Subjective religious experiences could be scientifically investigated

"Religious experience does not sit in one place in the brain, but almost everywhere"

Freiburg i.Ü., March 28, 2017 (kath.ch) During spiritual experiences, neuronal activities can be measured in almost the entire brain. And long-term meditation has implications for the brain. The neuroscientist and philosopher Günter Rager read this out of the research of other neuroscientists. In an interview, he criticizes colleagues who go beyond the neurosciences when interpreting their results. That is ideology, so Rager.

Regula Pfeifer

Do neuroscientists know where belief is located in the brain?

Günter Rager: No, that's not the point. Neuroscientists study what happens in the brain when people meditate or pray.

What did you find out?

Rager: You have noticed that special activities then take place in the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. The results differ depending on the examination method. Andrew Newberg's method does not allow these activities to be localized more precisely. Through a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and quantitative electroencephalography - two imaging measurement methods - Mario Beauregard was able to show that many places in the brain are affected when such religious activities take place.

Two imaging measurement methods show that many places in the brain are affected.

What does that mean?

Rager: From this one can conclude that the idea of ​​God or belief or religious experience does not sit in any particular place in the brain. Rather, almost the entire brain is affected.

Is spiritual experience a purely physical-chemical process?

Rager: The findings of the neuroscientists do not allow any statement to be made as to whether spiritual experience is more than a physical-chemical process. Some neuroscientists see it that way themselves. Andrew Newberg and Mario Beauregard say, for example, that their findings do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the experience. Others, however, believe that they have also explained the experience with their knowledge with the help of physico-chemical processes. Anyone who claims such a thing is arguing not scientifically, but ideologically.

Neuroscientists who want to explain the experience argue ideologically.

Does such an interpretation endanger the understanding of spirituality?

Rager: Not exactly that. But such a thing cannot be represented scientifically, philosophically or theologically. So it is easy to refute such interpretations. Opinions are justified when they are scientifically proven. That is not the case here.

What about the spiritual experience?

Rager: Two different perspectives on a religious experience are possible: the observer perspective - that is the scientific one - and the participant perspective. The latter is a purely subjective experience. With the observer perspective or the scientific perspective, I can examine what is going on in another person's brain. In the participant perspective, I experience the situation myself; This is something completely different.

Can this experience be researched scientifically?

Rager: That doesn't work. When I tell other people about my experience, they can empathize with it. But they cannot scientifically investigate it.

We cannot scientifically investigate the experience.

Spiritual experience affects the brain, you once said. In what way?

Rager: Yes, of course, that's why the neurosciences are researching it. The brain is changed by the spiritual experience. It is activated differently than usual. People who meditate regularly for decades have been shown to have special activities in the brain, even when they are not meditating. So the brain has changed.

It is a well-known fact that every thought and learning process changes the brain. The brain is an incredibly adaptable organ that changes depending on what it is dealing with. In the unmanageable number of synapses - i.e. the contact points between nerve cells - there is a constant build-up, reconstruction and restructuring.

So could it be said that spiritual experiences are good for the brain?

Rager: We don't have the investigations for that. But you can judge that from a personal perspective. If you feel comfortable praying or meditating, if it gives you a boost in your life, then one can conclude that this is good for you as a person - not just for your brain.

This is also sung in the hymns: someone who feels safe in God leads a different life than someone who is sad and desperate for life. But these are phenomena in the realm of subjective experience. Up to now it has not been investigated whether such people live longer or have different blood sugar or blood pressure values.

So far, no research has been carried out into whether believing people live longer.

Neurosciences look at religion scientifically. Does that endanger religion?

Rager: That doesn't matter at all for religion. For example, I don't mind knowing that there are many places in the brain where I am doing activity when I meditate. That doesn't change anything about my meditation, my experience in meditation. From this I draw the conclusion: I am a person, so I have a body and a brain. And when I experience something, it is clear that my whole body is involved.

© Catholic Media Center, March 28, 2017
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