Lyndon B. Johnson’s Dreams

Lyndon B. Johnson’s dreams, told in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson 1: Paralysis

“[H]e began having, night after night, a terrifying dream, in which he would see himself sitting absolutely still, in a big, straight chair.  In the dream, the chair stood in the middle of the great, open plains.  A stampede of cattle was coming toward him.  He tried to move, but he could not.  He cried out again and again for his mother, but no one came.”

In Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 32.

Lyndon B. Johnson served as President from 1963-1969.  He told this and the following three dream reports to former White House aide and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Johnson referred to the dreams as meaningful reflections of his deeper character.  This one appears to be the earliest dream Johnson ever remembered, from around the age of five, and it’s a horrifying image of titanic danger and existential vulnerability.  Goodwin’s interpretation moves in a psychoanalytic direction, treating the recurrent nightmares as symbolic indications of Johnson’s oedipal attachment to his mother.  His strenuous effort to deny these powerful desires, Goodwin says, gave him a lifelong fear of paralysis and a corresponding impulse toward restless action and movement.  I won’t dispute her references to Johnson’s personal life, but I think the dreams can also be interpreted as expressions of a precocious awareness of human finitude and weakness in the face of powers vastly beyond his or anyone’s ability to control.  Whatever he may or may not have felt about his mother, Johnson’s recurrent nightmares can be seen as reflecting the primal glimmers of mortality that have haunted the sleep of children throughout history, and that often reappear at moments of crisis later in adulthood.

Johnson told Goodwin that the paralysis dreams came back after his heart attack in 1955, when he was forty-six years old.  He had just been elected Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and the months of recuperation required following the heart attack seemed to create the conditions for the titanic terrors to reappear.  He said, “They [the nightmares] got worse after my heart attack.  For I knew then how awful it was to lose command of myself, to be dependent on others.  I couldn’t stand it.”  This sounds like a pretty good self-analysis of the dreams, more convincing to me than the psychoanalytic approach.

Lyndon Johnson 2: Chained to His Work

“In the dream, I had finished signing one stack of letters and had turned my chair toward the window.  The activity on the street below suggested to me that it was just past five o’clock.  All of Washington, it seemed, was on the street, leaving work for the day, heading for home.  Suddenly, I decided I’d pack up and go home, too.  For once, I decided, it would be nice to join all those people on the street and have an early dinner with my family.  I started to get up from my chair, but I couldn’t move.  I looked down at my legs and saw they were manacled to the chair with a heavy chain.  I tried to break the chain, but I couldn’t.  I tried again and failed again.  Once more and I gave up; I reached for the second stack of mail.  I placed it directly in front of me, and got back to work.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 167

Johnson said this dream came in the early 1960’s, when he was serving as Vice-President to John F. Kennedy.  It merged his recurrent paralysis nightmares with his current political dissatisfactions.  The Vice-Presidency carries enormous prestige but little actual power (until recently, at least), and Johnson’s acute fear of losing control meant he found the position frustrating in the extreme.  His unhappiness with his job resonates, of course, with the multitude of work-related nightmares discussed in previous pages.  Like many, many other American workers, Johnson felt trapped in his job, cut off from his family, and too weak to escape the greater powers that controlled his life.

Lyndon Johnson 3: The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson

“[H]e was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House….His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was [a] thin, paralyzed body….”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 342

This version of his recurrent dream started in 1967, when Johnson was reaching the end of his first full term as President.  He associated the awful vision to 1) his grandmother, whose frail body frightened him as a child, and 2) Woodrow Wilson, President from 1912-1920, a fellow Democrat whose failures Johnson saw as emblematic of weak, impotent leadership.  Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 that effectively ended his presidency.  Johnson worried about his inherited vulnerability to strokes (many in his family had died from them), and he had good reason to fear that his administration would be judged, like Wilson’s, as a failure given the worsening war in Vietnam and the terrible race riots flaring up in several American cities.  His emaciating physical transformation in the dream signaled, I suspect, Johnson’s growing awareness that he would soon be joining the ranks of the presidential ancestors.  Goodwin says that when Johnson had these dreams he would get out of bed and walk through the White House with a small flashlight until he reached Wilson’s portrait, where he would physically touch the portrait in hope of consolation, or sympathy, or perhaps forgiveness.

Lyndon Johnson 4: Swimming in Circles

“In the dream he saw himself swimming in a river.  He was swimming from the center toward the shore.  He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer.  He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere.  He was simply going round and round in circles.”

Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, 344

Johnson faced a truly paralyzing situation in 1968, the time when he reported having this dream.  The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese marked a terrible setback the American war cause, the urban racial unrest was intensifying all over the country, student protests were growing in size and passion—if Johnson tried to run for another term he would face a terrible battle against his opponents for the dubious prize of four more years of the same, and yet if he simply gave up and retreated to his home in Texas he would be roundly denounced as a shameless coward.  According to Goodwin, this new variation of his paralysis dream helped Johnson find his way beyond the either-or dilemma.  He decided he would not campaign for a second term so he could better serve the country as a non-partisan leader and peacemaker during the dangerous months ahead.  Goodwin says Johnson connected this dream with a story his grandfather told about cattle getting caught in river whirlpools, which I believe deepens the thematic relations with his early childhood paralysis nightmares of the thundering herd of cattle.  In this dream, more than fifty years after the bad dreams first started, Johnson discovers that even the mighty cattle are vulnerable to the greater power represented by the whirlpool—just so, even the mighty President of the United States must yield to the greater power of historical forces beyond his individual ability to control.  I see the image of the circles as key here.  Johnson decided to devote his final years to the cause of historical continuity, carrying on the legacy of leadership from one President to the next, responsibly ending the service of his administration in order to prepare the country for the next cycle of political decision-making.  He stopped trying to fight against his existential weakness, and chose instead to
embrace the final stage of his political career as an opportunity to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the swirling currents of history.

Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Value

Originally Published in The San Francisco Chronicle (Insight Article) August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
[link opens new window]

Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget

By Kelly Bulkeley

(This article appears in the recent issue of Dream Time, the Magazine of the Association for the Study of Dreams)

The religions of the world have found a way to disagree on almost any subject you can think of. They’ve clashed over everything from the nature of the soul to the reality of God, from sexual morality to what foods we should and shouldn’t eat. But on one small point most religions do agree, and that’s a point about the nature of dreams. Nearly all the world’s religions share the belief that some dreams are true revelations of the Divine, bringing people into direct contact with some kind of transpersonal being, force, or reality. Not all dreams are believed to have this power; most traditions emphasize that the majority of dreams are related to ordinary daily events and have no unusual, heaven-sent meaning. But almost every religion in the world recognizes that at least once or twice in their lives people have dreams that are different, that have a special energy, vividness, and intensity to them. The Mohave Indians of the American Southwest call these dreams “sumach ahot,” or “lucky dreams,” while the Jamaa church people of Western Africa call them “mawazo,” or “holy dreams.” Medieval Islamic theologians referred to them as “clear dream visions” sent directly from God, and ancient Hindu philosophers spoke of them as “dreams under the influence of a deity.”

These unusual types of dream are not merely the relics of ancient religious superstition. People in our society today experience dreams that are virtually identical to the dream revelations reported in a wide variety of religious traditions. Although many individuals in the modern world use non-religious language to describe their dreams, the dream experiences themselves always have a vivid intensity that sharply distinguishes them from more ordinary types of dreaming. These are the dreams we never forget-the dreams we can’t help but remember, the dreams that throughout our lives linger in our memories and haunt our imaginations.

Carl Jung referred to these momentous experiences as “big dreams,” and he said that such dreams could, if people learned to appreciate their meanings, become “the richest jewels in the treasure-house of the soul.” Unfortunately, many people in modern society have no idea what to think or do when they experience a big dream. They worry that having such strangely vivid and powerful dreams must mean there’s something wrong with them. “Where did that come from?” the dreamers nervously ask themselves, “I’ve never experienced anything like that before, whether I was awake or asleep….”

For many years now I’ve been studying these kinds of extraordinary dream experiences, trying to understand where they come from, what functions they serve, and how we can interpret their meanings. My approach, in both my academic research and my experiential dreamwork, is guided by an integration of modern psychological theories with the traditional teachings of the world’s religions. In Transforming Dreams I share the basic principles of my approach, and I show how it can provide a reliable means of making better sense of your own most vividly memorable dreams. The first part of the book, “Tales,” describes four of the most striking forms that big dreams take: dreams of reassurance, dreams of making love, nightmares, and dreams of death. The book’s second part, “Pathways,” lays out the practical methods of exploration I have found most helpful in discerning the deeper meanings of big dreams. These practical methods include reflecting on a dream’s strongest sensations, sharing dreams with other people, following particular images and themes across a series of dreams, and creatively expressing the energies of dreams in waking life. Transforming Dreams is written for people who simply want to know more about their own big dreams, and it is also intended for the various professionals (psychotherapists, social workers, educators, pastoral counselors, spiritual directors) whose work might benefit from a greater familiarity with the most extraordinary and mysterious realms of the dreaming imagination.

I am not assuming the readers of the book will share any particular religious faith or spiritual worldview. Big dreams come to all people-to religious believers, diehard atheists, and all those people who don’t belong to any formal religion but who feel a yearning to discover greater meaning and purpose in their lives. I try to respect the healthy skepticism some readers may feel toward the subject of dreaming, and I also try to honor the sincere religious convictions of other readers who feel their dreams have truly Divine origins. My focus in Transforming Dreams is on the big dream experiences themselves, and I feel confident in promising readers that no matter what belief system you hold, these vivid and unforgettable dreams have the power to deepen your self-knowledge, broaden your emotional awareness, and open your imagination to new realms of vitality, freedom, and creative possibility.

One topic I discuss in the book is dreams of snakes, and this relates to the current interest of many ASD members in the questions of whether “universal dreams” truly exist and if so how they can best be understood. I present evidence in Transforming Dreams that extremely memorable dreams of snakes have been reported by people throughout history, right into the present day. Thus, in a very broad descriptive sense, I believe snake dreams are a truly universal phenomenon, and I also believe there’s a good naturalistic explanation for this. Because venomous snakes have been a real danger to humans from the earliest period of our evolutionary history, dreaming about snakes (in vivid and highly memorable ways) serves the adaptive function of keeping us alert and vigilant against this perennial waking world threat. To put it in the simplest terms, snake dreams are universal because snake dreams have tangible survival value.

But speaking in a more interpretive sense, I do not believe snake dreams have any universal meaning. The snake dreams I describe in my book express a variety of different meanings, none of which is easily reducible to a simple formula or definition. The most important practical point I emphasize in Transforming Dreams is that each dream is unique to the dreamer, with distinctive meanings that relate directly to his or her personal existence. Although it can be very helpful to hear how other people would interpret a similar dream (hence the value of dreamsharing groups), the dreamer is always in the best position to understand the unique meanings of his or her own dream experience.

Between these two positions-universal dreams, yes, universal meanings, no-lies a great deal of territory for creative exploration and discovery. Indeed, this gets to my basic belief about the essentially spiritual function of highly memorable dreams: these dreams provoke greater consciousness. Big dreams relate directly to our personal lives and they connect us to the universal cares, concerns, and desires of humankind. In this way big dreams truly expand consciousness, stretching our awareness to include an ever wider sphere of experience and meaning.

Transforming Dreams Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget. By Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. (John Wiley & Sons, February 2000)

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0471349615/kellybulkeley
Download this article as a pdf file

Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values

San Francisco Chronicle Insight Article
Originally Published August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
“Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
[link opens new window]

The Evolution of Wonder: Religious and Neuroscientific Perspectives

Paper Presented at Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
November 23, 2002  —  Toronto, Canada
Person, Culture and Religion Group Session:

[Slide 1: specific regions of the cortex involved in word recognition, using PET scan]

Who knows what this image represents? (Don’t answer yet—just raise your hand if you know.)

I suspect few of us can explain what is happening here with any real confidence.  Yet we live in a time when such images are playing an increasingly powerful role in society.  I’m sure you’ve seen their kind in many different places—on television, in magazines, perhaps in your own experiences with the health care system.  Generated by extremely sophisticated technologies (this one comes from a PET, or positron emission tomography scan, which follows radioactive tracers in bloodflow through the brain), these colorful images are widely believed to provide “windows on the mind,” revealing fantastic new truths about language, memory, reasoning, consciousness, and yes, even religious experience.  But if we don’t know what such images mean, who does?  Who possesses the hermeneutic skill necessary to enlighten us?

The primary authority for producing these vibrant images and interpreting their meaning is the field of cognitive neuroscience (which, in my understanding, embraces evolutionary psychology in a broader, biologically-oriented study of the brain-mind system).  Cognitive neuroscientists wield a tremendous degree of intellectual authority in present-day society, and the images they create using various modes of neuroimaging—PET, fMRI, SPECT—have an almost magical impact on the general public[i].  With only slight exaggeration, cognitive neuroscience can be thought of as the greatest mantic art of our era, the most powerful divinatory practice of the 21st century.

For this reason alone, religious studies scholars need to engage in greater critical scrutiny of this field.  Most obviously, we need to respond to claims that religion as a whole is false, misguided, and/or developmentally immature.  (See, for example, Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis (Crick, 1994) and Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (Pinker, 1997).)  Because of the tremendous social prestige of cognitive neuroscience, these claims carry a weight among the general public that is far out of proportion to their intellectual sufficiency.  In my view, a vital task for religious studies is to challenge these poorly reasoned claims and raise pointed questions about the influence of anti-religion bias in the field of cognitive neuroscience.

No less scrutiny should be devoted to the works of cognitive neuroscientists who present themselves and their work as friendly to religion and supportive of human spirituality.  (I am thinking here of Herbert Benson’s Timeless Healing (Benson & Stark, 1996), James Austin’s Zen and the Brain (Austin, 1998),  and Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away (Newberg, D’Aquili, & Rause, 2001).)  As I will suggest later in this presentation, there are good reasons for rejecting at least some of the “pro-religious” claims of these researchers.  In good scholarship, the enemy of our enemy should not necessarily be our friend.

Now, having argued for the importance of the critical task, I want to devote the rest of my presentation to what I believe must come next—the constructive task.  I do this with an eye toward current discussions in the AAR about the uncertain future of religion and psychological studies (Jonte-Pace & Parsons, 2001).  I do not agree with those advocate cultural psychology, or post-structuralist critique, or transformational psychoanalysis as the best path to follow (Belzen, 2001; Carrette, 2001; Kripal, 2001; Parsons, 2001).  Much as I value and appreciate each of these approaches, I do not believe they are sufficient to rejuvenate the religion and psychology field and reorient it toward a more fruitful and prosperous future.  In this regard I follow the guidance of Paul Ricoeur in his book Freud and Philosophy:

[Slide 2: Ricoeur quote]

“Freud’s writings present themselves as a mixed or even ambiguous discourse, which at times states conflicts of force subject to an energetics, and at times relations of meaning subject to a hermeneutics.  I hope to show that there are good grounds for this apparent ambiguity, that this mixed discourse is the raison e’tre of psychoanalysis….The precise task…[is] to overcome the gap between the two orders of discourse and reach the point where one sees that the energetics implies a hermeneutics and the hermeneutics discloses an energetics.  That point is where the positing or emergence of desire manifests itself in and through a process of symbolization.” (Ricoeur, 1970) (65)[ii]

Using Ricoeur’s philosophical language, the contemporary study of religion and psychology is in danger of losing contact with the energetics of human existence and focusing exclusively on the hermeneutics.  Using my own terms, religion and psychology has not sufficiently kept up with the most creative new developments in the study of the brain-mind system, and thus runs the risk of losing touch with the rich insights that come from a truly “mixed discourse.”  This is painfully ironic, because three of religion and psychology’s seminal thinkers—Freud, Carl Jung, and William James—were all deeply versed in the most advanced scientific psychology of their day.  Those of us in the present who have been inspired by Freud, Jung, and James would do well to follow their example and develop an informed, critical, and constructive engagement with the most advanced scientific psychology of our day.

One path to follow in that regard is suggested by the image I showed you a moment ago [Image: Back to slide 1].  This shows specific regions of the cerebral cortex involved in language.  “A” shows what happens when subjects read a word: the primary visual cortex and visual association cortex are activated.  “B” shows subjects hearing a word, with activation in the temporal cortex and at the junction of the temporal-parietal cortex.  “C” shows subjects speaking a word, which activates Broca’s area in the medial frontal cortex.  “D” shows what happens when subjects are asked to respond to the word “brain” with an appropriate verb[iii]: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are activated, as are regions of the frontal cortex responsible for abstract representation.

How many of you knew that already?  This is my point: very few of us in the religious studies community know about this field of research, yet it has tremendous potential for constructive new research in religious studies.  If you have an interest in language, culture, and symbolic expression (and I suspect that covers most of us here), there is a wealth of material in cognitive neuroscience on exactly these topics.  The human brain has several highly localized regions devoted to language, and many researchers believe that distinctly human consciousness has co-evolved with the linguistic abilities of our species (Deacon, 1997; Pinker, 1997; Thompson, 2000).

Of course there is much to critique in the work of these researchers.  We could spend several minutes discussing the limitations of this particular image, which holds something of an iconic place in the field.  But once that critique is made—once the limitations have been identified, the ideological interests unmasked, and the overweening ambition chastened—I contend that there remains a great deal of valuable information in cognitive neuroscience that we in religious studies can put to fruitful use in our theoretical reflections and practical works.  My approach, to put it in a phrase, is one of critical dialogue—opening both cognitive neuroscience and religious studies to the challenges of the other, applying a sharply skeptical analysis in both directions, and then following the critique with a self-reflexive attempt at constructive integration.

The study of language and symbolic communication is one area to explore using a method of critical dialogue.  In my remaining time I’d like to share with you the work I’ve been doing in another area, namely the evolution of a capacity for wonder.

Wonder, as I understand the term [Image 3: quote], is the emotion excited by an encounter with something novel and unexpected, something that strikes a person as intensely powerful, real, true, and/or beautiful.[iv]  As I will discuss in a forthcoming book, experiences of wonder have had a significant impact on many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions.[v]  Wonder occurs with remarkable regularity in the realms of dreaming and visionary experience [Image 4: Queen Katherine’s Dream], sexual desire [Image 5: American Beauty], aesthetic experience [Image 6: Rainbow], and contemplative practice [Image 7: People praying].   To feel wonder in any of these arenas is to experience a sudden decentering of the self.  Facing something surprisingly new and unexpectedly powerful, one’s ordinary sense of personal identity (the psychoanalytic ego) is dramatically altered, leading to new knowledge and understanding that ultimately recenters the self.  An appreciation of this decentering and recentering process led Socrates to make the famous claim in the Theatetus [Image 8: Socrates quote]  that a “sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher.  Philosophy indeed has no other origin.” (Plato, 1961) (860)

The psychospiritual impact of wonder is evident in both the intense memorability of the experiences and the strong bodily sensations that often accompany them.  People regularly speak of being stunned, dazed, breath-taken, overwhelmed, consumed, astonished—all gesturing toward a mode of experience that exceeds ordinary language and thought and yet inspires a yearning to explore, understand, and learn.  This is where the noun “wonder” transforms into the verb “to wonder,” when the powerful emotional experience stimulates curiosity and knowledge-seeking behavior.

If you take any interest in wonder as a significant feature of human religiosity, an opening immediately presents itself to cognitive neuroscience, because wonder as an emotion is clearly identifiable as a neurophysiological phenomenon that involves distinctive (if unusually intensified) modes of brain-mind activation.  This is the opening I wish to explore.  What can we say, based on current cognitive neuroscientific research, about the activity of the brain-mind system during experiences of wonder?

Let me start with some relatively large-scale, macroscopic anatomical distinctions.  [Image 9: Central nervous system]  The central nervous system is commonly divided into seven main parts: the spinal cord, medulla oblongata, pons, cerebellum, midbrain, diencephalon (which includes the thalamus and hypothalamus), and the cerebral hemispheres.  Compared to other mammalian species, the human brain is distinguished by a vastly expanded cerebral cortex [Image 10: cerebral cortex in humans, other mammals], the heavily wrinkled outer layer (“cortex” coming from the Latin for “bark”).[vi]

The cerebral cortex is conventionally divided into four lobes: occipital, parietal, frontal, and temporal [Image 11: four lobes].  Pierre Paul Broca, one of the pioneers of modern neuroscience, identified a region deep within the cerebral cortex that he called the “limbic lobe” because of its continuity with the phylogenetically more primitive regions of the brain stem (“limbic” comes from the latin “limbus,” border) [Image 12: Limbic system as seen from below].  Contemporary neuroscientists no longer speak of a separate limbic lobe, but rather of a limbic system located deep within the temporal lobe [Image 13: limbic system].[vii]  The limbic system is a “multimodal sensory association area” (Kandel et al., 2000) (350-351) that serves the twin functions of emotional evaluation and memory creation.  The limbic system receives input from all sensory systems (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch), evaluates that input in terms of its emotional salience, and then, if the input is sufficiently important, stores it in memory.  Information from the limbic system is then projected to various regions in the frontal lobes, where it is subjected to what most neuroscientists refer to as “the highest brain functions—conscious thought, perception, and goal-directed action” (Kandel et al., 2000) (350).  According to V.S. Ramachandran (co-author of Phantoms in the Brain), “the richness of your inner emotional life probably depends on these interactions” between the limbic system and the forebrain (Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998) (177).

The limbic system includes several structures that have received extensive study. Most important for our purposes are the hippocampus and the amygdala.  The hippocampus (Greek for “seahorse”) is chiefly responsible for laying down new memories, particularly the spatial features of experiences with a strong emotional charge.  Damage to the hippocampus disrupts a person’s ability to form new memories (a condition portrayed with great artistry in the 2001 film “Memento,” directed by Christpher Nolan). The amygdala, so named because of its vaguely almond shape (Latin, “amygdala” = “almond”),  “appears to be involved in mediating both the unconscious emotional state and conscious feeling” (Kandel et al., 2000) (992).  The amygdala has direct connections to the body via the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system; the amygdala thereby influences rapid physiological reactions to novel, frightening, and/or stressful stimuli (e.g., the startle response, the orienting response, the fight/flight response).  At the same time the amygdala also has connections to the prefrontal cortex and thus to the conscious perception of emotion.[viii]

So as a first testable claim, I suggest that experiences of wonder regularly involve the selective activation of the limbic system, particularly the hippocampus and amygdala.  In addition to the extensive research literature showing the limbic system’s key role in strongly emotional and vividly memorable experiences, this claim is supported by two specific pieces of evidence:

1.                          Dreaming: [Image 14: subject in sleep laboratory] During the several stages of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep we humans experience each night, the time when most (but not all) dreaming occurs, powerful signals are automatically generated in the brainstem that directly stimulate the limbic system, activating what J. Allan Hobson calls “our spatial memory bank” (the hippocampus) and our emotion register (the amygdala)” (Hobson, 1999) (89) (see also (Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000)).  This selective activation of the limbic system during REM is very likely responsible for the frequency of extremely strong emotions and highly unusual spatial settings among those dreams that people upon awakening report with a sense of wonder. (Bulkeley, 1994, 1995, 1999a, 2000, 2001a)

2.                          Temporal Lobe Epilepsy: [Image 15: Dostoevsky] Clinical neurologists have long been familiar with the fact that people suffering epileptic seizures localized in the limbic system undergo striking changes in their emotional lives.  According to Ramachandran, “patients say that their ‘feelings are on fire,’ ranging from intense ecstasy to profound despair, a sense of impending doom or even fits of extreme rage and terror.  Women sometimes experience orgasms during seizures, although for some obscure reason men never do.  But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God.  They may say, ‘I finally understand what it’s all about.  This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.  Suddenly it all makes sense.’  Or, ‘Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.’” (Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998) (179) These clinical reports of temporal lobe epilepsy have many strong descriptive similarities to my characterization of wonder, suggesting the possibility that both are related to a common pattern of neurological activation in the limbic system.

Now let me be clear—I am not saying that the limbic system is the material “place” or “location” where experiences of wonder occur.  Still less am I joining with Michael Persinger in making the grandiose claim that “the God Experience is an artifact of transient changes in the temporal lobe” (Wulff, 1997) (102).  Any kind of complex human experience involves a wide-ranging pattern of neural activation, so it’s an absurdity to speak of wonder, or religion, or God as “located in” or “caused by” a specific region of the brain.  My claim is much more limited: the limbic system plays a vital, though not exclusive, role in the distinctive pattern of neural activation that is generated in experiences of wonder.

What other neural systems play a role in wonder?  I suggest that in addition to the limbic system, the hypothalamus is also selectively activated in many experiences of wonder.  [Image 16: hypothalamus]  Located near the base of the brain, the hypothalamus controls a wide variety of bodily functions by releasing hormones that activate physiological responses to strong emotions, from fear and surprise to sexual arousal and intense pleasure (Thompson, 2000) (16-17).  To the extent that experiences of wonder involve strong physiological responses, it appears likely that the hypothalamus is directly involved.[ix]

A third likely candidate for selective activation in experiences of wonder is the large expanse of cerebral cortex known as “association cortex” (Kandel et al., 2000) (349-380).  The regions of cortex devoted primarily to sensory and motor activities “is virtually the same in all mammals, from the rat to the human” (Thompson, 2000) (23).  [Image 17: four mammals, differing amounts of association cortex]  But in the human brain there has been an immense increase in regions devoted to “higher-order integrative functions that are neither purely sensory nor purely motor, but associative…[that] serve to associate sensory inputs to motor response and perform those mental processes that intervene between sensory inputs and motor outputs” (Kandel et al., 2000) (349).