The Gospel According to Darwin: The Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience to Religious Studies

How the Mind Works
By Steven Pinker
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997
Pp. xii + 660.  $29.95.
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
By V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
New York: Quill, 1998
Pp. xvii + 328.  $16.00.
The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study
By Mark Solms
Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1997
Pp. xviii + 292.  N.p.
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
By Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause
New York: Ballantine Books, 2001
Pp. 226.  $24.95.

The recent appearance of the anthology Religion and Psychology: Mapping the Terrain, edited by Diane Jonte-Pace and William Parsons (Routledge, 2001), raises anew the question of how psychology and religious studies can best be related to one another.  The book’s contributors offer a variety of different answers to that basic question, with some focusing on the powerful ability of psychology to explain religious phenomena, others arguing that psychology and religion should engage in a mutually respectful dialogue on their common interest in human nature, and still others aiming critical attention at the often unacknowledged religious and spiritual dimensions of contemporary psychology.  These different approaches testify to the creative vitality of the field of religion and psychology, and they bode well for its future.  Such vitality will be needed, for the future also poses serious challenges.  The inherent instability of institutional programs that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, the declining interest in insight-oriented psychotherapy, the increasing tendency of religious studies departments to focus on traditions rather than methods, and the continuing critical controversy surrounding the works of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung are among the many factors that will test the durability of religion and psychology over the coming years.

One of the biggest threats to the field’s future development can be put in very simple terms: the “psychology” used in religion and psychology is rarely the same as the “psychology” of leading scientific researchers in that discipline.  Religion and psychology as a field has not sufficiently kept up with what many psychologists consider to be the most creative new developments of their field.  This is ironic, because three of religion and psychology’s seminal thinkers—Freud, Jung, and William James—were all deeply versed in the most advanced scientific psychology of their day.  Those of us today who have been inspired by Freud, Jung, and James could do much to invigorate the religion and psychology field by following their example.  Returning for a moment to the Jonte-Pace and Parsons anthology, I find it telling that very few of the book’s contributors make any reference to the dramatic upsurge of evolutionary theorizing in current psychology.  (Perhaps there will be more of this in a second volume of Mapping the Terrain?)  While I do not believe that all research in religion and psychology should bow down before the Darwinian altar, I do want to suggest that developing an informed and critically reflective stance toward Darwinian thought is an imperative task for scholars in the religion and psychology field.

The following essay will review several recent books that offer religion scholars good introductions to major new developments in scientific psychology and potential implications for the study of religion.  The books can all be classified under the broad term “cognitive neuroscience,” which refers to the increasingly dynamic interaction between neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, computer science, and several other related disciplines.  This interaction has been sparked in large part by the dramatic development of new brain imaging technologies that have given researchers a powerful tool to investigate the correlations between psychological experience and neurophysiological activity.  Cognitive neuroscience is firmly, even aggressively Darwinian in its conceptual reliance on evolution by descent and natural selection (“evolutionary psychology” is another term commonly used to describe this area of research).  Within this framework the ultimate level of explanation for any psychological faculty involves identifying its role in the adaptive fitness of the human species.  “How exactly does x contribute to the organism’s ability to reproduce and spread its genes?”—answering that question is the terminal goal of all cognitive neuroscientific research.

Although most cognitive neuroscientists concentrate their energies on the study of highly specific and localized phenomena, many of them are aware that their findings have important implications for the understanding of broader cultural phenomena like art, philosophy, ethics—and religion.  Religion, in this sense, is the most challenging “x” to be explained by cognitive neuroscience.  How do religious beliefs, rituals, and experiences promote the adaptive fitness of the individual?  Does belonging to a religion help people propagate their genes more effectively?  Why did the brain evolve the ability to formulate ideas about God, the soul, and the afterlife?  Some cognitive neuroscientists are claiming to have new answers to these kinds of questions, and a surprisingly large audience (to judge by the impressive sales of some of these books) is taking these answers seriously.  Cognitive neuroscientists currently enjoy tremendous social prestige as the preeminent authorities on the subject of human nature, and if for this reason only scholars of religion need to pay close critical attention to their ideas.

If any of this sounds reminiscent of the sociobiology movement of the 1970’s, it should.  Crudely but accurately, cognitive neuroscience can be thought of as sociobiology with PET scans and brain lesion studies.)

The books I have chosen to review approach the subject of religion in very different ways.  The first (Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works) is overtly hostile to religion.  The second (V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain) is intrigued by religion, but not entirely sure what to make of it.  The third (Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreaming) says nothing about religion per se, but nevertheless has intriguing implications for its study.  And the fourth (Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away) presents itself as friendly to religion and supportive of its basic claims.

I
How the Mind Works is a massive and massively ambitious book.  Steven Pinker teaches psychology and is director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in How the Mind Works he aims to provide a comprehensive account of human cognitive functioning.  This is “Grand Theorizing” with a vengeance, and with 565 pages of text and another 58 of notes and references Pinker provides an impressive array of evidence to support his claims.  The book’s “key sentence” (his phrase) comes on p. 21:

“The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.”

Pinker relies centrally on the notion of the mind as a kind of neural computer that has evolved a number of specific abilities.  The primary function of this computer is to process information in ways that, through the long course of evolutionary history, have helped humans survive and procreate.  All humans are born with a set of basic mental modules (“organs of computation”) that enable us to perceive, think, remember, plan, and act in the world.  Although culture has some role in shaping people’s personalities, for Pinker the fundamental psychological structures of the human mind are genetically determined and impervious to cultural influence.

In the course of the book Pinker vents considerable spleen at postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, psychoanalysts, and anyone else who advocates the “secular catechism of our age” (57) and grants too much credit to culture as a factor in human life, experience, and development.  Pinker’s colorful rhetoric and combative tone clearly appeal to a wide audience—there’s a kind of Rush Limbaugh quality to the book, a delight in making fun of all the soft-headed, psychologically-correct lefties who live in a fantasy world and refuse to face the cold, hard empirical data.  But many of Pinker’s tirades make no documented reference to any particular texts or scholars, and as the book goes on his animosity toward the human sciences generally becomes increasingly evident.  This is a serious problem, and it drastically diminishes the value of his work. I am sure that for every one of his points about wrongheaded postmodernist thinking, an offending author could be found who has made such a ridiculous claim at one time or another.  What is lacking, however, is any interest or willingness on Pinker’s part to consider the more sophisticated, nuanced, and well-reasoned claims of scholars in the human sciences (not all of whom, of course, consider themselves postmodernists).

This problem is nowhere clearer than in Pinker’s treatment of the subject of religion, which he addresses in the book’s final chapter.  He tips his hand in the opening lines, when he says

“Man does not live by bread alone, nor by know-how, safety, children, or sex.  People everywhere spend as much time as they can afford on activities that, in the struggle to survive and reproduce, seem pointless….  As if that weren’t enough of a puzzle, the more biologically frivolous and vain the activity is, the more people exalt it.” (521)

Although he gives a nod to the value of these activities (among which he includes humor, religion, the arts, and philosophy), calling them “the mind’s best work, what makes life worth living” (521), the fact remains that Pinker’s evolutionary framework renders such behaviors puzzling and problematic.  His professions of admiration for cultural creativity ultimately ring hollow, coming at the end of a book devoted to the argument that culture doesn’t matter to human psychology.  And if culture in general doesn’t matter to Pinker, religion really doesn’t matter.  He grants at least some degree of adaptive utility to art, humor, and ethical reasoning, but he can find little evolutionary benefit to human religiosity.  Pinker offers three possible explanations for why religion originally developed and why it has persisted into the present day:

1.      Religious beliefs “serve the interests of the people who promulgate them.  Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors.”  (555)

2.      Religion is a “technique for success” in important, life-and-death matters such as illness, love, warfare, and weather.  “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.”  (556)

3.      Religion, like philosophy, involves a futile effort to understand that which we are innately incapable of understanding.  “[R]eligion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve.”  (525)  “Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with.” (565)  “For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones.”  (560)

The first two explanations have some merit to them, although they hardly suffice as an adequate accounting for the vast diversity of human religious experience.  In this regard, Pinker’s book suggests that evolutionary psychology, if pursued in a dogmatic and reductionistic fashion, may offer no more useful contributions to the study of religion than did sociobiology in the 1970’s.

The third explanation is curious, and merits closer consideration.  Pinker is saying in effect that religious and philosophical thought is a total waste of time.  The realm of worthwhile human cognition is circumscribed by the fact that our mental faculties have been designed to work on certain kinds of problems regarding survival and procreation.  Religious and philosophical mysteries are not among those problems.  Pinker uses the term “cognitive closure” to describe this feature of the human condition, and he denies that such a notion has any negative or despairing implications: “Is cognitive closure a pessimistic conclusion?  Not at all!  I find it exhilarating, a sign of great progress in our understanding of the mind” (563).  Whether or not readers share Pinker’s joy at this idea, I question its legitimacy as an accounting of human religiosity, and I do so by reference to Pinker’s own first principles—Darwinian evolution.  The human mind has not simply evolved; it is evolving.  As Pinker demonstrates in great detail, the mind’s abilities have developed over time in direct response to pressing interests stimulated by environmental forces on people’s lives.  It is entirely possible that religiosity has evolved (and is evolving) in human psychology as part of a process of trying to respond to the radically new challenges confronting a species that has developed unique cognitive abilities for language, social interchange, consciousness, memory, and reason.  Darwin himself was acutely aware of the dynamic, ever-changing nature of evolution (although evolutionary change usually requires very long periods of time to proceed), and in the context of Darwinian theory a notion like “cognitive closure” is an absurdity.  Cognitive weakness, perhaps.  Cognitive imperfection, definitely.  But to suggest that the limits of the present can never be overcome is like saying the earliest ocean-born life forms were subject to “ambulatory closure” and would be forever denied the ability to walk on dry land.

II

Phantoms in the Brain is co-authored by V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at University of California, San Diego, and Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer for The New York Times.  This dual authorship reflects the fact that a broad general audience is interested in the brain/mind research of scientists like Ramachandran.  Earlier books by Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, and others have convinced commercial publishers there is a market for books that explain (with varying degrees of help from second authors) the basic findings of cognitive neuroscience and apply those findings to issues like art, morality, and religion.  Within that new literary genre, Phantoms in the Brain stands out as the most interesting and valuable work to date, for several reasons.  First and foremost, Ramachandran was raised in India, as a Hindu.  Although he doesn’t dwell on his religious upbringing, it seems at least partly responsible for his vastly more respectful and open-minded attitude toward religion than is found in Pinker’s work.  For example, Pinker would never speak, as Ramachandran does, of “the divine spark that exists in all of us” (188), nor would he quote the Upanishads and rhapsodize about the liberating realization that “you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, [and] your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.” (157)  Ramachandran’s book is prima facie evidence that the findings of cognitive neuroscience are not inherently antithetical to religious faith and spiritual experience.

The influence of Hinduism on Ramachandran goes beyond his attitude toward religion; it shapes his approach to the primary focus of his neuroscientific research, which is phantom limb syndrome.  Why do people who have lost limbs through accident or disease continue to “feel” sensations from those parts of their bodies?  How does the brain generate such a compelling illusion of the presence of something that is demonstrably absent?  Ramachandran’s answer is that the brain is far more flexible and ready to adapt to new circumstances than is generally recognized.  When a body part is lost, the region of the brain responsible for “mapping” that part is taken over by adjacent neural systems.  The brain apparently does not tolerate a vacuum; if one region of neural activity is no longer receiving the input it needs to do its work, the brain will use that space for some other purpose.  The speed with which these transformations take place is surprisingly fast, and I agree with Ramachandran that “the implications are staggering” (31).  Not only does this suggest new possibilities for the treatment of neurological disorders long thought to be incurable, but it also justifies renewed investigation of the cultural forces that actively work to stimulate the experience of specific neuropsychological states (e.g., meditation—see the discussion of Newberg below).  Pace Pinker, the brain/mind system is characterized by remarkable plasticity and flexibility; we are just beginning to grasp its astonishing complexity and sophistication, and far from running up against “cognitive closure,” we are gaining an entirely new appreciation for the evolutionary potential of the human mind.

Another way in which Ramachandran’s Hinduism colors his work regards his approach to perception, consciousness, and selfhood.  Most if not all cognitive neuroscientists agree that our perceptions of the objective physical world give us no “direct” knowledge of that world; rather, our brains take data from our senses and create a neurological model of the real world.  Likewise with our sense of personal identity: there is no miniature self or “homunculus” hidden in some special region of the brain, just a neurogical superstructure that serves to organize our perceptions and manage our actions.  Several neuroscientists have explored the fascinating philosophical implications of these theories.  For example, Antonio Damasio contends in Descartes’ Error (Quill, 1992) that recent neuroscientific findings prove Rene Descartes was wrong to separate the mind from the body.  In the view of Damasio and many other researchers, any future discussion of the soul, the psyche, the mind, the spirit, or any other related concept must acknowledge the ultimate grounding of all human experience in the neurological workings of the brain/mind system.

This is not quite the view of Ramachandran.  He draws rather different philosophical implications from current neuroscience, and while in this book he does not pursue them at any length he clearly intends them as invitations to further discussion and investigation.  Consider these passages:

“For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your ‘self’ is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death….  Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite—that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.” (61-62)

“[Y]our concept of a single ‘I’ or ‘self’ inhabiting your brain may be simply an illusion—albeit one that allows you to organize your life more efficiently, gives you a sense of purpose and helps you interact with others.” (84)

“To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input.” (112)

“What is the nature of the self?  As someone who was born in India and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self—the ‘I’ within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me—is an illusion, a veil called maya….  Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth to this view.” (227)

While researchers like Damasio and Pinker regard the current findings of brain science as a fatal blow to belief in any kind of non-physical reality or transcendent truth, Ramachandran is more interested in what brain science can say about the neuropsychological foundations of spiritual experience.  Chapter 9 of Phantoms in the Brain is titled “God and the Limbic System,” and in it Ramachandran discusses the intriguing relationship between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experience.  Medical literature is filled with cases of people who suffer epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes (a part of the brain responsible for emotional processing) and who regularly report intense spiritual experiences during the seizures; in some cases the people continue to be deeply interested in religious issues after the seizures have stopped.  Ramachandran describes his own research on the religious preoccupations of patients with epilepsy, and in the end he says “the one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics” (188).  Ramachandran’s openness to religion probably earns him few friends in the neuroscientific research community—though it should spark the interest of religious studies scholars.

III

No one could mistake Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreams for a mass-market book for beach or airplane reading.  This is an unvarnished, straight-as-an-arrow scientific monograph on one very specific subject in cognitive neuroscience, namely the formation of dream experience.  The book contains no witty references to pop culture, no endearing autobiographical digressions, no colorful rhetorical contrivances (although Solms does conclude with the latin phrase nihil simul inventum est et perfectum (“Nothing can be invented and perfected at the same time”)).  No effort is made to appeal to readers outside the scientific community, and the book’s plodding prose is dull as dishwater.  And yet precisely for all these reasons, The Neuropsychology of Dreams gives non-specialists an excellent window into the actual working conditions of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, showing why researchers in this area are so excited about their findings (and so aggressively assertive about their implications).

The logic guiding the argument in The Neuropsychology of Dreams is very simple: he uses research on damaged brains to make inferences about healthy brains.  For four years Solms, a clinical neurologist at London Hospital Medical College, asked his patients (people suffering from a variety of brain disorders) about their dreams.  Many of them reported “global cessation of dreaming,” i.e. they could no longer remember having any dreams.  A few people reported no longer dreaming with visual images, although they could still remember sounds, bodily sensations, etc.  Some patients experienced a dramatic increase in nightmares, while others had increasingly intense and vivid dreams that actually disrupted their ability to distinguish between dreaming and waking.  Using the abundant clinical and anatomical information he had about each of these patients, Solms was able to identify several correlations between their dreams and their neurological conditions.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams provides a careful, step-by-step description of how he moved from the clinical and anatomical data gathered from his patients to an explanatory model of normal dream formation.  Patients with damage to certain regions of the brain consistently suffered marked changes in their dreaming; patients with damage to other regions of the brain consistently reported no changes in their dreaming.  Therefore, Solms concludes, the former brain regions are the ones primarily responsible for the normal process of dream formation.  These regions include the limbic system (center of curiosity-interest-expectancy processes), the medial occipito-temporal cortex (visual representation), the inferior parietal convexity (spatial representation), and the basal forebrain pathways (appetitive desire).  One brain region that does not play any essential role in normal dream formation is the prefrontral convexity (source of logical coherence, prepositional structure, and volitional purpose).

This basic type of argument—moving from data about damaged functioning to inferences about normal functioning—is very common in contemporary neuroscience.  Although such reasoning has serious limitations (health is not simply the lack of pathology), Solms demonstrates its power in challenging long-standing assumptions about brain function.  Ever since the discovery in the 1950’s of the connection between REM (rapid eye movement sleep) and dreaming, most neuroscientists have believed that REM is the neurophysiological basis of dreaming.  The leading advocates of this view, J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, proposed the “activation-synthesis” model of dream formation, in which REM sleep is regarded as the essential determinant of dreaming experience.  Solms, however, using his clinico-anatomical findings, vigorously refutes Hobson and McCarley:

“[A]lthough there is a strong statistical correlation between the physiological state of REM sleep and the conscious state of dreaming, the neural mechanisms that produce REM are neither necessary nor sufficient for the conscious experience of dreaming.” (153)

“[N]ormal dreaming is impossible without the active contribution of some of the highest regulatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the mind.  These conclusions cast doubt on the prevalent notion—based on simple generalizations from the mechanism of REM sleep—that ‘the primary motivating force for dreaming is not psychological but physiological’ (Hobson and McCarley 1977).  If psychological forces are equated with higher cortical functions, it is difficult to reconcile the notion that dreams are random physiological events generated by primitive brainstem mechanisms, with our observation that global anoneira [cessation of dreaming] is associated not with brainstem lesions resulting in basic arousal disorders, but rather with parietal and frontal lesions resulting in spatial-symbolic and motivational-inhibitory disorders.  These observations suggest that dreams are both generated and represented by some of the highest mental mechanisms.” (241-242)

I want to note two features of Solms’ argument that are relevant to religious studies.  First is the compelling force of his scientific reasoning.  No future account of dreaming will be considered adequate that fails to acknowledge this kind of clinical and anatomical data about the role of the brain in dream experience.  In this regard, Solms’ work is one small example of the broader impact that cognitive neuroscience is having on nearly every scholarly field.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams shows how the revolutionary new discoveries in brain science are forcing a wholesale reconsideration of human mental life.  No researcher has written a Solms-like neuroscientific monograph on religious experience—yet.  I suggest it is only a matter of time until someone does produce an incredibly dry, meticulous, plodding report of the correlations between brain damage and various types of religiosity, and in the process radically challenges many fundamental assumptions of religious studies scholarship.

The second point to make about Solms’ work regards the prominent role of dreaming in many of the world’s religious traditions.  Solms takes no interest in this dimension of dreaming, but for researchers who are interested in the interplay of dreams, psychology, and religion, Solms’ work has important implications.  His refutation of Hobson and McCarley’s “brainstem reductionism” strongly supports the idea that dreams are not meaningless epiphenomena of REM sleep but rather meaning-laden, symbolically structured creations produced by some of the most sophisticated processes of the brain-mind system.  This gives fresh impetus to the study of the dynamic interplay between dreaming and religious faith, philosophical knowledge, and cultural creativity.  Unfortunately, Solms’ own theoretical alternative to Hobson is little more than a warmed-over version of Freud’s “sleep protection” theory of dream function: Dreams are defensive reactions to internal stimuli (including, but not restricted to, REM sleep) that threaten to disrupt sleep. The problem with this explanation is that it neglects the remarkable creativity of much of human dream experience.  Solms makes no effort to investigate the specific imagery and symbolic expressiveness of his patients’ dreams, and thus he has no appreciation for visionary power that emerges so clearly in dreams reported from various religious and cultural traditions around the world.  Here, I suggest, lies a golden opportunity for religious studies scholars to use cognitive neuroscience as a point of departure for the fresh investigation of a recurrent phenomenon in the history of human religiosity.  Perhaps we should take Solms at his latin word and, after thanking him for “inventing” these important findings, go on to “perfect” and refine them in future research.

IV

Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief hit bookstores in 2001 with a force usually associated with a new Stephen King novel.  Prominently featured in major newspapers, magazines, television programs and talk radio shows, the book tapped into a surprisingly large public interest in the connection between religious experience and brain science.  Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, both from University of Pennsylvania (Newberg in Radiology, D’Aquili in Psychiatry), wrote an earlier book together, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress, 1999), which laid out many of the research findings and theoretical interpretations that are central to Why God Won’t Go Away.  The new book (completed after D’Aquili’s death, with the help of freelance writer Vince Rause) takes the earlier material and carries it forward to a broader audience, offering several far-reaching claims about the significance of their research findings.  Like Pinker, but with a diametrically opposite attitude toward religion, Newberg and D’Aquili offer another “Grand Theory” of human life and development, with sweeping explanations for a wide variety of psychological and cultural phenomena.   
The widespread appeal of Newberg and D’Aquili’s work has several sources.  First, it’s a “man bites dog” kind of story.  The rarity of neuroscientists saying something favorable about religion is striking, and this in itself has generated broad public interest.  Second, Newberg and D’Aquili assert that religious experiences are not signs of pathology and mental illness but rather the products of healthy, normal human brains.  Such a claim is bound to attract people who do not share the disdain of Pinker and other cognitive neuroscientists for anything even remotely associated with religion.  The book’s title, Why God Won’t Go Away, reflects its explicit intention to defend religious belief against such harsh scientific attacks.

Third and most important, the book draws on the almost magical power accorded to the latest brain imaging technologies.  Newberg and D’Aquili rely on a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to measure blood flow in the brain during certain behaviors, and thus to identify areas of greater or lesser neural activation.  Since the beginning of the “Decade of the Brain” in 1990 a string of exciting discoveries have been made using new imaging techniques to reveal the workings of the brain in language, vision, hearing, memory, motor action, mathematical reasoning, musical performance, and dozens of other activities.  The colorful computer-generated images produced by these technologies are stunning to behold, and while some researchers have raised important questions about the proper interpretation of these images, the idea has taken hold of the general public that PET, fMRI, and SPECT scans are, for the first time in history, giving us a clear “window on the mind.”

Newberg and D’Aquili are among the first researchers to try using imaging technology to study the brain during a religious experience (their subjects are advanced Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in prayer).  Their results provide what they coyly suggest may be a “photograph of God.”  Why God Won’t Go Away opens with Newberg describing his use of the SPECT camera on a subject named Robert, who is meditating in the laboratory: “I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.” (3)  This is a tantalizing way to start a book, and Newberg and D’Aquili try to make good on their promise by explaining how during states of intense meditation and prayer the areas of the brain responsible for sensory perception and orientation essentially shut down due to a lack of meaningful input, while the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for the abilities “to concentrate, plan future behavior, and carry out complex perceptual tasks” (30), becomes highly activated.  In such a neurological condition, lacking any of the information normally used to define self and world and yet highly aroused in its attention association processes, the brain interprets its experience as suddenly devoid of boundaries:

“The brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.  And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.  This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments.” (6) 
Newberg and D’Aquili describe several other means of achieving this brain state, including states of hyperarousal (ritual dancing, drumming, chanting) and even relatively secular activities like attending a musical concert or taking a warm bath.  Whatever the method, Newberg and D’Aquili claim they all aim at the same fundamental neurological goal, the experience of what they call “Absolute Unitary Being,” or AUB:

“The transcendent state we call Absolute Unitary Being refers to states known by various names in different cultures—the Tao, Nivrana, the Unio Mystica, Brahman-atam—but which every persuasion describes in strikingly similar terms.  It is a state of pure awareness, a clear and vivid consciousness of no-thing.  Yet it is also a sudden, vivid consciousness of everything as an undifferentiated whole.” (147)

At first sight, Why God Won’t Go Away seems like the kind of book religious studies scholars would love.  That, at any rate, was my expectation as I began reading it.  Hence my disappointment at discovering the book suffers from several serious shortcomings.  Despite their eager acceptance of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili do not offer adequate evidence to support their neurocognitive explanation of it.  On the contrary, their major claims are only tenuously related to their research data, and the unfortunate effect of Why God Won’t Go Away may be that many neuroscientists will feel confirmed in their skepticism toward religion, rather than persuaded to pay more attention to it.

The first problem concerns what can be called “the lab effect.”  Simply put, the experimental attempt to replicate a certain kind of experience in a laboratory setting inevitably influences, shapes, and alters the experience in a variety of subtle but significant ways.  For example, in the field of dream research, people who serve as subjects in sleep laboratories tend to have dreams with less fear, aggression, and sexuality than people who sleep in a home setting—the lab evidently has a homogenizing effect on people’s dreams, making it less likely they will have rare or unusual types of dreaming experience.  Newberg and D’Aquili evince only a dim methodological awareness of how this same kind of problem drastically qualifies the significance of their research.  Although they confess that, “because peak experiences are quite rare, the likelihood of catching one when the subject is hooked up for electrophysiological readings is slim” (31), they never question the axiomatic assumption that experiences in a lab setting can be generalized to experiences outside the lab.  The question is, are people meditating and praying in a laboratory, “hooked up for electrophysiological readings” as part of a scientific experiment, having the same kind of experience as people meditating and praying in other settings?  Newberg and D’Aquili assume the answer is yes, but I would suggest the answer is no.  Important similarities between the two conditions certainly exist, but just as certainly there are major differences.  Why God Won’t Go Away takes a steamroller approach to the latter: the overriding goal of the book is to identify a common system of neurological activity responsible for all forms of religious experience.  Personal differences are mere secondary accretions to the fundamentally identical neural processes.

This points to the second problem, which is the book’s runaway universalism.  Ironically, Newberg and D’Aquili are even less interested in culture, history, and individual differences than Pinker.  At least Pinker knows enough about postmodernism to be vexed by it; Newberg and D’Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half-century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience.  If they were aware of this literature, I cannot imagine them writing, even in a book aimed at non-specialists, passages like the following:

“Essentially, all myths can be reduced to a simple framework….Virtually all myths can be reduced to the same consistent pattern: identify a crucial existential concern, frame it as a pair of incompatible opposites, then find a resolution that alleviates anxiety and allows us to live more happily in the world.”  (62)

“At the heart of all the mystic’s descriptions, however, is the compelling conviction that they have risen above material existence, and have spiritually united with the absolute.” (101-2)

“Neurobiologically and philosophically, there cannot be two versions of this absolute unitary state.  It may look different, in retrospect, according to cultural beliefs and personal interpretations—a Catholic nun, for whom God is the ultimate reality, might interpret any mystical experience as a melting into Christ, while a Buddhist, who does not believe in a personalized God, might interpret mystical union as a melting into nothingness.  What’s important to understand, is that these differing interpretations are unavoidably distorted by after-the-fact subjectivity….  There is only absolute unity, and there cannot be two versions of any unity that is absolute.”  (122-3)

I leave it to scholars of myth, ritual, mysticism, and various religious traditions to punch holes in these inflated claims.  For the purposes of this review, I will simply say that whatever its failings as an understanding of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili’s “neurotheology” (the phrase comes from their earlier book) is not even firmly grounded in neuroscience.  Their theoretical claims should be understood as artifacts of the current, very imperfect state of brain imaging technology.  At present, the resolution of the various methods of neuroimaging is so poor that no one can tell with any definitive precision whether what is happening in one person’s brain is the exactly same as what is happening in another person’s brain.  But as the technology improves (and given the amount of money being poured into this research, the progress will be rapid), we are sure to discover vast new realms of unique complexity and distinctive difference in each individual’s neural circuitry.  This makes it quite likely that at some point in the near future we will have imaging data showing how, for example, the experiences of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhists (in a lab setting, of course!) are actually quite different from one another.  Paradoxically, the very technology that Newberg and D’Aquili use to defend a universalistic view of religion will, I predict, become a valuable means of highlighting the radically irreducible plurality of human religious experience.

The final problem with Why God Won’t Go Away is that it ultimately fails in its stated goal of defending religion.  Newberg and D’Aquili’s core argument is that “religions persist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists” (129).  I imagine a skeptic like Pinker saying yes!, that’s exactly right, people foolishly fabricate elaborate fantasy explanations for their experiences rather than accept the more mundane origin of religious belief in anxieties about reproduction, social status, and death.  And even more than Pinker, Freud in his many writings on religion and culture gives give forceful articulation to this reductionistic explanation of religious faith.  Although Newberg and D’Aquili make a few glancing references to Freud, it is clear they have not fully processed the impact of his psychoanalytic thinking on religious studies scholarship.  To borrow from Paul Ricoeur, Why God Won’t Go Away is written from a “first naivete” perspective, and thus is not responsive to the present day’s “post-critical” environment and the profoundly troubling questions about religious belief provoked by a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

V

In coming years and decades we will undoubtedly hear of many exciting new discoveries about the neurological workings of the brain.  As I hope to have shown in this essay, cognitive neuroscientists are quite eager to offer their opinions about what their research implies for our understanding of human religiosity.  Their claims are having an increasingly significant impact on the general public, and for this reason alone I suggest it is vitally important for a greater number of religious studies scholars to pay close critical attention to the latest findings of cognitive neuroscience.  Beyond this, I also suggest that for the field of religion and psychology an outstanding opportunity has opened for new investigations of classic themes in the field (e.g. conversion, mysticism, healing, cultural creativity, symbol and myth, gender).  Not since the early part of the twentieth century has leading scientific psychological research provided such fertile material for religious thought and reflection.

Note: I would like to thank the students of “The Soul, the Psyche, the Brain,” taught during the Fall of 2001 at the Graduate Theological Union, for their help in reading and understanding these texts.  I would also like to thank Diane Jonte-Pace for her insightful editorial advice.

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.

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.]


Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation

Falling asleep involves a very real return to nature, a surrender of conscious control to the innate needs of the biological organism that is our body.  Sleeping is a time when our animal heritage is most apparent, when the basic instincts of self-maintenance and preservation take over.  A good night’s sleep helps replenish our physical, emotional, and intellectual energies in preparation for the challenges of each coming day.   

My research suggests that conservatives tend to sleep better than liberals.  More evidence is needed to substantiate this idea, but I think it makes good sense. Conservatives are more likely to value the qualities of control, personal power, and safety from outside forces.  A sound, steady, restful sleep is consistent with that kind of outlook on life.  Liberals, on the other hand, are more oriented towards openness and empathy for others, and as a result they’re more vulnerable to external disruptions and loss of personal control.  Those ideals appear to be correlated with the variable quality of their sleep. 

Our last two Presidents play out this pattern in almost comic-book form.  Throughout his two terms in office, Bill Clinton was well-known for his restless intelligence, late-night conversational manias, and blatant disregard for other people’s normal patterns of waking and sleeping.  He was, by his own admission, a functional insomniac. George W. Bush, meanwhile, has always let it be known that he’s an early-to-bed kind of guy.  Right after his 2000 election he said this would be his first historical goal: “I’m trying to set the record as the President who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”  In a 2006 interview with People magazine he said that despite the stressful responsibilities of his job, he actually sleeps quite soundly: “I must tell you, I’m sleeping much better than people would assume.”  He let on that he occasionally takes sleep aids when traveling and drinks a couple of cups of coffee each morning, but other than that he’s a clean living person in both waking and sleeping: “I don’t drink alcohol.  I can remember when I used to drink, I had trouble sleeping at night.”[i] 

Pundits on both sides of the ideological divide have interpreted these sleep differences as meaningful signs of each President’s deeper nature.  Many liberals were excited by Clinton’s boundless energy, and they’re horrified by the oblivious tranquility of Bush’s sleep (fumed one internet commentator: “So he has no trouble sleeping, huh? Well, that’s just freaking wonderful.  Because of him, nearly 3000 American service members are sleeping soundly, too.  But they won’t get to wake up the next day.”[ii]).  In contrast, conservatives regarded the nocturnal hyperactivity of Clinton as a symptom of his broader lack of personal discipline, and they praise Bush for his healthy-minded good sense (Steve Chapman wrote in the National Review, “conservatives can take his devotion to sleep as a good omen.  Respecting his body’s own basic requirements suggests an appreciation of human limits that is the beginning of wisdom about governance.”[iii]).  Both interpretations are correct in identifying the connection between sleep patterns and political sensibilities.  Where they differ is in the valuation of a sound sleep.  Liberals see Bush’s excessive fondness for sleep as a sign of being morally obtuse, and conservatives regard Clinton’s erratic sleep as indicating an unstable character.   

Actually, Clinton himself has admitted to the governmental problems caused by poor sleep habits.  In a remarkable aside during a question-and-answer session that followed a 2002 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, the former President said the following:

“But one of the reasons Washington is so…you’re going to all laugh when I say this, and you’re going to think, ‘He’s like everybody else.  You know, when they get out of office they get a little dotty and a little crazy.’  But I’m telling you, one of the reasons that there is often such an acrimonious atmosphere in Washington, is that too many members of the Congress in both parties are sleep deprived.  And you just think about it….  I’m telling you that the main reason you ought to be for some kind of meaningful campaign reform is that half the people in Congress are physically exhausted all the time from trying to make their votes, learn about the issues, come home on the weekend, and spend all their time raising money.  And it clouds your judgment, and it undermines your ability to be relaxed and respectful in dealing with your adversaries.  Now, every one of you, if you’ve ever been really tired a long time—you know, I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it—but I’m serious, you have no idea how much more physically difficult it is to be a member of Congress now than it was before you had to raise this kind of money.  And you ought to take a burden off their back and keep working until we get real campaign finance reform, so you can have people who are thinking, who have time to think about these issues and study them, and who believe they will have the opportunity to argue their position to their constituents, so they don’t have to take the most extreme possible position because that’s what it takes to get the money, and they’re not so exhausted from chasing around after the money, that they never get a decent night’s sleep.  Now, you can laugh about that, but I’m telling you, if you had all the members of Congress here and they were being honest with you, they’d tell you that I just told you one of the most important reasons that you could ever be for this.”[iv]

Whatever you think of his pitch for campaign finance reform, Clinton is offering an intriguing signal of liberal willingness to value sleep as a necessity for healthy political functioning.  He speaks of sleep deprivation as an open secret in Washington life, a problem that everyone recognizes and suffers yet feels helpless to change. Why shouldn’t conservatives agree with him?  After all, their hero Ronald Reagan was famously (though perhaps not accurately; link to conversation with Martin Anderson) insistent on having the opportunity to enjoy an afternoon nap each day. 

Looking beyond Washington to the nation as a whole, much more attention should be paid to the fact that millions of Americans suffer problems with the length and quality of their sleep.  In terms of the basic requirements for human health, this is equivalent to saying that millions of Americans don’t have adequate food, water, or air.   Sleep is just as essential to our survival, yet it’s rarely recognized as such.  If we take seriously the strong scientific evidence that sleep is crucial to our mental and physical well-being, then we have to ask some difficult questions.  What is the collective damage caused by the sleep-depriving pressures of contemporary American life?  How many accidents, injuries, fights, mistakes, misunderstandings, and screw-ups are caused by people who are stumbling through the day in an exhausted, semi-conscious fog?  Of all our basic physical needs, why is sleep the one we seem most willing to sacrifice, the one we regularly disrupt and deny in favor of other interests?  Do we really want a future where we’ll have to take a pill to stay awake and another one to go to sleep?  We’re in danger of becoming a society of sleep anorexics, fooling ourselves into thinking it’s perfectly normal to starve our body of what it needs, pretending that no one else notices the harmful, emaciating effects.

I see no reason why conservatives and liberals shouldn’t agree that improving sleep hygiene should be a public health priority.  Any number of easy, low-cost measures (e.g., early education about sleep and health, more flexible employment and school schedules, stronger noise ordinances, work-place nap rooms, etc.) could produce rapid and tangible benefits in people’s well-being. The problems caused by sleeplessness involve more than just higher frequencies of accidents, injuries, and illnesses.  I’d go further and say that inadequate sleep represents a subtle but genuine threat to our psychological ability to function as responsible citizens in a democracy.  Our form of government depends on—was created in the name of—free-thinking individuals capable of making their own decisions about their lives.  A political system like ours presupposes a high degree of maturity, self-awareness, and wisdom on the part of the citizens, and we risk weakening those vital qualities when we deny our biological need for long, steady, restful sleep.



 


[i]  Reported by ABC News, December 14, 2006.
[ii]  Email commentary to the ABC News report of December 14, 2006.
[iii] Steve Chapman, “Sweet Dreams, W.: A little presidential pillow talk – George W. Bush’s love for good night’s sleep,” National Review, February 19, 2001.
[iv] Speech given January 29, 2002.

Hillary Clinton’s 1994 Dreams

1994 dreams of Hillary Clinton: article from Detroit News

On May 19, 1994 The Detroit News published an article on the front of its “Accent” section titled “I Dream of Hillary,” along with a sidebar article on the recently published book Dreams of Bill by Julia Anderson-Miller and her husband Bruce Miller.  The Hillary dreams were gathered by Frank Marafiote, editor of The Hillary Clinton Quarterly newsletter.  Reporter David Jacobson asked Marafiote, psychologist Robert Van de Castle, and myself to comment on a selection of the dreams.  To see a pdf of the original article, click here.

I regret using the phrase ‘big old’ in the article’s featured quote. It was an unnecessary choice of words.

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,”
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