Spirituality and Cognitive Neuroscience: A Partnership for Refining Maps of the Mind
Spiritual and mystical traditions share with the approach of cognitive neuroscience an interest in mapping the mind. These traditions have always sought to find ways to promote a deeper understanding of our inner lives than simple untrained introspection on mental processes can reveal. Their insights arise through complex meditative, contemplative, and ritual practices directed at profoundly transforming the normal state of consciousness into one imbued with wisdom. These practices are complementary to the approach of cognitive neuroscience which studies states of mind from the outside, as it were. In this sense, an increasing number of neuroscientists view spirituality as a source of insights and practices that can be researched through neuroscientific analysis. There has been an exponential rise in research over some 20 years into changes in the brain and cognitive and emotional functions associated with spiritual practices. In large measure, claims by the spiritual traditions about the short- and long-term effects of these practices have been confirmed. Further areas in which cognitive neuroscience has drawn from the insights in spiritual and mystical traditions have focused on the nature of self and related mental processes such as memory and perception. The core feature in definitions of spirituality concerns our connectedness with a larger sphere—be that conceptualised in terms of a divine or more generally as an integral wholeness in the natural world. Given most neuroscientists’ faith in the hegemony of scientific materialism, this feature of spirituality has been more challenging, with a predominance of reductive theories. Nevertheless, ways in which the functioning of the brain may be incorporated into that larger picture are beginning to emerge, and—it is argued here—are likely to become increasingly influential in the future.
KeywordsThe sacred Cognitive neuroscience Scientific naturalism Meditation Attention Mindfulness Kabbalah Recurrent processing
Spirituality as Incorporated in Neuroscience
In a 2013 symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences, two pioneers in the study of mindfulness were asked whether mindfulness should be regarded as a spiritual practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn replied stating that he tends to stay away from the word spirituality, and Richard Davidson said, “I don’t talk about spiritual because I don’t really know what spiritual means” (Paulson et al. 2013, p. 96). This anecdote effectively captures the wariness of psychologists and neuroscientists in embracing the term ‘spirituality.’ Given that the practices which Kabat-Zinn and Davidson advocate are drawn from religious traditions of long standing, it is understandable that many would connote the practices as being spiritual. Evidently we have a mismatch between the term ‘spirituality’ in common usage and its use in more scientific circles. The essential issue here revolves around our ability to capture the meaning of the term ‘spirituality’ and to establish whether it represents a distinctive construct (MacDonald 2011). To the extent that the term connotes different things to different people, Kabat-Zinn and Davidson were wise to evade committing themselves on the issue.
It has become commonplace to distinguish spirituality from religiousness. Walach (2015), for example, understands spirituality as the experiential core of religions that may effectively be dissociated from the doctrinal and dogmatic connotations of the latter. Accordingly, he argues for a secular spirituality. Pappas and Friedman (2007) emphasise the non-institutional basis of spirituality—that it is primarily an individual quest—again, thereby disassociating it from religion. And in popular culture, the refrain that someone is “spiritual but not religious” is frequently heard.
Pinning down the term ‘spirituality’ is not easy, not least because it has significantly changed its meaning over history, with this secular connotation coming to the fore only over recent decades. Indeed, as a cultural indicator the fluidity in the term’s meaning speaks loudly about the re-evaluation since the mid-twentieth century of those human aspirations that had previously been incorporated in terms such as ‘religion’ and ‘mysticism’. Interesting as this cultural phenomenon is, it need not overly concern us here. In considering spirituality and neuroscience specifically, the primary question is whether spirituality entails dimensions that cannot be addressed by science. To the extent that spirituality entails belief in non-physical ‘spirits’ (Lindeman et al. 2012), it would lie on the religion side of the science-religion divide. Science focuses on the physical—that which can be measured, controlled, and subjected to concrete intervention; its explanatory constructs must be part of the physical world. None of this is challenged in the interface between neuroscience and spirituality as it has developed through research over recent years. The secularisation of spirituality has gone hand-in-hand with the recognition that at least some of the qualities, captured in the term ‘spirituality’ are available to scientific enquiry.
[F]rom the vantage point of the researcher who stands outside the tradition, it is crucial to separate the highly detailed and verifiable aspects of traditional knowledge about meditation from the transcendental claims that form the metaphysical or theological context of that knowledge. (p. 502)
The enormous progress that has come about through incorporation of spirituality into science by taking such a stance is evidenced by the exponential rise in research papers demonstrating that the practice of meditation or some other form of mindfulness-enhancing technique is associated with measurable changes in the structure and function of the brain and other bodily systems, and can bring about cognitive, emotional, and health-related benefits (reviewed briefly in next section).
The incorporation of spirituality into neuroscience, then, has entailed the extirpation of those aspects of the former that cannot be accommodated in the latter. The meditation practices that Lutz, Dunne and Davidson have researched, for example, are drawn from Buddhist traditions which hold that consciousness does not have a material basis (Samuel 2014). This Buddhist worldview has been jettisoned since the hegemony in neuroscience views consciousness as inextricable tied to the brain.
Let us be clear: the contemporary flowering of neuroscientific research into spirituality is a logical continuation of the project to map all experience as arising from patterns of neural activity; there is no compromise of the metaphysical assumptions of science. The question that should be asked, however, is whether there has been a compromise too far on the part of spirituality.
The one area that penetrates to the core of this question is, I suggest, that of the sacred. For many, a definition of spirituality that leaves out the sacred would be emaciated. Hill et al. (2000) insist from a review of historical considerations and empirical research that spirituality is akin to religion in being concerned with subjective feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that arise from a search for the sacred. And the authors specify the sacred as referring to a “divine being, divine object, Ultimate Reality, or Ultimate Truth as perceived by the individual” (p. 66). Central to the notion of the sacred is connectedness—that individuals endeavour to become more connected to the divine, nature, or the ultimate in whichever way they conceive it, and thereby to realise their sense of meaning or purpose (George et al. 2000).
Paloutzian and Park (2005) subsume the notion of the sacred within human meaning-making systems, thereby placing the distinctive quality of the holy within the more general propensity to establish frames of reference within which our world becomes intelligible. Whilst there can be no doubt that this quest for meaning is a defining hallmark of the mind (Lancaster 1991), and imbuing objects and events with a sacral quality is for many central to the quest, it rather sidesteps the more ontological question—Is the sacredness only a projection of the personal psyche or is there some additional quality inherent in the object, ritual, or space deemed to be sacred? The roots of the words for sacred in both Hebrew and Latin have the sense of ‘setting apart,’ which was construed within a worldview that holds the psyche to be derivative of a more inclusive reality that transcends the seeming separateness between mind and the world of physical objects. In this spiritual worldview, intention impacts not only on the individual mind but also on the world of objects and events, thereby setting them apart. Thus a ritual, for example, would be viewed as carrying the potential to affect not only participants’ meaning-making but also the world beyond them.
The whole notion of transcendence brings into focus the challenge spirituality brings to the approach of science. A core feature of spirituality is experience of the transcendent, or at least the quest for such experience (Walach 2011). But does such transcendence necessitate a belief in some form of non-physical reality, as in the divine, for example? Again, we have two fundamentally different views, one compatible with science and the other incompatible. Walach (ibid), for example, holds that transcendence pertains to this-worldly experience, connoting transcendence of the ego and its narrow context. Hick (1989), by contrast, asserts that transcendence refers to contact with a non-physical transcendent realm, and that human belief that a transcendent realm exists is well-grounded (Hick 1989).
Should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’—unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as [surely as if he has been] carried off and put there, he will wind up in hell. (p. 217)
From the perspective of neuroscience, debates about the reality of transcendent realms and supernatural beings are largely irrelevant—the experience of connecting with such realms and beings is clearly real in psychological terms whether or not that which is experienced is. It is undoubtedly legitimate to study the brain states that accompany such experiences, even though, as noted by Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts (2009), we have no scientific way to answer the question as to whether the brain state generates the mystical experience or is a necessary receiving condition for contact with that which is not itself physical, be it God, an angel, or the spirit of a deceased person, for example.
There is a dilution of the meaning of spirituality as promulgated in the tradition from which the practices are drawn. This is of no consequence to neuroscience, but it has huge implications for our culture more generally. Indeed, there is little doubt that the move towards a plethora of applications of so-called ‘mindfulness’ techniques—in areas ranging from health to business—has eroded the meaning of spirituality. In relation to the dialogue between science and Buddhism, Bodhi (2011, p. 35) remarks that, “There is a real danger that the contemplative challenge might be reduced to a matter of gaining skill in certain techniques, dispensing with such qualities as faith, aspiration, devotion, and self-surrender, all integral to the act of ‘going for refuge.’” Or, as Lopez (2008, p. 216) succinctly puts it, we may end up thinking that the Buddha was “just a nice man.”
We may be missing areas of potentially fruitful dialogue as a result of neuroscience perpetuating its monolithic view that reality invariably reduces to physical properties. This view has led to the paramount interest within the neuroscience-spirituality dialogue of observing changes in the body (predominantly the brain) concurrent with the practice of relatively simple spiritual techniques. In the context of the Buddhist-science dialogue, Lopez (2008) and Samuel (2014) have both drawn attention to the much more complex visualisation practices within Tibetan Buddhism. By studying these kinds of practice in relation to the data from neuroscience about perception and memory, for example, we may have much to learn about the role imagination plays in generating models of our inner and outer worlds. Authoritative texts across traditions suggest that mystics have brought about tangible changes in their minds and bodies by effectively playing with the models in tightly disciplined ways. Neuroscience is not only about recording brain changes. The deeper challenge is to understand how the systems of the brain relate to the mind and consciousness, and this modelling process whereby self and world are made accessible in the individual mind seems to lie at the core of such understanding.
The cultural issue raised in the first point above is hardly specific to the encounter between neuroscience and spirituality, and therefore here is not the place to explore it further. The second point comes to the fore in reviewing the directions that recent and current research in the neuroscience of spirituality has taken. Whilst empirical study of neural changes concurrent with the practice of a technique such as meditation has taken pride of place, I shall also consider in the following review more theoretical considerations of the role of brain systems in perceptual and imaginative processes.
Current Research in Neuroscience and Spirituality
Empirical research into the effects of meditation has focused in two main areas: the positive consequences of regular practice for health, professional efficacy, and general well-being; and the neural and other psychological changes that may be correlated with practice. Whilst these are clearly interrelated (explicating neural and cognitive processes can, for example, help maximise strategies for bringing increased well-being), I shall focus here selectively on the neurophysiological effects. In view of the sheer volume of research findings published over recent years, my review will necessarily be limited to the major considerations. Readers are directed to recent reviews for further detail (see, for example, Cahn and Polich 2006; Chiesa and Serretti 2010; Edwards et al. 2012; Lutz et al. 2008; MacDonald et al. Shapiro 2013; Malinowski 2013).
The consensus from research into meditation is that brain systems for attention are at the forefront of changes observed in association with the practice of a style of meditation that is intended to enhance focused awareness (FA). Malinowski (2013) identifies the processes that contribute to the complex of operations subsumed within the term ‘attention,’ suggesting how each may be involved in FA meditation. Each sub-process engages specific regions of the brain. These systems comprise (1) the alerting network, which is hypothesised to be involved in the initial focusing (for example, on the breath); (2) the default mode network (so named because its activation is associated with task-unrelated activity), presumed to become more active when the meditator loses focus, with their mind beginning to wander; (3) the salience network, which is involved when an individual recognises relevant, or salient, events, and is thought to become active as the meditator notices that their mind has wandered; (4) the executive network, presumed to enable the meditator to let go of the distracting train of thought; and finally (5) the orienting network, which together with the executive network may be expected to be engaged when the meditator shifts their awareness back to the intended focus.
Research has generally supported these proposed correlations between systems of the brain and the attentional processes thought to be involved in different phases of FA meditation. Thus, Hasenkamp et al. (2012), for example, showed that the default mode network became more active during periods of time just prior to meditators becoming aware that their mind had wandered from the specific focus of the meditation, in this case the breath. Conversely, during periods following this awareness, i.e. presumably when meditators became re-focused on the breath, significant activation in the pre-frontal cortex and the inferior parietal cortex was observed, regions associated with the executive network. This latter effect was more pronounced in those meditators having greater meditative experience, suggesting that prolonged practice brings cumulative increases in activation as far as these brain indicators of attention are concerned.
Connected to our control of attention is the ability to detach from habitual modes of cognitive processing. Such cognitive flexibility requires us to assert control to overcome the way that features of our world automatically grab our attention. Only by stopping the automaticity (Deikman 1966) might we be able to re-frame the approach we adopt in a given situation. A classic example of such a habitual mode leading to inappropriate processing is the Stroop effect. Stroop (1935) demonstrated that our ability to read a colour word (e.g. ‘red’) was compromised when the word was written in ink of a colour that conflicted with the word (e.g. ‘red’ written in blue ink). The Stroop effect demonstrates that the colour that is before our eyes captures our attention, even when we have been instructed to ignore it. An obvious question therefore arises in relation to meditation given the claimed effects on attention: does meditation lead to increased cognitive flexibility as evidenced through decreased interference on a Stroop task? Studies by Wenk-Sormaz (2005) and Moore and Malinowski (2009) answer this question affirmatively. Moore and Malinowski’s study showed that participants’ scores on a scale of mindfulness correlated with their accuracy on the Stroop task, and that meditators achieved higher mindfulness scores than non-meditators.
Malinowski (2013) draws on recent evidence from neuroscientific studies to suggest that these effects are in turn mediated by lower emotional reactivity in the meditator group. It may be that performance improvements derive from the influence that greater control of attention can bring to emotional systems, inhibiting reactivity. Indeed, a state of equanimity, viewed as a major goal for many spiritual practices, clearly entails the ability to detach from the lability of emotional states. Research has generally demonstrated that meditation is associated with lowered emotional reactivity, which can bring measurable health benefits. Rubia (2009), for example, reports that regular meditation practice is associated with “positive mood, emotional stability and resilience to stress and negative life events” (p. 2).
Developing compassion is a primary aim of most forms of spiritual practice. Lutz et al. (2004) studied those with long-term experience of Tibetan compassion meditation, and found greater integration across widespread regions of the brain, compared with controls. The researchers studied the power in the gamma band of the EEG, a measure of synchrony in neural patterns of firing. Compared to controls, the long-term practitioners displayed high levels of synchrony not only during their meditation but also at baseline prior to meditating. This latter observation is striking since it suggests the influence of meditation in bringing about long-term changes. After all, the purpose of a regular practice is not simply to engender a given state at the time of the practice but to transform the practitioner in the longer term. Since the goal of the meditation in this study is to bring about a global state of compassion, the global coupling amongst widespread brain regions is especially suggestive. As the authors suggest, it seems that the meditators’ brains had indeed been transformed to a more unified state.
In support of such evidence of long-term neural changes as measured electrophysiologically, it has been reported that meditation produces substantive and lasting structural changes in the brain. Lazar et al. (2005) reported that brain regions associated with attention were thicker in meditators than in non-meditators. Luders et al. (2009) showed greater volume of grey matter in regions related to emotional control. Vestergaard-Poulsen et al. (2009) found higher grey matter density in lower brain stem regions associated with breath control. Luders et al. (2012) examined measures indicative of the thickness and connectivity of the corpus callosum, the major neural tract bridging between the two cerebral hemispheres. They found increases in long-term meditators compared with matched controls, suggesting that inter-hemispheric integration may be enhanced through long-term meditation.
From this brief and selective review it is readily apparent that meditation and mindfulness training are associated with changes in the nervous system consistent with psychological features of the intention behind the practices—gaining greater control over attention and emotion, attaining more integrative states, etc. Returning to my earlier comments about the ways in which spirituality has been secularised and psychologised through its incorporation within a scientific paradigm, the question may be asked whether neuroscientific research can input to a consideration of more transcendent aspects. Some authors have viewed their data demonstrating distinctive patterns of neural activity when participants appear to experience the divine, or some other formulation of an ultimate reality beyond the individual, as supporting the ‘reality’ of what it is that is experienced. Thus, Beauregard and O’Leary (2007, p. 290) assert that, “[T]he evidence supports the view that individuals who have RSMEs [religious, spiritual, and/or mystical experiences] do in fact contact an objectively real “force” that exists outside themselves.” Similarly, the extensive studies conducted by Newberg and his colleagues lead them to propose that “Absolute Unitary Being is a plausible, even probable possibility" (Newberg et al. 2001, p. 171). Nevertheless, others are right to advise caution, inasmuch as such statements seem to reflect more the wishes and beliefs of their authors than the direct implications of the data. As Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts (2009, p. 312) put it, “neuroscientific arguments tell us nothing about the true nature of religious experience or God” (for further discussion of these issues, see Lancaster 2013a).
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the various spiritual and mystical traditions are concerned only with ultimate experiences. The nature of the mind is a central topic for these traditions, which leads to a field of enquiry examining the extent to which their insights into the mind accord with neuroscientific data and can contribute to formulating models and hypotheses for further research. Thus Buddhism has much to say about the minutiae of perception; Kabbalah explores the nature of thought beneath the limen of consciousness; Sufism is rich in its discussions of imagination; and the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism details the propensity of mind to split reality into subjects and objects. Each of these has been discussed in relation to relevant observations in neuroscience (reviewed in Lancaster 2013a). It is important to note that the religious imperative here differs from neuroscientific goals; in all cases, the religious texts specify details of relevant mental processes specifically to advance the quest for transformation of the adept’s mind. It is through coming to know the inner processes that we are able to harness them in quest of the aspiration to a higher state of being.
The role that religious texts can play is exemplified by the Abhidhamma texts of the Buddhist Pali canon, part of which explores in detail the full implications of the fundamental Buddhist teaching of momentariness for an analysis of the mind (Banerjee 2008; Cousins 1981; Ratnayaka 1981). The teaching insists that the notion of an enduring continuum of consciousness, an ever-flowing ‘stream’ of consciousness, is illusory. There are only moments, or pulses, of consciousness, each of which arises as a conditioned response to a prior moment, endures for a brief period, and decays, having triggered the next pulse. Unless prolonged through contemplative observation, each moment of consciousness is normally extremely brief, so brief, in fact, that the ancient commentators had calculated it to be 1/74,642 s per moment! (Collins 1982). While there is, no doubt, some hyperbole in such a calculation, the authors’ intention was clearly to stress the brevity of these moments of consciousness, which seemed to me to give a basis for viewing them as the experiential equivalents of micro-stages in neural processing (Lancaster 1997, 2004). In relation to perception, the Abhidhamma identifies seven sub-stages, each of which I have identified with well-researched aspects of the way in which the brain processes signals arriving from sense organs. The initial stages are concerned with the identification of features in the sensory input and their interaction with memory systems to generate hypotheses about the meaning of the input. Later stages lead to incorporation of the output from the earlier stages into an ‘I-narrative’ which plays the core role in our normal state of consciousness. Spiritual states entail attenuation of this I-narrative bringing about awareness of processes normally conceived as being preconscious. Exploring the interconnections between these insights from Buddhism and relevant neuroscientific data has enabled me to enrich standard models of the mind in ways that do not close the door on the sacred in non-physical terms.
Kabbalah and Neuroscience
Since the editors included in the remit for this chapter a consideration of how spirituality has influenced my own knowledge and practice, I shall close with a brief consideration of the mystical tradition that I have studied and practiced most extensively, that of the Kabbalah. The primary thrust of the Kabbalah is towards understanding the ways of God—seemingly far removed from the discourse and methods of neuroscience. Nevertheless, a core feature of the kabbalistic worldview brings the human brain and mind into its orb, namely its teaching of an intricate correspondence between divine and human. In the words of the Zohar, the major text of Kabbalah, “The Holy One, blessed be He … made this world corresponding to the world above, and everything which is above has its counterpart here below,” and He “made man corresponding to the pattern above, for all is according to wisdom and there is not a single part of man which is not based on the supernal wisdom” (Zohar 2:20a; 1:186b, see Matt 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, for translations). The “pattern above” alludes to the pattern of the divine emanations that channel the spiritual efflux to our world. God and man are isomorphic in that they “share the same structure and are logically equivalent” (Shokek 2001, p. 6). In Elliot Wolfson’s (2005) poetic phrase, “God, world, and human are intertwined in a reciprocal mirroring” (p. 32). On the basis of this isomorphism, it is intrinsic to kabbalistic speculation that insights into the mind of God necessarily illumine the nature of the human mind. The “mirroring” equally means that the kabbalistic scheme depicting the divine conformations is effectively a projection of the human mind.
Guided by this principle of isomorphism, I have explored the relationships between core kabbalistic teachings about the macrocosm and processes viewed by neuroscientists as central to the brain’s role in consciousness (Lancaster 2004, 2011a, b, 2013a). In particular, parallels may be discerned between the kabbalistic teachings concerning unification and the process of neural binding, whereby the activity in groups of neurones becomes integrated into coherent patterns that seem to prefigure the brain’s function in regard to conscious states. In addition, a critical step in brain processes becoming associated with consciousness seems to entail recurrent processing whereby ‘higher’ processing areas feedback onto ‘lower’ areas (Dehaene et al. 2006; Dehaene and Changeux 2011; Lamme 2003, 2004, 2006). I have argued that this process is paralleled by kabbalistic teachings about the dynamics of the macrocosmic system in which ‘higher’ activity is initiated by ‘lower’ inputs and acts back to bathe the entire system in light, or consciousness.
A further initiative in this area attempts to find neuroscientific correlates of states of mystical consciousness as depicted in kabbalistic literature (Lancaster 2013b). Hellner-Eshed (2009) identifies three principal states of mystical consciousness as portrayed in the Zohar. Briefly, the first entails an intensification of perception and emotion, together with an attenuation of the inner chatter that generally focuses on the ego; the second state brings centeredness, and a kind of all-knowing awareness that transcends time and the everyday separateness of things; and the final mystical state is associated with an all-consuming light by means of which the mystic becomes integrated with the oneness and unity at the heart of all being.
Unlike the empirical research reviewed earlier my interest here does not entail hooking a would-be mystic up to a brain scanner whilst he or she attempts to attain one or other of these states. My interest lies in unpacking the phenomenology of the states from their descriptions as recorded in extensive texts, and thinking through the ways that known neural processes relate to that phenomenology. It is akin to the theoretical physicist who dreams up models of the fundamental nature of things in ways that may or may not be subsequently tested in the crucible of empirical research. Ultimately, these potential links between kabbalistic themes and our understanding of the brain contribute to a contemporary esotericism, which takes the ‘sacred sciences’ (Nasr 1993) of the past and projects them forward in relation to the new data revealed through twenty-first century research.
And it is here that I close my chapter with some speculation about the future of neuroscience and spirituality. Those formulations of spirituality that secularise it in order to bring it into the orb of scientific materialism will, I think, increasingly be seen to be inadequate. There is a balance between the role neuroscience plays in shaping views broadly held in society and its position as reflective of changing worldviews. It seems to me that the worldview in western society is changing, and will accordingly impact on the future of science. Many in our society are demanding more than neatly packaged mindfulness programmes; they seek nourishment through contact with the sacred in deeper ways. There are signs that science is growing beyond its narrowly materialistic bounds, with, for example, neuroscientists joining with quantum physicists to argue that consciousness extends beyond the brain (Schwartz et al. 2004). Our vision of consciousness and the mind will expand accordingly, perhaps increasingly recognising a transcendent, non-material basis. Beauregard (2014) has recently advanced such a view, arguing that the primordial psyche, as he names it, cannot be reduced to material processes. Similarly Barušs (2010) writes that at the core of everything lies “a form of transcendent consciousness accessed through the sense of presence that gives qualia their qualia-like properties” (p. 224).
Neuroscience will be seen as a part of a revitalised science that is no longer restricted by its adherence to a materialism appropriate to a bygone age. It will be a science that incorporates values appropriate to the study of the connectedness within all things, the transcendent unity that was traditionally the quest of all forms of spirituality and mysticism. Neuroscience will become a means to understand the brain’s place in that larger scheme through which above and below are unified in a mind whose substrate cannot be located only within the human brain.
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