Spirit and Brain

Most Americans believe they have a material body and an immaterial spirit. (According to a 2009 Harris Poll, 82% of American adults believe in God, 75% believe in heaven and 71% believe in the survival of the soul after death.) I won’t go into whether the immaterial part can be subdivided into soul and spirit but will focus on the larger question of whether human beings are more than bodies, which is what I think.

If the spirit exists, why haven’t doctors and scientists found it? Because science is limited to studying the physical world with the five senses. It’s as likely to see the spirit as it is to smell the speed of light. Something without material substance won’t register on an EEG, CT, MRI or other scan. To find the immaterial you could look for its influence upon the material, like “seeing” the wind in the swaying trees.

Some neurologists claim to have found the spot where we experience the spiritual. This portal between dimensions is located in the brain’s temporal lobes. (Turns out Descartes was not far off. He suspected the “seat of the soul” was the pineal gland, which is situated a few layers deeper in the brain.) In his book Why God Won’t Go Away, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg points out that:

The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious experiences. Unless there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality will be here for a very long time. The brain is predisposed to having those experiences, and that is why so many people believe in God.

A priori Assumptions

Some might say we evolved this capacity because it conferred survival advantages, but it could also be that our brains are predisposed to having spiritual experiences because we have a spirit.

“In recent years we have discovered that certain areas of the brain are the centers for various activities from movement of our limbs, to our vision, our memories and emotions. If seeing something, for example, activates a certain brain activity; does that mean that what we see is only imagined?” Shankar Vedantam, Searching for the Physical Basis of Spirituality.

Psychologist Daniel Batson notes: “The brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced. To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music.” To use another keyboard analogy, the temporal lobe is where spiritual messages are “typed” into the mind.

But just who is typing those messages? The Holy Spirit? Our subconscious? Your answer might have more to do with your a priori assumptions than with hard data. Another word for these is “faith.”

Seven Ounces

As finite beings, we don’t have much to work with when it comes to understanding God and processing spiritual input. The average human brain weighs three pounds. (Einstein was an exception at 2.7 pounds.) It is about 80% water, which means just seven ounces are solid tissue.

The brain is not lazy but it is soft—the consistency of JELL-O—and flabby. At nearly 60% fat, it’s the fattest organ in the body. When cranking at full capacity it uses enough energy to light a 25-watt bulb. Not a lot of candle power with which to contemplate the Creator.

If we kept our puny physiology in mind we would harbor fewer illusions about being able to:

master the mysterious,
unscrew the inscrutable,
comprehend life’s conundrums,
elucidate the enigmas of the eternal.


2 thoughts on “Spirit and Brain

  1. Mike,

    I recall reading an article some while ago that ‘religion’ or belief in the hereafter goes back as far as when cavemen walked the earth. I’m sure most all have seen the cave dwelling etchings in National Geographic over the years of the ascending tribesman going to the final resting place complete with bow, arrow & spear.

    The fact being, when one of their own was eatin by a Saber Tooth Tiger or squashed by a Wholly Mamoth, they started and wanted to believe very quickly that there was something beyond this life. Call it human nature, an innate aspect of ‘life’, or just plain fear of what’s next. We all want to believe that there is something more beyond this final and all too short chapter we call life.

  2. hi mike, i want to say so much to you but first i want to say, God suffers with you. He hurts when you hurt. We, as humans, can’t understand all that means. We’re not suppose to, otherwise we would not need faith. Jesus wants us to trust Him, and that’s what we have to do. When the devil chose to sin and then cause Adam and Eve to sin, the challenge was on for God to prove he is perfect love and perfect justice. It’s a line that only He can tow and only He can explain and one day, those who stay faithful will get to listen to Him do that. Just know He loves you and would suffer and die for just you all over again. There is a wonder book called “The Character of God Controversy” written by Stephen Wohlberg that I would most highly recommend. You can purchase it here:
    Now for the cancer fighting part. The news report gave me the impression that the Drs have given you a death sentence. They are great at doing that but don’t you believe it. There is a lot they don’t know. My older sister was diagnosed with 3 different types of cancer all at the same time when she was 35yrs. old. They gave her 2yrs. to live even if she had treatment. She did what the doctors said for a year and then decided to take a different path. She started all natural diet and natrual medicine and she gave her heart to the Lord. Within the next year, they could find no cancer in her body. She lived over 15yrs after that. Last year, my husband was diagnosed with a very aggressive sarcoma. He’s turned 58 last month and is cancer free. We did natural and orthodox because of the aggressive nature of the type he had. He had 35 radiation treatments which were really rough and we started chemo and did it for 5wks, but found it was just too harsh and also didn’t believe, in our hearts it was the right thing to do, so we quit that part. After all the radiation he suffered immensely for 3 or 4 months, then he started to get a little better each day. As soon as he was diagnosed, last Feb., he started taking Essiac tea. (you can read about it online). I created this smoothie drink for him that had everything i could think of that would help his immune system and the ravages of the toxic treatment to come. The doctors told us to not do this as it would inhibit the radiation but our heart and minds told us different. He had to have a peg tube inserted before we even started treatment because the cancer was in his neck and they said he’d have to have it eventually so it was better to have it put in first. I made the formula everyday and we used that and ensure in equal portions. I will be happy to send you the formula if you would like it. It is about 25 different natural things including fresh fruits, oils, extracts, vitamins and minerals so I don’t think there is room to post it here. I wish you the very best. sandy edelen

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