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Notes from Limmud 2014

The Neuropsychology of Religiosity and Spirituality

Rabbi Dr Paul Shrell-Fox

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

As a psychologist, the speaker cannot talk about הפסיכולוגיה; one can only talk about individual psychologists' views.

What is this thing we call spirituality?

Chief Justice Potter Stewart (1914-1985): "I shall not attempt to further define it, but I know it when I see it." (1964). (He was talking about pornography in 1964, but the point stands.)

Definitions excerpted from a review article:

  • A way of being and experiencing that comes about through awareness of a transcendent dimension and that is characterised by certain identifiable values in regard to self, others, nature and whatever one considers to be the Ultimate.
  • Believing and behaving as if non-observable and non-material life forces have governing powers in one's everyday affairs.
  • Congruent, meaningful life scheme and high functionality self-efficacy beliefs that synergistically [lacuna]
  • Relationship with a power or force in the universe that transcends the current context of reality.

What's the relationship? What's the power or force? What does "transcends" mean? [The speaker was pretty dismissive of these definitions.] Let's take this out of the head, out of the intellectual experience so we can put it into the brain or cognitive experience. What follows is based on the talk "The Song of Serotonin and the Dance of Dopamine: How Rituals Harness Neurochemistry and Solidify Relgious belief" by J Anderson Thomson, Jr. MD.

"Religions work to suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee."—Jonathan Haidt 2007. The chimp is an example of an aggressive individualistic animal; the bee a cooperative selfless animal.

The speaker's aim: to prove to us that we are biological beings, and are susceptible to biological pressures.

"Religion" derives from Latin religare: to bind or tie.

"Religious rituals hijacked chemistry in a singular, uniquely human way that tied people together and facilitated social bonds. To survive in a hostile environment, our ancestors established social groups" (meaning the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago.) —"Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzing the fuzzy", Zinnbauer, Pargament, Cole, Rye, Butter, Belavich and Kadar (1997).

An enthusiastic group-singing of אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם will get our juices flowing [as demonstrated by the occupants of the lecture theatre. The speaker got us to pinch the back of our hands one verse in to see how hard we had to do it to cause pain, and see how hard it was to feel antipathy towards someone we were annoyed with, and something else I forgot; and then we measured these again at the end. I didn't find much difference, particularly in terms of the hand-pinching; I suspect he'd have got a better result with me if we'd done that before starting the singing.] So what are these juices that this activity gets flowing in us? They include:

  • Serotonin, which helps our:
    • well being,
    • happiness,
    • mood regulation,
    • appetite
    • help us to go to sleep
  • Dopamine, which boosts your sense of:
    • reward/salience
    • pleasure, euphoria
    • motor function (fine-tuning)
    • compulsion
    • perserveration
  • Noradrenaline:
    • vigilant concentration
  • Oxytocin:
    • trust
    • love
    • generosity
    • maternal behaviour (including inducing labour: offsetting the pain of birth with positive feelings, otherwise who'd be willing to do it again?)
    • sense of brotherhood – אַחֲווָה
    • empathy
    • influences social emotions

Autistic children have a low level of oxytocin; giving them a boost at that makes them better at recognising emotions.

Oxytocin is contagious: If the speaker's oxytocin levels are high, it will boost it in nearby people. We don't recognise this because we can't smell it. (This is why dogs know when we're afraid of them: they can smell our oxytocin levels going down.)

Boosting these for long enough will give you a spiritual experience whether you want it or not: it even works with atheists. [The talk included slides of whereabouts the brain lights up with these.]

Mirror neurons: If you imagine really hard someone else biting into a lemon, you get a secondhand version of the experience. [Um, I don't!]

Coordinated interaction [lacuna?]
Shared experience: When you stick out your tongue at a chimp, the chimp will stick its tongue out back at you; when you see someone yawning, you yawn yourself. Similarly watching an emotional scene in a film makes you cry too.

Religion has its basis in spirituality, rather than the other way around. Spirituality goes back a long long way. Spirituality is not about me, it's about us. It involves a sense of connectedness. The Breslover Chassid who goes out into the middle of the forest and starts yelling out to God is having a spiritual experience, but [even when alone] he is experiencing a connection beyond himself.

Women lighting candles likely have at a below-conscious level [lacuna, presumably: also a connection beyond themselves, with the rest of the Jewish people doing likewise.]

In the latter half of the twentieth century, church (or synagogue) attendance dropped, but at the same time an interest in "spirituality" increased. People were looking for something they didn't want to get from the one place, but needed to get from somewhere else.

The New Atheists are now in their third year of creating atheist celebrants, involved in creating ceremonies for when people are born, get married or died. They are creating rituals, but without the name. They want a meaningful experience, but don't want God involved... and indeed God does not have to be involved.

Let's come back to the quote "Religious rituals hijacked chemistry in a singular, uniquely human way that tied people together and facilitated social bonds. To survive in a hostile environment, our ancestors established social groups." Substitute "spirituality" [for "religion"].

When we have this experience, we call it spiritual. We feel uplifted.

Spirituality, which turned into religion, has this ability to bind people together (except for a minority for whom it doesn't work, but that's all right too, because whilst everyone else is getting stoned around the campfire, you need someone to guard the camp). People die of loneliness. And, tens of thousands of years ago, if you were alone, you were in trouble. So brains that were more adapted to that need, to be in groups, once those brains did better, they survived better, so spirituality spread itself.

Intent or goal directed?

RA Gila Shapiro [lacuna? Or did she just ask the question in the next sentence?]

Can a barbecue be spiritual? Answer: Anything can be spiritual, though it is not in itself intrinsically so. Spirituality is about connections, ties, being bound together with one or more people into a group, and some kind of intent or goal-directed behaviour. It doesn't have to be holy, or transcendent.

[The speaker here showed a slide of a triangle with "Ideas/values/beliefs" at one apex, "Behaviours/rituals" at a second, and "Transcendental experience" at a third.] With interactions between all three, and a leader in the centre adding fervour or drive, he can then take the group wherever he wants.

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