A religious history of American neuroscience

Leigh Eric Schmidt in The Immanent Frame:

Not long ago, researchers wired up the atheist Richard Dawkins with a helmet that would create magnetic fields partially simulating the brain activity of temporal lobe epilepsy, which they linked to dramatic visionary religious experiences and to less dramatic feelings of sensed presences. It turns out, though, that hooking up a hardboiled atheist to a machine, known as the transcranial magnetic stimulator, produced no such experiences. “It was a great disappointment,” Dawkins related after 40 minutes on the machine. “Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos.”

As my own mind was being massaged with images of Richard Dawkins having his temporal lobes stimulated, an odd notion popped into my head: namely, when it comes to religion, history and culture trump neurology. I quickly noticed that the same neuroscientists who were experimenting on Dawkins, among other more amenable test subjects, were also enfolding American religious history into their neurotheological data. One of the neurologists involved in the Dawkins stunt suggested in an interview, for example, that Ellen G. White, nineteenth-century prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, suffered a childhood head injury that affected her temporal lobes in such a way as to produce her subsequent religious visions.

That example immediately struck me as a curious incursion of history into the laboratory. To be sure, even as an outsider, I was aware that a thriving set of conversations exists on the borders of neuroscience and religion. There are the theological questions, the God-spot questions: can the places of divine-human encounter, or, at least, the places of the felt-experiences of divine-human encounter be scanned and visualized? There are the ethical questions: for example, can the lying brain be mapped, detected, and exposed? Or, can compassionate affects be imaged and reproduced—in effect, is altruism a mental skill that can be trained? There are also, of course, innumerable psychotherapeutic questions; prominent among them is whether prayer and meditation are effective allies in the healing arts and medical sciences. But, here was the prolific visionary, Ellen G. White, suddenly thrust into the speculations of a pediatric neurologist studying temporal lobe epilepsy, all because she had been hit in the face by a rock when she was nine years old. Perhaps there is, indeed, a conversation to be had not only between religion and neuroscience, but also, more specifically, between American religious history and American neuroscience.