mental effects of fasting have been fairly rigorously and conclusively documented. It is no surprise that even in non-Muslim communities, especially in the West, various types of fasting, including intermittent fasting, are gaining rapid popularity. This is no mere fad. Fasting has been shown to increase willpower, accelerate rejuvenation and healing, and improve mental function, with toxins being flushed out of our system – maybe even our brains – quicker.
We live in a world that overwhelms us with noise and restless energy. Fasting can, in a sense, “slow down” the system, centering us, improving mood, and relieving depression. If we go deeper into the study of Muslim fasting and states of prayer, as well those of high-level practitioners of other faiths, such as the asceticism of Christian nuns and concentration of Buddhist monks, we may gain a clearer and fuller picture of the mysteries of the spirit within the complex “machine” that is the human brain.
Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh.