Neurotheology, a term first coined by Aldous Huxley, is the study of the relationship between the brain and religious experience. Using neuropsychological screenings and different neuroimaging techniques this burgeoning field of study has shown a relationship between brain activity and our subjective experience of spirituality. According to some researchers this correlation has an evolutionary basis. Indeed, I am a firm believer that spirituality and religious practices are the ultimate adaptive mechanism; one that fosters social cohesion by defining moral values and enacting laws restricting behaviors (e.g., commandments). Most neurotypicals define themselves by their religious practices. It almost seems that for many of us, our brains predispose us to search for meaning via spiritual beliefs. I have already written a blog about religious beliefs in autistic individuals. In this vignette I would like to focus on why we should foster spirituality in our children.
Inner knowledge about an ultimate reality is responsible, to a large extent, for the sense of awe and wonder that we perceive in nature. A trip to the beach, the mountains or a family gathering would not be enjoyed as much without spiritual beliefs. When you go out at night and your mind is taken over by nature’s sounds while contemplating both the vastness of the sky and the beauty of the stars, spirituality makes us perceive the miracle of creation. Without spirituality, the stars would be reduced to dots of matter floating far away in the sky. The satisfaction that we gather from contemplating a starry night has to do with our fascination of “celestial objects” rather than with condensed clumps of matter. I believe that stars are, in many ways our cultural ancestors. The building blocks of humanity stem from a primeval soup of stardust. Reducing our experience of the night sky to its concrete scientific explanation would steal away some of its luster and prevent us from enjoying the experience as something new each time that we gaze upon it. Spirituality relieves the doldrums of everyday life, pries you out of the jaws of mediocrity and challenges you to try and enjoy new experiences.
Maybe spirituality is a throwback to evolutionary consideration pitting ascended apes versus fallen angels. However, it is more important for me to dwell on the positive effects of spirituality than on its mechanistic origins. Indeed, spirituality changes the way we perceive cause and effect and makes us believe that we fulfill a purpose greater that what our eyes can see. During evolutionary times, our ancestors faced the constant specter of an early death. Spirituality provided an answer to the finality of life and made the tedium of daily living more tolerable. “All things work out for the good for those who love the Lord”. From the New Testament, Paul addresses the hardships we face in life and talks about how we can use our problems to help others facing the same difficulties.
My grandson Bertrand (my little bear) had severe autism, was nonverbal, and from the moment of birth till his death, he suffered from relentless seizures. I took great solace in realizing the fact that he was a miracle that had been loaned to our family. In a passage from the Bible the disciples asked Jesus about a man who was born blind, and Jesus answered, “so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. In effect throughout life we are all teachers, educating others by our own behaviors. Bertrand made a positive difference in my life; teaching me patience, helping me manage my own stress, and opening my eyes to the beauty of life. This has always been a two-way street. Spirituality is not about thinking of the possible benefits you may get out of a personal relationship but, rather, what you can give into it.