The Brain’s Gospel

1 September 2010 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

Well, the latest issue of Longshot! magazine was completed last weekend in the promised span of 48 hours. You can order the magazine in print or for the iPad here. Although my submission didn’t make the cut this time around (and you can read my previous contribution to Issue Zero here), I thought that I would share it here. The theme of the magazine was “comeback,” So Hysell Oviedo and I speculated and did some serious hand-waving in an attempt to understand why religion and becoming “born again” play such prominent roles in the comebacks of so many individuals. Here’s what we fabricated and cobbled together over many beers from 22:00-05:00 on Friday night/Saturday morning last weekend. Enjoy and criticize, please.


“The Brain’s Gospel”
- @noahWG & @hysell

Getting off the train in the Douglaston neighborhood of Queens, you can’t miss him. Darryl Strawberry, frozen in mid-swing and larger-than-life, featured on a building-side billboard. Icon of the formidable 1980’s New York Mets baseball club, an eight-time All-Star, feared at the plate and fiercely taunted by opposing fans (remember “Daaaaa-ryl, Daaaaaa-ryl!”), Strawberry defines baseball for a generation of fans. But just as his playing career went through its trials and tribulations, his personal life endured its own set of ups and downs. Yet here in this quiet neighborhood, an energetic sports bar stands, inviting a new generation of young fans to watch baseball on enormous flat screens in this tidy, open space with their fathers and their fathers’ boyhood hero.

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“Strawberry’s Sports Bar” is just the latest venture for the 48 year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist, whose other passion is The Darryl Strawberry Foundation, an organization dedicated to financially supporting autism research and support services. These recent successes off the field make it difficult to believe that barely ten years earlier, this man lived a troubled life involving multiple stints in both drug rehabilitation centers as well as in prison. Clearly Mr. Strawberry was motivated by a strong force. In a recent New York Times interview, he described this force and his transformation as a born-again Christian: “It was the most remarkable thing. I’ve always lived a high life, but here it is. God has brought me to a simple life to do his will” 1.

Religion and spirituality. Often cited as significant factors in many comebacks from a self-destructive path to one deemed more productive for both the individual and society. Religion can be so potent that it often seems to not only exercise and challenge the so-called soul, but also perhaps the neural underpinnings of circuits driving our decision-making and behavior. Could training and exercising this “ghost in the machine” actually modify the machine (i.e., brain) itself, producing a better-functioning model?

To answer this, we must turn to neuroscience. Many common forms of destructive behavior, including drug or chemical dependency, gambling, theft, acting out on violent tendencies and sexual deviance, all share a common problem with impulse control. Neuroscientists believe that impulse control involves the modulation of “lower” level brain structures, representing basic emotions, rewards and desires, by “higher” areas specializing in executive function and decision-making. This “top-down” control mechanism may be disrupted or weakened in those who have succumbed to one or more of the self-destructive behavior patterns mentioned above 2. Thus, correcting this weaker modulation and strengthening top-down control may be essential in order to break the cycle. Enter spirituality.

Several studies have noted an increase in top-down impulse control for subjects reporting more extensive religious experiences, with some evidence suggesting that spirituality training can even induce plasticity within these networks. For example, monks considered to be meditation experts exhibited a strong control of cognitive engagement with sensory or emotional stimuli, in essence, dictating whether they focus on the mundane or not. But even novice meditators could efficiently enhance their suppression of lower level sensory and emotional inputs after only ten days of training 3. In another study, contemplating religious imagery allowed a religious experimental group to detach themselves from the experience of pain, representing another form of top-down suppression of basal impulses or sensory experience 4. This analgesia was context-dependent, as it did not occur when the religious group was presented with a non-religious image. So it seems plausible that religiosity may help to strengthen executive control of impulses and emotion, through as-of-yet unknown mechanisms, allowing individuals previously prone to destructive behavioral cycles to minimize undesirable actions.

But religion and spirituality aren’t just about oneself. They are also about a relationship with a higher power, employing our “attachment system” to offer support while we endure the difficulties of a comeback. Forming real-world attachments with “supernatural” beings, or in more practical terms, a “coalition partner,” offer emotional safety 5 6. Attachment is such a crucial part of religion that in attachment experiments, priming religious subjects with subliminal implications of separation from their mother increased their desire to be close to god, as compared to subjects in attachment neutral conditions 7. This effect is more pronounced for individuals who experienced insecure attachments during their childhood, caused by insufficient or unavailable attachment figures. As Mr. Strawberry recounts in his autobiography “Straw,” he experienced an abusive relationship with his father, a violent alcoholic, which led him to believe that he was “nothing” 8. It remains plausible that this broken relationship may have primed Mr. Strawberry to embrace religion during his comeback, providing the attachments that he lacked during his youth.

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Religion is an extremely complicated and dynamic experience, one that neuroscience will always struggle to fully explain. There is no “religious center” in the brain and why should there be? On an evolutionary scale, the strongest evidence for religious practice only dates back ~50,000 years, making it impossible to have influenced human anatomy. This is the crux of the “neuronal recycling” hypothesis 9. This hypothesis observes that most cultural domains and institutions have developed too recently to have influenced the evolution of our brain and have therefore had to “recycle” specialized neuronal networks with particular processing characteristics originally evolved for other purposes. Executive impulse control and the attachment system are possible examples of how religious experience recycles existing brain structures to modulate our behavior, our mindset and our lives. Darryl Strawberry may have succumbed to his demons off the field, but he was saved by one of the many safety nets our complicated neural systems can weave for us, in this particular case taking the form of religious dedication. Evolutionarily speaking, our brains want us to survive, but it’s just a matter of unlocking that potential in whichever way best suits each one of us.


1 New York Times, April 1, 2009.
2 Am. J. Psychiatry. 1991 148:621-626.
3 Brain Res Bull. 2010 82:46-56.
4 Pain. 2008 139:467-76.
5 2005 Gilford Press. ISBN: 1-59385-088-3
6 2006 Praeger Publishers. ISBN: 0-275-98790-6
7 Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2004 30:1122-1135.
8 2009 Ecco. ISBN: 0061704202
9 Neuron. 2007 56:384-98.

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