In the November 3, 2008, issue of Newsweek (my news magazine of choice), Sharon Begley offers a fascinating article entitled, “Why We Believe: Belief in the paranormal reflects normal brain activity carried to the extreme.” In the essay, Begley converses with a number of prominent psychologists, neurologists, and anthropologists to investigate what goes on in the brain that leads otherwise “normal” human beings to believe in paranormal phenomena ranging from ESP to alien abduction to the intuition that one has been reincarnated. Several times Begley obliquely alludes to more common—if not more mundane—experiences as well: those we would call religious.
According to a recent study in the journal Science, Begley points out, people’s tendency to experience extrarational phenomena (the essay, not surprisingly, uses the term “irrational”) often coincides with periods of anxiety and chaos. This is especially true with regard to the experience of underlying patterns and what Begley calls “illusory correlations” among things that, in ordinary times, appear random. Begley quotes Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol who says, “In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization.”
Neuroscience considers this susceptibility to be disconnected from actual reality. I would argue, however, that this consideration betrays a materialist reductionism on the part of the biological sciences—a reductionism that biology’s first-cousin physics shed long ago.
Whereas Hood believes the intuition of deep and underlying order that abides even in the midst of chaos is nothing more than a human coping mechanism, Christians claim that this intuition is of the presence of the living God who creates order from the “chaos and void” (Genesis 1). We are more attuned to deep order and cosmic connection in times of chaos because at those times when we experience a loss of control we shed the emotional, psychological, and even material layers that otherwise buffer us from the presence of God. We become vulnerable. Our lives—including our psyches—become “thin places” and we are better able to intuit God.
This is not to deny the biological explanation for how this intuition kicks-in at certain times. The essay concludes that the tendency to look for extrarational explanations for our experiences is located in a “bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe of the brain.” This is the area of the brain that enables us to distinguish where our bodies end and the exterior world begins. There are necessary and appropriate times, such as sleep, when these neurons shut off. This bundle also becomes quiet at other times, including during intense prayer or meditation. For Begley and those she interviews, this is an unfortunate evolutionary mistake which opens the door for our minds to perceive connections and the presence of a nonmaterial reality that simply do not exist. Our “normal brain processes…become hijacked and exaggerated,” she explains.
This discovery by science provides a biological—even mechanistic—explanation of how it is that we come to believe we have experienced any number of extrarational things, from little green spacemen to the palpable presence of God. But an explanation of how is not the same thing as an explanation of why. Rather than an evolutionary mistake, the brain process that enables us to intuit layers of reality beyond the material (layers that, in its material reductionism, biology claims are illusory) is the means by which we experience the presence of the living God, by which Rudolph Otto said we encounter the Holy.
Begley comes to a couple of conclusions with which I whole-heartedly agree, though she intends them as unfortunate whereas I celebrate them. The first is this: “The universal human need to find meaning and purpose in life is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic, or objective reality.” Thank God.
Second, in discussing the scientific research that undergirds her essay Begley says, “It quickly became clear that belief requires an open mind—one not bound by the evidence of the senses, but in which emotions such as hope…can trump the evidence.” A better articulation of our Christian faith is difficult to imagine.