With all the research on mind/brain connections these days – Your brain in lust or love! While gambling or feeling envious! While meditating, praying, or having an out-of-body experience! – it’s natural to wonder about big questions about the relationships among the mind, the brain, and God. For instance, some people have taken the findings that some spiritual experiences have neural correlates to mean that the hand of God is at work in the brain. Others have interpreted the same research to mean that spiritual experiences are “just” neural, and thus evidence against the existence of God or other supernatural forces.
These debates are updated versions of longstanding philosophical and religious wrestlings with how God and nature might or might not intertwine. What’s your own gut view, right now, as a kind of snapshot: Do you think that God is involved in some way in your thoughts and feelings? In your most intimate sense of being? In this essay, we’ll explore what mind, brain, and God could be, how they might interact, and what studies on the neuropsychology of spiritual experiences can – and cannot – tell us.
What the Words Mean
The more profound the subject, the murkier the discussion. There’s a lot of fog and illogic in books, articles and blogs about the potential relationships among the mind, the brain, and God. In this territory, it’s particularly important to be clear about key terms like mind, brain, and God.
By mind, I mean the information represented by the nervous system (which has its headquarters in the brain – the three pounds of tofu – like tissue between the ears). This information includes incoming signals about the oxygen saturation in the blood and outgoing instructions to the lungs to take a bigger breath, motor sequences for brushing one’s teeth, tendencies toward anxiety, memories of childhood, knowing how to make pancakes, and the feeling of open spacious mindfulness. Most of mind is outside the field of awareness either temporarily or permanently. Conscious experience – sensations, emotions, wants, images, inner language, etc. – is just the tip of the iceberg of mental activity. The nervous system holds information much like a computer hard drive holds the information in a document, song, or picture. Hardware represents software.