Brains, Bodies and Faith

A friend of mine recently asked me a fascinating question on Facebook, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing it here, since it touches on the topic of embodiment, and also considers the idea of belief. This question, and my answer, treads at the edge of what we can currently know and may make some science types uncomfortable. I have tried to keep the ‘sciency’ parts on the science side, and be clear where I am crossing the line.

Markus asks:
‘Does faith reside in the brain or the heart? As a neuroscientist, do you believe the brain to be a transducer or a generator? Perhaps both? As a man of faith, where does one determine mind to begin? These questions are sincere as I have experienced through meditation that I am not what I think, that I cannot determine where some perceptions originate and that sometimes I can perceive the thoughts or emotions of others without being physically near them. It leads me to suspect that consciousness, awareness reside beyond the cerebral organ itself. Spiritually, I feel connected to and informed by a source greater than the grey matter I am currently renting. Your thoughts?’

Tell me where is fancy bred.
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourishèd?

It is engendered in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.

Let us all ring fancy’s knell
I’ll begin it.—Ding, dong, bell.
Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2

That was a little Shakespeare to address the same question but with respect to love. The singer in the Merchant of Venice concludes it is born in the eyes. While I can entertain the notions of faith and love from a poetic standpoint, and conceive various bodily origins as an artist, as a neuroscientist I can say that they are both born in the brain. However, I would be very quick to add they are born in processes that we normally ascribe to the heart. So I would say faith is born in the ‘heart’ of the brain: it is an affective process that emerges after we have, in the words of Bruxey Cavey, ‘run the ramp of reason’.

The brain is certainly both transducer and generator. If we begin with a simple percept, like sound, the sensory apparatus of the body is stimulated by fluctuations of energy in a particular frequency range. Those vibrations are passed by neurons to specialized portions of the brain that decode and categorize the information. Interestingly, the ear itself makes sound like a noise cancelling headphone (evoked otoacoustic emissions), so that anticipated frequencies are enhanced, and unanticipated frequencies are filtered. Those emissions are generated by the brain, so that the ear is not just a passive device. In this way, the brain is clearly also a generator. Ultimately, the brain takes the percept of sound, and the person hearing chooses a response, based on current and remembered conditions: is the sound alarming or pleasant? rhythmic, melodic or both? does it have meaning to us? do we have a previous association with it? All of these things factor into our response to the sound, which requires our ongoing participation in an environmental context, or ground, through the activity of our bodies.

 The ‘beginning’ of the mind of the mind is an interesting concept. It presupposes that the body ends somewhere, and that the mind is ‘located’ in a different place. (Here, I take my lead in my thinking from Antonio Damasio, Kevin O’Regan and Mark Johnson, who are eminent neuroscientist, perceptual scientist and philosopher, respectively, but there are numerous other authors on the topic of embodied cognition.) A brain is a collection of specialized cells called neurons that can only function in a living body in an environment. Brain cells are like any other cell: they require homeostasis, that is they need the Goldilocks conditions of neither too hot, nor too cold, nor too acid, nor to alkaline… it needs to be ‘just right’. Brain cells metabolize, they use proteins to record and pass along information. They can also simulate previous experiences, allowing us to predict, remember, dream, create and imagine. A ‘thought’ is not a place in a brain, or out of it, or a thing we can touch. It is the organized activity of millions of neurons over time. Likewise, a ‘mind’ is not a thing. It is a process of millions of thoughts, both remembered and in real time. Trying to point to a ‘mind’ is like trying to point to cellular metabolism: you can witness its effect, and you can see that it is present, but you can’t touch it. To use a metaphor, we can see the evidence, effect and impact of love, but love is a process rather than a thing. As a completely different metaphor, you can see the evidence of the process of baking on a muffin, but you can’t touch baking. To quote Damasio, ‘body and mind are different aspects of specific biological processes’.
Overall, I reject the thinking of both Descartes and Plato, and do not believe that mind is distinct or separate from the body. I do not see the support for such an idea philosophically, theologically, phenomenologically or physiologically. I also think that such a division is incredibly problematic. The famous educator and philosopher John Dewey notes, ‘The very problem of mind and body suggests division; I do not know of anything so disastrously affected by the habit of division as this particular theme. In its discussion are reflected the splitting off from each other of religion, morals and science; the divorce of philosophy from science and of both from the arts of conduct. The evils which we suffer in education, in religion, in the materialism of business and the aloofness of ‘intellectuals’ from life, in the whole separation of knowledge and practice — all testify to the necessity of seeing mind-body as an integral whole.’ Of course, I do not think an integrated mind-body is simply a matter of a point of view, I think it is a tacit physical fact.
Your comment about sensing the thoughts or emotions of others from afar is interesting. I can offer no plausible scientific explanation, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The closest I can come is this: We can measure the organized electrical activity of the brain. We do this using an electroencephalogram (EEG). In some instances, we can discern whether the person observed is in a restful state, if they are learning, if they are an expert, if they are tired or agitated, or any number of things. We can also influence the electrical activity of the brain using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). We can stop a person’s hand from moving, or cause them to not be able to hear things, or temporarily forget, or to learn more quickly. In short, our brains give off electrical signals and are influenced and changed by electrical signals (which is why I will never wear a Bluetooth headset). What has never been scientifically proven, but is conceivable in my view, is that the electrical activity of one brain may be able to influence the electrical activity of another brain. What is the effective distance? I have no idea. But groups and cultures carry ideas and thinking as surely as do electromagnetic waves, so who knows how sentiments and ideas may travel? This is purely speculative, and I have no proof at all, and no real idea.
You spoke of your connection and information by a source greater than yourself.  In this respect, we are certainly thinkers within a cultural and social context, and without question, the thinking and behaviour of others will influence our own thinking and behaviour. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the grey matter you ‘rent’ is also inhabited by the thoughts, opinions, attitudes and ideas of others, both remembered and in real time. And now I will completely step away from my role as a scientist, and talk about things that cannot currently be proven using direct observational methods.  There is always the possibility that there may be things outside of us that are bigger than we are and which change and influence us: things that some people call God or cosmic energy or long-distance soul calls from loved ones. How do we know to call someone on the other side of the world at the exact moment they were thinking of us? Those things may have mundane everyday explanations that we have not yet understood or been able to quantify. Those things may have mystical explanations which may elude scientific investigation for a very long time. One the other hand, there may be a very clear scientific explanation that intersects with mystery in the same way that Brownian motion in boiling water intersects with the mystery of the glory of tea.  I like the words of the thoughtful Christian theologian N.T. Wright in his very thoughtful post on mind/body dualism, ‘God is always at work in the world, and God is always at work in, and addressing, human beings, not only through one faculty such as the soul or spirit but through every fibre of our beings, not least our bodies. That is why I am not afraid that one day the neuroscientists might come up with a complete account of exactly which neurons fire under which circumstances, including that might indicate the person as responding to God and his love in worship, prayer and adoration.’