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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The God Effect

 
The God Effect

by Patrick McNamara

When I was 12, on family vacation in New Mexico, I watched a group of elaborately-costumed Navajo men belt out one intimidating song after the next. They executed a set of beautifully coordinated dance turns to honour the four cardinal directions, each one symbolising sacred gifts from the gods. Yet the tourist-packed audience lost interest and my family, too, prepared to leave. Then, all of a sudden, the dancers were surprised by a haunting, muscled old man adorned with strange pendants, animal skulls, and scars etching patterns into his body and face.
Because the dancers were obviously terrified of this man I, too, became afraid and wanted to run, but we all stood rooted to the spot as he walked silently and majestically into the desert night. Afterwards, the lead dancer apologised profusely for the tribe’s shaman, or medicine man: he was holy but a bit eccentric. My 12-year-old self wondered how one might become like this extraordinary individual, so singular, respected and brave he could take the desert night alone.
That question has fuelled much of my neuroscience through the years. As I studied the brain, I found that the right arrangement of neural circuitry and chemistry could generate astonishingly creative and holy persons on the one hand, or profoundly delusional, even violent, fanatics on the other. To intensify the ‘god effect’ in people already attracted to religious ideas, my studies revealed, all we had to do was boost the activity of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, crucial for balanced emotion and thought, on the right side of the brain. But should dopamine spike too high, murderous impulses like terrorism and jihad could rear up instead.
Evidence that religion can produce extraordinary behaviours goes back to the dawn of human history, when our ancestors started burying the dead and produced remarkable, ritual art on cave walls. One of the first signs of religious consciousness dates to the upper Paleolithic, some 25,000 years ago, when a boy, also about age 12, crawled through hundreds of metres of pitch black, deep cave space, probably guided only by a flickering flame held in one hand and some fleetingly illuminated paintings on cave walls. When the boy reached a cul-de-sac in the bowels of the cave, he put red ochre onto his hand and made a print on the wall. Then he climbed out of the cul-de-sac and – we can surmise, given his skill and the fact that his bones have not been found – made it out alive.
But where did this boy get his courage? And why leave a handprint on the wall of a remote cave deep in the bowels of the earth? Some experts in cave art think the boy was performing a religious obligation. He, like others who made similar treks into the caves, was leaving a votive offering to the spirit world or gods and becoming a holy man – much like the majestic and terrifying Indian man I had seen when I was 12.
Throughout the centuries, bountiful dopamine has given rise to gifted leaders and peacemakers (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Catherine of Siena), innovators (Zoroaster), seers (the Buddha), warriors (Napoleon, Joan of Arc), teachers of whole civilisations (Confucius) and visionaries (Laozi). Some of them founded not only enduring religious traditions but also profoundly influenced the cultures and civilisations associated with those traditions. But dopamine-fuelled religion has also unleashed monsters: Jim Jones (the ‘minister’ who persuaded hundreds of his followers to commit suicide) and the cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose leader had his adherents release sarin gas on the subways of Japan. Think of the fanatic terrorists of al Qaeda, who gave their lives to attack New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.
    The neurological line between the saint and the savage, the creative and the unconscionable, turns out to be razor-thin
As 9/11 suggests, the neurological line between the saint and the savage, the creative and the unconscionable, turns out to be razor-thin. Just look at the bounty of evidence showing that families of extraordinarily creative individuals often include members with histories of insanity, sometimes even criminal insanity. Genes that produce brains capable of unusually creative associations or ideas are also more likely to produce (in the same individual or in members of his/her family) brains vulnerable to loose or bizarre associations.
The medical literature abounds with descriptions of creative bursts following infusion of dopamine-enhancing drugs such as l-dopa (levodopa), used to treat Parkinson's Disease (PD). Bipolar illness, which sends sufferers into prolonged bouts of dopamine-fuelled mania followed by devastating spells of depressive illness, can sometimes produce work of amazing virtuosity during the manic phase. Often these individuals refuse to take anti-dopamine drugs that can prevent the manic episodes precisely because they value the creative activity of which they are capable during these altered states.
Hallucinogenic drugs such as Psilocybin and LSD, which indirectly stimulate dopamine activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, can produce religious experience even in the avowedly non-religious. These hallucinogens produce vivid imagery, sometimes along with near psychotic breaks or intense spiritual experience, all tied to stimulation of dopamine receptors on neurons in the limbic system, the seat of emotion located in the midbrain, and in the prefrontal cortex, the upper brain that is the centre of complex thought.
Given all these fascinating correlations, sometime after the attack on the twin towers in New York City, I began to hypothesise that dopamine might provide a simple explanation for the paradoxical god effect. When dopamine in the limbic and prefrontal regions of the brain was high, but not too high, it would produce the ability to entertain unusual ideas and associations, leading to heightened creativity, inspired leadership and profound religious experience. When dopamine was too high, however, it would produce mental illness in genetically vulnerable individuals. In those who had been religious before, fanaticism could be the result.
While pursuing these ideas, I had a lucky break during routine office hours at the VA (Veterans Administration) Boston Healthcare System, where I regularly treat US veterans. I was doing a routine neuropsychological examination of a tall, distinguished elderly man with Parkinson’s Disease. This man was a decorated Second World War veteran and obviously intelligent. He had made his living as a consulting engineer but had slowly withdrawn from the working world as his symptoms progressed. His withdrawal was selective: he did not quit everything, his wife explained. ‘Just social parts of his work, some physical stuff and unfortunately his private religious devotions.’
When I asked what she meant by ‘devotions’ she replied that he used to pray and read his Bible all the time, but since the onset of the disease he had done so less and less. When I asked the patient himself about his religious interests, he replied that they seemed to have vanished. What was so striking was that he said he was quite unhappy about that fact. What appeared to be keeping him from his ‘devotions’ was that he found them ‘hard to fathom’. He had not stopped wanting to believe and practise his religion but simply found it more difficult to do so.
This was a man whose intelligence was above average, who apparently had been religious all his life and who could easily answer questions about religious ideas and doctrines. It was not an intellectual deficit that was the problem. When I asked him directly whether he had now rejected religion as false he said: ‘By no means!’ The difficulty he had was accessing his religious memories, feelings and experiences, in particular. Other equally complex ideas were still easily available to him, but religion as a sphere of interest for this man was nearly impossible.
The primary pathology associated with PD is a loss of dopamine activity, hypothesised for years to drive ‘hedonic reward’ or pleasure – that sense of well-being we all feel when we indulge in an experience like good food or sex. Whenever dopamine release occurred, proponents held, we would get a small hit of pleasure. That story made sense because many drugs of abuse, such as cocaine or amphetamine, stimulate dopamine activity in the midbrain.
But recent research had revealed something more complex. A Cambridge University neuroscientist named Wolfram Schultz had shown that dopamine was not a simple pleasure molecule, delivering a simple reward. Instead, it alerted us only to unexpected rewards, spiking when the prize delivered far exceeded the expected result.
    Unexpected visions can define the most innovative artists, the most divergent philosophers and anyone who finds a sense of ecstasy in the beauty and strangeness of the world..
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aeonmagazine