A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley: The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2008

Boston Globe Article

November 2, 2008

KELLY BULKELEY FIRST became interested in dreams as a teenager, after being haunted by a recurring nightmare of being chased by Darth Vader. He’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified of that glossy black mask. While the typical adolescent would probably choose to avoid “Star Wars” paraphernalia, Bulkeley ended up pursuing the deeper meaning of the dreams: Why were these imagined experiences so vivid and powerful? Where did they come from? What was their significance?

Bulkeley discovered that the content of dreams – the particular stories we tell ourselves when asleep – had been disregarded as a scientific subject. “Studying dreams still seemed like a very Freudian activity,” he says, “and nobody wanted to do anything that Freud might have done.”

This led Bulkeley to divinity school. For most of recorded history, he explains, dreaming has been intertwined with the divine. A vivid nightmare was a prophecy, a coded message from the gods. What Bulkeley wanted to do was use this rich religious tradition to better understand the process of dreaming. “You see the same type of dream occur over and over again, in all these different religious texts,” he says. “I think this universality can teach us something interesting about how the brain works.”

A visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Bulkeley recently published “Dreaming in the World’s Religions,” a vast survey of religious dreams and religious attitudes toward dreaming. He analyzes the sexually tempting nightmares of St. Augustine and the mourning dreams of “The Illiad,” the conception dream of Buddha’s mother and the “vision quests” of the Ojibwa people. But Bulkeley isn’t interested in these dreams because of what they teach us about the divine. “I’m not a particularly religious person,” he says. Rather, he hopes that these old narratives will inspire new research. A dream might not be real, but it can still illuminate the reality of the human mind.

IDEAS: Do you think dreaming played a crucial role in the development of religion?

BULKELEY: I think it’s clear that having certain kinds of dreams can’t help but provoke religious or spiritual thoughts. It’s just inevitable. In that sense, spirituality is a natural outgrowth of the way the dreaming brain seems to work. I’ve tried to be very agnostic in this book, but I can also see why theologically minded people find dreams to be such a source of inspiration.

IDEAS: There’s a long tradition of people trying to understand the mind of God by studying their own dreams. But dreams are also inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. How do religions deal with that issue?

BULKELEY: The problem of how you interpret dreams without being deceived is a real source of tension for a lot of religions. You might think you’ve cracked the code [of the dream] but you haven’t. Or maybe the demon is trying to trick you with dreams.

There’s this assumption, I think, that looking at dreams goes along with a naive state of mind, that you’ve got to suspend reason and critical thinking when thinking about dream content. But, in fact, virtually every culture has struggled with that very question, the question of decoding, how to find the deeper messages and not be misled.

IDEAS: You argue that modern science can learn about dreaming from religion. Do you have a favorite example that you use when talking to scientists?

BULKELEY: Well, consider this particular kind of nightmare dream that recurs again and again in religious texts. In the Christian tradition they talk about the incubus, or the demons of the night. In Newfoundland, it’s the old hag and so on. But what all these various religions agree on is that there’s a type of nightmare that’s very intense and involves the constriction of breathing or paralysis. Now we know, thanks to modern science, that this is a real class of dream called night terrors and they’re very different from ordinary nightmares. So all these texts that talk about night terrors, they’re actually describing a real element of human experience.

IDEAS: Then is it fair to say that these religious prophets or religious texts were there first? That they described a psychological phenomenon that science would only later describe?

BULKELEY: If you bracket out the claims about how the world was created or what God is like, and you just look at the kind of experiences that are described in all these religious texts, and then compare these descriptions to what we know today from science, I think you can see that there are some real correlations. I’m talking about dreams that appear across cultures – they’re universal themes – and that suggests to me that these dreams are rooted in a fundamental feature of human nature.

IDEAS: Was there a particular moment when dreams stopped being seen as largely religious phenomena?

BULKELEY: As far back as Aristotle, people are thinking that dreams are at least in part produced by the physical workings of our bodies and not just messages from above. I think that sort of skepticism has been part of a more widespread tradition that you can see in just about every culture, which is the acknowledgment that even these dreams which seem to have a spiritual dimension can still be false or misleading.

In more modern times, it’s easy to pin the blame on [Rene] Descartes, who largely dismissed dreams as irrelevant. . . .The irony is that we now know from scholarship that Descartes had some powerful dreams himself which inspired him to leave his family business and become a philosopher.

IDEAS: You argue in your book that modern science, like Descartes, has largely discounted dream content as inherently meaningless. Is this a mistake?

BULKELEY: My partisan view is that science should certainly learn to appreciate dream content. I think too often there’s this belief among scientists that dreams are just random utterances of the brain stem and that we shouldn’t waste time trying to figure out what they mean.

In part, I think this is a justifiable reaction to the tendency of Freud and Jung to impose categories onto dreams, and so then you end up finding what you expect to find. It’s absolutely fair to question those loose interpretative systems.

But I also think it’s possible to analyze dream content in a more systematic way, so that you can really pull out these patterns that are universal. And I think you can find some of these universals by looking at various religions.

IDEAS: Do you still dream about Darth Vader?

BULKELEY: No, I haven’t been visited by Darth in a while, which is quite nice.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.” His next book, “How We Decide,” will be published in February. He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Boston.com: A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley

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Bin Laden’s Dreams, and Ours

The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.

Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.

Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.

The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.

Can anything be learned from the particular dreams discussed in the video? Bin Laden and his followers mention a total of seven dreams and dream-like experiences. The first involves a strange soccer game between American pilots and Muslim pilots, which the Muslim team wins. Three other dreams portray airplanes crashing into tall buildings. A man is reported to have had a vision of carrying a huge plane on his back to the desert, while another man envisioned a group Muslim faithful leaving for jihad in New York and Washington. Bin Laden says a soldier told him he’d dreamed of a tall building in America, and then of learning from a spiritual teacher how to “play karate.”

What’s most striking about these dreams is how similar they are to the dreams reported by Americans about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since September 11 I have gathered several hundred dream reports, most of them highly disturbing nightmares, from people all across the U.S. The predominant themes in these fear-ridden dreams are airplane crashes, military conflict, building explosions, terrorist attacks, and threats to children and family members. Many of the American dream images are almost identical to the bin Laden dreams, but the emotions they evoke are radically different: the American dreams are suffused with fear, confusion, and a horrible sense of vulnerability, while the bin Laden dreams are welcomed as good omens. What terrifies the Americans brings joy to the Muslims. Nothing could make clearer the distressingly huge psychological gap separating the two warring sides.

Many of the dreams people have reported to me came before September 11 and appear, like the bin Laden dreams, to have “prophetically” foreseen the attack. There is of course great scientific controversy about whether dreams can actually anticipate future events. But for people who feel they’ve had such dreams, the experience often bring a terrible sense of guilt—“Did I really see this coming? Could I have done anything to stop it?” For those people, the most chilling part of the bin Laden videotape surely comes right after he tells about the young man who dreamed of a tall building in America: “At that point,” bin Laden tells his followers, “I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dreams. So I closed the subject.”

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., teaches religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is editor of Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001)

Review: The Little Vampire

I don’t know anyone who saw this movie. In fact, I don’t know anyone who even heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them. “The Little Vampire” quietly passed in and out of theaters in the fall of 2000, just before the seasonal onslaught of family-friendly films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever kind of marketing campaign the movie’s producers tried to mount, they didn’t succeed in spreading the news of their work very far. That’s too bad, because “The Little Vampire” is one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long while. This is a movie that asks its young viewers to believe vampires can be good guys and scary guys at the same time. Children’s movies rarely ask for that kind of cognitive sophistication from their audiences. Most kid movies (and, as father of three, I’ve seen a distressingly large number of them) prefer to keep their moral distinctions clear, unambiguous, and unthreatening. “The Little Vampire” directly challenges simplistic moral categories by portraying vampires as frightening, ghoulish, dangerous, and worthy of respect, sympathy, and friendship.

For many children, vampires stand at the very top of the bad guy hierarchy. Nothing is scarier than sharp-fanged bloodsuckers who live in coffins, come out only at night, and have the ability to turn into bats. To its great credit, “The Little Vampire” does not downplay these horrifying qualities (with the one exception of not showing any actual drinking of blood). The vampires do not become cuddly, Disney-fied dolls; they are truly the undead–fearsome creatures of the dark. The film maintains a strong sense of the weirdness of vampires, the creepy otherness of the world in which they live. And yet, the film goes on to suggest a connection between humans and vampires is still possible. Even though vampires are really, really, really scary, we who live in the light can still find a way to befriend to them.

The improbable agent of this potential for relationship is an eight-year old boy Tony, played by child actor Rollo Weeks with a mannered cuteness that almost, but not quite, ruins the movie. Tony’s unflagging good cheer enables him to take the initiative in making friends with a slightly older vampire boy named Rudolph, whose delicate features and pallid beauty evokes all the eerie romance of the vampire legend. The development of their friendship is the heart of the movie, and I enjoyed the simple words and gestures through which the two boys slowly come to know and like each other.

I naturally found it intriguing that the original impetus for Tony’s good-hearted and fearless determination to help Rudolph is series of strangely intense nightmares. In these dreams Tony learns of the centuries-old curse laid upon Rudolph’s family and their desperate quest to have the curse lifted. Because of these dreams Tony develops an unshakeable certainty that vampires are real—though of course his parents, teachers, and schoolmates laugh at him in scornful disbelief. Tony’s defiant certainty enables him to stay true to his new friend no matter what happens. In this regard “The Little Vampire” is a classic story of a child learning to trust his own budding intuition and have the courage to take the initiative in befriending those “creatures of darkness” the adult world fears and despises.

The ending of the movie is rather sappy, as is true in most children’s films. Tony’s heroic efforts succeed, the curse on Rudolph’s family is lifted, and all is well again. The happy narrative closure does not, however, dispel the truly haunting, reality-stretching possibilities this film suggests to its young viewers’ imaginations.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term.

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next.

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]

Sarah Palin Dreams

Sarah Palin Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhen Sarah Palin was first named in late August 2008 as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, several people (both supporters and opponents) began reporting dreams of her.  An article posted on Slate by Abby Callard and David Plotz, “Your Dreams (and Nightmares) about Sarah Palin,” appeared on September 12, 2008.  The article includes twenty of what they judged to be the most interesting dreams sent in by their readers, with some comments from me. 

 Since then I have gathered several other dreams involving Sarah Palin.  At some point soon I will set up a website for people who want to share dreams they’ve had of Sarah Palin, comparable to the www.idreamofobama.com site for people to share dreams of President Obama. 

Till then, here’s one that came in response to the 2010 Zogby survey question asking, “What is the most recent dream you can remember?”:

 “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a dream with Sarah Palin. It wasn’t sexual, it was a situation where she was with me at my boyhood home in San Antonio, Texas, whereby I was in the front yard with her standing with me. I was showing her a Christmas ornament I made along with a table and chair I made. Next thing I know we’re in my older brother’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala. I was in the driver’s seat and she was sitting next to me real close like we were an item. I don’t remember any words being spoken, but it was very cool since she is such a beautiful woman. I hated the dream to end, but it did after only a few frames. It’s amazing to me because I remember very few dreams that I have so this one was very cool to have remembered.”

 The dream came to a 50-year old Hispanic man in Texas, a Catholic and conservative Republican who voted for McCain and Palin in the 2008 election. 

 Not knowing anything else about the dreamer personally, it’s impossible to say what the dream means to him.  But it does seem to accurately reflect his positive feelings toward Palin.  Indeed, the dream’s intensity and strong memorability suggest that Palin represents ideals, aspirations, and values that are especially meaningful to this man.

 In light of previous research I’ve done, the dream sounds similar to the dreams of Bill Clinton that liberal Democrats reported in the early 1990’s.  In those dreams, people found themselves in close, casual, rather intimate contact with a political candidate they greatly admired in waking life.  Often there was an aura of romantic ambiguity, as if the dreamer was struggling to understand powerful feelings of attraction that were more than friendly but not exactly sexual. 

 Then, as now, it seems that dreams offer a kind of “charisma index” that shows the deep psychological impact a politician can have on his or her supporters.

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).