For thousands of years our ancient ancestors roamed the Earth alongside a variety of animals as first among equals, fighting tooth and nail against nature to secure a place in the hierarchy. Different “versions” of humans would come and go, but none would have the everlasting impact that the last “update” would bring, Homo Sapiens. What were the conditions and factors that opened the path for Homo Sapiens to dominate the Earth in a mere 3,000 years?
In terms of actual accomplishments, there is nothing in the human record that indicates that our ape ancestors were set to change the course of the planet and its inhabitants. But around 70,000 years ago we start seeing the impressiveness and ingenuity of our species when they started populating the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Relatively soon after, humans manage to cross the last standing land bridges into Australia and the Americas, a huge feat for a bunch of apes who had just recently left East Africa. It is around this time that we start seeing how our different environments shaped our political groupings beyond hunter gatherers and into specialized bands where we begin to see evidence of religion, art, and culture. Since then, humans have been on a journey in learning on how to cooperate more efficiently and productively. Darwin, in his landmark work On the Origin of Species declares:
“In the long history of humankind (and animalkind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”
Is Spirituality Inherently Human?
The real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level, it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers. Now, there are other animals, like the social insects – the bees, the ants – that can cooperate in large numbers, but they don’t do so flexibly. They’re cooperation is very rigid. There is basically just one way in which a beehive can function, and if there is a new opportunity or a new danger, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of worker bees. Other animals, like the social mammals – the wolves, the elephants, the dolphins, the chimpanzees – can cooperate much more flexibly, but they do so only in small numbers because cooperation among chimpanzees is based on intimate knowledge, one of the other. The only animals that can combine the two abilities together and cooperate both flexibly and still do so in very large numbers is us, Homo sapiens.
Our ability to collectively imagine in a force greater than us grants us a reserve of extra motivation “juice” to keep us alive in life. Religion is one of the oldest and longest serving human institutions and has established itself as a major factor in shaping our history.
The majority of the world’s population has also found in religion a core belief system fulfills the innate human need for meaning and purpose, acting as a shield against existential angst and moral dilemmas. Additionally, it can be argued that religion establishes a common-belief system which fosters cooperation and understanding between members, thus making society less susceptible to friction. In fact, the use of religion as a social tool may largely explain its staying power and cross-cultural ubiquity. Human societies have indeed found in religion a solution to induce individuals to be nicer to each other as it outsources social and moral monitoring to a supernatural force that is all-seeing and omnipresent. If you believe in a God, even if no one is watching you, you are compelled to be pro-social because God is watching you.
Religion as a Science
All the religion aside, how does religion affect our identity and brains? Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who studies the brain in light of religious experience, has spent his career following this hunch. “If you contemplate God long enough,” he writes in How God Changes Your Brain, “something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change, and if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real.”
Andrew argues that religious experiences satisfy two basic functions of the brain: self-maintenance (“How do we survive as individuals and how do we fit in society?”) and self-transcendence (“How do we continue to evolve and change as a species?”). While taking brain scans of people partaking in religious experiences, Andrew and his team found that it affects two parts of the brain. The first, the parietal lobe, located in the upper back part of the cortex, is the area that processes sensory information, helps us create a sense of self, and helps to establish spatial relationships between that self and the rest of the world, says Newberg. Interestingly, he’s observed a deactivation of the parietal lobe during certain ritual activities.
“When you begin to do some kind of practice like ritual, over time that area of the brain appears to shut down,” he said. “As it starts to quiet down, since it normally helps to create sense of self, that sense of self starts blur, and the boundaries between self and other – another person, another group, God, the universe, whatever it is you feel connected to – the boundary between those begins to dissipate and you feel one with it.”
The other part of the brain heavily involved in religious experience is the frontal lobe, which normally help us to focus our attention and concentrate on things, says Newberg. “When that area shuts down, it could theoretically be experienced as a kind of loss of willful activity – that we’re no longer making something happen but it’s happening to us.”
No matter your view on religion, the subject begs to ask whether our brains are predisposed to religion or if it’s our own willful creativity?
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