There are about 25 articles on neurotheology on a recently-reorganized page on my website. Most authors on this subject take monotheism (God and belief in God) as the main subject for neurotheology. I think that the mystic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism are just as important, and there are several articles that cover some of it’s concepts, including enlightenment and reincarnation.
Here’s the link:
My perspective is based on neuroscience, but the theory of evolution is just as important for me. It’s not enough to see that the brain participates in spiritual experiences. Any explanations that fail to see the adaptive value of spirituality in our evolutionary history fall short of explaining why humans are so often deeply involved with religion, and why some of us aren’t. That’s an important part of the story. The brain can take us through mystic experiences, but neurotheology needs to explain why, and that brings us back to the origins of our species.
The religions we see today aren’t the ones neurotheology really needs to explain. The religions of our earliest ancestors may be the best place to look to understand how and why humans are so drawn to religion and spiritual practices, like prayer, chanting, meditation and above all, shamanism.
My article on that subject is here:
The published version (published in a scientific journal, and more difficult reading) is here:
Among other things, it says that two brain parts are the source for spiritual experiences. These are the hippocampus on the right, and the amygdala on the left. The hippocampus supports trances, meditation, introspection, equanimity and detachment. The left amygdala underpins devotion, intimations of God, angels and spirits, as well as religious joy, rapture, and bliss. We could say that the first is the way of meditation, and the second is the way of prayer.
Differences in personality and ways of thinking (“cognitive style”) that appear when people have their spirituality ‘focused’ in these two very different brain structures create diversity among people. It also means that no single “spiritual path” could (or ever can) work for everyone.
This gave our earliest ancestors many different ways of thinking. People with many different perspectives participated in our ancient tribal councils. In a tribal council, the aggressive and the peaceful both have voices worth hearing. This gave the tribe more options when they were confronted with threats and opportunities.
There were (and still are) big differences in the religious lives of people. On top of this, there are big differences in how ‘spiritual’ we are. Some of us are so involved with religion that anything they say is an expression of their religious beliefs. Others don’t care at all. Our populations include both atheists and the devout, as part of the same (evolutionary) strategy for keeping ourselves alive. Atheists are often ‘linear thinkers’, and religious people are more ‘holistic’. Each type is prone to different mistakes, and when our species was young, they could compensate for each other.
The variety in the kinds of spirituality, and the differences in how interested we are in it, may be the sources for the diversity among humans. And diversity is part of our ‘survival strategy’. Ten people, ancient or modern, will find ten different things to say about a single situation, and this gave our ancient tribes lots of options for responding to it. The tribe would make it’s choice over time, after people had had a chance to talk it over. The saying “many hands make light work” applied to thinking as well as working.
Spirituality may be supported by our brains, but only because our evolution demanded it.
The variety in how much and what kind of religion may be one of the things that makes us human.
Homo Sapiens: The animal that both prays, and rejects prayer.