“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
– Galileo Galilei
Psychologist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered from a stroke, which shut down the left side (the logic side) of the brain, and experienced an out-of-the-world experience which she successfully lives through to tell the tale. She speaks of feeling connected, and despite the fact that her brain was slowly suffocating to death, to her, it affected her tremendously in a spiritual way.
When talking about this movie, my psychology teacher spoke of preliminary studies that showed how Buddhist meditation had actually re-mapped practitioners’ brains. In fact, the studies show that what trained Buddhist masters have done is learned to voluntarily shut down the left side of the brain (again) in order to access the more emotion-centered right side of the brain, which leads to feelings of peace and connectedness. In fact, some studies suggest that experienced Buddhists can actually shut down working memory for periods of time, a feat once thought impossible to do. In short, early studies suggest that the right side of the brain coordinates spirituality.
This sparked a memory of reading on the magazine rack a controversial title cover story, “Is There a God Gene?” My brother remarked to me, “Yeah, I think I might be missing that one.”
Knowledge of this budding new field in psychology led me to ask an intriguing question: Could we possibly measure God?
Okay, I suppose the question itself is slightly misleading. You could say my question really is, can we possibly measure the effects of “spirituality” on the human mind? Or perhaps, could we measure “spiritual” capacity?
Now, this concept is still highly controversial among religious circles today. Whenever I bring up the idea to most religious people, at the very least they are skeptical. Most often, they are downright angry. The idea of even beginning to quantify God seems irrational, impossible, even irresponsible. For some reason, I think the idea of the ability to measure God scares people, that such knowledge would only take away from the grandeur and mystery of God and leave faithlessness in its wake.
I disagree (obviously). But I can understand the line of reasoning.
For example, here’s an interesting phenomenon in nature. When something seriously damages the human brain to the point where it destroys an entire hemisphere very early on in life, the brain’s plasticity allows it in a way to grow a “little” hemisphere to replace the one lost. So if you lost your left hemisphere, your brain will rewire itself in order to create a “little” left hemisphere in order to compensate. This way, children who at a critically young age lose a hemisphere will be able to function in society with very little loss.
Well, here’s the catch. It only regrows a left hemisphere. So if you lost your right hemisphere, you’ll just end up with two left hemispheres. In other words, somewhere down the line, our bodies decided that the logic side of our brain was so much more important than our emotion side of our brain that when we lose an entire hemisphere, they would rather have two left hemispheres rather than risk having no left hemisphere. But if the right hemisphere is related to spirituality and you are missing one, then, then, ah. What happens now? These studies are far from conclusive, but they do have, at face value, disturbing implications for religious people.
When I first heard of these studies, I’ll admit, I was relieved. My wife early on in our marriage told me that she had never felt the Spirit in that same wildly emotional, ecstatic way that is often promoted in Mormon culture. She’s never been moved to tears or felt that burning in her bosom. Because of this, she grew up thinking she was spiritually deficient, or inherently wicked. That’s why she couldn’t feel the Spirit.
I ran home after learning about this in class and told her, “I don’t think you’re spiritually deficient (I never did)! You might just have a less active right hemisphere!”
Of course, this changes how we look at spirituality in general. Are there “Spirit” neurons? Or is the super-emotional route of “feeling” truth only one path to God, not the only or best way? After all, how do we connect with God if we are, perhaps, at a fundamental level, biologically deficient to feel this traditional Pentacostal method of feeling the Spirit? While we say, “Oh no, that’s not what testimonies in Mormon theology are,” we lie to ourselves in thinking that those types of testimonies are culturally irrelevant. When someone declares a “truth,” and my wife questions it, what is she supposed to do when they respond, “You will just feel it is true.” My wife never “feels” that something is “true.” The prophet commands us to do something hard. My wife cannot pray to know through some vague feeling. She must work through his words with her left hemisphere, logically putting the commandment into a semantic relationship with her world view. This makes people mad. You can’t use logic to know if something a prophet says is true. You must use the Spirit, which is apparently devoid of logic. But when you cannot “feel” the Spirit, and that you never had, even though you desperately tried for years to live as “pure” as possible for even just one inkling of what others experience, what else can you do?
But the implications go deeper than “Oh my goodness, some people might not be able to feel the Spirit in the traditional sense,” nor do they automatically negate a belief in God. Sticking with a belief in God, we then must ask, is this the only way to God? Through emotions? Or are there other ways to connect with the divine which we at the moment do not consider “legitimate”? We don’t baptize little children or people with severe mental disabilities because they cannot comprehend. They have no operative “agency,” we say. Then what about autistic people, who struggle with emotions. Or people who don’t have active right hemispheres? Are they without operative moral agency as well? Should we baptize them?
Yes, theology can get messy, but we seriously kid ourselves if we believe we have all the answers.
Ultimately, what if we did begin to measure God, or at least the effects of spirituality? Yes, our theology might radically change. But then again, we did the same thing when we figured out that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. We’ll survive, just like we always will.
And maybe, along the way, we’ll figure out something about God.
After all, to know Him (in every sense of the word) and His Son is eternal life.