The origins of neurotheology probably can be blamed on philosophers like Plato who first began to divide the world into spirit and matter leading to continuing debate and the accumulation of many words. It might well be said that neurotheology is out of place in a Judeo-Christian world where spirit means “breath” and Jesus could say “Our Father who is as close as the air all around us” as his way of teaching his students to talk with God. But even here, Greek philosophy gets involved to render his statement, “Our Father who art in Heaven,” leaving a wide separation between the physical and spiritual. Neurotheology is the discussion of these topics and their application to thriving in a human brain and body.
Climbing the same hill from the other side are neurologists like Dr. Antonio Damasio or Dr. Vilaynur Ramachandran who represent a scientific/evolutionary view. Damasio makes a good case that the division between the brain and the rest of the body has been taken too far already as the brain is much more a mirror of body states then we suppose. Ramachandran and others propose that spiritual states are normal conditions of the human brain and have taken pains to map how we feel spiritual.
The spiritual zone Dr. Vilaynur Ramachandran studies how regions of the brain, like the temporal lobes, are designed for spiritual experiences. This school of thought proposes that spiritual experiences are both natural and desirable for the human brain without trying to answer the question of what the brain is transcending when it enters a spiritual state. This understanding of the word “spiritual” refers to an experience or orientation toward mystical experiences.
The spiritual effect Dr. Daniel Amen is one example of observing the effects that spirituality has on the proper functioning of the brain. He is part of the body of science that says that spiritual experiences and disciplines can improve our mental health and improve the function of the brain.
Mind/brain dualism The classical approach to neurotheology attempts to distinguish mind from brain. In this view, the mind is something other than the brain. The more theistic discussants would make the assumption that God was some form of mind rather than matter. The mind is often viewed as spirit. The word “spiritual” in this context refers to a separate and nonphysical being and reality. These discussions resemble philosophy more that science and many are reductionistic, attributing to the mind whatever functions the authors do not believe the brain can perform. Consciousness, will and memory form three large components of the discussion at this point in our knowledge.
Not all dualists are focused on finding the line between mind and brain based on functions. Dr. Karl Lehman argues, in agreement with the dualists, that the mind and brain are two different phenomena. However, Dr. Lehman also emphasizes that the mind and brain are intimately connected, and discusses how the brain serves the mind and how the mind is dependent on the brain because he is interested in optimizing the function of both mind and brain. His substantial discussion on the subject is available to download.
Researchers, like the late surgeon Wilder Penfield, have moved the discussion toward reductionism because Penfield’s work often involved seeing what the person could still do as pieces of brain were removed. The assumption being that the mind could work through the brain until the piece of the brain that was allowing the mind to connect was removed. Dr. Lee Travis, one of the discovers of brain waves and developers of the EEG (brain wave recorder,) once told a class at Fuller Seminary that the cortex [of the brain] was far too fickle to be the place where God met the brain. God, he argued, would use the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain stem. Eugene B. Shea has a well-developed neurotheology based on a similar view of mind and brain based on the RAS (or reticular formation [RF] as it is also known.)
Reticular Formation versus Control Center While traditional neurotheology has started at the bottom of the brain with the RAS/RA where the brain’s value systems originate, Life Model neurotheology has a greater focus on the Control Center at the top of the brain’s hierarchy. Because the Life Model concept of synchronization greatly simplifies subjects from consciousness to sin, it allows us to envision a spiritual interaction with the physical world everywhere in the brain/body at once rather than looking for the intersection of brain and mind. This is not to deny the importance of the brain’s value systems because, unlike the control centers hierarchical progression, value systems impact all the related brain regions at once. These value systems, addressed in the work of Giulio Tononi, activate everything from genes to brain chemistry as well as being the clocks and event markers for the system.
The assumption is made by most neurotheologians and mind/brain dualists that the mind is already fully human from the start. There is no doubt that the same cannot be said for the control center. The control center must be shaped, trained, stimulated, strained and nurtured to produce earned maturity or a working identity. (The science related to the control center function and development is laid out best by Dr. Allan Schore.) It is precisely this training and shaping of maturity and identity that is the focus of most applied theology. In addition, the control center provides explanations for how we develop and use mutual-brain states with our group identity as well as our individual identities. Rather than answer the question of what your mind will do if your brain is gone, the Life Model seeks to answer what the mind of God had planned for the development of the brain you have so that you might thrive and suffer well when that was your condition.
You will not have to look far on the Internet to find another school of neurotheology. This is a group that collects bits of neuroscience, quotes from famous doctors, stacks of research findings that happen to support whatever view or method they are using. These quotes and “proofs” hang all over their material like the tools and supplies on an old prospector’s mule. They are hanging there because they are useful to make a point sound convincing and not because they have any relationship to the study hanging next to them. These prospectors usually have the map to some buried gold mine that the rest of science and medicine have refused to accept because it is too far ahead of its time. If they are good at it you will find some quantum physics hanging on the mule as well. As often as not, this lost mine is known by the prospector to be God’s gift to the planet.
People who stumble across something that works, particularly something that works surprisingly well, are driven to find spiritual, scientific, theological and philosophical answers to why and how their discovery works. While discovering something wonderful will certainly get us fascinated about it there is no reason to believe that those who make discoveries are any better than others at figuring out why their discovery works. Some wonderful discoveries get overlooked because the person who made the discovery provided such a whimsical explanation that no one took them seriously. Other times, people have been convinced by a demonstration and ended up believing the story they got with it. We should not assume that something is not real just because the person who found it called it the wrong thing and explained it the wrong way. We should also not simply accept that someone who can demonstrate reliable results has a reliable explanation for those results.