Field of Science

Spirituality is an induced disorder

On the blog of the British Humanist Association there is a new post about a research paper that links spirituality to brain damage. The right parietal lobe determines "how we figure out where we are, and how we relate to the world around us." The researchers explain that
Disorders of the right hemisphere involve a diminished capacity in the ability of the self to function in the immediate environment, including difficulties localizing the body in space...
The blogger notes that studies of Buddhist monks have revealed the same effect in the same area of the brain when they meditate. Thus, a transcendental state achieved through meditation, or prayer, as in the case of catholic nuns, is really just shutting down part of the brain. So much for the religious component, and so much for basing your life on those experiences.

I am reminded of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had a stroke that inhibited her ability to distinguish herself from her surroundings. A pure feeling of happiness, she recalls.


  1. With all due respect, I think this post is an example of good science, bad philosophy.

    Simply describing what happens in the brain when a person has a spiritual experience is not enough to 'debunk' the experience. If it was, then describing what happens in mathematicians' brains would debunk mathematics, and, for that matter, describing what happens in scientists brains as they are finding out what happens in people's brains would debunk that data, therefore leading to a contradiction.

    What truth is and isn't cannot be determined by a mere description of the brain. There is an implicit assumption here that a brain-state is 'unhealthy' (damaged, seizing, not getting enough oxygen, however you want to put it) in comparison with the socially-defined norm of a healthy brain, and that 'unhealthy' brains are less likely to realize the truth. I don't know how you would defend that assumption.

  2. Ahh, sincere respect. I revel in it.

    If you can damage the brain and see that the person has a 'religious' experience, then it does suggest that the cause was just the damage and not a god. When people have illusions they are better explained by a faulty brain than by external (i.e. real) events.

    The difference between that and mathematics is that mathematics can be shared, suggesting that it is not just something pertaining to one person and their brain only. Mathematics also works (thus computers, buildings, large hadron colliders, etc.), while we learn nothing from illusions, even if we call them God.

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  4. They got a death-sentence removed, their lives were spared...
    We're not robots - life isn't so simple. You can poke the brain all day, but you're ultimately staring down the barrel into your own beliefs you've already come up with.
    Please learn the distortive effects of the brain, before you attempt to grasp it's functions.

  5. Thanks Will. But no, "poking" at the brain can change what we know about it, and thus what we believe about ourselves. That doesn't have to be made up in advance.

    Why must we necessarily learn about the distortive effects of the brain first? Oh, and isn't Jill learning about its distortive effects?

  6. I'm saying we distort information fit what we already believe.
    It'll be the day that I believe spirituality is caused by some damage in your brain.
    Am I closed to the idea? No, I'm just closed to the way they got their information.
    A human is what they are if they become spiritual after a near-death experience. It is not inherent to damage.
    I know I have no brain damage [have done scans], and have been a spiritual person for years.

  7. The point isn't really that spirituality is caused by damage to the brain, but that's it's a thing of the brain, and one that we can't necessarily control.

    Thus, a transcendental state achieved through meditation, or prayer, as in the case of catholic nuns, is really just shutting down part of the brain.


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