18 November 2011

God Detection Neurons?

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:21 pm

Here’s a second installment on Thomas Metzinger, following up on yesterday’s post.

If certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable, we obviously cannot correlate them with states in our brains… But pinning down the neural correlates of specific conscious contents will lay the foundation for future neurotechnology. As soon as we know the sufficient physical correlates of apricot-pink or sandalwood-amber, we will in principle be able to activate these states by stimulating the brain in an appropriate manner. We will be able to modulate our sensations of color or smell, and intensify or extinguish them, by stimulating or inhibiting the relevant groups of neurons. This may also be true for emotional states, such as empathy, gratitude, or religious ecstasy.

– Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, pp. 19-20

Neuroscientific research has already made good progress in identifying brain coordinates for color perception, and investigation of the role of mirror neurons in empathy is a hot topic in the field. But being able to stimulate the neurons directly doesn’t belie the more important empirical evidence that these neurons are usually activated by information extracted from the environment. I.e., the parts of the brain that detect the color apricot-pink are tuned in to specific frequencies of radiomagnetic waves reflected by the surfaces of objects out there in the world, detected by photoreceptor cells in the retina, and transmitted via neural pathways to the brain.

So what about religious ecstasy? Already it can be artificially stimulated by shysters and hucksters; some day brain probes might be able to do the trick. But just because the religious ecstasy neurons can be juked doesn’t imply that all religious ecstasy is an illusion. Color-detecting neurons detect features of environmental surfaces; mirror neurons detect features of other humans. Might not religious ecstasy neurons detect features of other sorts of non-human, super-powerful sapient beings that are out there in the environment somewhere?

I know this idea has been proposed before, that the gods have equipped humans with internal mechanisms for detecting the gods’ presence or for receiving their messages. Metzinger refers to our internal representation of the environment as a “tunnel” because of its narrow bandwidth. We are equipped to detect only a small fraction of the almost unimaginably rich environment in which we are immersed. Maybe the gods are out there chattering and emitting vibes all the time, but we just can’t pick up the signals.

Humans who have never previously seen a snake exhibit fear on first contact with one. Presumably this is because the instinct to fear snakes was adaptive in the environment in which humans evolved. Our ancestors who had active snake-fear neurons avoided snakes, didn’t get bit, and so survived to pass on the snake-fear gene. Surely some ancestors who didn’t fear snakes managed to survive, and so there are surely some among us today who do not instinctively fear snakes. But there’s certainly no evolutionary pressure for the snake-fearing gene to go extinct in a snake-free environment. The snake-fear neurons are still there in the brain even if the bearer of that brain never once encounters a snake in the world.

So what about the god-detector neuron? Most people in the world claim to detect the presence of the gods. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether these billions of people’s god-detector genes are activated by real gods in their environment or whether they are artificially stimulated. The point is that these hypothetical god-detector neurons can be activated. Maybe in the evolutionary environment it was adaptive for humans to be aware of the gods. Maybe the gods enhanced survival value by conveying information about where to find food or where predators were hiding or how to overcome an enemy. Still, some of our ancestors who couldn’t detect the presence of the gods might have survived anyway, passing the god-indifference genes on to subsequent generations. Just as the absence of snake-fear genes does not hinder survival in an environment in which there are no real snakes, so the absence of god-detection genes might pose no handicap in an environment where the gods have departed or where they no longer provide survival benefits to humans.

Maybe the god-detector neurons need to learn — that is, they have to be put through some input-output-feedback iterations before they become properly attuned to the signal. Neurons assigned to language processing never function properly if you happen to be raised by wolves. Exposure to language-speakers during early childhood is necessary if the child is to learn to speak and understand speech. Maybe this iterative learning circuitry is necessary also for the god-detector neurons. If during the critical developmental period a person is not exposed to the gods, that person never develops the ability to detect gods if they happen to show up later.

It’s also possible that the god-detector neurons can become hypersensitized. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have hypersensitive asshole detector neurons: they’re chronically inflamed, always alert, always receiving signals alerting my brain to the proximal presence of assholes. The problem with a hypersensitive detection mechanism of this sort (or so I’m told) is that it generates some false positives; i.e., I’m prone to detecting assholes when none are present. Maybe this same problem of false positives plagues those burdened with hypersensitive god-detector neurons: they detect divine activity everywhere and all the time, even when it’s not present. Alternatively, people with dulled, insensitive detector neurons may experience a high proportion of false negatives. They don’t detect assholes or gods even when they’re staring them in the face.



  1. What would Metzinger reply to the counter that neuron don’t have experiences, persons do? I suppose that he might offer the idea of the person as a construct in the way that Hume did and some Buddhists.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 18 November 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  2. I’m still only a short way into the book so I’m not really prepared to answer on M’s behalf. I don’t think he’s a behaviorist in the sense that stimulation of the neurons automatically triggers response. Per M, the brain assembles a simulation from the neural activity which it uses to monitor the environment, to think/plan, and to initiate intentional action. Part of this simulation would include color, empathy, religious ecstasy — phenomenological transformations of the neural information. But who or what uses the internal simulation for monitoring, thinking, planning? He says there is no such thing as a self, so we’ll have to wait and see.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 November 2011 @ 7:55 pm

  3. To be fair to Metzinger and to be clear if the post wasn’t, Metzinger doesn’t propose the god-detecting neurons — that’s my riff.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 November 2011 @ 7:55 am

  4. We already have the technology to stimulate someone’s neurons to perceive red or smell salami. That technology is red things and salami.

    That’s not meant to be a glib response. When we start looking at salami as a neuro-stimulation device, we start to see what we really mean when we talk about stimulating neurons “directly”. And part of what we mean is, “less indirectly”.

    I think we’ll have an easier time philosophizing about brain/mind/consciousness when we begin to dig more deeply into what we mean by words like “illusion”. Do we mean that there is no physical correlate to the perception? Or no physical correlate to the concepts we use to describe the perception? In either case, we need to keep in mind that nowhere in the entire process was there a leap from the physical to anything else. The perceptual states are physical. The concepts are physical.

    I don’t know if Metzinger is using words like “illusion” or “epiphenomenon”, but if he is, beware. On the other hand, I really did like his statements about eliminativism and empirical knowlege from your previous post.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 19 November 2011 @ 11:47 am

  5. This is because humans evolved in an environment where red salami was the most nutritious food available? Okay, maybe not.

    The individual subject is squeezed from both ends, in danger of being dismissed as epiphenomenal by social systems and by genes/neurons. I suspect we can agree that salami doesn’t intrinsically taste like salami — that the taste is an interaction between the salami and the human’s taste buds and neurons and so on. So too with the beautiful rainbow, the reality of which M acknowledged in that quote on the prior post: its beauty is a combination of electromagnetic waves, the human visual perception system, and human aesthetic sensibilities. Even if my visual perception system constructs a simulation or representation or image of the external world, that image is integral to my perceiving the beautiful rainbow. In a sense the brain-constructed image is the internal reality within which the perceived rainbow manifests itself. This understanding denies the reality of neither the external world nor the internal representation of that world.

    It seems that M wants to eliminate “self” as an epiphenomenon, but presumably not the sorts of perceptions and judgments typically attributed to selves. We’ll see where he goes with this argument.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 November 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  6. More likely than finding a proper “illusion” is to find a philosophers invention like Ryles “epihenomenon”, Searles “causal powers” or recently Shaviros “panpsychism”: holes with a name used to fill holes without a name.

    I suspect that not only the code of our brain is arbitrary on a systems level ( operational closure to be supposed ) but there are also arbitrary differences from brain to brain. So we have 6.5 billion different encodings of apricot-pink and 6.5 billion different encodings of the number 7. So how many sevens are there actually? Are there as many as there are brains or is there just one? How do you think you can stimulate the 7? By showing a picture of a 7 and then hunting down a pathway to the neural assembly which responded to 7 instead of 8? Is this the same 7 as the one we use when we compute 7+7? Is this even the same 7 as we use tomorrow or in a year? So not only is the code arbitrary in general and differs from brain to brain but also within one and the same brain. Don’t lets even begin to step out of correlationism and talk about all the sevens in living and inanimate beings.


    Comment by Kay — 19 November 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  7. So you’re saying that focusing at the level of specific neurons and synaptic links is a faulty strategy? That what is important is thinking the 7 in specific contexts, and whatever specific neural pathways happen to be available in a particular person’s brain for thinking the 7 are arbitrary and unimportant? I think that’s right. The brain’s task is to navigate through the world, to solve problems, to find the salami in the grocery store, to remember someone’s telephone number. A brain’s internal representations of its body, its environment, and its own processing — these are tools for doing things in the world, means and not ends.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 November 2011 @ 11:26 pm

  8. It’s unlikely that the neurons for detecting and processing the 7 are located in the same place in every person’s brain. There’s also no compelling evidence that the human brain is outfitted with a discrete “math module,” inasmuch as many cultures don’t do much with math beyond basic counting, and these cultures are comprised of people whose brains are structurally the same as everyone else’s.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessary to posit that the human neural network is entirely flat, and that its cells and pathways achieve specialization only through iterative training. There are specialized cells in the eyes for detecting color; it’s at least plausible that there would be specialized neurons in the brain — a visual cortex — for processing the input of these sensory cells and assembling them into a perceived visual array. This sort of hard-wired specialization would likely have been evolutionarily adaptive. This neural specialization doesn’t mean, however, that the same exact cells in the visual cortex of each brain are the ones that trigger the perception of “apricot-pink.” And there’s almost surely enough plasticity within the visual cortex such that it can rewire itself to work around any dead cells in the array. So, e.g., if my apricot-pink neurons are destroyed by a ministroke or brain probe, I would lose the ability to distinguish that color for awhile. But with continued exposure to a world in which the apricot-pink hue occurs often enough, my brain would re-assign perception of that color to some other neurons.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2011 @ 8:37 am

  9. Sounds like you were recalling some of our conversations we had a few years back on John Calvin’s idea of the sensus divinitatis and Alvin Plantinga’s epistemological development along these lines. Good food for thought here in your post. Indeed, indeed. To the true believer, the hypersensitive, God simply is everywhere. Everything is a trace of God. This gets theologically awkward, of course, when you have to deal with the massive amounts of suffering in the world. For that reason, I’m fairly hesitant to count myself among the crowd who sees in everything in the world a pathway back to a personal God.

    On the other hand, what do we mean by “God”? You said, Metzinger refers to our internal representation of the environment as a “tunnel” because of its narrow bandwidth. We are equipped to detect only a small fraction of the almost unimaginably rich environment in which we are immersed. Maybe “God” is the word we use when our tunnel is expanded beyond its normal limits and we experience a deep, rich sense of the world. From the perspective of the mystic/contemplative traditions of the world’s religions, “God” tends to be more ineffable.

    The various mystical/contemplative practices seem to be aimed at expanding the boundaries of our ordinary “tunnel” such that we can appreciate a profound depth in the world. This isn’t really as abstract or esoteric as it may at first seem. We experience these moments, all of us, when we witness the birth or our children, the death of friends and family, when we stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon, fall in love, or any other number of experiences that kind of pull us out of ourselves and into something that seems bigger than ourselves. For the mystic and contemplative, one of the aims of life is to live with this kind of awakened consciousness. Is there a neuron for that? Better yet, is there an app for that?


    Comment by erdman31 — 20 November 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  10. Interesting thoughts, erdman. If God is everywhere at once, rather than a localizable entity in space, then God might be an all-pervasive force like the one that pulls all of matter away from the Big Bang, a sort of background noise or ether “in which we live and move and have our being.” It would be hard for a human to detect this sort of invisible all-pervasive environmental property, just as it’s difficult to detect the space-time continuum or even air. If God is sentient, sapient, conscious, then God would be more specifically a ground for human consciousness, a transparent medium in which we perceive, build simulations of the world, solve problems, etc. Since we’re unaware of our own brain operations in this regard, likely we’d remain unaware of the panpsychic medium in which our brains our immersed. I’m not sure how conscious awareness of that sort of God’s presence would ever occur. We might become knowledgeable after other evidence has been presented to us — e.g., we’re aware of gravity and atmosphere because of science, not so much from intuition. If there were some sort of empirical evidence of God-as-force or God-as-plasma, we could at least be consciously familiarized with it/him/her/them.

    The hypothetical god-detecting neurons would probably only work if the gods were communicative and attempting to make contact, or if they were localizable in the environment as distinguishable from background noise.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2011 @ 7:56 pm

  11. Right. However, we are aware of when we are more aware. There are moments when our awareness seems heightened–it’s like we are connected with the greater cosmos or caught up in something bigger than ourselves. So, religion tends to brand that as a personal god, to bring these experiences into language and find some way to harness the greater energy of awareness toward some constructive end.

    K: “I’m not sure how conscious awareness of that sort of God’s presence would ever occur.”

    Maybe I’m not quite following, but if what we call “god” is an all-pervasive force, or as you say “background noise,” or the mystical/contemplative intuition of greater awareness, then “God’s presence” would simply always be. Greater awareness of all that simply is would translate into greater awareness of “God.” The more expansive one’s consciousness is, the greater the sense of “God.” Perhaps what was once unrecognizable “background noise” becomes foregrounded.


    Comment by erdman31 — 20 November 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  12. Erdman, you say “it’s like we are connected with the greater cosmos or caught up in something bigger than ourselves” Metzinger cites research on people who practice deep meditation that supports your contention:

    Antoine Lutz and his colleagues at the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin studied Tibetan monks who had experienced at least ten thousand hours of meditation. They found that meditators self-induce sustained high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and global phase-synchrony, visible in EEG recordings made while they are meditating. The high-amplitude gamma activity found in some of these meditators seems to be the strongest reported in the scientific literature. Why is this interesting? As Wolf Singer and his coworkers have shown, gamma-band oscillations, caused by neurons firing away in synchrony about forty times per second, are one of our best current candidates for creating unity and wholeness (although their specific role in this respect is very much debated). For example, on the level of conscious object-perception, these synchronous oscillations often seem to be what makes an object’s various features — the edges, color, and surface texture of, say, an apple — cohere as a single unified percept. Many experiments have shown that synchronous firing may be exactly what differentiates an assembly of neurons that gains access to consciousness from one that also fires away but in an uncoordinated manner and thus does not. If a thousand soldiers walk over a bridge together, nothing happens; however, if they march across in lock-step, the bridge may well collapse.

    Then you say this: “Perhaps what was once unrecognizable “background noise” becomes foregrounded.” Again Metzinger is right with you:

    The synchrony of neural responses also plays a decisive role in figure-background segregation — that is, the pop-out effect that lets us perceive an object against a background, allowing a new gestalt to emerge from the perceptual scene. Ulrich Ott is Germany’s leading meditation researcher, working at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the Justus-Liebig Universitat in Giessen. He confronted me with an intriguing idea: Could deep meditation be the process, perhaps the only process, in which human beings can sometimes turn the global background into the gestalt, the dominating feature of consciousness itself? This assumption would fit in nicely with an intuition held by many, among others Antoine Lutz, namely that the fundamental subject/object structure of experience can be transcended in states of this kind.

    …The oscillations also correlate with the meditators’ verbal reports of the intensity of the meditative experience — that is, oscillations are directly related to reports of intensity. Another interesting finding is that there are significant postmeditative changes to the baseline activity of the brain. Apparently, repeated meditative practice changes the deep structure of consciousness. If meditation is seen as a form of mental training, it turns out that oscillatory synchrony in the gamma range opens just the right time window that would be necessary to promote synaptic change efficiently.

    It seems then that the practice of meditation alters the brain’s internal simulation of the outside world. Does meditation tune you in to real features of the outside world not ordinarily attended to? Or does meditation create a funhouse in your brain, a kind of self-induced hallucination or drugged state? I wonder what sort of research would answer a question like that.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 November 2011 @ 7:44 am

    • K: Does meditation tune you in to real features of the outside world not ordinarily attended to?

      No. Not really. I’ve been meditation for roughly two or three years. I can’t say that I’m attuned to any features of the external world that I hadn’t been attuned to before. But I do feel like meditation has improved my awareness of what I always could perceive. To use Metzinger’s analogy of the apple, I think that I have, to some very small degree, become more aware and appreciative of the color of an apple. That’s speaking figuratively, of course, but the point is that although I am not aware of anything new in the external world, I feel that my experience of it has been deepened because of my contemplative practices, among which is meditation.

      K: Or does meditation create a funhouse in your brain, a kind of self-induced hallucination or drugged state? I wonder what sort of research would answer a question like that.

      Funny you should mention this. I saw a documentary on Buddhist monks a few years ago. They were interviewing monks who were highly skilled practitioners. Some of these monks, very developed in their meditation practice, would go on “retreats” where they would be meditating virtually the entire time, taking little to eat and also sleeping very little. They slowed their breathing down and their whole body became very still, so presumably, they would use very little energy and could stay in this meditative state for days, or perhaps even weeks. They would do this for three months, three years, or even over a decade or so. Nothing but meditation. Amazing.

      They interviewed one monk who was in the middle of a retreat, or else perhaps he had just concluded a retreat. He definitely appeared to be stoned, experiencing some sort of a high that reminds me of a drug-induced state.

      As for myself, I have no real desire to experience this state of mind. I’d rather just experience a greater appreciation for the ordinary.


      Comment by erdman31 — 21 November 2011 @ 4:13 pm

  13. I do recall our earlier discussions of the sensus divinitatis, Erdman. Calvin argued that everyone has an awareness of God, but that for some this awareness is blunted or perhaps even destroyed by sin. In French, maybe also in Latin, the word “conscience” also means “consciousness.” So: bad conscience = bad consciousness. While everyone purportedly has an innate sense of God, according to Calvin no one is able to respond to God’s call through their own volition. This responsiveness, like the sensus divinitatis, is innate in all humans, but it too is rendered inoperative through “total depravity,” which is a universal condition. Consequently responsiveness to God’s call must also be stimulated by God — a kind of theotic override of limited human agency. This God-initiated response is activated only for the elect, and the elect are incapable of resisting the grace of this divine override.

    It would be fun to speculate on the neurological underpinnings that would support Calvin’s sensus divinitatus and his soteriology. I doubt that Plantinga goes into it. Jonathan Edwards would have been the right man for the job if he’d been born maybe 280 years later.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 November 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    • That’s very true. Edwards would have been the right man for the job. Indeed.

      It is strange, to think about Calvin’s viewpoint. God creates something innate, able to recognize the divinity in all the world, then predestines that human beings lose touch with this sensus divinitatis, then condemns the whole lot, then decides to save a few and to hell with the rest, presumably for God’s greater glory.

      Thank God that Calvin’s not God.


      Comment by erdman31 — 21 November 2011 @ 6:48 pm

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