God Detection Neurons?

I’m linking to a post by my friend, blogger Ktismatics. He recently posted on speculation about finding the neurons that trigger the experience of knowing or believing in God.

I left a few comments about John Calvin’s theology of the <i>sensus divinitatis</i>. This is the sense that we human beings (and nonhumans also, perhaps?) have of God or of something divine in the world. Calvin and others look to Romans chapter 1, which seems to indicate that God can be known “from what has been made.” The contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has developed an extensive epistemology built around the idea that God created human beings so that under certain circumstances they would just know that God exists or simply feel the presence of God.

In the comments section of Ktismatics’s post, we also discussed the idea that meditation and contemplative practices can deepen one’s awareness of reality. Take a deep human experience as a starting point: the birth of a child, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, falling in love, or being with a loved one who is dying. There is something about these deeply meaningful experiences that triggers a sense of the profound mystery of the universe. There is a sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, in some cases, even a sense that all things have a profound interconnection.

Mystics and contemplatives generally believe that this deepened sense of awareness can be a part or ordinary life. That the most seemingly mundane of tasks can be experienced with a profound awareness–washing the dishes, taking out the trash, making coffee, walking to work, or waiting in a line. The intuition of the mystics is that all of life is holy and sacred, and that things like taking a simple walk can have the same meaning as the first time you stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or that changing a diaper can generate the same gratitude and wonder as holding a newborn.

This led to Ktismatics sharing this quote (see comment 12 on his post):

“Antoine Lutz and his colleagues at the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin studied Tibetan monks who had experienced at least ten thousand hours of meditation. They found that meditators self-induce sustained high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and global phase-synchrony, visible in EEG recordings made while they are meditating. The high-amplitude gamma activity found in some of these meditators seems to be the strongest reported in the scientific literature. Why is this interesting? As Wolf Singer and his coworkers have shown, gamma-band oscillations, caused by neurons firing away in synchrony about forty times per second, are one of our best current candidates for creating unity and wholeness (although their specific role in this respect is very much debated). For example, on the level of conscious object-perception, these synchronous oscillations often seem to be what makes an object’s various features — the edges, color, and surface texture of, say, an apple — cohere as a single unified percept. Many experiments have shown that synchronous firing may be exactly what differentiates an assembly of neurons that gains access to consciousness from one that also fires away but in an uncoordinated manner and thus does not. If a thousand soldiers walk over a bridge together, nothing happens; however, if they march across in lock-step, the bridge may well collapse.”

Then you [Erdman] say this: “Perhaps what was once unrecognizable ‘background noise’ becomes foregrounded.” Again Metzinger is right with you: “The synchrony of neural responses also plays a decisive role in figure-background segregation — that is, the pop-out effect that lets us perceive an object against a background, allowing a new gestalt to emerge from the perceptual scene. Ulrich Ott is Germany’s leading meditation researcher, working at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the Justus-Liebig Universitat in Giessen. He confronted me with an intriguing idea: Could deep meditation be the process, perhaps the only process, in which human beings can sometimes turn the global background into the gestalt, the dominating feature of consciousness itself? This assumption would fit in nicely with an intuition held by many, among others Antoine Lutz, namely that the fundamental subject/object structure of experience can be transcended in states of this kind.…The oscillations also correlate with the meditators’ verbal reports of the intensity of the meditative experience — that is, oscillations are directly related to reports of intensity. Another interesting finding is that there are significant postmeditative changes to the baseline activity of the brain. Apparently, repeated meditative practice changes the deep structure of consciousness. If meditation is seen as a form of mental training, it turns out that oscillatory synchrony in the gamma range opens just the right time window that would be necessary to promote synaptic change efficiently. (emphasis added)

via God Detection Neurons?.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

2 thoughts on “God Detection Neurons?”

  1. Thanks for the link. Like the contemplatives, artists and scientists also often devote considerable attention to the ordinary thing. They frame the ordinary thing in ways that make it seem extraordinary, largely through giving it concentrated attention. This attention makes the ordinary thing pop out from the context in which it’s embedded, bestowing on it a kind of holiness. I gotta admit that changing a diaper never seemed much like an encounter with the mystical oneness of the universe. I’m sure though that one could cultivate the contemplative attitude toward even that mundane activity.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.