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Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

September 14, 2009

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.)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2009 11:01 pm

    This is really fascinating, Lisa. Thanks so much for sharing it. As a man of both science and spirituality, I love looking at the places where they intersect. This is definitely one book I’ll be checking out!

  2. September 15, 2009 3:58 am

    Lisa, this is so beautiful, I love this sentence
    “these are the handiwork of One who longs to be known”.
    I do think that if scientists are really honest they will raise questions rather than answers and will not set out to prove their theory but will explore with an open mind like children do.
    I always find Einstein a great example, he was a scientist coming from the heart and coming from love and love will guide us to the knowing.
    Oh Lisa, you reviewed this book beautifully, there is so much hope that we will connect with the source of all knowing and then we will soon respect again how we live life.
    I am totally amazed by the book ‘love without end’ by Glenda Green. I have not yet looked at your amazon list if it is on there as I am afraid to lose my comment when I go and check.
    Love Wilma

  3. September 15, 2009 9:47 am

    Lisa,
    This does sound interesting. I know what I believe, and yet I’ve never really thought much about how that relates to science. They’ve always seemed like two subjects that would be hard to meld together. Anyway, nice review of this book, and it has definitely piqued my interest. Plus, I love material that includes personal stories along the way…

  4. September 15, 2009 3:31 pm

    Very Interesting Blog.
    Glad I stumbled upon it.
    Even though i have not read all your posts,a few of them is enough to conclude yours is a celebration,a dance and an art form of the human spirit.

  5. September 15, 2009 4:30 pm

    Lisa, you are one of the smartest bloggers I know. The fact that you get free review copies of great books is but one proof of this!

    I don’t like the title of this book, but the content you describe here is exactly what I do like. It’s about time we added a term like “neurotheology” to our cultural lexicon. I think spiritual experience and belief has to be, in part, brain chemistry, but I sense that consciousness itself is more like brain chemistry to the third power.

    There does seem to be more of a willingness to explore these themes than ever before. However, the political debate of late has me worried about the power of “mass intercessory prayer” gone amuck. When any huge contingent lays claim to the truth and calls the scientist, the Darwinian, and the pragmatist a liar, we have cause for concern, much like the firefighter who has to tolerate a fire until it burns itself out, revealing a whole different landscape.

    Has there ever been a time in history when we didn’t face great stressors? No, and neither has there ever been a time when brain science was so close to revealing more about what makes us tick. Pretty exciting stuff. Great article, Mommy M.

  6. mommymystic permalink*
    September 15, 2009 4:59 pm

    Jay – yes I think you would like this book, very ‘interfaith’ oriented in its spirituality, and lots of good science presented well.

    Lance – I know, science and spirituality have not been good bedfellows over the centuries and have often been at war. This is partly why so many scientists are reluctant to try and explore these topics. And it’s true that some of the scientists involved are really motivated by a desire to ‘disprove’ the existence of something beyond our body, and to present faith and spiritual experience as a kind of brain distortion. But the majority were not in that camp, and were open-minded to the idea that our consciousness, at least, might be part of something larger. So I think think is a big shift, and an interesting book.

    Wilma – glad you liked and I will definitely add the Glenda Green book to my wishlist – I am always looking for new recommendations.

    Hickson, thanks for visiting, come again.

    Brenda – thanks so much for your thoughtful response. You are so right, both science and religion and politics and religion have been bad combinations in the past. Both scientists and politicians have often used religion to manipulate and scare people (I just read a book on 19th century eugenics, in which scientists and religious moralists got together and did some horrid things in the name of social improvement.) So I do think the separation of these serves an important purpose. But it has left science reluctant to explore consciousness, and now we have the tools to begin to do so, which I think in the long run will benefit both science and spirituality. So that’s why I do like to explore books like this. And yes, being able to get free books now and then, especially one of this caliber, is a great perk of blogging! I don’t review everything I receive though, or give everything positive reviews, as I want to make sure and maintain the integrity of the process.

  7. September 15, 2009 10:14 pm

    I am very interested in this book and will purchase it as soon as I can. How spirituality and science function together is truly fasinating.

    Thank you for bringing the book to my attention.

  8. September 16, 2009 12:18 pm

    Hi Lisa – I’m like you – the personal stories make a big difference to me. It’s great the way medical science is finding evidence for the mind-body connecton these days, isn’t it? – now how interesting someone is looking at the spiritual connection. Thanks for the review! Cheers Lisa – Robin

  9. September 16, 2009 9:28 pm

    Called my local Barnes and Nobles bookstore and they had in stock. Stopped in after work to pick it up. Will start reading tonight. Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.

  10. September 16, 2009 10:07 pm

    As a mother of twins plus one, you never cease to amaze me with your research and findings of such neat books. Thanks for the suggestion. It’s nice to see science and spirituality having a converstaion and finding the same truth.

  11. September 16, 2009 11:57 pm

    Hello Lisa,

    I once watched a program on TV about a young man who had a chemical imbalance and had peak experiences that were similar to what is described in Eastern philosophies as Realization.

    I believe that there are many methods of reaching the highest spiritual attainment. In the 60’s acid trips would take people there, but the wisdom and understanding had yet to be attained. Whether we get there by chemicals ingested or misplaced, by knowledge or austerities, the spiritual realm is a state where we transcend physical reality, its concreteness and we access other levels of being. Some scientists call it delusional and indeed it is. Physical reality is also an illusion.

    Thanks for a great review. It has sparked my interest.

  12. mommymystic permalink*
    September 17, 2009 12:00 am

    Shirley – so glad the book interests you and that you already found it! I’m interested to hear how you like, so feel free to email me or comment back here on this post when you are done!

    Robin – yes, science is a little ‘slow’ sometimes, but still fascinates me. I wonder where it will all lead? Physical immortality perhaps?;-)

    Mermaid – You know, it’s funny, I almost didn’t post this review, because the book has actually been on my shelf all summer and I never had time to read it while the kids were out of school! But something told me to do it anyway, now that I had a little time, and I’m glad I did. As a physician who also meditates, I’m sure you have a unique view on the conversation (or lack thereof) between science and spirituality.

  13. September 18, 2009 4:09 pm

    Twenty five years ago I read a number of authors – Evelyn Underhill, Walter Stace and William James are a few names I recall – that completely convinced me that what people refer to as “mystical” or “non dualistic” experience is a human thing that runs across cultures and traditions, despite the way that religious traditions verbalize and interpret such experiences using concepts that people from other traditions, religious and secular, would disagree with.

    But I really don’t think the experience itself is about concepts. And it would make sense that a particular type of experience would turn out to be associated with particular types of activity in the brain…

  14. mommymystic permalink*
    September 18, 2009 8:35 pm

    Paul, yes I often think the experience itself is abstract, and the ‘interpretation’ in the brain, which might even include the images, etc. that we ‘remember’ happen afterwards, and are culturally dependent. Both the personal stories and research in this book would seem to support that. What is interesting is research that shows that a high percentage of people that have NDEs or mystic experiences that are focused on dissolution of self, give up associating with any one religion entirely, even if they associated with one before.
    And to your other point, of course there are parts of the brain associated with these things, the brain is our instrument of experience. So it always surprises me when people use this research to ‘prove’ there is no spiritual realm, that it is all just chemistry. How else would we experience the spiritual while in a physical body but through our brain?

  15. September 23, 2009 1:00 am

    Sometimes the effort to control something or pin it down takes something away from its essence.

  16. September 26, 2009 8:01 pm

    OK, I am almost at the halfway point in this book.

    So I am reading about chemically induced spiritual experiences and in the back of my mind I am thinking that the chemicals in our brain are kept in check by the brain, so we can function in the everyday world. Our physical being made of all kinds of matter is keeping us grounded and at the same time housing the spiritual energy that we all originate from.

    Then I get to page 125 and read Huxley’s theory, which is pretty much saying what I was just thinking. And the internet analogy used to explain Huxley’s view brought it all together for me.

    I always believed we are spiritual being in a physical world. We came to experience the physical realms and advance as spiritual beings. Our brains keep us grounded in the physical so we can experience it. Our brains house the pure spiritual energy that we are part of and come from. The energy (call it God, the Universal, whatever you feels right to you) that created the world around us.

    That is how I am seeing it so far. I’m not a great intellectual, I usually have to invision concepts before I get them. I think I’m on the right track here, at least it feels right to me.

    What do you think?

  17. mommymystic permalink*
    September 27, 2009 12:21 am

    Shirley, I think of it very similarly to you, with one twist – I think of our entire body as grounding us, and also as the realm for mystic experience. This is partly because I am very into chakras and kundalini yoga/meditation. In these systems our entire energy body interacts with our entire physical body, and both interact with the non-physical realms. And the kundalini energy or lifeforce is intricately connected to our nervous system and glandular systems in particular. So any kind of mystic or energetic experience has an effect on our chemical and nerve systems, which of course are both centered in our brain. And visa versa. As I was reading the personal experiences relayed in this book all I could think of was the various descriptions (and my own experiences) of various kinds of kundalini rising or chakras opening. I think science eventually will reach the point where it can perceive our non-physical energetic system just like it currently recognizes our circulatory or nervous systems, and will understand the interplay between them all.
    Thanks for coming back by the way, love to share ideas like this….
    **EDIT** P.S. I visited your own website after this and see you are into chakras also, so obviously you already knew alot of what I wrote in my comment… it is interesting all the connections don’t you think?

  18. September 27, 2009 1:31 am

    It certainly is interesting. : )

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