Religious Experience, NDE & The Brain
As mentioned in the earlier article, recent discoveries and the consequent improvements in medical care have revealed a maze of ethical issues which were formerly reserved for philosophical debate. Many now feel that the progress of science, although undoubtedly bringing benefits, has itself begun to threaten the sanctity of human life. Some scientists believe that ultimately everything, including issues that may be considered theological or philosophical, are amenable to the objective study of science.
In this context, how does the brain work and what does this tell us about our spiritual or religious experiences?
many other complex structures in the body, the brain is made up of a
number of different parts, all connected in a way which allow it to
perform its overall function.
The cerebral cortex, the structure on the surface of the brain is involved with higher brain function, including thought processes, listening, seeing, counting, drawing, recalling memories and moving particular muscles such as the arms and legs. The frontal areas are concerned with some very mysterious aspects of the human mind and human behaviour such as moral sense, wisdom, ambition and other activities of the mind about which we know very little. Damage to the frontal section of this part of the brain typically causes changes in personality and problems with the sensation of touch as well as with speaking, whereas damage a little further behind, in the parietal area, can cause problems with speech as well as the use of arms and legs. These areas are also concerned with creating a three-dimensional representation of the spatial layout of the external world, and of our own body within that three-dimensional representation.
Further back is the occipital area, which is involved with vision and damage to which can result in blindness, and to the side is the temporal region, which is involved with certain aspects of memory, hearing, emotions and visual perception.
Underneath the cortex or main surface structure of the brain, which mediates all higher brain functions, is the stem, otherwise known as the brain stem, which maintains all of life's vital processes, including heartbeat and breathing, as well as important reflexes such as the pupillary reflex, which controls the size of our pupils in response to light, and the gag reflex, which prevents food and other swallowed objects going down the windpipe. The other important function of the brain stem is maintaining wakefulness. So damage to the brain stem may lead to unconsciousness, loss of vital reflexes and eventually death.
Due to its position the brain stem is also very much like a highway junction through which all the connections between the body and brain pass. For example, all the nerves carrying sensations from the rest of the body converge in the spinal cord before travelling up through the brain stem and then branching off to the different sections of the brain, including the cerebral cortex, where the higher functions are carried out. Messages are then relayed back to the body from the cerebral cortex via the brain stem.
Behind and just above the brain stem lies the area of the brain that is responsible for the regulation and co-ordination of our movements such as walking and running. This is the third main structure in the brain and is called the cerebellum.
The different areas of the brain are in a constant state of communication through electricity carried by long tracts of nerves. If any area of the brain becomes damaged, this will affect the normal patterns of electricity, which is why an EEG monitor, which measures electricity, can be used to diagnose brain diseases.
The source of
the electricity flowing across the brain are the specialized brain
cells called neurones. The brain is thought to be made up of 100
billion of these neurones and they form the basic structure and
functional units of the nervous system. Each neurone is connected to
other brain cells through 1,000 to 10,000 contacts called synapses. It
is here that exchange of information takes place between brain cells.
This is incredible - with around 100 billion cells, each with 1,000 to
10,000 connections to other cells, the total number of permutations and
combinations of brain connections and hence activity is almost
infinite! All the different brain states, including all our emotions,
such as love, hate and anger, as well as our thoughts, ambitions and
even religious sentiments, are mediated by these connections or
synapses, which have themselves been shown to vary and become more
complex if a certain area of the brain is being used and developed. In
fact it is thought that no two people, even twins, will have exactly
the same brain connections or wiring, since these synapses or
connections develop and change constantly according to different
stimulation of the brain areas during our lifetimes. This is because as
we grow, learn and generate new experiences, the connections in our
brains become more extensive. These ultimately depend, then, on the
richness of experiences.
The brain is thus a highly complex and well-organized mesh of electrical wires that form a network of electrical superhighways conducting information to and from the most distant parts of the body. So in the brain it is not an individual cell that performs a particular function, rather a large group of cells all connected together, otherwise known as a 'neural network'. It is therefore the overall activity of multiple areas of the brain that is involved with all the functions of the brain, including conscious experiences such as thoughts, vision and hearing.
The difficulty for science is determining how from the activity of these cells, do thoughts arise? Today there is no plausible scientific theory to explain how this can arise and therefore the arguments largely mirror philosophical views.
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