This semester, I took an awesome class.
That alone should tell you how cool this class is. We sat in class day after day, teetering on the razor-sharp edge of scientific knowledge. Most of the time, we guessed about stuff, because the truth is, we know nothing about the three-pound mass of (mostly) water that is responsible for virtually EVERYTHING we think, say and do. While it's making sure were breathing, it's also judging how far away we are from the car speeding toward us or how undeniably in love we are with the person across from us.
In short, our brains are astoundingly complex and because they are doing things that we don't even notice, often the best way to study them is to pay attention when something goes wrong. So, we learned about the possible roots of schizophrenia and ADD and other disorders in our quest to find out what we can about ourselves. And we came out realizing, yet again, that we know so very little.
My final essay in this course was supposed to portray a complex brain process, and think about all the different functions that go into allowing us to do something like seeing or hearing. I chose one that's a bit out there: belief. You can read it below.
(Warning: due to the level of the class, there will be jargon in this essay. I'll provide definitions below so you can understand those parts!)
How do we believe?
They all start very similarly, with a two common denominators: God and the man he decided to talk to. The messenger of the gods, Narad, brought a story to Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana. Moses listened to God and wrote the Torah. The angel Gabriel told Mohammad to write the Quran. The many authors of Christianity who wrote the Bible are said to be under the guidance of a higher power: “All scripture is inspired by God.” 2 Timothy 3:16
Usually when someone hears voices, it’s a cause for alarm. The stigma toward schizophrenics is strong: since the beginning of time people just don’t seem to understand, treating them with “hydrotherapy,” insulin-induced comas, electroshock therapy and (today) antipsychotics. So how is it that these men became the founders of belief systems followed by billions? What if they were just that – people with fewer dendritic spines due to a decrease in GABA in the prefrontal cortex? Perhaps, there is something about all religious individuals that gives them fewer spines in the PFC as well? Certainly not as few as a schizophrenic, but enough to override the reality center of their brain – to override the factual logic of the brain and believe truly and deeply in something greater (and unprovable).
Religious people, whether born and raised or “born again,” who reach the point of truly believing do so regardless of never having a conversation with God. There is a deeply-rooted emotional component to religious experience: it could come from dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens due to the reassurance from religion that something is greater or the social connection and love that says “you are not alone.” It could at the same time come from the amygdala’s fear response. “If you mess up, you’re going to hell.” Religion relies on our most deeply rooted, foundational emotional processing systems, which also could work to override our logic center in the PFC via inhibition and reallocation of processing power. The hippocampal memory component is the cherry on top for those who grew up with religion or find solace for a painful past. When these three areas come together to provide a powerfully ancient emotional experience, our brains are able to create something new. Maybe, like in synesthesia, there are sensory and emotional neurons in the brain of religious people that have more dendritic spines or more neuronal connections. People can create a connection to something that may or may not exist – a full relationship and trust in God.
In death, it is interesting to note the commonality in people’s near-death experiences. As described by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, her stroke brought her to Nirvana. It was a place of light – a creation of her mind (hallucination) or a moment of clarity. Is it possible she saw the truth? It is impossible to say for sure if the Heaven of world religions exists, but it is true that billions believe it does. In the case of individuals with hemispheric neglect choosing the image of a house not on fire over one that was (despite not being able to see the half of the house with or without the fire), these people were processing the visual information without being able to explain what they saw. Savants do the opposite, their eyes take in no more than ours do, but they process so much more. It is known through the two aforementioned pathologies that the brain does not process everything it encounters. These processing and attentional components could also be involved in belief – perhaps the reason religion speaks to us is that it tells us what we cannot say or realize we see. Nirvana?
It all comes back to the odd universality of religious experience that requires the combination of attentional and emotional pathways, memory, the PFC’s logic and reasoning and social feedback. But there seems to be something more. Every religion also has its bad apples – the extremists. Along the lines of psychopathy, they kill in the name of God with no remorse. They make headlines and destroy lives. They are so much more common than the run-of-the-mill serial killer. They demonstrate, as the Stanford Prison Experiment did, our innate potential for psychopathy. It is possible that there is something about the strength of these combined processes that allows for belief so strong that the vmPFC is overridden. It’s not just ISIS, it’s the crusades, Hindu-Muslin riots in India, marauding Buddhist monks and the conversion of Native Americans. Belief enables every one of us to do unspeakable things in the name of something we cannot prove exists. Like Charles Bonnet, our minds create religion for good or bad reasons, unlike Charles Bonnet, many do not accept is that religion is an unprovable shout into the void – something our brain processes latched onto for reasons unknown. It gets at our most fundamental neurological processes. Believing doesn’t always require seeing. But it does, most astoundingly, drive our behavior and steer our lives, even though none of us can ever know what it was those men really heard.
Ramayan: One of the Hindu scriptures.
Hydrotherapy: spraying patients with different temperatures/pressures of water for hours on end to cure them of their psychosis
"with fewer dendritic spines due to a decrease in GABA in the prefrontal cortex": pretty much, there are fewer connections in the planning and judgement part of the brain - in schizophrenia, the part of the brain that is the "reality center". People with schizophrenia don't know their hallucinations are not real.
PFC: short for prefrontal cortex
dopamine: The "happiness" neurotransmitter/brain chemical
nucleus accumbens: The reward center in the brain
amygdala: emotion center, very primal emotions, mainly fear
synesthesia: experiencing two consistently linked sensory experiences > "every time I see blue, I hear the note C."
hemispheric neglect: You don't process the left side of the world or every object you see. You see it - the light goes in your eyes and your brain takes it in, but you don't realize that you see it and can't say what's there - you just neglect it.
house test: two houses shown to a patient with hemispheric neglect - one of which is on fire on the left (neglected) side. The patient says both houses are the same, but when you push them to pick one that they would pick the one not on fire 99% of the time.
savants: referencing one in particular that can read a page of text and memorize everything. no greater visual cue, just greater processing.
Charles Bonnet Syndrome: when a person loses all or part of their vision, their vision brain circuitry is still firing, so their brain actually creates (!) information, like a dancing cartoon in the black area. People with Charles Bonnet realize that their hallucinations are not real.
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