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).