In her latest book Am I Just My Brain? OCCA Senior Tutor Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that provides answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. The following article is an edited extract.

Many people admit to having prayed, be that at bedtime as a child, or amid a crisis as an adult. Many people, regardless of their beliefs about God, perceive prayer to be a useful religious activity. What happens in the brain when people pray?

In recent years, this discipline has been studied by neuroscientists. Professor Andrew Newberg and others have pioneered research into Buddhist meditation, rituals, trance states and Christian prayer. A medical review in 2009 listed forty different brain regions that are involved in prayer and meditation, showing that the brain is very active during spiritual activity. And not in a one-size-fits-all manner. Amazingly, different kinds of prayer activate different networks.

For years, many have believed that religious experience is merely brain enterprise. So, does the presence of brain activity mean the experience isn’t authentic? Not necessarily.


What we think about when we think about chocolate

Lots of people love chocolate. It is not just the taste that is great, but also the anticipation of the taste. Neuroscientists now know that from the moment you decide to eat chocolate, a network of ‘pleasure’ centres start releasing brain chemicals that lead to the inevitable ‘happy place’. These networks are also the same ones that go into overdrive when we are in love.

It is one thing to understand the brain’s involvement in chocolate consumption, but quite another to experience the taste of chocolate first-hand. The relationship between these two things has occupied philosophers for centuries, because objective brain processes and subjective human experience are seen as two very different phenomena.

To determine if an encounter is authentic, we need to ask some more questions. What type of encounter is it? Is it consistent with the beliefs of the person? Are there other instances of this encounter? Can it be verified? The story of the person, and perhaps of other observers too, will be as important as the signal from their brain in deciding whether the encounter is a genuine one.

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Does brain activity mean that God isn’t real?

Just because something is experienced through the brain, does not necessarily mean it originated in the brain. The fact that we know and understand reward circuitry in the brain does not mean that we call into question the existence of chocolate. Nor would we call into question the existence of the one whose love activates our brain. The very fact that chocolate and our partner exist is why there is brain activity in the first place.

Similarly, brain activity during prayer does not negate God. In fact, philosophers such as Alston, Plantinga and Swinburne argue that authentic religious experiences more generally are evidence for God. And if God does exist, then it comes as no surprise that he would make us such that our brains are active when we encounter him. This kind of data is not a threat to religious belief.

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‘But I don’t have a religious brain’

Are some people just wired to ‘find God’, and others not? The brain-imaging data that we have accumulated so far doesn’t allow this conclusion.

In the middle of our family room at home sits a table. By name it is a dining table, yet in reality it serves many functions. We eat at it, but the children also complete homework on it. We meet around this table, and I have even written some of the words of this article on it. The table does not have one sole function. Depending on the time of day, it is an office, a meeting place, a feeding station or a space for the creative arts.

The same is true of the brain regions employed during prayer; none of them are unique to spiritual activities. All serve multiple roles in the brain but are recruited during religious practice as well. Are some people more able to engage with God than others in terms of the makeup of their brain? No. Every person has the machinery they need.

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The invitation is for all

I will never forget the day when a mentally disabled boy was baptised in my local church. I do not know the exact nature of his disability, except to say that he needed a wheelchair and was able to speak only through voice-recognition software. It was incredibly moving to hear him prepare for baptism by responding to the questions: ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ ‘Do you renounce evil?’ ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ After each question, he answered in a manner that clearly showed he fully understood what was happening and why. This baptism was a reminder to me that relationship with God is not dependent on having a fully functioning brain. God is greater than the human brain, and relates to anyone and everyone, regardless of their cognitive capacity. No one is beyond his reach.

For more on this topic, see Sharon Dirckx’s new book from The OCCA, the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics series, Am I Just My Brain?