Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration

Or: "Were you there when they stimulated our amygdalas?

Sometimes it causes me to tremble."

Cliff Guthrie, Copyright 2000

Gray Matters

The relationship between brain physiology and human behavior is notoriously difficult to understand and easy to misapply. For example, popular psychology has reduced Roger Sperry’s 1981 Nobel Prize-winning split-brain research to something of an axiom: the left cerebral hemisphere is the center of language and conceptual thought while the right is the locus of visual, spatial, or holistic thinking. Everyday conversation now paints people (and entire cultures) in black/white language as left or right brain "types." One successful series of books and tapes teaches us how to draw on the right side of the brain, while some theologians couch their appeal for more creative theologizing as an effort to engage the entire brain. But in the rush to unleash the powers of the "repressed" thinking of the right side, some important shades of gray can get lost. Neuroscientist William H. Calvin, reminds us that some people (7 percent) actually have right brains that are language-dominant, while others have "mixed dominance." Some language and conceptual functions are found in the right cerebral hemisphere, while visual/spatial functions that may primarily involve the right (like recognizing whether a face is happy or sad) often also involve the left. So not surprisingly, the story of how the brain actually works through any given function is much more complex than most popular accounts allow. As Calvin fumes, "While neuropsychology and neurophysiology struggle along trying to get firm answers on shrinking research budgets, the left-righters are happily charging ahead full steam, prematurely assigning functions to left and right brain with all the enthusiasm of nineteenth-century phrenologists."1

The cautionary tale here, as I take up the topic of the neurophysiology of ritual, is that as a non-scientist, it is important for me to be aware of the temptation to move too easily from scientific accounts of the brain to behavioral applications and back. In the case of the study of ritual or theology it is hard to resist the desire to take something I may have learned (more likely, half-understood) about the science of the brain and immediately hypothesize how certain kinds of ritual may stimulate certain brain functions, or how certain brain structures may give rise to myths or theological patterns. In fact, if I have a general observation of the dialogue between brain science and religious studies, it is precisely the frequency that this over-hastiness appears.2 Theologically-minded scientists in the field stare at Paul MacLean’s tripartite structure of the mind and almost see the Holy Trinity staring back.3 Meanwhile, more skeptical ones gleefully tell us that they have looked in the space between our ears and like the famed Soviet cosmonaut seen no evidence of God or the soul.4 The human nervous system is far and away the most complex thing we know to exist in the universe. It has some 15 to 20 billion neurons each making an average of 1000 synaptic contacts. Even given the enormous advances of the recently passed "decade of the brain," we are still in the early years of its exploration. Yet reading some of the brain science/religion literature, it is hard not to conclude that like the Bible one can usually find in it what one is looking for.

When I first started to read in this area and proposed to write a paper for the Ritual-Language-Action group, it was not my intent to begin with such a sober and cautious note. But my sense now is that the theories being described have been based upon a very few clinical studies, and those that have been done have involved very few people. This is an exciting field of study that may turn ritual studies, indeed all social sciences, in new directions. The ritual theorists that are already incorporating brain science into their work generally rely on a very small circle of researchers and writers: people like Eugene d’Aquili, Charles Laughlin, John McManus, and Barbara Lex who have called their field of study biogenetic structuralism. Wrapped unhelpfully in difficult language, some of their work also seems to me to be overly speculative given the amount of hard research that has been conducted.5

In what follows, I will describe what I understand biogenetic structuralism to be about, and then move on to describe how it has been applied to the study of ritual. In the second section, I will describe and comment on the recent work of V. S. Ramachandran, a neurologist who has explored the biological basis of religious experience. There is another emerging field, evolutionary psychology (sometimes called sociobiology and often paired with cognitive archaeology) that would be worthy of discussion in the context of a treatment on the biological evolution of ritual behavior, but in the end I decided to keep the study focused on the first two topics. I will, however, use sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s theory of ethics and religion to say a word at the end about reductionism—specifically, the potential concern that natural science may gradually render other ritual studies approaches obsolete.

Biogenetic Structuralism

"Biogenetic structuralism" is an unfortunately complicated name for a promising line of inquiry that seeks to apply knowledge of the evolution and structure of the human body to various human or cultural behaviors. It has particularly focused upon ritual and religious experience to demonstrate its methods, which is not unexpected given the strong influence of structuralism on ritual studies in general and the centrality of ritual and religion in most human cultures. Even though hampered by an unwieldy name and method, ritual theorists are beginning to pay attention to the interesting contributions the field seeks to make. Along with performance theory, Ron Grimes has called biogenetic structuralism one of the "most promising theoretical currents regarding ritual."6 Victor Turner’s "Body, Brain, and Culture," concluded his collection of essays in The Anthropology of Performance and dealt both with biogenetic structuralism and split-brain theory.7 Roy Rappaport rehearsed some of its assertions in a few pages of his major and posthumously published book, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.8

The most extensive treatment of the topic from a liturgist’s point of view is found in the first issue of Nathan Mitchell’s short-lived Liturgy Digest (Spring 1993). Mitchell’s definition of biogenetic structuralism in the Lexicon section of the journal is helpful. Biogenetic structuralism is:

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of human nature that is grounded in the science of evolutionary biology, but which also incorporates research from such fields and neurobiology, anthropology, and depth psychology. Biogenetic structuralism seeks a holistic understanding of the universe as it presents itself to the mind through experience and is comprehended at the theoretical level through the activities of science.9 In his Internet introduction to biogenetic structuralism, Charles Laughlin echoes the interdisciplinary nature of the field, noting that it has sought to take into account "all reasonable sources of data about human consciousness and culture," but specifically, anthropology, psychology, and the neurosciences. He adds that it also has sought to be "non-dualistic in modeling mind and body" and non-reductionistic.10

Three persons have been the primary driving force of biogenetic structuralism, although it has included other people and been called a "group endeavor." The first two, ethnologist Charles Laughlin and Eugene d’Aquili, a neurologically-trained psychiatrist and anthropologist met in 1972 and together wrote Biogenetic Structuralism in 1974.11 This book took up the structuralist theory of Claude Levi-Strauss, and intentionally married it to an evolutionary point of view. That is, it argued that culturally universal, invariant structures of language, time and space, dreams, feelings, and some psychopathologies arise from brain structures that are the product of human evolution. To the classic Levi-Strauss/Chomski idea of the existence of "deep structure" within the unconscious that affects human cognition and behavior, they therefore add that these structures are related to specific parts or neural pathways in the brain itself.12 The human brain is genetically predisposed to organize its experience in particular ways and to develop along predictable paths in a process they called "neurognosis."

One of the important features of this book, and in the field in general, is an insistence on highlighting the similarities between human behavior and brain function and that of other animals. It regards the concept of "culture" as an "anthropomorphism of the first order," and seeks to dismantle the schism between what we think of as the instinctual behavior of animals and the supposedly learned behavior of human beings.13 "There is no level of reality intervening between Homo sapiens as a biological phenomenon and that organism’s environment," Laughlin and d’Aquili insist. "In other words, human behavior is the result of a dialectic between the central nervous system, primarily the higher cortical functions, and the environment. All other asserted or posited levels of reality have analytic status only."14 Like E. O. Wilson and other sociobiologists, biogenetic structuralists press for a more (natural or "hard") scientific approach to the study of human behavior. The third main player in the field, social psychologist John McManus, criticized Biogenetic Structuralism for not acknowledging the importance of the work of developmental psychology, particularly that of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner. The three then became editors for the first major application of the method of biogenetic structuralism to a specific human cultural institution in The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis (1979).15

The Biogenetic Structuralist Account of Ritual

In a central chapter of The Spectrum of Ritual, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," d’Aquili and Laughlin outlined a basic position that would be elaborated upon in other places, especially the 1999 book by d’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind.16

Briefly, the d’Aquili/Lauglin article asserted that ritual accomplishes two important biological feats. First, it coordinates the neural systems and functions of ritual participants to allow for group action. Ritual behavior for most species seems to be a way of overcoming social distance between individuals so that they can coordinate their activity in a way that would help the species survive. Mating rituals are the most obvious example of this, but ritual activity before coordinated group attacks or hunts are also common. Wolf packs go through ceremonial tail-wagging sessions and group howls, and ritual aggression among primates establishes social order and rank for possible battle.17 The rhythmic and repetitious nature of ritual stimulation, through ear, eye, or bodily motion, increases a sense of unity of purpose between individuals. Further, it leads to coordinated arousal or discharge of the brain’s limbic system, leading to a sense of profound unity within the participants.18 The second biological achievement of ritual is that it causes cognitive development or socialization within the individual organism. Ritual is "a mechanism for entraining and transforming the structure of the neuromotor subsystems in the developing organism."19 In short, it teaches the younger members of the species what is important and how to behave.

Tom Driver described humans well when he called us "ritualizing animals." Like other animals, humans have evolved to enact ritualizations, both, "to give stability to our behaviors and to serve as vehicles of communication." 20 We share this tendency with bees that dance, peacocks that display, and whales that breech and slap their flukes. Indeed, there is evidence that the domestic dog developed its ritualizations to exploit the human need for a working companion. So ritualizing is evolutionarily adaptive for many animals, and none more than the human animal. But human rituals are unique in that they seem to be invariably connected with myth. How do such myths arise in the human brain? What is their adaptive significance and why do we relate them so closely with our ritual behavior?

D’Aquili and Laughlin argue that we exhibit an automatic drive to find out why things occur in our environment. This "cognitive imperative" arises from the interaction in the brain of the left frontal lobe and the left orientation area,21 and forces us to look for causes in any chain of events or "strips of reality." It is a basic human drive that has served brilliantly to help us to understand and adapt to a wide variety of changing environments and situations. The difficulty is that human beings experience events for which no immediate cause may be apparent: sudden illnesses, storms, mysterious coincidences and the like. When such things occur that are not easily fit into our present model of reality, "the machinery of the brain is not turned off. It still automatically constructs models of reality out of juxtaposed material drawn from the various sensory memory banks."22 Hence the brain is forced to invent causes beyond those that are immediately apparent: gods, spirits, and eventually entire myths. This is an automatic process that is hardwired into our brains. Even those who do not believe in supernatural beings as real causes for unexplained phenomena find them cropping up regularly in dreams and fantasy life.

Myths, according to d’Aquili, present themselves as systems of antinomies, or opposites: heaven/hell, good/evil, life/death, because of a basic function of the brain that he calls the "binary operator."23 This function abstracts qualities of things and arranges them as pairs of opposites, or dyads, whose meaning is intimately related to its partner. He conjectures that it is located on the inferior parietal lobe of the dominant side, and is simply one way that the mind seeks to understand the world. Myths play upon these antinomies and propose solutions to them. Luther’s antinomy of the Christian as both abject sinner and justified saint comes to mind.

So, we create myths to satisfy our need to understand our environment and to give us some sense of control over it, or at least an understood place within it. A given myth has stability (is an enduring structure of relationships of meaning) because it "is adaptive psychophysiologically for an individual or social group."24

But understanding alone is not adaptive enough. Like other animals we seek to adapt ourselves physically to the environments in which we live. Therefore we need a way to make the myth real to us, and that is the fundamental reason why we connect ritual to our myths. One way of describing rituals, then, is that they are motor actions that seek to enact the reality of the mythic structure of meaning our brains instinctually produce.

This explanation seems similar to Grimes’ ritual mode of "magic," or ritual as a "means to an end"25 and is a common anthropological explanation for the rise of ritual and religion in human history. For example, Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, echoes anthropologist Ruth Benedict in asserting that "religion is a technique for success." The mind simply invents causes for things that it can’t explain according to the normal chain of causation. Ritual is an attempt then to exert control on forces beyond our control: "Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success—medicines, strategies, courtship, and, in the case of the weather, nothing."26

But this behavioral model does not seem sufficient to explain why rituals would persist given their hit-or-miss ability to actually control the external environment. Skinner had argued that the persistence of ritual as a technique for control could be explained even if it was only occasionally rewarded. Yet as d’Aquili and Laughlin note, "religious ritual has persistence and intensity that seem to transcend the Skinnerian model. What really appears to maintain the force and persistence of religious ritual is ineffable experience, the intense positive affect experienced by a participant, associated with the resolution of a crucial antimony."27 It is in the complicated explication of how this "ineffable experience" arises that biogenetic structuralism may have made its most interesting proposal about the purpose of human ritual.

Myth Resolution Through Ritual

Within the brain, the autonomic nervous system regulates and adjusts baseline body function and responds to external stimuli. It consists of two mutually inhibitory subsystems: the sympathetic or arousal system and the parasympathetic or quiescent system. The arousal system is the source of our fight or flight response, and is connected to the adrenal glands, the amygdala, and reaches into our left cerebral hemisphere. It is sometimes called the "ergotropic" system because it releases energy in the body to react to the environment. The parasympathetic or quiescent system (sometimes called the "trophotropic" system), on the other hand, conserves energy, promotes relaxation and sleep, and maintains basic body function and growth. It includes the endocrine glands, parts of the hypothalamus and the thalamus, and reaches into the right cerebral hemisphere. Although this material is highly complicated, the most important relationships to keep in mind here is that the dominant (analytical) mind is connected to the arousal system and involves the amygdala, and the non-dominant (holistic) mind is connected with the quiescent system and involves the hypothalamus and hippocampus.28
Arousal System

Expends Energy

Modulated in the Limbic System by: 

amygdala and edge of hypothalamus

Related to Dominant Hemisphere

Quiescent System

Conserves Energy, Maintains equilibrium

Modulated in the Limbic System by: 

middle of hypothalamus and hippocampus

Related to Non-Dominant Hemisphere

D’Aquili and Laughlin report research that shows that when either the arousal or quiescent system is maximally stimulated it results in a "spillover effect" or a stimulation of the other system. That is, experts in meditation may experience a "rush" or a release of energy during a hyperquiescent state. From the other side, those who engage in rhythmic rituals that engage the arousal system, such as energetic dancing and singing, may experience states of bliss, tranquility, and oneness with others.29 Hyperarousal and hyperquiescent states seem to stimulate the limbic system, which regulates our emotions. Hence, these states are experienced as being emotionally intense, and often pleasurable.

It is also during these "spillover" experiences that the paradoxes presented to the brain through myth become resolved by the simultaneous functioning of both hemispheres of the brain. In ritual stimulation of the arousal system, for example, the presentation of what is an unresolvable logical problem in the left brain (the wafer is both bread and the Body of Christ), is experienced as unified in the holistic operation of the right brain.

Ritual participants therefore may experience a resolution of the problems presented by the myth and a deep unity with other participants: "The simultaneous strong discharge of both parts of the autonomic nervous system creates a state that consists not only of a pleasurable sensation, but, also, under proper conditions, a sense of union with conspecifics and a blurring of cognitive boundaries."30 Similarly, those who engage in meditation may report that they experience resolution of paradoxes during some meditative states, hence the famous use of such paradoxes by Zen practitioners.

Both meditation and ritual can lead to the spillover effect and the simultaneous discharge of the arousal and quiescent systems. But they come at the experience from different directions. Meditation begins with the quiescent system and by its hyperactiviation can achieve spillover into the arousal system (from trophotropic to ergotropic). Ritual approaches from the opposite system (from ergotropic to trophotropic). But there are other differences as well:

The difference between meditation and ritual is that those who are adept at meditation are often able to maintain an ecstatic state for prolonged periods of time. The ecstatic state and sense of union produced by ritual are usually very brief (often lasting only a few seconds) and may often be described as no more than a shiver running down the back at a certain point. This experience, however, may be repeated at numerous focal points during the ritual. Furthermore, the ecstatic states produced by ritual, although they are usually extremely brief, seem to be available to many or most participants. The ecstatic states attained through meditation, although they may last for hours or even days, require long practice and intense discipline.31 So ritual is more accessible and effective than meditation for large groups of people as a system for stimulating both hemispheres of the brain and thereby bringing mythic conundrums to resolution. In The Mystical Mind, d’Aquili and Newberg elaborate on the difference between these approaches, describing a complex continuum of unitary or mystical states that may arise from different types ritual or meditation, but the basic principles remain intact. Ritual is here described as a "bottom-up" technology for activating the autonomic systems; its rhythmic qualities stimulate either the arousal or quiescent systems that then affect the higher brain functions. Slow rhythms in ritual, like chant and read liturgy, primarily stimulate the quiescent system, while rapid "driving" rituals involving loud noise and body movement stimulate the arousal system. Either approach may lead to a "filling up" of the autonomic system and then a spillover effect and an altered state of consciousness. Slow ritual may lead to a hyperquiescent state and a feeling of peace or unity, and occasionally result in a spillover into the arousal state or a sense of profound energy. Similarly, fast ritual may provoke a hyperarousal state of attention and intention, sometimes spilling over into the quiescent state and a sense of bliss. They hypothesize that ritual could theoretically lead to the maximal discharge of both systems, causing hallucinations, mystical visions, or a state of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). Finally, they note that marked ritual behavior tends to draw the attention of the amygdala, as does strong smell, which may be the biological source of the experience of religious awe. Ritual actions and the presence of incense may help neurologically for ritual to promote altered states of consciousness in its participants.32

In summary, according to biogenetic structural analysis, humans do ritual for the same reasons other animals do them: to diminish distance between other members of the species, to coordinate group action, socialize their young, and communicate status and social structure. What is unique about human ritualizing is its connection to the human propensity to create myths. Myths themselves contain logical or story resolutions to the paradoxes of our lives, but do not solve the problem existentially because they remain only as logical or left-brain solutions. As Austin Farrer used to insist, we cannot believe very long in a God with whom we have nothing to do; faith, he wrote, "cannot be got going by stoking up the furnaces of the will."33 So ritual does give us something specific to do. In our attempt to address the unknown causes of the phenomena that affect their lives, we engage in rituals that stimulate brain states that bring convincing, felt, and physical resolutions to our dilemmas. Some theorists have puzzled over why religion continues to hold so much power for postmodern people, expecting that we would have learned by now that we cannot control the gods or forces of nature through ritual behavior. D’Aquili and other biogenetic structuralists have countered that ritual, in fact, does work effectively for us because it brings mythical paradoxes and unsolved problems to resolution through excitation of neurological processes by motor activity. The myths become experienced fact. Because such a resolution promotes a sense of unity with others and is a pleasurable experience, it is highly adaptive for humans who are trying to make their way in the world.

Ritual behavior is one of the few mechanisms at [our] disposal that can possibly solve the ultimate problems and paradoxes of human existence. Thus, although ritual behavior does not always "work," it has such a powerful effect when it does work that it is unlikely ever to pass out of existence within a social context, no matter what the degree of sophistication of society. Religious ritual behavior may take new forms within the context of highly developed Western technological societies. But whether in new form or in old, it is much too important to the psychological well-being of a society to lapse into oblivion.34 After their account of the neurophysiology of ritual, d’Aquili and Newberg include short sections in The Mystical Mind called "Improving Ritual and Liturgy" and "Future Liturgy" in which they begin to apply their theory to liturgical practice. Their comments are specifically directed to Western culture, particularly Christianity and Judaism. First, they insist that, "In order for liturgy to work effectively, it must carry many rhythmic components." They suggest that it is appropriate for liturgy to adapt its rhythmic elements to speak to the particular theme of a specific liturgical event (Easter, baptism, Rosh Hashanah), and to carry rhythmic elements that refer to the basic myths of the religion in which the particular liturgy is a part. They also add, "The arrangement of various religious rituals as well as the tenets of a given religion must be set in a rhythm between permanence and impermanence." By this they seem to mean simply that the ritual rhythms of liturgy must both reflect its ancient mythic roots and speak appropriately to the local culture. Finally, they suggest that the rhythm of any given ritual element should try to match the mythic effect of the story being told. A slow rhythm or chant that stimulates experiences of peace would be appropriate for a text that suggests the love of God. "In the end," they write: a liturgical sequence that employs both aspects of arousal and of quiescence—some rapid songs, some slow hymns; some words of love, some words of fear; stories of glory, stories with morals; prayers exalting God and prayers asking for help—will allow for the participants to experience religion in the most powerful way. They will experience the profound peace of the love of God, fear and awe of the power of God, and a strong sense of what is right and moral. If a ritual has just the right rhythms, however, then the participants may briefly experience something a step further. If the arousal and quiescent systems are activated during ritual, then they may experience a brief breakdown of the self-other dichotomy. This breakdown will be interpreted within the theology and stories of the religion, and this powerful experience will give the participants a sense of unity with each other because they are all taking part in the same ritual. Furthermore, the participants may have a sense of being more intensely united to God or to whatever the religious object of prayer or sacrifice may be. This liturgical sense of unity can allow everyone (not just monks or mystics) a chance at moving across the unitary continuum to experience the mystical—a sense of unity with God, with the universe, or with whatever is "ultimate."35 To the question of whether such knowledge may lead future ritualists to be able to better manipulate their ritual participants, d’Aquili and Newberg counter that liturgists have long been aware of techniques of marrying rhythm and meaning. It would seem to me that all ritual is manipulative in the sense that it seeks to wed rhythm with story to stimulate certain emotional responses. What their theory may clarify, however, is why some people who are accustomed to associating their religious myths with a slow rhythmic ritual and the stimulation of their quiescent system would find it so difficult to enter a ritual that married the same myth to a fast rhythmic ritual that stimulated the arousal system. Can the quiescent God of formal "high" liturgy, for example, ever be quite at home with the aroused God of some contemporary or charismatic worship?

There is further need for discussion of the objections to or applications of this biogenetic structuralist account of ritual that the limits of this paper cannot pursue. For now I’ll turn to describe briefly one researcher whose account of the neurological basis of religious experience has gained some attention.

V. S. Ramachandran and the "God module"

V. S. Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. His 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain36 (co-written with Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer for The New York Times), focused on the neurological bases for experiences like phantom limbs, Capgras’ Syndrome (people who see family members and other loved ones as imposters), and tickling. But what drew major media attention was a chapter that dealt with intense religious experiences arising in persons with some types of epilepsy. About a quarter of persons who have localized epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes (especially the left one) report that they have mystical experiences during their seizures and often exhibit a newfound sense of enduring religiosity afterwards. In Phantoms, Ramachandran discusses this phenomenon and describes a small experiment involving two patients that confirmed the reported experience with galvanic skin responses.

Reports soon spread that Ramachandran was asserting he had found a "God Spot" or a "God module" in the brain: a location in the brain that was responsible for human religious experience. Atheists began to assert that the research had proven all religious experience was simply the product of the brain. For the other side, some religious leaders (including the Bishop of Oxford, apparently) read the findings as suggesting that God had put a special receptor in the human brain. Frankly, there are times when his writing invites such speculation.37

Overall, however, his description of the Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) patients’ reports is cautious. These reports deal more about religious experience than with God per se: "They have an aura, they feel the presence of God, or they make statements that sound religious—not necessarily, ‘I see God,’ but some say, ‘Suddenly the whole universe makes sense to me, I feel enlightened, I see deep meaning in everything.’"38 The syndrome, which may also manifest itself as general hyper-emotionalism, hypergraphia (writing page after page of detailed and spirituality-obsessed diaries), and a compulsion to use religious language, is known well-enough by neurologists to earn its patients the description, "temporal lobe personality."

Ramachandran hypothesizes that the emotional intensity that some TLE patients experience may be a result of a strengthening or "kindling" of certain neural pathways between the temporal lobe and the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the limbic system that regulates or filters emotional connections that we make with persons and things that are of significance to us. "This is what happens," Ramachandran explains in a later interview. When we see something that is significant to us,

the message comes into the temporal lobe cortex, which is concerned with visual analysis of the scene, and from there it is sent to the amygdala, which is the gateway to the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. The amygdala gauges the significance of what we see: is this prey, predator? Something important, or trivial? If it’s important, the message gets conveyed to the rest of the limbic system, and it prepares the body to fight or flee, to react: the heart starts pumping more blood to the muscles and brain, you start sweating—you get ready for action. And this happens every time you look at your mother or any salient object.39 Those who have had repeated temporal lobe seizures apparently have even more intense experiences when they encounter something meaningful to them. They tend to interpret everyday occurrences as having extraordinary meaning, and they often have heightened responses, particularly, to things religious. Ramachandran elaborates, "Something has happened in their temporal lobes that heightened their response to religious terms and icons…There may be a selective enhancement of emotions conducive to religious experience."40

The question remained whether the enhancement of religious experience was a part of a general heightening of emotional responses, or something more selective. To test the question, he asked two religiously inclined TLE patients to observe a variety of images and words while he measured their galvanic skin responses. To his surprise, he discovered that these patients actually showed a reduced response to certain images (those having to do with sex), but a heightened response to religious words and images. One interpretation of this finding is that "there are neural structures in the temporal lobes that are specialized for religion and spirituality, that are selectively enhanced by the epileptic process."41

While he resists any suggestion that his findings are religiously reductionistic or should be interpreted as either for or against the existence of God, he does speculate about the relationship between these brain pathways and our religious experiences: "Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience?"42 Or, as he said in a later interview, "There may be certain neural pathways—neural structures in the temporal lobe and the limbic system—whose activity makes you more prone to religious belief. Now why this would happen, I don’t know. One possibility—and this is very speculative—is that human beings are hard-wired for religious beliefs."43

Ramachandran’s research is interesting and tends to uphold the assertion of a connection between the limbic system (particularly the amygdala) and religious experiences. There is no explicit application or insight here into religious ritual. At one point he muses how the galvanic skin reaction test might be used by religionists: "One wonders whether this technique could be useful as a sort of ‘piety index’ to distinguish religious dabblers or frauds (‘closet atheists’) from true believers. The absolute zero on the scale could be set by measuring Francis Crick’s galvanic skin response."

Ramachandran is the only person I have read that suggests how I could carry out my occasional fantasy of measuring group neurological responses in a given ritual. I can imagine a vast experiment in which an entire congregation was wired with electrodes and then measured to see which ritual actions or images produced particularly heightened responses. But it isn’t really clear to me what such an experiment might prove. We would only know that some reactions occurred, but not exactly what the content of those reactions might be. Plus, it is a little frightening to think how such findings could be used. But Ramachandran’s work does make a general point that liturgists may find useful in understanding how ritual objects, images, and language may work to provoke heightened emotional responses in worshippers’ minds and bodies. With that, perhaps it is time to say something about reductionism.

E. O. Wilson and Reductionism

The leading voice in sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, caused a stir by his most recent book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Consilience is a term that means "the alignment (literally, the "jumping together") of knowledge from different disciplines."44 He predicts that natural science will continue to encroach on the methods and findings of social sciences until the latter no longer exist as independent disciplines. In the next millennium, the sciences and the humanities will be "the two great branches of learning." Further, the humanities, including ethics and religious studies "will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them."45 Indeed, he dedicates an entire chapter to the proposal that moral reasoning is a biological evolutionary response to the need for social cooperation, and that religion emerged as a way to reify and enforce those group ethical codes. Religious beliefs in supernatural beings were passed on, not just because their hypothesis was the result of an ongoing cognitive process, but because tribes or cultures that were united through religious belief tended to have a survival advantage.46 Religious ritual is simply an elaboration of mammalian dominance rituals that establish social hierarchies and group purpose:

Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immediately the semiotic resemblance between animal submissive behavior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other. They would point out that the most elaborate rites of obeisance are directed at the gods, the hyperdominant if invisible members of the human group. And they would conclude, correctly, that in baseline social behavior, not just in anatomy, Homo sapiens has only recently diverged from in evolution from a nonhuman primate stock.47 Call Wilson a reductionist and he will plead, "guilty, guilty, guilty."48 For him, the success of natural science is precisely in its ability to reduce complex matters by analysis and explain them from the ground up. Hence, science has put enormous pressure on religion as an explanatory force for the way the world really works, and theology’s trend toward increasing abstraction (he cites Tillich here) is evidence that it is losing its persuasion. Religious belief and behavior may be naturally evolved, even biologically determined if Ramachandran’s speculation is correct, but they are nevertheless increasingly untenable in an age of science: "The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another."49

The point for ritual theorists and liturgists is that we are in an age when science is putting forth plausible, if not exhaustive, accounts of the rise of religion and ritual. Frankly, in many cases, they are doing much better public theology of ritual than we are, if by that you mean making a persuasive case for the continued meaning and power of religious ritual in the future of the human species. Even if one basically agrees with the position mapped out so eloquently by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion should relate to one another as Non-Overlapping Magesteria (NOMA), it seems inevitable that sociobiology, neurophysiology, and evolutionary theory will continue to open up new questions and tools for analysis of our rites. Human religious ritual behavior is one of the many areas where, as Gould describes, science and religion, "belly right up to each other, and interdigitate in the most intimate and complex manner."50

Concerning the matter of whether biology will some day completely overtake the field of ritual studies, I find Richard Rorty’s postmodern pragmatist response to Wilson in a debate held at the Woodrow Wilson Center helpful.

There is not a particular way that the world is, there are many ways the world is, as many as there are useful human vocabularies used to describe the world. This view suggests that no area of culture—not physics, not theology, not biology—is privileged in the sense of being closer to reality than any other portion of culture. From the pragmatist point of view, culture is a tool kit, and we pick up various tools as needed for various purposes. None of the tools has epistemological or ontological privilege; none of them has priority over any of the others. So from a pragmatist point it is prima facie unlikely that biology, as in Professor Wilson's view, could serve as a foundational, integrative discipline.

In the academic and intellectual world there are many and various disciplines which provide various tools for use for various purposes, and I see no particular reason to think that they will all blend together in one great consilient unity, nor any reason why we should wish them to do so. As long as we have a proliferation of useful tools, I can't see what virtue there is supposed to be in synthesizing them into one great tool.51

Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, adds further caution to the reductionist assumption. The discovery that ethical and religious impulses are rooted in brain function or evolved by adaptations to a particular natural context does not lessen their importance to us (any more than the discovery of how we see the color "red" lessens the impact of seeing that color in our daily lives). Murphy quotes Antonio Damasio on this score: To discover that a particular feeling [including any feeling involved in responding to God] depends on activity in a number of specific brain systems interacting with a number of body organs does not diminish the status of that feeling as a human phenomenon. Neither anguish nor the elation that love or art can bring about [is] devalued by understanding some of the myriad biological processes that make them what they are. Precisely the opposite should be true: Our sense of wonder should increase before the intricate mechanisms that make such magic possible.52 The biopsychologist, Simon Green, notes that "A reductionist approach assumes that a more fundamental level of description and explanation is always better and in some senses more ‘true’ than description and explanation at a higher level." But this is patently false, as is apparent from the field of social psychology, where group behavior cannot be adequately explained merely by the behavior of individuals. He insists that there are unpredictable consequences called emergent properties in complex systems. "There is no one level of explanation that has priority," Green concludes, "Psychology is not reducible to atomic physics."53

Nor is human religious experience or ritual behavior reducible to an explanation of neuron pathways. We may confidently say, as Crick does about the soul, that there is no ritual behavior or religious experience that somehow floats above the physicality of our brains ("metaphysical news from nowhere," as Don Saliers has been heard to say). But the interplay in ritual of brain physiology, cultural evolution, local religious traditions, group experiences, individual interpretations and emotions, makes the description of any given ritual event a highly complex matter, necessarily involving many fields and specialties. I would hasten to add as I finish up this exploration, that because ritual is so complex a matter and reaches so deeply into all the levels of our humanity—biological, cultural, social, and religious—that any method that tends toward black/white language should be suspect. In the end, gray matters.


1. William H. Calvin, Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?" from The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain. Cited from Internet publication at

2. One can find this same rush to judgment in other areas of the science/religion dialogue as well. A well-known example is Stephen Hawkings’ pronouncement at the end of his Brief History of Time in which his hypothesis that the primeval atom before the universe’s Big Bang was a self-sufficient singularity, and therefore leaves a universe without anything for a Creator to do.

3. See James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright, The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997).

4. Francis Crick, the scientist who helped discover the double-helix pattern of DNA, wrote an account of the mind/brain debate, insisting famously that "‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing." The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), 3.

5. This is particularly true of the latest book by d’Aquili co-authored with Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999). In it, they assert a final mystical experience common to humanity that they call the experience of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). This state is then used to propose both a metatheology (universal religious principles based on neurobiology) and a megatheology (a universal understanding of God derived from the AUB experience).

6. Ronald Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies, Revised Edition (University of South Carolina Press, 1995), xvii. In the Preface to the Revised Edition, he adds, "If I were to have completely rewritten rather than revised Beginnings, I would have developed a more substantial treatment of scientific approaches to ritual" (xviii).

7. Victor Turner, "Body, Brain, and Culture," in The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1987): 156-78.

8. Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 226-30.

9. Nathan Mitchell, "What Biogeneticists Are Saying About Ritual: A Report," Liturgy Digest, 1:1 (Spring 1993): 75-76. This definition can be found online at

10. Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., "A Synopsis of Biogenetic Structural Theory," [revised 7 September 1996] This document is one page of his entire online introduction and "tutorial" to the field of biogenetic structuralism,

11. See Laughlin’s "The History of Biogenetic Structuralism: A Personal Account"

12. Charles D. Laughlin, Jr. and Eugene d’Aquili, Biogenetic Structuralism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 15. "The strength of biogenetic structuralist theory…lies in its capacity to explain much of the cognitive and structural aspects of classical structuralism by lodging structures squarely in specific cerebral structures and functions" (14-15).

13. Ibid., 200-1.

14. Ibid., 195.

15. Eugene G. d’Aquili, Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., John McManus, et al, The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

16. See note 5.

17. Charles D. Laughlin, Jr. and John McManus, "Mammalian Ritual," in The Spectrum of Ritual, 80-116.

18. Eugene G. d’Aquili and Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," in The Spectrum of Ritual, 155-58.

19. Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., John McManus, and Eugene G. d’Aquili, "Introduction," in The Spectrum of Ritual, 35.

20. Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual (Boulder, Co.: WestviewPress, 1998), 13, 23.

21. Eugene G. d’Aquili, The Biopsychological Determinants of Culture (Reading, Pa.: Addison-Wesley Modular Publications, 1972); D’Aquili and Laughlin, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," 161; d’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 53-54.

22. D’Aquili and Laughlin, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," 169.

23. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 55; see also d’Aquili, "The Myth-Ritual Complex: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis," in Brain, Culture, and the Human Spirit, ed. J. B. Ashbrook (New York: Lanham Press, 1993).

24. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 84.

25. Ronald L. Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies, Revised edition (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995): 48-49.

26. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton: 1997), 556.

27. D’Aquili and Laughlin, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," 172.

28. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 23-25.

29. D’Aquili and Newberg outline "four basic categories of arousal/quiescent states that may occur during extraordinary phases of consciousness": The Hyperquiescent state; the Hyperarousal state; the Hyperquiescent state with Eruption of the Arousal System; and The Hyperarousal State with Eruption of the Quiescent System. In addition they propose a fifth state where both systems are maximally aroused, the absolute unitary state (AUB). The Mystical Mind, 25-16; see also d’Aquili and Newberg, "Liminality, Trance and Unitary States in Ritual and Meditation," Studia Liturgica 23 (1993):2-24.

30. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 90.

31. D’Aquili and Laughlin, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," 177-78.

32. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 99-102.

33. Austin Farrer, Saving Belief: A Discussion of Essentials (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964), 14.

34. D’Aquili and Laughlin, "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," 179.

35. D’Aquili and Newberg, The Mystical Mind, 104-106.

36. V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (New York: Quill, 1998).

37. For example, he does ask the question, "Is there a ‘God module’ in our heads?" This is in the context of a report of a Canadian psychologist, Dr. Michael Persinger, who used a device to stimulate his temporal lobes and "found to his amazement that he experienced God for the first time in his life" (175).

38. Chris Floyd, "The Limbic Fire: Neuroscience and the Soul. An Interview with V. S. Ramachandran," Science and Spirit Magazine, 10:3 (September/October 1999): 24.

39. Floyd, 25.

40. Observer News Service. NZ Herald (6 May 98):`king/Preprints/book/brainp/bmedit/gbrain.htm

41. Ramachandran, Phantoms, 187.

42. Ibid., 183.

43. Floyd, 25.

44. Edward O. Wilson, "Resuming the Enlightenment Quest," The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1998. Quotes here are from the version published on the Internet at:

45. E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 12.

46. Ibid., 238-65. This section of the book was reprinted by The Atlantic Monthly and can be retrieved from their archives on the Internet at

47. Wilson, Consilience, 259.

48. Ibid., 11.

49. Ibid., 264.

50. Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, The Library of Contemporary Thought (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999), 110.

51. Richard Rorty, "Is Everything Relative?: A Debate on the Unity of Knowledge," Wilson Quarterly Winter 1998. Published on the Internet at

52. Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994), xvi. As quoted by Nancey Murphy, "Darwin, Social Theory, and The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge," Zygon, 34:4 (December 1999): 596.

53. Simon Green, Principles of Biopsychology (Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), 2.

Click here to return to Iona Miller Home Page

Click here to email Iona Miller