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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Religious Experience

The Neuroscience of Religious Experience by Patrick McNamara (Cambridge University Press) Recent technical advances in the life and medical sciences have revolutionized our understanding of the brain, while the emerging disciplines of social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience continue to reveal the connections of the higher cognitive functions and emotional states associated with religious experience to underlying brain states. At the same time, a host of developing theories in psychology and anthropology posit evolutionary explanations for the ubiquity and persistence of religious beliefs and the reports of religious experiences across human cultures, while gesturing toward physical bases for these behaviors. What is missing from this literature is a strong voice speaking to these behavioral and social scientists - as well as to the intellectually curious in the religious studies community - from the perspective of a brain scientist.

Excerpt: Religion is a defining mark of humanity — as emblematic of its bearer as the web for the spider, the dam for the beaver, and the song for the bird. It is, at least partially, created by human beings, and we can learn much about ourselves by studying it as a product of our minds and bodies. Humanity not only creates religion but is also created by it. Religious beliefs and behaviors exert a profound impact on mental and physical health, dietary habits, mating preferences, and economic behavior. They sustain many lethal conflicts and help to heal many others. For billions of people the world over, religious experiences and beliefs influence who they marry, how they rear their children, whom they spend time with, and how they comport themselves in daily life. It may well be that we would not be as we find ourselves in the twenty-first century if our ancestors had not been intensely religious for most of the "life" of our species. It is high time that we have a real science of religion, and thankfully, breakthrough research on religion begun in the last decades of the twentieth century has culminated in the first decade of the twenty-first century in what is arguably the birth of a new science of religion rooted in detailed anthropologic, cognitive, and neuroscientific studies of the manifold features of religious experiences and in evolutionary approaches to religious experiences and behaviors.

This new science of religion has built on work by previous anthropologic, sociologic, psychologic, and "religious studies" investigations conducted throughout the twentieth century by scholars in those fields. Cross-talk between the cognitive neurosciences and the religious studies field needs to increase, however, as most studies of religion by neuroscientists (mine included, I'm afraid) are too focused on the theistic forms of religion common in the West. We need to teach ourselves something about the richness and complexity of religious phenomena before we make any grand claims about its putative functions.

Although cognitive neuroscience has much to offer to the scientific study of religion or religion studies, religion, in turn, has much to teach the cognitive neuroscientists. As far as I can see, none of the extant cognitive or neuroscience models of human nature or of the Mind/brain can adequately account for the range of behavioral and cognitive phenomena associated with religion. The empirical facts with which religion scholars have been grappling for decades, or better, centuries, simply cannot yet be adequately handled by the current models of the Mind/brain in the cognitive neurosciences. I have, therefore, elected in this book to emphasize the empirical data before us in a few selected domains of religious phenomena. I have wherever possible quoted extensively from original sources so that readers and future investigators can get a feel for the kind of behavioral and experimental changes one sees in religious people and in religion-related disorders.

My overall aim in this book is a modest one: I wish to contribute to the emerging cognitive neuroscientific study of religious experiences and practices. Although I attempt to take some account of non-Western, non-theistic, as well as ancient and ancestral forms of religious phenomena, my focus is mainly limited to the theistic forms of religious experience common in the West. My only justification for doing so is my own ignorance of religious traditions other than my own. One has to start somewhere if one is going to make any progress. I have nevertheless attempted to bring into the discussion those aspects of non-Western traditions that I believe can be profitably illuminated by the cognitive and neuroscience perspective that I adopt in this book. I therefore review the available literature on the neurology and neurochemistry of religious experiences of individuals from East and West as well as more traditional forms of religiosity such as shamanism and ancestor worship. Although the range of variance in religious experiences across cultures and time epochs is unknown, I find that changes in religious experiences in the sample of subjects that have been studied with cognitive and neuroscientific techniques are, in fact, reliably associated with a complex circuit of neural structures. This, of course, is a remarkable fact. The fact that a particular circuit of brain regions is consistently associated with religious experiences may tell us something about the nature and functions of religion. Whatever else it is, religion is an integral part of human nature and thus religion is not mere delusion. The functionally integrated religion-related brain circuit involves a widely distributed set of neural regions (depending on particular religious behaviors) but nearly always includes the key nodes of the amygdala, the right anterior temporal cortex, and the right prefrontal cortex. Sometimes the subcortical amygdala is not part of the picture, but the hippocampus is. Sometimes one portion of the prefrontal cortex does not "light up" in association with religious practices, whereas another region of the prefrontal cortex will. Sometimes the parietal lobes are implicated, and so on. Nevertheless, in hundreds of clinical cases and a handful of neuroimaging studies, it is a striking fact that the amygdala, large portions of the prefrontal lobes, and the anterior temporal cortex are repeatedly implicated in expression of religious experiences.

Next, I examine the impact of religious practices on the "Self" and on self-consciousness. I define what I mean by the Self in Chapter 2. Interestingly, there is considerable anatomical overlap between the brain sites implicated in religious experience and the brain sites implicated in the sense of Self and self-consciousness. I then show that religious practices often operate to support transformation of the Self such that the Self becomes more like an "ideal Self" that the individual hopes to become. This hoped-for Self is a more centralized and unified sense of Self. Religious practices also help one to avoid becoming a "feared Self." This combination of a positive "approach" motivational element toward a hoped-for Self and a negative "avoidance" motivational element away from a feared Self makes religion a powerful tool for processes of self-regulation more generally. In short, I argue that religious practices contribute to the creation of a unified self-consciousness and an ideal "executive Self."

Why create an executive Self? The executive Self is better able than a disunified Self to compete, to cooperate, to plan, to think, and to make war. The executive Self can also better process highly complex forms of information; thus it is a better "platform" than is a divided Self for development of various forms of intelligence.

Some might agree with the claim that religions help to construct an executive or centralized form of the Self but add that that is an unfortunate fact. They see the centralized Self as authoritarian, repressive, and intolerant and therefore not desirable. My demonstration that religion helps to create a centralized executive Self, these critics would argue, is just one more reason to dispense with religion altogether.

I do not agree with that assessment. Although some forms of religion undoubtedly do contribute to some form of the Self that might be dubbed "authoritarian," I do not think that most forms of religion and religious practices do so. Instead, when religions are operating normally, they tend to create a healthy, unified, integrated sense of Self. Most religions aim at and are successful in creating mature, autonomous persons, capable of inhibiting their own impulses, planning wisely for the future, and extending service and kindness to others. Religions take as raw material the average man with all of his pettiness, selfishness, blindness, and violence and then create gold out of this unpromising raw material.

Religions accomplish this feat by promoting a cognitive process I call decentering. In this cognitive process, the "Self" (i.e., the Self-construct or the Self-concept) is temporarily taken "off-line" or decoupled from its control over attentional and behavioral goals of the individual while a search is conducted in semantic memory or a suppositional space (or in a "possible worlds" space) for a more ideal or complex Self-concept that can better match the needs and behavioral goals of the individual. When decentering occurs in religious ritual contexts, the ideal Self against which the old Self is compared may constitute a powerful ancestor, a saint, or a god. In these contexts, the old Self is replaced and integrated into a more ideal Self. Story or narrative grammars help to integrate the old into the new Self. New meaning is created, and the individual is enriched by the experience. I show throughout the book that this decentering process shapes many religious phenomena from healing rituals, to religious language, to possession states, and to prayer and religious experiences themselves.

The decentering process, however, can also go terribly wrong. One of the sequential steps in the process (e.g., decoupling, placing the old Self in suppositional space, the search in semantic memory for a more complex ideal Self, or integration into the ideal Self) can be blocked, damaged, or skipped, thus producing aberrant religious phenomena. Fanaticism or dedication to cult leaders, to take just one example, may result from failure to posit an ideal Self or from premature termination of the search process or fusion and integration into a cult leader's personality rather than an ideal Self. Negative spirit possession, to take another example, may involve fusion with a "feared Self" or identity and a failure to find, move toward, or integrate into an ideal identity.

Religious experiences are among the most powerful experiences that human beings can have. They can produce both awe-inspiring saintliness and horror-inspiring maliciousness. They can elicit the most profound pouring out of the Self for others in some people and the most abject self-absorption in others. They are often life changing and are certainly life-sustaining for those who profess them. The extremes produced by religion are all too obvious to require recitation here.

In the process of my work I have developed a fascination and respect for this most powerful of human experiences. I am not interested in debunking religion's supposed pretensions or calling it "nothing but ... " Nor am I interested in becoming an ideologically motivated partisan for religion. Rather, I hope to offer readers a serious attempt to understand a wide range of religious phenomena and the powerfully transformative effects of religious experience.

Not only do people derive God concepts from dreams, they may even derive religious ritual institutions and practices from dreams. The African Ingessana peoples, for example, use dream images and events to create religious rituals.

Summary of the Dream Origins of God Concepts

These examples of how traditional peoples meet and interact with spirit beings, including spirit ancestors, could be multiplied indefinitely. These examples and data from other similar societies support my contention that dreams shape the generation and concept of spirit beings. The sharing of dreams that involved interaction with a spirit being very likely enhanced the prestige of the dreamer. Dreams — even visitations from the spirit world — are thought to be involuntary experiences. They cannot be faked; thus they are often considered reliable information about the dreamer. Traditional people are not gullible. They understand that people can lie about or embellish the content of a dream, but this did not mean that dreams themselves were unreliable.

Nor do traditional peoples "confuse" dream images with reality. Schweder and LeVine (1975) and Shweder (1982) studied the development of dream concepts among Hausa children. It turns out that Hausa ten-year-olds, like Western adults, tend to adopt a negative assessment of dreams claiming that they are unreal and generated solely by the mind. Hausa adults then step in and show the children that dreams give them access to an external, objective realm of the wandering soul. The children then reject their former "realist" positions and instead adopt an interpretation of dreams more consonant with their tribal beliefs. Dreams are emotionally compelling experiences and they were valued as a primary place of spiritual encounter in ancestral populations.

In summary, one clear origin for God concepts among traditional peoples is the dream. Both ancestral figures and nonancestral supernatural agents appear in dreams and are reverenced in daily life. The spirit beings that appear in dreams can be either positively or negatively disposed toward the dreamers — that is, both evil and good supernatural beings appear in dreams. Interactions with these spirit persons/gods in dreams confer status on the dreamer and can often establish one's status as a spiritual specialist in the tribe or group.

Dream characters, therefore, have a prima facie case to be considered as the cognitive source for supernatural beings. People in traditional societies treat them as such, and it is likely that ancestral populations also treated them as such. Dreams, furthermore, do not give rise to an indiscriminate variety of agents. Mickey Mouse does not appear with any frequency in children's dreams, for example. Instead, animals, strangers/unknown adults, and family members (dead or alive) frequently appear in children's dreams (Foulkes, 1982; Van de Castle, 1994).

Are dream characters "minimally counterintuitive"? From the point of view of waking consciousness they are, as they do not have bodies but they do have minds. In contrast, I doubt that ancestral populations were puzzled by dream characters in any way. After all, it was not clear that they themselves had a body when they were dreaming! The two realms, the dream world and the waking world, were complementary and different but equally real, and thus the spirits we meet in the dream realm are real. They have an impact on the waking world, influencing healing potential, personal power and status, and knowledge stores more generally.

Can dream characters be considered to be like the gods who have "full strategic access" to our minds and memories? Yes. Most dream characters seem to know what the dreamer is thinking or intending. It is difficult to deceive a dream character about one's (assuming now that you are the dreamer) intentions. If we assume with modern neuroscience that all characters in a dream are in some way produced by the same Mind/brain, then it should not be surprising that all the dream characters in a dream display this godlike quality of knowing the minds of all other characters in a dream.

If we suppose then that supernatural agent concepts are generated by the dreaming mind with cognitive mechanisms available to the dreaming Mind/brain, then what follows for religious cognition, religious language, and religious rituals? The memorability, complexity, and vividness of God concepts may not be due merely to their counterintuitive properties. Dream images have an innate emotional charge, high memorability, vividness, and complexity properties, and these alone might help account for the impact of God concepts on other cognitive and behavioral systems.

Most importantly for our purposes, the fact that God concepts come out of the wealth of dream characters produced each night by every human being as far as we can tell helps us to understand why both negative and positive supernatural agents are frequently implicated in the range of clinical disorders involving derangements of the decentering process. Where do alter identities come from when they appear in a psychosis or in a dissociative disorder? The adoption of grandiose divine identities by manic patients and schizophrenics, and the possession by spirit beings during both positive and negative possession and dissociative states, all can be related to the accessing of one or more of these highly charged dream characters when decentering is underway. Many "alters," "sub-personalities," and God concepts, I suggest, come from dreams.

Because some God concepts come from highly charged dream images/ characters, they prolong the decentering process when it is triggered. Decentering continues until the original identity or some other competing identity wins out in the competition to control executive functions of the Mind/brain. If a highly charged God concept is a competitor identity, the original Self finds it harder to integrate into a higher Self and regain control of executive functions. Thus, the whole process is prolonged. Ultimately, however, when the Self "competes" with the God image for control over executive cognitive functions, the God image does not supplant the original identity or Self. Instead, the Self is yoked up to the God image, and this has the effect of enriching the Self by enhancing the Self's control over executive functions. The yoking-up process, however, takes some time during each decentering episode. This "God-related" prolongation of the decentering process shapes the key features of religious language, ritual, and experience.

I turn next to a consideration of religious language.

Religious language has distinctive linguistic characteristics including formal styles, reductions in first-person pronoun use and elevation of third-person pronoun use, and an abundance of speech acts used in both private and public ritual contexts. Use of religious language both facilitates entry into the decentering process and prolongs the decentering process so that the individual's identity is subsumed into that of the deity.

Language, therefore, is shaped by and shapes the decentering process. Before concluding my discussion of religious language, however, I wish to mention one other form of religious language that is influenced by the decentering process — that is, narrative.

Decentering and Narrative

Narrative is a temporal ordering of a series of events involving a challenge, a climax, and a resolution. Narratives are composed of a plot or plots with goals and subgoals of an agent who strives to achieve these goals in the context of a setting and a plot. Typically, what drives the story line is conflict between the agent and other actors concerning their goals.

Invariably the agent or the "hero" suffers a setback or a defeat. Even when he does not suffer a defeat, he is typically blocked in successful pursuit of his goals. This temporary defeat of the hero constitutes the challenge the hero must face and overcome. The hero's attempt to overcome obstacles and defeat leads to a climax wherein the hero either wins or loses. If he wins, he grows spiritually; if he loses — well, we are not told anything about what happens to the hero who is defeated.

In any case, the hero always suffers a setback in a narrative; there is always a conflict or a challenge that needs to be faced and resolved. This setback or defeat of the hero implies a reduction in agency and volition on the part of the hero. The ego suffers a defeat and agency is temporarily reduced. This reduction in agency triggers a decentering process. As always, the decentering process can result in a diminution or an enhancement of the moral character of the individual, and that is what all narratives are ultimately about.

Narratives are particularly good vehicles for revealing character traits or dispositions of the actors depicted in the story: How does each actor respond when faced with a struggle or conflict? Narratives depict a triggering of a decentering process and reactions of individuals to that decentering process. Thus narratives reveal character. Persons can therefore form their personal identities, in part, via construction of autobiographical narratives or life stories (Gallagher, 2003; Schectman, 1996). Ricoeur (1992) argues that in narrative a character is either an agent who does things to others or he undergoes a reduction in agency. I suggest that the value of stories for human beings lies in the fact that they depict how a person might react to that critical decentering process after he suffers an ego defeat. Some of the best stories invented by mankind are the myths that inform all religious traditions and that help structure the rituals at the center of these traditions. It is to rituals we next turn.

The forms of temporal consciousness produced by ritual also concern eschatology or the meaning of history. It involves a reflection on the past, particularly the past that concerns the individual in question. For our ancestors, that past would have included the familial and clan lineage. This familial and clan lineage may be one origin of the totem animal.

A totem is typically an animal or a spiritual substance that is believed to watch over and protect the interests of generations of a clan or lineage. Totemistic beliefs and practices have been documented throughout much of the world and appear, along with ancestor worship, to be some of the early or root forms of religion. Indeed, totemism may be considered a form of ancestor worship as the totem animal or spirit was considered the progenitor and primary ancestor of the clan and lineage that it protected. Steadman and Palmer (2008) point out that "the most complex development of totemism known in the world is among the Australian Aboriginal peoples" (p. 73).

Basing themselves on Elkin's (1964) ethnographic observations, Steadman and Palmer (2008) note that "The 'clan' rituals performed by the Australians are mainly of three kinds (1) those involving the initiation of new cult members, 2) rituals that reenact the doings of the ancestral hero ... and 3) magical rituals said to promote or increase the fertility of the totem animal or plant — the alleged 'codescendants' of the cult members — and perhaps even the fertility of the cult members themselves" (p. 78). Steadman and Palmer argue that the effect of such totemistic rituals is to identify those individuals who are your kin and to whom you should direct your altruistic activities. The worship of ancestors and the establishment of lineage-based ritual traditions increase the reproductive success of descendents of a particular ancestor.

Traditional religion, therefore, reflects a particularly long-term reproductive strategy — it focuses on transmitting genes not just to one's children but to one's great-grandchildren and their grandchildren as well!

The reverence for tradition and for history reflects the wisdom of investing in one's distant kin and descendents.

We now have excellent genetic evidence for the remarkable effectiveness of religious traditions and religious identity in facilitating transmittal of genes down the generations. Take the case of the priestly Kohanim traditions within Judaism. Jewish tradition, based on the Torah, holds that the Kohanim are direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the original Kohen. The line of the Kohanim is patrilineal: It has been passed from father to son without interruption from Aaron, for 3,300 years, or more than 100 generations. Genetic analyses of Y chromosome transmission patterns in Kohanim and non-Kohanim subjects revealed that a particular marker was detected in 98.5 percent of the Kohanim, and in a significantly lower percentage of non-Kohanim. A second set of genetic markers that became known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype also reliably picked out Kohanim versus non-Kohanim (Skorecki et al., 1997).

Ritual Decentering and Technical Intelligence

The reverence for tradition in premodern societies and among ancestral populations may also be seen in the making of tools and crafts. Stone tool making was handled by families and passed down through the generations in these families. The extreme influence of tradition on the evolution of stone tool technologies is seen in the faithfulness with which tool types were reproduced from generation to generation. Paleolithic stone technologies like the Oldowan and earlier Acheulean were associated with virtually identical tool kits that persisted for centuries. It is no exaggeration to say that tool manufacturing was associated with craft traditions and religious traditions that persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. The later Acheulean core forms that emerged ca. 500,000 before the Paleolithic period were more innovative but nevertheless remained distinctively "Acheulean" for tens of thousands of years.

Craftsmen learned the skill at the feet of a master, usually a relative, and in the presence of the gods. As each tool was made, the gods were invoked and the craftsmen went into an altered state of consciousness or, more likely, a decentered state. The aim was to have the god or totem spirit

(rather than the individual craftsman) make the tool or the weapon. The residual effects of these ancient religious ways of creating a tool, weapon, or object is seen in testimonies by artists, engineers, and writers that a kind of muse took over and created the piece him- or herself with the artist just serving as a vehicle for transmission of the idea.

According to the Tukulor weavers in Africa, weaving has its origins in the spirit world, whence the craft was acquired by an ancestor and handed down to man in the time of myth. The weavers attribute their skill and their designs to knowledge acquired from jinn of the forest. Stout (2002) studied adze makers of the village of Langda in Indonesian Irian Jaya. He found that adze-making skill is acquired through a period of apprenticeship at the feet of a master that may last five years or more. Stout shows that "Adze production is itself a social phenomenon, defined as much by personal and group relations, social norms, and mythic significance as by specific reduction strategies and technical terminology" (Stout, 2002, p. 693). Religious ritual permeated the lives of traditional peoples and likely permeated the lives of ancestral populations. Given the integration of stone tool—making technologies into the religious rituals of the tribe, it is reasonable to assume that ritual influenced the development of technical intelligence in human beings.

The effects of religious rituals on early hominids and early human beings, therefore, must have been tremendous. These rituals created craftsmen and warriors, they created reverence for traditional ways and a sense of the past, they healed, and they enhanced group cohesion. Ritual was and is central to human life.

As many scholars have pointed out, the Self is a social and cultural construct. It emerges out of the social interactions that children and young adults undergo throughout their lives. It is maintained and updated within the social context of the adult. Whereas the Self is certainly rooted in genetically shaped biologic potencies, these biologic roots are in turn manifested in and shaped by social and cultural interactions. The brain regions that mediate various component processes of the Self are also influenced by social processes. I have argued throughout this book that the Self is a construct with functional antecedents and effects. It is an accomplishment of the individual and his or her social milieu. It is influenced by mechanisms of social prestige — the more prestige it accumulates, the greater its fitness. Construction of an executive Self is an arduous process that requires years of effort. The effort signals fitness, and the existence of a unified sense of Self, in the past, must have been a signal of power and prestige. In the past, construction of the Self also required the help of religion. This is still true for most of the world's population who use religion for personal ends. Indeed, construction of a unified consciousness may have been one of religion's prime functional aims. Whether that is the case, there can be little doubt that the executive Self has an evolutionary history bound up with the evolutionary history of religion.

The evolutionary roots of the Self have been examined via the window of "self-awareness" or the ability to monitor one's own bodily or mental state. Self-awareness appears to be a relatively recent evolutionary innovation dependent upon complex brain structures and thus limited to the great apes (e.g., Gallup, 1970) and dolphins (Marino, 2006). In previous chapters I have presented evidence that self-awareness is mediated by right prefrontal and anterior temporal cortical networks. For example, neurologic patients with damage in the right hemisphere typically exhibit symptoms of "neglect." They fail to attend to one-half of their bodies or their attentional space; they are sometimes unaware of any illness at all (anosognosia); they may neglect one particular body region or part (asomatognosia); or they may be unable to recognize themselves in a mirror (autoprosopagnosia) (see Keenan et al., 2005). Right prefrontal lesions also may be associated with inability to efficiently retrieve autobiographical memories. One way the executive Self is constructed is via editing of autobiographical memories. In general, autobiographical memory is constructed by retrieving a set of memories/episodes that can match the current self-model and its goals (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Memory is, to some extent, in service to the Self and its goals.

Where did this ability to use memory to construct an executive Self come from? In evolutionary history, prospects for agile use of cognitive systems to construct an executive Self very likely improved when human beings acquired language. Crow (2000) points out that Buehler argued that the structure of language has, at its core, a deictic origin of the "I, here, and now" and that language is built around this origin. In effect, just as is the case with religion, Self and language also appear to have co-evolved, with each shaping and influencing the further evolution of the other.

Crow (2000) argued that the evolutionary acquisition of language created a cerebral torque such that:

[t]he anatomical disposition of the torque along the anteroposterior axis allows the motor and sensory engrams in Broca's and Wernicke's area respectively to interact with differing polarities with the corresponding areas of heteromodal association cortex in the non-dominant hemisphere. Thus language is conceived as a bihemispheric phenomenon with a deictic focus in Broca's area and its relationship on the one hand to the internal word of thoughts in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and on the other hand to the external world of perceived speech in Wernicke's area. In this way can be conceptualised the critical role of the self in the origin of language and the phenomena of psychosis (Crow, 2000).

Crow's hypothesis on the cerebral torque points to another source of the sense of Self — inner speech. Formulation of language plans begins in the prefrontal lobes and in the right prefrontal cortex in particular. This capacity for inner speech contributes to the sense of Self, and it allows for manipulation of autobiographical memories in such a way as to fit a narrative about the Self that facilitates development of an executive, "in control," Self construct.

In summary, the evolution of Self-awareness appears to be dependent upon large and complex brains given that self-awareness is found only in apes, humans, and dolphins. In humans, however, self-awareness also evolved into what we now call a centralized executive Self. Instead of just a passive awareness of Self, the executive Self claims that it has agency and can guide behavioral goals of the individual. The first boost to this centralized executive Self likely came from rudiments of ritual among early humans and among Neanderthals. A second boost also came from acquisition of left-lateralized language capacity, as the central executive Self could now draw upon the representational resources of the "I" and the grammatical resources of the sentence-level grammar with its subject and object verbal transformations. Language resources also facilitated the transformation of autobiographical memory processing into a process that could be used to help build a narrativized picture of the Self — an executive Self or what was called the "agent intellect" by Aristotle and the medieval philosophers — that was doing things and pursuing appropriate goals. Clearly, then, the acquisition of a full-blown grammar and language by early humans had a major impact on the evolution of a central executive Self with a unified consciousness. The left lateralization of language in most people also had an effect on the anatomical systems implicated in Self.

Both the Self and religiousness appear to be selectively mediated by amygdala and anterior cortical networks in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere was likely favored by the Self (and religiousness) because the left anterior cortical networks were dedicated to language functions, leaving only the right hemisphere to handle other complex functions like Self-consciousness. In addition, as mentioned earlier in this book, the right-sided anterior networks are known to be implicated in powerful inhibitory and regulatory control functions over a diverse set of other brain regions. Thus, right-sided anterior cortical networks are in an ideal position to act as a central executive Self.

In the model of "mosaic evolution" (Barton & Harvey, 2000; Holloway, 1968), evolutionary forces can act on individual interconnected neural circuits that mediate specialized behavioral capacities without altering overall brain size. In this model, individual circuits can change in size in relative independence of changes in overall brain size. I suggest that the Self and religion are associated with a distinct functional circuit involving the amygdala, the prefrontal lobes, and the anterior temporal region. I also suggest that this circuit evolved in a mosaic fashion. Presumably the circuit originally supported ritualization of behaviors in primates. The circuit was then co-opted for use in other signaling functions. Because Self and religion are relatively recent evolutionary innovations, there seems to be little prospect for testing this idea. In contrast, it is possible that the key nodes in the circuit (right-sided amygdala, prefrontal and anterior temporal regions) became an integrated circuit only recently in evolutionary time and that that integration might have been associated with the acquisition of language.

Alternatively, such a religion/Self brain circuit could have been integrated functionally by a single genetic event. The "developmental constraints" model of brain evolution (Finlay & Darlington, 1995; Finlay, Darlington, & Nicastro, 2001) postulates that a single mechanism (e.g., genes regulating prenatal neocortical development) act to produce a generalized effect on the absolute size of all brain regions. Genetic changes, for example, could prolong the division of progenitor cells that give birth to neocortical neurons (Rakic, 1995), which would subsequently increase the size of the forebrain generally. Finlay and Darlington analyzed the covariances among the absolute size of 12 brain regions across 131 species of mammals and found that a single factor accounted for 96 percent of the variance, thereby supporting the single developmental mechanism theory of brain evolution. Finlay and Darlington's methods and conclusions, however, have been criticized by a number of authors (see commentaries in Finlay et al., 2001); thus, the theory remains controversial.

Summary Regarding Evolution of Self and Religion

Whatever the correct evolutionary history of religion and Self turns out to be, the story is a remarkable one. A unified sense of Self, a unified consciousness, is quite an achievement for human beings. It freed us from slavery to impulse and from ineffective and divided goal states. That does not mean that we never experience divided and conflicting desires. It merely means that we have the ability to take conflicting desires and states and synthesize them into a new unity that benefits the individual. The benefits to the group or community are also clear. Cooperation is well-nigh impossible if you have a collection of individuals all of whom are riven with internal conflict.

I suggest that religion was one of the forces (indeed a primary force) that created the executive Self. Since its appearance among archaic humans, each subsequent historical epoch has created its own version of the executive Self, and each cultural group has created its own version of the executive Self. The executive Self is a social Self and is a master of social cooperation, but it also looks to its own goals to guide its behavior. Religion uses the decentering process to help transform the Self and to resolve internal conflict. The process is ongoing, involving constant growth and ever greater internal freedom and external cooperation. The executive Self is more than just a psychological and cultural construct that heals inner divisions and allows for greater social cooperation; it is also a highly sophisticated and very delicate cognitive system that is capable of handling greater computational and information-processing demands than any comparable system based on divided consciousness. It is unlikely that technical or computational intelligences of human beings could have evolved as far as they have if the executive Self, the "agent intellect," had never been developed by our ancestors. Our ancestors used religion to do so. Religion remains the best available means to continue to benefit from the intelligences generated by that Self — your Self.





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