The Evolution of Wonder: Religious and Neuroscientific Perspectives

I suggest as a testable hypothesis that experiences of wonder have widespread and powerfully stimulating effects on the association cortex, expanding the functional range of those “intervening” mental processes.  Because experiences of wonder are encounters with the novel and unexpected, they defy conventional categories and exceed the normal boundaries of understanding.  More than that, they compel the creation of new, more expansive categories and new, more subtly integrated modes of understanding.  In experiences of wonder the association cortex is pushed beyond its normal range of functioning and forced to make sense of extremely unusual input.  I believe the creative results of that integrative effort by the association cortex have played, and continue to play, an influential role in the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.  I also believe that the world’s religious and spiritual traditions have played, and continue to play, an influential role in the ontogenetic development of the association cortex, that is, in prompting an expanded range of integrative functioning in this area of the brain through the course of an individual’s life.

A major turning point in the recent history of cognitive neuroscience was the research by Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzinga, J.E. Boden, and others on the assymetrical functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the cerebral cortex (Kandel et al., 2000) (16).  [Image 18: two hemispheres]  Many important discoveries have come from this area of research—and so have many preposterous speculations.  Claims that people have “left-brain” or “right-brain” personalities are plainly unjustified by the findings of current research.  Even more outlandish are suggestions that certain religions, philosophies, or whole civilizations have a predominantly “left-brain” or “right-brain” orientation (Ashbrook & Albright, 1997) (124-127).[x]  Once again, there is an urgent need for a vigorous critical response to these sweeping claims, which cloak their biases in the universalizing mantle of science.

Having said that, asymetrical functioning in the human brain-mind system is a real phenomenon.  Indeed, it is a striking feature of our species, given that evolution exhibits a strong preference for symmetry.  While any complex cognitive function depends on the activation of both hemispheres, the past half-century of research has identified the following distinctions in their functioning (Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998; Solms, 1997; Springer & Deutsch, 1998; Thompson, 2000):

n      The right hemisphere has primary responsibility for manipulospatial activities, i.e., activities involving movement in imaginal space and “mental mapping” (Springer & Deutsch, 1998) (358); the right hemisphere also has a central role in the detection of anomalies and novelties; and, the right hemisphere is more fully activated in REM sleep.

n      The left hemisphere has primary responsibility for speech, language, and the imposition of semantic structure on spoken communication; the left hemisphere is also centrally involved in tasks involving sequential analysis, and more generally in the maintenance of a consistent and coherent sense of selfhood.[xi]

Bearing in mind the limitations of this area of research, I suggest as a testable hypothesis that experiences of wonder involve a relatively high degree of activation in the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.  If true, this might open new ways of understanding people’s reports from various religious and spiritual traditions that experiences of wonder defy ordinary verbal description and involve an acute awareness of highly anomalous phenomena and spatial-temporal transformations.

Lastly, I suggest there is a relative deactivation in experiences of wonder of those areas of the prefrontal cortex [Image 19: prefrontal cortex] that are responsible for goal-directed cognition, what many neuroscientists regard as the “executive” functions of the brain-mind system (Kandel et al., 2000).  These areas are typically deactivated in REM sleep (with lucid dreaming being an intriguing exception), and I believe (and propose as a testable hypothesis) that these same prefrontal areas are at least temporarily deactivated during experiences of wonder.  Wonder has an auto-telic quality; it generates a strong sense of the fullness of the present, which has the effect of “dethroning” ordinary plans, purposes, and motivations.  Many experiences of wonder are characterized by an unusual receptivity and radical openness (which is not the same as passivity), and in neuroscientific terms I suspect this quality corresponds to a relative deactivation in the prefrontal cortex.

To summarize what I’ve said so far, [Image 20: summary of neural systems involved in wonder] I’m proposing that experiences of wonder regularly involve increased activation of the limbic system (particularly the hippocampus and amygdala), the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system, and various regions of association cortex, with a relatively greater (though not absolute) contribution of the right hemisphere and diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Now if I know my audience, I suspect many of you will be wondering, when is the other shoe going to drop?  When am I going to make the leap and claim that these neuroscientific findings provide the key to all religion, the universal origin of mystical experience, the objective foundation for the perennial philosophy?

Let me try to surprise you by saying why I think that line of argument is badly misguided, and why my project is moving in a very different direction.

In addition to the analysis of macroscopic neuroanatomy—hemispheres, lobes, and so forth—a critical dialogue between religious thought and cognitive neuroscience requires careful attention to the microscopic dimensions of brain-mind functioning, specifically to the intricate interactions between and among individual neurons.  [Image 21: individual neuron]  A neuron is a biological cell that has a special capacity to transmit information. The human brain has something in the neighborhood of a trillion (10 to the 12th) neurons, and the average neuron has several thousand dendrites (10 to the 15th) that form synaptic connections with other neurons.  [Image 22: clusters of neurons]  This generates an almost inconceivable combinatorial power that, to me, is itself a source of wonder.[xii]  As Thompson says,

“The number of possible different combinations of synaptic connections among the neurons in a single human brain is larger than the total number of atomic particles that make up the known universe.  Hence the diversity of the interconnections in a human brain seems almost without limit.” (Thompson, 2000) (3)

This may be the single most important discovery to come from cognitive neuroscience, and one of its many implications is this:  Universalistic claims about human religious and psychological experience can find no support in current knowledge about the vast neural complexity of the human brain.

As an illustration of this point, we should be suspicious of the sweeping claims of Andrew Newberg in his best-selling book Why God Won’t Go Away: The Biology of Belief (Newberg et al., 2001), in which he correlates the subjective experiences of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in prayer with data produced by SPECT (single positron emission computed tomography) scans of their brains.  Newberg’s central argument is that his neuroscientific research proves that all forms of meditation, prayer, mysticism, and ritual activity are ultimately pointing to the same supreme revelation of what he calls “Absolute Unitary Being.”  As his book’s title suggests, Newberg presents his neuroscientific research as favorable to and supportive of the world’s religious traditions, and his work has been widely acclaimed by a spiritually eager American public.[xiii]  But I suggest to you that Newberg’s theological speculations (as distinguished from his research data) are leading us into a dead end, because the tremendously complex neural interactions in each individual’s brain means that, in neurological terms, no two people are ever having exactly the same experience.  On strictly neuroscientific grounds, a universalism like that proposed by Newberg cannot be maintained.

Indeed, I believe Newberg’s claims about the universal features of religious experience are artifacts of the current state of neuroimaging technology.  As this technology improves (and given the amount of money being poured into it, future progress will be rapid), we are sure to discover vast new realms of exquisite complexity and distinctive difference in each individual’s neural circuitry [Image 23: Increasing resolution of PET scans 1993-1998].  This makes it quite likely that at some point in the near future we will have imaging data showing how, for example, the experiences of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhists are in fact quite different from one another.  Paradoxically, the very technology that Newberg uses to defend a universalistic view of religion will, I predict, become a valuable means of highlighting the radically irreducible plurality of human religious experience.

Bringing the microscopic phenomenology of the neuron into our critical dialogue, while fatal to a universalism like Newberg’s, provides additional support for my argument that experiences of wonder involve a powerful decentering and recentering of the self.  At the level of neural interactions, I suggest (as a testable hypothesis) that experiences of wonder strongly disrupt ordinary neural networks and stimulate the creation of new patterns of connectivity.  This claim seems plausible in light of the data from Mark Rosenzweig’s famous research on rats being raised in relatively stimulating or impoverished environments : [Image 24: Rosenzweig rats] The rats who were raised in the “rich” environments (a telling phrase!) had a greater density of neural connectedness than did the rats raised in “poor” environments (Diamond, 1988).  Rosenzweig’s experiment illustrates the direct impact of novel, stimulating experiences on neural circuitry; I believe something very similar is happening in experiences of wonder.

I know I have thrown a lot of information at you, and made a number of highly debatable propositions.  But whatever you think of my particular project on experiences of wonder, I hope I have at least succeeded in persuading you of the value of a critical dialogue between religious thought and cognitive neuroscience.[xiv]  If you ever make use of the concepts of consciousness and the unconscious, if you employ psychoanalytic theories of pre-oedipal development, if you study different cultural modes of symbolic expression, if you work in pastoral ministry or therapy—if you do any of these things, I can promise that your awareness, knowledge, and insight will grow tremendously by pursuing such a dialogue.


2 Replies to “The Evolution of Wonder: Religious and Neuroscientific Perspectives”

  1. Hello. I am having dreams of different religious symbols and I am required to save these items then place three pigs to the right of them. I am told this without words spoken to or from me. I wake up during these dreams and function normally but when I go back to sleep I pick up where I left off. Then when I have the pigs in a row to the right I hear someone above say ” You have done as I have asked and done well ” then I wake up. Why do I have to save these items? I have always known and acknowledged a Higher Power but there are religions I don’t know about but yet I am protecting with my life.

    1. A dream like this can lead in many directions. Much would depend on the saved items–if there were more details or characteristics describing them, it might be easier to discern possible meanings. Pigs have an ambivalent role in Biblical traditions, that’s a curious element.

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