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LOS ANGELES—In Tennessee Williams's Southern Gothic tragedy, Summer and Smoke, a young doctor taunts Alma, the idealistic daughter of the local preacher, with the news that in his extensive explorations of human anatomy, he had never once come across the soul.

If Williams's doctor had been doing his medical studies today, he might not be so sure.

Pioneering advances in the study of the biology of behavior are raising questions about the functions of brain mechanisms in activities such as prayer and meditation, and, in a far more controversial vein, whether there may be something in our neurological makeup that disposes human beings to religious experience in the first place.

Much of the research in this area by American neuroscientists is barely at the starting gate, but already it's attracted wide attention and provoked some fervent debate — much of it, not surprisingly, from theologians who specialize in the dialogue between contemporary science and religion. One of the most prominent U.S. institutes devoted to that discussion, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) based at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, Calif., is sponsoring a conference in conjunction with the Templeton Foundation of scientists and religious leaders this June. The Vatican, for its part, will convene a week-long symposium under joint Vatican Observatory-CTNS sponsorship June 21-28 in Krakow, Poland to consider the theological implications of the new brain research.

What has caught the attention of the public has been mainly the studies coming out of brain imaging, the use of pet- and CT-scans, MRIs, radioactive tracers, and other similar devices to monitor brain activity in subjects while they pray or meditate.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently photographed neural activity in the minds of nine Buddhist monks in prolonged meditation. Each monk was injected with a faintly radioactive tracer chemical that helped illuminate changes in the brain for the SPECT(single positron emission computed tomography) camera. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the experiment concluded that during meditation neural activity diminished in those parts of the brain that establish spatial relationships. Perhaps, the researchers speculated, that means that a sense of the transcendent is hard-wired into the human brain. The researchers say they plan to carry out a similar study of Franciscan nuns at prayer for comparison.

University of California at San Diego (UCSD) researchers have been using skin sensors to test how synapses respond while subjects are reading a religious text — this with a view to trying to measure the physiology of particularly intense forms of spiritual concentration, like the Orthodox Jewish practice of Talmudic study and discourse.

More clinically, V.S. Ramachandran of UCSD's Center for Brain and Cognition, an experimental neurologist who specializes in epilepsy research, studies the phenomenon of the heightened religious experience that often accompanies epileptic seizures in a search for whether there is a “dedicated neural machinery” that attunes a person to spiritual matters, as the scientist put it in a recent Times interview.

A few proponents of the so-called “biochemistry of belief” research are already making spectacular claims for it.

“Alot of what people hold as articles of faith,” a University of Southern California brain theorist was recently quoted as saying, “[will be] eroded by neuroscience…. In 20 years we'll understand what happens in the brain when people have religious experiences.”

And a University of California at Los Angeles psychiatrist recently wondered out loud “whether there will be room for a divine being once we can explain the phenomenon of subjective experience through neural mechanisms.”

Some scientists close to the new research are far more circumspect, however — both about the limits of the new findings themselves and their implications.

“The people who do this sort of research are pretty clever,” said Dr. George Moore, a University of Southern California professor emeritus in biomedical engineering, currently doing research in Parkinson's disease. “By way of brain imaging, they can detect increases in blood flow to a particular region of the brain. The subject performs one activity, you take a scan, identify changes in blood flow, and then design the research that tries to establish that the observed differences are specific to the behavior of the subject. It's neither more nor less profound than that.”

“What these changes in region X that you've photographed might mean, however,” he told the Register, “nobody has the slightest idea. At most, it may point to a region of the brain that deserves fuller examination.”

“Frankly,” he said, “a lot of the current discussion is public relations, media hype. Even if the research produces results, it won't settle anything. After all, we would expect different mental activities to light up different parts of the brain, wouldn't we? As for the deeper, theological questions — just how do you propose to construct the study of mystery?”

Some Catholic theologians also see the “biochemistry of belief” controversy as more “molehill” than “mountain.”

“It's a lot of fuss about nothing,” said John Haught, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and director of the university's Center for the Study of Science and Religion.

“The reason why [the recent research] is controversial at all,” he told the Register, “is because simple-minded materialists are running around saying, ‘Aha,’ as though they'd just got the goods on religion.”

Materialism, the theologian and author of the 1995 study Science and Religion, told the Register is not a matter of logical outcomes, but an alternative belief system. (Materialism is a philosophical theory that proposes that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality.)

“The idea that science will eventually answer everything and that spirituality is simply a matter of neurons,” he said, “that's called scientism. That's not science; that's an expression of a kind of secular faith.”

The theologian said that he preferred St. Augustine's view that “we can never grasp the mind because it's the mind that's doing the grasping.”

As for the new brain research, Haught called the preliminary findings “wonderful knowledge. Something has to be there and functioning reliably in order for consciousness and spirituality to come about.” However, he said, “we can acknowledge the dependency of mind on body without having to imply that mind is reducible to chemistry. Even if we find the [mental] wiring, that says nothing about the truth that is being communicated through it.”

“There's always mystery,” he said, “because we humans are finally never the masters of reality.”

Some theologians sympathetic to the new research are also concerned about what they call the “reductionist” temptation inherent in certain approaches to it.

“More is being made of these results than science will allow,” said Nancey Murphy, who teaches philosophy of science at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “Some scientists use it to debunk religion, but the conclusions don't follow. We Christians always knew there was something real going on when we prayed, now even the neuroscientists know it.”

CTNS director Robert Russell, a professor of theology and science at the GTU in Berkeley, concurs.

“Look, even the reductionists for whom science provides a sufficient account of reality have to account for the ‘I'that understands and apprehends truth. It can't all simply be a matter of genetic determinism. There are always these transcendental, nonreducible aspects that all of us, in fact, base our actions on.”

However, Murphy, along with other experts associated with CTNS, stress that there are important theological challenges posed by this ongoing research.

“What this research is pointing us toward is the notion that the ancient debate about dualism is over — that human beings are composed of a material body and an immaterial soul,” the Protestant theologian opined. “What ancient and medieval theologians attributed to the soul, we now know happens in the brain. The brain is the seat of the interaction with God.”

One of the benefits of this research, she claimed, was that it “ultimately leads us to a clearer recognition of the ways we [humans] are thoroughly embodied. If you've got the new neuroscience in the back of your mind, you can think about these issues in a fresh way.”

Haught is not so sure.

“The kind of radical dualism that opposes material body to immaterial soul,” he said, “has never been good theology — the idea that we are essentially ‘soul’ and only accidentally ‘body.’” In biblical terms, our final destiny is “always an embodied destiny. Witness the notion of the resurrection of the body.”

But the word “soul,” he said, expresses far more than some “disembodied part of us.” Rather, it points to the deepest level of our being, the irreducible mystery at the core of the human person. “I hardly think we're entitled to abandon that idea.”

The immortality of the soul, Haught told the Register, is a vital concept, one that we need to carry with us into this discussion, pointing, as it does, “to the eternal value of the individual person.” The immortality of the soul tells us that “we're not just stuff,” he said.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church emphasizes the radical unity of soul and body (“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity” [364]), a union so profound, in fact, that “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (365). Nevertheless, it also stresses that the soul is not a product of biology, but “created immediately by God,” and also that it is survives the death of the body to be reunited with it at the final Resurrection (366).

“Finally, the questions this research raises go beyond anthropology and into cosmology,” said Haught. “The cosmos, as we're coming to learn more and more about it, is not merely matter into which souls were exiled, as Plato thought, but organized, from the very beginning, in such a way as to give rise to the mind.”

Perhaps, as several theologians have suggested, the thrust of the new landmark research on the brain and spirituality may end up providing scientists and religious leaders, not with answers, still less with more polemical ammunition to use against each other, but, finally, with a common summons to wonder.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.