Peering into People’s Brains: Neuroscience’s Intrusion into Our Inner Sanctum

by D. Gareth Jones

“Peering into the brain” has a number of connotations: from directly examining aspects of the functioning of an individual’s brain and hence what that individual may be thinking, to investigating the power of neuroscience to provide insights into characteristic features of our humanity. This article picks up on these different connotations and surveys several areas in neuroscience that raise issues of relevance for the Christian community. This is the domain of neuroethics, with particular reference to the prospects opened up by brain imaging and, in particular, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Use of this and allied imaging procedures opens up the possibilities of locating brain regions involved in religious experiences, from glossolalia to meditation, suggesting that there are neural correlates of activities central to Christian communities. This raises the issue of causation that is discussed by reference to the brain regions involved in “disgust,” altruistic acts, and religious visions.

 PSCF 62, no. 2 (2010): 122-132

1 comment to Peering into People’s Brains: Neuroscience’s Intrusion into Our Inner Sanctum

  • Wayne Dawson

    This is the first PSCF that I have actually read from cover to cover.  Typically, I can only make time for one article at best.  However, just as this article and the preface by the editor of this production somewhat emphatically pointed out, this is an area that hits at the heart of the Christian faith.  Just to name a few issues that crop up, the study of the mind hits on matters of free will, issues about what we can know about God with a physical mind, questions about what is the soul, and a host of other important theological topics.  So I appreciate that someone saw it fit to begin to address the matter and the efforts made by all the writers in this production to speak to the Christian community should be welcomed.  
    Here, Jones appears to accept that the brain is largely a physical entity.  I did find the article well nuanced on the issue of how we can reasonable interpret religious experience when we are confronted with reports from functional NMR, the purported “God helmet”, and chemically induced effects.  It was certainly encouraging to hear writing free of ideological overtones that the brain is little more than a glorified piece of meat.  We may yet find some “salt” to spice it up a bit.  I felt Jones sensitively approached the matters of religious experience and what we can know from science.
    I only wish to add a small comment.  I understand that a dualist view is difficult to maintain.  As other authors in this production point out, a person’s personality can chance as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, and head injuries.  We do see the lights go out in the cold realities of the world.  We also see that we can probe brain states.  So we have little way get around the fact that the mind is largely physical, and in this respect, basically meat. Hence, as far as writing as a scientist, at least with the evidence that appears to be available to us, we are only left to find ways to nuance the perspective on what constitutes the mind and the soul. 
    However, as believers in a transcendent God who is greater than all the “stuff” that we claim to constitute the universe (or multiverse be it so) and a God who expects us to be moral; I only wish to point out that we have to accept that there is something more to the mind than its collective pieces.  I don’t argue this scientifically, it is clearly an issue of faith.  Hence, I am not being critical of this article, or the other articles in this work, but theologically speaking (a matter that was not so much addressed in this work), this is baggage we have to carry with us, at least in our private thoughts.  I’m not really sure where the “salt” comes from.  I’m inclined to speculate that the non-locality of quantum mechanics might play a role.  Again, that cannot be measured since we do not know any details on the nature of the transmitter let alone the effects this could have on the receiver.  Perhaps I am mistaken, but I only propose that without accepting some nuanced form of dualism, we would lose our feeble grip on the transcendent God.
    By Grace we proceed,

May 2010
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