© Dr. Chris Schriner 2005
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 4, 2005

This is the last sermon in my series on neuroscience and spirituality. In the first sermon I tried to convince you that your brain is absolutely amazing. The next sermon suggested that understanding the brain can help us cope with everyday life. This morning I will continue that theme, and I will also say a little about the relationship between brain science and theology.

Understanding the brain can help us, in two ways that might seem to be opposites. We need to respect the brain's abilities, but sometimes we need to challenge what it tells us.

We often take for granted the brain's ability to perform what seems truly magical, such as the way it can store huge numbers of memories for decades. John von Neumann, an information theorist, has estimated that the memories stored during the average lifetime amount to 280 quintillion bits of data. That's 100 trillion times 2.8 million, so if you take 100 trillion and line up 2.8 million of those hundred trillions, you'd have 280 quintillion bits of memory data. In other words, lots and lots. But it's not until someone does something extraordinary that we fully appreciate the mind's hidden power. Consider the feats of memory and mathematical calculation which are carried out by some people who are autistic and severely mentally impaired, but can seemingly do magic with numbers. Ask one of them, "what day of the week was December 4, 1839." They'll tell you the right answer in a few seconds! They can calculate the day of the week of dates thousands of years into the past or future. These "autistic savants" are using a part of the brain's capacity that typically remains idle. Psychology Today told the story of a normal man who taught himself to perform the same feat. It was hard work, but he finally reached a point at which he no longer had to consciously work through the calculations. The answer would appear almost automatically. You and I could probably do that.

So do not underestimate the capacities of your brain, which are essentially unlimited. But do not overestimate the accuracy of what your brain tells you. As I said in my second sermon last month, the brain creates what we think of as reality. And it does this through patterns of neural activity. One neuron fires and sends a signal to thousands of other nerve cells, and these send signals to thousands more, forming a specific pattern. The basic building block of these neural activity patterns is the synapse, the connection between nerve cells. Neuroscientist Daniel Amen says that "A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains ... 1 billion synapses...." (DVD, "Spect Scanning and the Future of Mental Health," italics added)

This idea of a "neural activity pattern" is a little abstract, so let's try an experiment to make it feel more real. I invite you to rise as you are able, but you can still take part even if you're sitting down. I would now like for just those whose last name begins with the letter A through L, to reach out and make contact with each other. This is like the way nerve cells connect through the links we call synapses. Let's say that this combination of links is the experience of hearing a bell. Now, drop hands, and let's have everyone whose last name starts with the letter M through Z connect up. And let's say this is the way the brain creates the experience of seeing the color, red. Now drop hands, and everybody just link up with anyone nearby. This will stand for the taste of dark chocolate. Thanks!

Just by linking and activating cells, as you linked your bodies, the brain creates experiences that we treat as if they were real. And sometimes an injury or a stroke changes those linkups so as to revise our sense of reality in bizarre ways. For instance, sometimes after a stroke, a "patient's visual experiences are a mirror image of normal experiences, so that he can only read books held up to a mirror, write[s] the mirror image of his signature, [and] run[s] around the baseball diamond from home plate to third, to second, to first, and home again ..." (Patricia Churchland, Neurophilosophy, p. 234.) That's a fairly basic reality-shift!

The brain also tells us how we should feel about reality, and if it isn't working right we feel just awful. Listen to this email which I received after my first sermon on neuroscience:

"I remember life before I realized my neurotransmitters weren't working correctly. I was miserable, and considering suicide. When I got help for it, I was told that I was simply lacking a chemical (which could be stimulated with proper medication). I never once had considered that the reason I was feeling so terrible wasn't because I was a bad person. It wasn't because I wasn't worth loving. It was because I physiologically couldn't FEEL loved because I was lacking the chemical that allows the brain to feel that way. After taking the medication, I realized that my existence relied on a very delicate balance of chemicals which affected my whole perception."

These words (which I quoted with her permission) were written by Zena, a young woman many of us know who grew up in this congregation. And there is a good chance that even at this moment some member of Mission Peak is so deeply impacted by brain-based depression as to be at risk of suicide. All of us are utterly dependent on the health of our own nervous systems.

How many of you have seen a movie called The Truman Show? In this film the main character starts to suspect that what he thinks is real is just a story someone else is telling him. And we are all the stars of our own Truman Show! The brain makes up our world and our life, and tells us how we should feel about it. Some of this made-up story is fairly close to reality, and some of it is just silly, and it is certainly not a revelation from on high. It is merely a particular pattern of neural activities, just as physical - and just as changeable - as the patterns of hand connections we made a few minutes ago. If your neurons are hooked up one way, you feel ecstasy. Change the connections, and you feel agony. Reality hasn't changed, but your head thinks it has.

Now I want to ask you: what are some things we should challenge about the story our brains tell us? Let's hear a few brief comments about that. (Discussion.)

I want to highlight three ways we can challenge the story our brain cooks up. First, the brain is an attachment machine. It creates emotional attachments so that we want certain things to happen. I am amazed that I can watch a couple of sports teams playing a game on television, not knowing anything about either team, and quickly find myself hoping that one side will win. Usually I want the underdog to come from behind, and I may actually feel bad if this team loses. What in the world does that have to do with anything I should consider important? My head says, "Show me any situation, and I will make up a fantasy of what ought to happen there - and attach myself to fulfilling that fantasy." Buddhists and others who practice meditation work for decades to create healthy detachment from the attachment machine, and this is time well spent.

So we need to question our attachments. Second, we can also question the brain's tendency to magnify problems. "Oh my, isn't this awful!" But what I think is awful on Tuesday may seem trivial on Thursday, because by Thursday my neurons are telling me to worry about some "awful" new problem.

And a third "reality" that the brain often creates is the assumption that we are stuck and helpless. I used to have insomnia a lot, and it seemed as if I was helpless to stop thinking about various things that kept me awake. If I chose to use some simple relaxation technique, I would usually go to sleep. But in order to use such a technique, I would first have to realize that my sleepless situation was not hopeless, even though my brain believed it was. We almost always have more choices than our neurons are inclined to admit.

Practice seeing how your brain limits you, through mechanisms such as attachment, magnification, and imagined helplessness. Notice how it presents a point of view that seems so obvious, so inevitable, so compelling, so real. But this way of looking at the world may seem correct only because it is such a well-practiced pattern of neural activity. It's so easy to slide right into that familiar groove. By putting our neurons into more positive arrangements, we can learn to break the brain spell.

So do not underestimate your own mental capacities. As I have said, the brain is a very big place in a very small space. But do not overestimate the accuracy of what your brain presents as truth. We can learn to question the cerebral story about what the world is like and how we should feel about it.

I have been talking about how I relate to my brain, and this may make it sound as if I am a disembodied spirit floating outside of my head, interacting with my neurons. Am I a non-material soul that somehow finds itself mingling with the material world? If so, how does something which is not made out of matter interact with the matter of the brain? This reminds me of what one philosophical punster said, "What is matter? Never mind. What is mind? Never matter!" Anyway, even if humans have a soul that is separate from the body, I believe that this soul must operate through the brain.

Let's look back now on some of what we've explored in this three-part sermon series: The brain is the larger self which creates the reality in which the smaller self of consciousness resides. Wherever we go, our experiences are assembled by the brain. We are completely dependent upon it for our own well-being. This "three-pound universe" contains far more data than the conscious mind can even dream of. Its capacities are virtually infinite, being capable of feats such as the calculations performed by autistic mathematical geniuses. It is self-aware, and aware of the vastness of time and space. It is an enormous reservoir of wisdom and creativity, and a deep wellspring of love and caring. It decides what to see as good and evil. It manufactures our sense of meaning and value. It has goals, and a powerful will that tries to achieve these goals. And even though we have some knowledge of the way it works, the more we try to understand the brain, the more profound a mystery it becomes.

Have you ever heard of a theological concept that has every one of these characteristics? Try plugging the word "God" into the paragraph I just read. What I just said about the brain fits the way God is described by many traditional religions. Religions typically say that God is the great self who creates the universe which we experience as reality. Wherever we go, that great self is there. It is in God that we live and move and have our being. We are utterly dependent on this deity. God is a vast repository of knowledge beyond our comprehension, a virtually infinite intelligence with limitless wisdom, profoundly creative, aware of itself and aware of all time and space. God has a divine will, a great plan for the world in which we live. This divine plan is grounded in the knowledge of good and evil, meaning and value, and backed up with unconditional love and caring. And even though we can sense God's presence and know some of the divine plan, God is ultimately a mystery beyond our imagination.

Isn't it amazing that there are so many parallels between traditional ideas about God and what we know today of the brain? Last month I quoted a researcher who said that in a brain system of one hundred trillion synaptic interconnections, there was plenty of room for a soul. Perhaps there is also room for something that resembles a god. I apologize if this sounds irreverent. Some people might object that if we consider the brain to be godlike, we are committing the sin of pride: "Wow, I've got God in my head!" But it would be foolish to be proud of our brains. The brain is not something we created, but something that appeared wondrously, out of the heart of the universe.

Some Unitarian Universalists are naturalists. They believe that only the natural world exists. Others believe in a supernatural dimension. And it could be interesting for both naturalists and supernaturalists to think of the brain as a sort of deity. A naturalist might realize that when people focus on God they may sometimes make contact with their own unconscious wisdom. By listening for the voice of a deity, they may open themselves to messages from the larger mind of the brain. Praying for guidance is a good way to get out of our own ego-patterns, opening up to new ideas. If you pray, and listen receptively for answers, answers will usually come. In fact, an atheist or agnostic can also be open to mysterious insights that seem to show up out of nowhere; your brain offers insightful messages every day.

And if there really is a supernatural dimension that we can tap into, it would still be interesting to notice the parallels between traditional descriptions of God and the way science describes the brain. Perhaps there is a profound interconnection between the larger mind of the brain and a supreme Mind that rules the universe. I began this sermon series by recalling the Biblical statement that we are made in the image of God. Perhaps science is helping us see more of what that Bible passage means, by showing us parallels between ancient ideas about God and modern discoveries about the brain.

Regardless of whether one does or does not believe in God, I suggest that we consider our brains as sacred spaces.

Perhaps we will decide that God and the soul are located in the unconscious parts of the brain. Or perhaps they dwell in a supernatural domain. But in any event, there are certainly worlds to be discovered - worlds within and worlds beyond. You and I are like the fifteenth century Europeans who sailed into the western hemisphere - but the hemispheres we are exploring are housed in our heads. Every time you learn something new about your brain, you are making one more mark in a map of mostly uncharted territory, more strange and more wonderful than we can ever know.

Back to Top