Religious Experiences As Explained by Brain Science

I derive satisfaction from figuring out how Christ’s Spirit can change and even transform human personalities. Some of my insight on this comes from listening to a Learning Company recorded lecture by Dr. Andrew Newberg. Then I read his book The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience. Better yet was when he teamed up with Mark Robert Waldman to write How God Changes your Brain.

What I will suggest is a possibility. It is one way to bring understanding to the mystery the Bible calls the Holy Spirit’s influence on the human spirit. I believe it, but I can’t prove it.

This topic can get very complicated very quickly. New insights to understanding religious beliefs and experiences came with the development of technologies that do brain scans. It became possible to identify which parts of the brain are associated with specific kinds of experiences, many of which have a religious connotation. Those parts of the brain have technical names like the occipital lobe, the frontal lobe. Many other subsections have been named and researched.

Suffice it to say here that experiences like awe before a Superior Being and love towards others have parts of the brain that light up on a brain scan. The other way around, those parts of the brain when stimulated with a probe produce religious-like feelings.

One response by neuroscientists is to say that God is all in your head and nothing more. But they start out with a personal conviction there is no God. I and other followers of Christ choose to believe the biblical God does exist. How else can this personal God interact with his people than through their brains? Our physical brains are the source of the mind and the soul that give our human life meaning.

Call to mind the Apostle Paul when he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and boldly gave witness to Christ before the rulers and elders of the people (Acts 4: 8). His adrenal glands must have been pumping. Luke, the author of Acts, associated this boldness with a special measure of the infilling of the Spirit. How else could the Spirit influence Paul than through his brain and associated glands? The food administrators in Acts 7 were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Where else could such wisdom come from other than activation of specific parts of their brains?

A popular insight from neuroscience in recent decades is that the prefrontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed until about the age of about 20. This part of the brain, just behind the forehead, is the seat of judgment. Teenagers don’t have the judgment skills of adults. Our son in his first year of driving at age 16 had three minor auto accidents. They were all judgment errors of distance, not recklessness. He has not had an accident since.

When the physical brain is fully developed in early adulthood, it still continues to sift and combine insights in new ways. Such learning is basic to the process of education through many levels of schooling and combinations of insight. Wisdom comes with age. Sometimes the Spirit can bring major life-changing insights.

What keeps church life exciting is watching personalities change. Not all do, but many.

The heritages of traditional mainline churches do not include an emphasis on progress in a person’s faith life. Mine emphasizes faithfulness. Important, certainly. But perhaps even more important, in today’s rapidly changing national culture, is for believers to appreciate the possibilities for progress in their faith as seen by the Spirit’s influence helping each believer to grow in what the Spirit produces: lives with greater peace, hope, and joy.

It can help you to think of the Spirit supernaturally activating those parts of your brain that bring feelings of those emotions Paul identifies as the fruit of the Spirit. Somehow the Holy Spirit influences the human spirit. You can trust that promise.

Do you believe the Spirit can activate those parts of the brain associated with the feelings described as the fruit of the Spirit? Is this welcome news to you?

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