Your brain on religion and spirituality
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, Department of Neurology, NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, NY (U.S.A.)
Address for Correspondence:
NK Sethi, MD
Comprehensive Epilepsy Center
Department of Neurology
NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center
525 East 68th Street, York Avenue
New York, NY 10021
In the Hindu philosophy (as mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita), the word yoga has different meanings at different points. The use of the word yoga is different from its common interpretation in the West where yoga commonly refers to Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga denotes the physical aspect of yoga and mostly involves stretching and toning exercises. In the Bhagavad Gita and in the Upanisads different usage of the word yoga is described.
There is Karma yoga or the yoga of selfless action (performing actions in this material world without been attached to the fruits of those actions). Mahatama Gandhi who referred to the Gita as his eternal mother and incorporated its principles into his life said Karma yoga refers to Nishkama Karma or actions without selfish motives.
Then there is Bhakti yoga or yoga of devotional love (traditionally used to refer to love for God, the creator).
Finally there is Gyana yoga which refers to the yoga of knowledge (one who seeks to attain spiritual knowledge).
The Indian seers contemplated deeply about the meaning of life and the important questions of why am I born? What am I supposed to achieve in this life? Is there life beyond death? The understanding was that if you meditated deeply , withdrawing all your senses inwards (just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, this analogy is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Sri Krishna), then you shall be able to reach your inner self. The self in the Gita has been equated to Brahman and Atman. The Gita believes that the inner self is God or God equivalent. When you reach the plane of inner self all dualities cease to exist. “I” and “you” are not there anymore. One sees oneself in everyone and everyone inside oneself. I have not read much about other religions of the world and by no stretch of imagination can I claim to be a religious scholar. Still what little I know, I feel all major religions identify with this tenant of deep introspection and reflection. The need to identify with the inner consciousness. The statement that God is within each of us and we need to look inwards to find him.
Can this deep level of meditation be achieved? Are these religious beliefs compatible with neuroscience? What does our current level of understanding of the human brain tell us about this belief? Is it scientific? Well even with our current “primitive” knowledge of the human brain, yes. An eminent neuroscientist once said ” we are what our brains see and tell us”. To understand this compatibility between religion and science we need to first understand the human brain. A fundamental question that arises is what gives each of us our unique sense of identity. How does my brain know that this is my body and not someone else? How is it able to differentiate between self and non-self (such as another human being or even inanimate objects such as a table or chair).
Elegant experiments done in the lab by eminent neuroscientists like Professor Ramachandran (read “Phantoms in the brain“ by professor Ramachandran, a book I recommend everyone to read) indicate that the human brain can be tricked to view non-self objects as self (such as another person’s arm or even inanimate objects like a table or chair as extensions of one’s own body). The human brain during its development has sensory maps laid down representing the entire body. Thus the entire body is mapped in the brain and therefore the brain knows when someone touches the arm.
So is it possible that by deep meditation one can remap the brain (at least on a temporary basis). Reach that level where all dualities disappear and one is one with the universe around. Another person’s body is felt as one’s own, another’s pain as one’s own pain.
As science advances further we shall find out whether all matter which currently has a form and shape is actually just matter (electrons oscillating in space) and how the sense of individuality comes from the brain.
Religion and science shall feel compatible and not at at odds with one other. I would appreciate my readers comments on these musings of mine.