On The Relationship Between Cognitive Neuroscience and Spirituality/Religion. Markus Gern
This essay will initially suggest a definition for “sacred science” by establishing what may be understood respectively as sacred and science.
Then, it will offer a view into what makes science sacred; also, critically evaluating if a modern “sacred science” is feasible, and if there is already evidence to support such idea. It will also discuss some points of view arguing against sacred science, or positing an approach that would narrow, impoverish, or limit the cooperation and creation between spirituality/religion and science.
Since defining the term “sacred” in modern times is a largely challenging task (Nasr, 2006) and will demand a more elaborate explanation, it is easier to begin with definition of “science”. For that definition, the western standard use of the word will be considered. The Oxford online dictionary (“science”, n.d.) defines science as “1-The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
In Nasr (2006) we find science defined as “that body of systematic knowledge of nature, combined with mathematics, which grew out of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century” (p. 208). The British Science Council (“science”, n.d.) offers the following definition on its website: “Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence” (para. 1).
Based on the definitions above, and for the matter of this paper, the term “science” is being considered as the body of systematic knowledge and understanding of nature and society, achieved by observation and experiment using a systematic methodology based on evidence. By defining the term “science,” the first foundation stone has been established, making it possible to tackle the second foundation stone, which is to define the much more complicated and multifaceted term, “sacred”.
When thinking about it, the first topic that comes to mind is “Sacred to whom?” Would Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, Folk religionists, and Jews—just to mention the World´s biggest religions (Pew Research Center, 2012)—agree on what sacred is? It should also be taken into account that religious practices vary not only among different religions, but also inside a specific religion, from one practitioner to another. Practices vary significantly depending on several variables such as personality, personal values, social class, climate, and demographics (Whitehouse, 2000; McCauley and Lawson, 2002, as cited in Schjoedt, 2009). Thus, although there are indeed similarities, many religions—as well as different individuals—would diverge regarding their understanding of what is sacred. If this assumption is correct, the idea of one sacred science, embracing all that is considered sacred by all religions, seems to be an essential challenge.
The Oxford online dictionary defines the term “sacred” as:
1. Connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.
1.1 Religious rather than secular.
1.2 (of writing or text) embodying the laws or doctrines of a religion.
1.3 Regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular religion, group, or individual.
1.4 Regarded as too valuable to be interfered with; sacrosanct (“sacred”, n.d.).
Other authors defined sacred differently. Hill, Pargament, and Hood (2000) state that sacred “is a socially influenced perception of either some sense of ultimate reality or truth or some divine being/object” (p. 67). Lancaster (2010), while not disputing the definition of Hill et al, suggests that it sets the bar too high. Citing Emmons and Crumpler (1999), Lancaster explains that daily, earthly concerns—or as he puts it, “seemingly mundane pursuits” (p. 5)—can be considered sacred, including “football, management styles, or environmental concerns” (p. 5). One important notion to sacred is connectedness, as asserted by George, Larson, Koenig, and McCullough (2000). According to the authors, the search to get to the divine, nature, or the ultimate in any way, to realise a sense of meaning or purpose, is key to the idea of sacred.
Thus, the sacred is not only what is related to a god or gods, to main world religions, their specific objects of worship, or particular values and dogmas of these religions. Also, our mundane pursuits can be considered sacred to ourselves, as long we perceive the numinous quality of these personal quests, in the search for connection with the divine, nature or the ultimate.
By defining sacred for the context of this paper, the second foundation stone for this essay is set, and now it is possible to associate both terms, “science” and “sacred”, in one single term again. Based on the two suggested definitions above, I propose to define “sacred science” as the interrelation of science and spirituality/religion. Sacred science is therefore the incorporation into science of spiritual/religious, ontologically-challenging concepts like mind beyond the brain (Lancaster, 2011), and higher or ultimate realities beyond matter. In my opinion, any field of science that uses a scientific approach based on research and evidence, which develops its work by drawing upon spiritual/religious knowledge and wisdom to expand its horizons surpassing the typical materialist approach, can be called sacred.
Supported by the definition above it is possible to relate to some work that has been done in the last couple of years. In the following paragraphs, some examples of such interrelation between science and spirituality/religion will be demonstrated. But, before that, another idea must be shared. In the same way that the multitude of beliefs and understandings, as described earlier, posed a challenge to the definition of the word “sacred,” this diversity also offers an immense opportunity for progress. Spiritual/religious diversity seems to offer a rich environment upon which research and science can rest. There is no need to believe in one all-encompassing world of sacred science.
Possibly, an analogy is the best tool to clarify the point. When building a house, you need a toolset to reach the desired outcome. Each tool has its purpose and helps to get specific work done. It is much easier to nail something to its place using a hammer or a nail gun, instead of utilising a screwdriver or a wire cutter. In the same way that each tool contributes differently to the desired outcome, different forms of spirituality/religion are able to offer different hints or leads, indicating where science can look for further research ideas and answers.
Lancaster (2013) states,
Buddhism has much to say about the minutiae of perception; Kabbalah explores the nature of thought beneath the limen of consciousness; Sufism is rich in its discussions of imagination, and the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism details the propensity of mind to split reality into subjects and objects (p. 230).
Different recent researchers applied the insight offered by spirituality/religion in different ways and with different goals. Peres, Moreira-Almeida, and Koenig (2007), for example, focused on the therapeutic, healing aspect, looking into trauma treatment. Lancaster (1997), on the other hand, endeavoured through a more analytical aspect of the interrelation, exploring the features, capabilities, and perception-processing of the mind.
The third example for the cooperation between science and spirituality/religion comes from research about the effects of meditation and awareness exercises on the psyche and body. Chiesa and Serretti (2010), for example, demonstrate that meditation and awareness exercises increased specific brain activities (alpha and theta), and had a possible positive influence on mental and physical health. The interesting thing about this particular research is that it combines both aspects of the studies mentioned above. It analyses the functioning of the brain during meditation to learn more about how the brain works, and at the same time evaluates the effect on the mind and body for treatment and healing.
As already mentioned, Peres et al. (2007) studied the benefits of religion in trauma treatment, based on neuroimaging and research analysis, showing a “low activation of the … hippocampus” (p. 345) among other important brain areas. They suggest that “the hippocampus ‘creates’ a cognitive map so that events may be categorized and data connected with other autobiographical information, thus playing a fundamental role in the process of synthesizing, integrating, learning, and evaluating experiences” (p. 345). A lower activation of the hippocampus may be related to continuous dissociation and erroneous interpretation of traumatic events (Gilbertson et al., 2002, as cited in Peres et al., 2007).
Peres et al. (2007) posit that “spirituality and religiosity may also be cornerstones in reframing perception and constituting behaviour” (p. 346) They also support the notion that higher levels of religious involvement are related to better life quality and mental health, as well as to better physical and mental outcomes in patients, thus indicating that the cooperative work of religion and science is not only possible, but can also improve health and life quality in traumatised persons.
While Peres et al. (2007), looked into a possible common ground between science and religion to assist trauma treatment improving health and life quality, Lancaster (1997) examined the stages of perception and memory fixation based on the empirical findings of Abhidhamma Buddhism (which focuses on the analytical doctrine of mental faculties and elements), looking to establish “possible psychological and neurophysiological correspondences” (p. 122). According to the same author, Abhidhamma Buddhism establishes 17 stages towards perception, which could offer a deeper understanding of how memories are created in the brain.
Lancaster (1997) explains that, aligned with the Abhidhamma teachings, in his model, the “I” is ephemeral and has no intrinsic continuity. While demonstrating the different consciousness stages of the Abhidhamma teachings, Lancaster shows how this knowledge can be correlated to recent findings in perceptual processing. The relevant topic for this discussion is that Lancaster builds with his hypothesis a feasible and reliable base for the cooperation of religion and science, showing that collaboration is possible and realistic.
Another example of the interrelation between science and spirituality/religion is the research of the effects of meditation and awareness exercises on the brain. Chiesa and Serretti (2010) demonstrated through electroencephalographic (EEG) studies a “significant increase in alpha and theta activity during meditation” (p. 1), as well as possible positive results on mental and physical health. According to the authors, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has shown efficacy for many psychiatric and physical conditions and also for healthy subjects, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is mainly efficacious in reducing relapses of depression in patients with three or more episodes, Zen meditation significantly reduces blood pressure and Vipassana meditation shows efficacy in reducing alcohol and substance abuse in prisoners (Chiesa & Serretti, p. 1).
Other similar studies also came to positive results. Cramer, Lauche, Paul, and Dobos (2012) assert that there is some evidence that supports the effectiveness of meditation and MBSR on breast cancer treatment. Galante, Iribarren, and Pearce (2013) showed, based on 11 studies, that MBSR was effective in reducing depression relapse and anxiety. Khoury et al. (2013) stated, “MBT (Mindfulness Based Therapy) is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, and is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress” (p. 763).
The benefits of joining science and spirituality/religion seem to be evident, explicit and the creation of a contemporary sacred science seems to make perfect sense. Nevertheless, some points of view and arguments should be addressed to obtain a better and more balanced understanding of the matter.
One important topic mentioned by Lancaster (2011) is the risk of oversimplifying religious experiences to fit them into the prevailing scientific worldview. Lancaster argues, “We should not be approaching spiritual teachings and practices merely to fit them into the explanatory categories that are currently de rigueur in neuroscience and psychology” (p. 230). He continues asserting that, by doing so, there may be a risk of impoverishment, since not all complexity of spiritual and mystical traditions can be encompassed by modern science, leading to the loss of insights that might arise from religious experience. As a possible solution, Lancaster suggests broadening the conversation between science and religion, to encompass “some of the ontologically more challenging concepts” (p. 229) as mind beyond the brain, and “higher” or “ultimate” realities.
Also on the religious side, we have authors that contest the possibility of cooperation between science and spirituality. Nasr (2006) apparently argues in favour of the collaboration by stating that “the subject of the relation between religion and science…remains for other reasons of paramount importance” (p. 207). But further in his paper, he limits the participation of such collaboration to long-established religions, stating “In this present discussion, therefore, we shall define spirituality as the inner, spiritual dimension of traditional religions” (p. 209). With this, he excludes important spiritual practices such as shamanism or spiritism, and all other spiritual traditions, which are equally important and valid. This position, as already postulated above by Lancaster (2011), offers a risk of possibly impoverishing the results of the collaboration that could be obtained between science and spirituality/religion. Again, the solution lies in broadening the perspectives whilst discussing more ontologically challenging topics. In order to achieve this outcome, each interested party should be open to new concepts and accept widening their boundaries in the pursuit of moving forward and creating a modern Sacred Science.
The issues mentioned above represent a potential risk, but already accept the possibility of cooperation between science and religion, leaving at least some space to look for common ground. A more significant challenge comes from hardcore materialistic scientists. Some scientists don’t think that this cooperation is even possible, based on the belief that the mind and consciousness are products of the brain. Klink, Self, Lamme, and Roelfsema (2015) maintain that “most researchers will agree that consciousness is a (neuro)biological phenomenon and that the mechanisms which give rise to consciousness will have to be located in the brain.” (p. 1).
Hinterberger (2015) echoes that this worldview is often accepted, by stating “consciousness is frequently regarded as neuronally generated” (p. 144). Lamme (2006), in turn, claims that genuine progress can only be achieved by moving the notion of mind towards that of the brain. He asserts that “what seems necessary for conscious experience is that neurons in visual areas engage in so-called recurrent (or re-entrant or resonant) processing” (p. 494). Subscribing to the same point of view, in an interview for ABC News, Dr. Steven Novella categorically stated that “the mainstream scientific community is pretty well-established that the mind is a manifestation of the brain”(ABC News, 2008).
Although there is value to this kind of approach, since it helps to understand the mechanics of how the brain works, among other things, the materialistic stance ignores empirical evidence as well as several papers from different authors that demonstrate the mind or consciousness is not a product of the brain. Greyson (2015), for example, while working with Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), recorded how the patients that had an NDE reported vivid experiences, clear memory, and mental clarity, even while being considered clinically dead, thus directly challenging the idea that the mind and consciousness are products of the brain.
Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) also defy scientific materialism. An OBE can be defined as an “experience of consciousness, or self-awareness floating out of (or sometimes simply being independent of) the physical body” (Nicholls, 2016, p. 100). De Foe (2016) collected the opinion of several authors who have written about OBE, including Robert Peterson, Preston Dennett, Graham Nicholls, and Jurgen Ziewearguing that OBEs are real. Here, again, the aforementioned literature challenges the materialistic science by bringing several pieces of evidence that the mind and consciousness are not a sheer result of the brain and it functions.
Furthermore, many representative world religions, in different cultures, (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, some lines of Judaism, spiritism, and shamanism, for example) believe in reincarnation (“Reincarnation”, 2018). The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines reincarnation as follows: “also called transmigration or metempsychosis, in religion and philosophy, rebirth of the aspect of an individual that persists after bodily death.” (“Reincarnation”, n.d.). Mills, Haraldsson, and Keil (1994) found that 80% of the children interviewed in their study had accurate and provable memories of past lives. Thus, if reincarnation is real and provides some form of self-awareness or consciousness that outlasts physical death, once again, it would indicate that the mind and consciousness are not a product of the brain.
From the arguments shown above, it is clear that cooperation between religion and science is not only possible, but also desirable. There is no denial that there are challenges that will have to be surpassed in such an endeavour, but modern science is apparently growing beyond its limiting 17th century materialistic boundaries, using, for example, theories from quantum physics to argue that consciousness goes beyond the brain (Schwartz, Stapp, and Beauregard, 2005). It is also evident to me that science and spiritually have a lot to offer and, at the same time, both can profit from each other. Thus, there is a real chance for science and spirituality/religion to grow and support each other, because in the end, they seem to have a least one encompassing common goal: to make life on Earth more pleasurable and worth living.
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Markus is an MSc student at Alef Trust for Consciousness, Spirituality & Transpersonal Psychology and completed his prior studies in Business Administration and Simultaneous Interpreting in São Paulo, Brazil.
He was born in São Paulo, Brazil in 1974, attended the German school Humboldt and later the Universities FAAP and PUC.
Markus has achieved the master degree in Reiki and is a 1st grade black belt in Aikido and loves to watch TV series. Markus is married, has no children (yet), and lives with his wife and his dog in São Paulo, Brazil.