Patrick McNamara, an experimental neuroscientist, argues that the function of religion is not just to quell existential anxiety or stave off the fear of death, but to disrupt current models of the self and to update those models in relation to the world around us. Religious experiences promote imaginative simulation of other possible worlds, giving us space to update those models.
One core facet of the spiritual experience is what McNamara calls “de-centering” — a powerful technique that promotes self-transformation and makes us incredibly vulnerable when triggered. When held in the context of a ritual, like many religious practices, we can achieve massive personal growth and transcendence. But de-centering isn’t only effective within the context of religion: Secular people can re-discover or create their own rich traditions to support the de-centering experience.
The field of experimental neuroscience is uncovering some fundamental aspects of human nature and experience, simultaneously enhancing our understanding but also deepening the mystery. McNamara’s research sheds light on the potential benefits of religion and ritual, and highlights how much more is still to be learned about how these processes can be harnessed for positive transformation.
Patrick McNamara: My particular work has uncovered aspects of religiosity that runs counter to standard theories of religion. Most scholars of religion subscribe to the theory that the function of religion is to modulate anxiety levels, or it's to stave off the fear of death. In other words, religion as a security blanket. But that's a side effect of what I think religion is really doing. The real thing that religion is doing is that it's looking for ways to disrupt current models of the self in its relation to the world. So the religious mind is constantly producing these other worlds. And when religion does that, it very interestingly calls into question the fundamental aspects of our world. I think if we want to understand human nature, we have to understand religion.
My name is Patrick McNamara, and I'm an experimental neuroscientist, and I have a special interest in studying relationships of brain activity to religious consciousness. Our identities are constantly under construction. Religions have provided the traditional tools to edit those self models, to update them, to shape them, to create them. Therefore, self and religion are bound up together because there's no way for the brain to function optimally, even normally without those self models. So, we have to understand that the brain is a prediction machine, it's a desiring machine, it's looking to build up models of what we can expect to occur next in the world. What the religious mind is doing is looking for evidence out in the world to disconfirm current models of the world, in particular current self models of the world, the individual, and his or her world. So there's no way that we're gonna thrive or flourish in the world, unless we get very good at updating our self models.
One of the most interesting things about religious experience and religious cognition is it constantly promotes imaginative simulation of other possible worlds. A good prediction machine is constantly spinning out scenarios of what might be, what could possibly be — because when we disconfirm those current self models, we then know that our current models are not adequate, and so we gotta update them. My point of view is that religious experiences reflects a neurotechnology to update the current sense of self. It appears to be what nature has evolved for us to make self-transformation as easy as possible. And when you dig into that process, what you find is a very interesting set of cognitive processing routines: what's called a 'decentering.'
The decentering process is composed of four cognitive steps: The first one is the decentering itself where the executive sense of self is taken offline. That self that makes decisions, that forms intentions, that forms goals, wants to accomplish things in the world- gets decentered, gets downregulated. The second step is the individual undergoes what we call a 'liminal experience.' So they're no longer feeling in control, and so their sense of self just drifts, and they're immersed in a sea of images, affects, emotions. They experience these very intense emotional experiences that are labeled spiritual, and then the brain does a search and an updating process; a search for a stronger, better, more adequate self model. And then the last step in the decentering process is when that self model is then basically activated, and a new sense of self emerges from the decentering process.
And that's one of the main accomplishments of religiosity when it's working well. It gives the individual a set of tools to do that updating of the sense of self, so that you have an enriched sense of self, and the individual is able to live a more flourishing and thriving life. These processes that were normally held as sacred within all the world's religious traditions are now entering the secular arenas. And because they're so powerful, they're dangerous. In the wrong hands, it can create fanatics, people who are immune to updating their beliefs, and if you question those beliefs, you get violent reactions. The decentering process is such a powerful neurotechnology. It makes us incredibly vulnerable when we trigger it, so it needs to be held in a ritual process that will take it safely from step one right through the liminal process, the scary liminal process, through the editing, updating process, and then finally the reactivation of an enriched sense of self. Every one of those steps, if they go off the rails, it creates huge psychological and other problems.
So, as we understand this decentering process, a natural next question to ask is: How can we use that kind of knowledge to help people, or to find better ways to live in the world? With regard to people who consider themselves religious, one of the things that they might do is rediscover their own traditions. Things like aesthetical practices, ritual practices, scriptures, meditations, study. Some of the key ingredients of those tools are this decentering process; so religious believers can take that information and rediscover the riches of their own tradition in terms of those tools. Non-religious people, they can take this information regarding the neurotechnology of self-transformation, and find or create tools that promote the decentering process, 'cause it ain't easy, you know? If you try to do it consciously, it's not that easy. What makes me really excited about the field is that it is uncovering some fundamental aspects of human nature, human experience. It's interesting, it's simultaneously enhancing of our understanding of this realm of human experience — but also deepening the mystery.