Brain Storm - Issue #30

Religion, neuroscience, and the search for meaning

Brains are weird. I mean, they look like aliens—I can’t be the only person who pictures Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, right? But also, think about what the average, non-neuroscientist knows about brains: we don’t understand a lot about how they work, and we only use a fraction of their capacity…though I guess this is actually a myth. Sometimes we talk about brains like they’re computers, other times we refer to them as minds—the essence of what makes us human. Your brain dictates your intelligence—you’re brainy—but it is also what makes you crazy—“Insane in the membrane; Insane in the brain,” as Cypress Hill rapped. 

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about brains. Like, if we don’t even know all that much about the thing that lets us know anything about anything, what do we actually know? You know? No? Okay, let me try it another way: this summer, I’m teaching a course called “Exploring the Human Spirit.” In it, I’m supposed to help students “explore the search for truth and wisdom through the many ways of knowing,” but especially faith and reason. And it occurs to me that to even begin to answer that question, we’re already engaged in that delicate dance, and our brains are the stages on which it is performed. Technically, the course should be probably be called “Exploring the Human Brain, but, Like, the Part of the Human Brain That We Refer to as Spirit.” But that’s probably too long for the course catalog.

One of the texts I’m using for the course is the novel Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. To my mind, the novel near-perfectly portrays the relationship between faith and reason. The main character, Gifty, is raised evangelical (her family attends an Assemblies of God church), but after her brother dies of a drug overdose, she loses her faith. She goes on to become a neuroscientist, performing experiments on mice to try to understand “the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior.” In short, she wants to understand addiction. She says, “If I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head.” And yet that is exactly what she is trying to do. She goes on to say that she “traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.”

Neuroscience is Gifty’s new religion and, in that framing, the brain is God. I get that this seems like a stretch, but then think about how we talk about our brains: they are mysterious. Powerful. They control us and set our destinies. Much of what we think we know about them turns out to be myth. Of course, a big difference between our brains and God is that our brains are not supernatural or suprahuman. They may, in fact, be the thing that makes us human.

There’s another book I considered using for this course, Thin Places: Essays from the In Between by Jordan Kinser. The title essay, “Thin Places” opens with the description of a transversal, an operation wherein a person’s skull is opened and an electrode is driven into the core of the brain. The patient on the operating table experiences extreme OCD and the procedure, Kinser writes, is meant to “alter her experience of reality.” But, of course, this is all new and experimental and, Kinser tells us, there’s a bit of trial and error involved and the difference of just one millimeter can have a profound effect on the person’s behavior.

Kinser compares this medical procedure to a religious ritual: “This is a familiar scene: the afflicted tied down while being ministered to by some credential man in a robe carrying an instrument. It used to be books and crucifixes. There used to be prayer and incantation. Now there are only the muted sounds of her brainwaves…”

This echoes Gifty’s new religion in Transcendent Kingdom, the quest to know what she would never fully know. In fact, Gifty witnesses a transversal as well, on a patient who has Parkinson’s Disease. As the surgeon probes the brain, the patient, who is awake, reports feeling pretty good, but then the probe moves one-tenth of a centimeter inside the patient’s brain and he begins to cry inconsolably. Gifty is amazed by this; she says, “One-tenth of a centimeter in an organ about which we know so very little, despite our constant attempts at understanding.”

Plato defined humans as beings in search of meaning. The course I’m teaching, “Exploring the Human Spirit” provides the opportunity for my students (and me) to think about the way that this search for meaning is conducted. Do we rely on faith, or reason? Or, when we reach the limits of what we can know, does reason call it quits so faith can take over? Maybe everything we think we know is actually an article of faith. And all of this, what we know and how we know it, is confined to the limited area between our ears!

I don’t think the human brain is God, but it is mysterious like God, and trying to understand that mystery can certainly read like religion to me.