Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality
Well first off, I like to give credit where credit is due, and I have my husband to thank for this book, which is right up my ally. He heard an interview with the author, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, on National Public Radio (she is NPR’s religion correspondent), and prompted me to request a review copy (I never get to listen to NPR myself anymore, since the kids have co-opted the car sound system and we listen to an endless loop of Music Together CDs.)
For those of you that don’t have time to read reviews, I’ll get right to the point: If you are interested in neurotheology – the “study of the brain as it relates to spiritual experiences” – there is no book out there better than Fingerprints of God. I follow this field as best as a non-scientist can, because I find it fascinating, and because I consider holding my own spiritual beliefs up to the rigors of science an important part of my quest for truth (I regularly read atheist books for the same reason.) While some might consider this pointless, or even faithless, I think science is on the brink of a paradigm shift, and the dismissive, or even disdainful, way that it has viewed spirituality and ‘paranormal’ phenomenon over the last 200 years is starting to shift, and this is a fascinating thing to behold.
In Fingerprints of God, Ms. Hagerty has compiled all of the scientific research in this area, which could have been quite dull, but luckily she intersperses it with her own personal story, and the stories of dozens of individuals who have experienced profound transformations in their lives as the result of various kinds of spiritual practices and spontaneous experiences. Many of these tales are moving and emotional, and in my mind are enough reason in and of themselves to read the book. These individuals come from every conceivable religious background, and the commonality of their experiences and transformations, despite differences in the religious doctrines to which they subscribe, reinforce, for me, the universality of mysticism. Ms. Hagerty was herself raised a Christian Scientist, fell away from her faith as an adult, and then had a spontaneous mystic experience that re-opened the question of faith for her. Her research into neurotheology is therefore both professional and personal, as she relates in her introduction, where she lists the questions that drove her:
“Is spiritual experience real or delusional? Are there any realities that we can experience but not necessarily measure? Does your consciousness depend entirely on your brain, or does it extend beyond? Can thoughts and prayers affect the body? And that question I cannot seem to escape: Is there more than this?”
We are not simply talking about research into the mind/body connection, which at this point mainstream science has come to accept (a big shift from thirty years ago.) Most neuroscientists accept that our thoughts impact our health, and that changing our thoughts impacts the chemical balance in our body – particularly in relation to stress hormones and ‘mood’ chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Based on that, much of the medical community has come to accept that practices like yoga and meditation, as well as variations on positive thinking, can be powerful components of a healing regimen. But that is a long way from accepting any sort of energetic or external force, or spiritual realm, outside of our body. By focusing on the research on spiritual practices and experiences, Fingerprints of God places this next step front and center in the conversation.
Here’s some of the research that she covers:
– Psychological research into individuals who have literally transformed their lives after a spontaneous mystic experience – particularly those who have recovered from addictions, or other self-destructive behaviors.
– Research into the efficacy of prayer, particularly mass intercessory prayer, and theories about the vastly different results various studies on this appear to have yielded.
– Genetic research into what genetic differences might be present in those drawn to spiritual practice or prone to spiritual experience, i.e. whether there is an inherited predisposition for spirituality.
– Research into how psychedelic drugs work on the brain, what chemicals are triggered during spiritual experiences brought on by these drugs, and possible chemical similarities to individuals who have similar experiences without the use of drugs.
– Studies of methods designed to methodically trigger spiritual experience by stimulating different parts of the brain.
– Research into epileptic seizures, and how and why the resulting brain changes often trigger spiritual experience (in fact, as the author reviews, an amazing number of history’s mystics have been written off by scientists as having been epileptic, a theory she explores in depth.)
– Neuroscientific research into the brains of ‘accomplished’ spiritual practitioners – specifically Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns, and the permanent changes in their brain that their spiritual practice has caused (which I covered a little in a prior post.)
– Studies on individuals who have had near death experiences (NDEs) and the resulting implications for how science views consciousness.
As I said above, this research (and more) is prevented from becoming dull by the personal stories of individuals participating in the research, and the spiritual journey of Hagerty herself. In addition, much of the research is presented through interviews with the scientists involved, who emerge as a pretty interesting lot themselves. Many of them chose this focus – considered at best an oddity amongst their colleagues – based on personal experiences they could not explain. And the author pushes them to get personal in her interviews, something most researchers do not like to do, and asks most of them to express their opinion point-blank: Do they believe their research indicates a higher power or order that functions through our brain, or the opposite – that the research suggests spiritual experience and beliefs are nothing but chemical reactions and neurotransmission ‘parties’ triggered by circumstance, drugs, or other methods?
Most say ‘we don’t know’, although some stick to the conventional materialist line – still the default amongst scientists at large – that the spiritual realm is nothing but a delusion created by our brains. But as the author demonstrates toward the end of her book, things are shifting, there is more of a willingness to explore these themes than ever before. For herself, she reaches the following conclusion:
“Science is showing that you and I are crafted with astonishing precision, so that we can, on occasion, peer into a spiritual world and know God. The language of our genes, the chemistry of our bodies, and the wiring of our brains – these are the handiwork of One who longs to be known. And rather than dispel the spiritual, science is cracking it open for all to see.”
Without the words ‘God’ or ‘One’, which aren’t really how I orient to my own spirituality, this could pretty much describe where I ended the book also. Some might say that this shows Hagerty had a position going in, an orientation all along, and this might be the case, but I think she is even-handed in her treatment, and gives both the materialist scientists and devout ‘believers’ equal time and credence. That’s more than I can say for most scientific research prior to the last decade.
So if you’re interested in this area, I do highly recommend this book. And if you want more recommendations, check out the ‘Science and Spirituality’ category in my Amazon store, which I finally got around to creating this weekend. Let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations in this area that aren’t already listed (although I’ll have to read it before adding – every book in the store I have personally read and recommend.)