In this fascinating episode, Dr. Michael Ferguson joins LDF host Dan Wotherspoon for a journey into the field of neuroscience and how its insights relate to spirituality and spiritual journeys. Michael is pioneering the new field of “neurospirituality,” and now teaches courses on it at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard College, along with an appointment in neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School, where he is conducting several research projects. As you will learn from listening in on this conversation, he is eminently qualified to unpack for us what he is learning and hoping to continue to learn from this fascinating intersection.
In addition to getting to know Michael personally through his sharing about his own journey toward making these studies his primary focus, he also shares openly about his experiences within Mormonism as a gay man, including the effects of conversion therapy treatments. We also get a great glimpse of his own deep spirituality.
In their wide-ranging discussion, Michael and Dan discuss the nature of spirituality and what the brain is doing while someone is experiencing a peak spiritual experience. Michael differentiates between spiritual “states” and spiritual “traits,” which is a theme that plays out in several sections and that holds great promise for not only understanding more about the reasons some people seem to experience more intense spiritual states, but also about subtleties between different states and his hopes to study various practices associated with these differences and how they map in the brain so he and his colleagues might be able to use the maps associated with depression and other neuro- and psychological symptoms in an effort to find ones that seem to affect the same areas in hopes of tailoring certain practices to affect these places in a positive way. Michael also shares his interest in a particular spiritual trait that he calls “spiritual acceptance,” which describes the levels of openness individuals have to allowing that there is perhaps more going on in the wider universe than what our brains, logic, and language can describe.
Along the way, Michael introduces what the brain is revealing about how deeply wired spiritual pathways are, which brings to light the question of how spiritual experiences may have influenced brain development and vice versa. He and Dan also discuss mysticism and spiritual writings that describe various subtleties along a deep spiritual path that seem to match well with what neuroscience is discovering. For instance, part of their discussion focuses on the poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” by St. John of the Cross, which has suggested a metaphor for one stage along a spiritual journey, as well as descriptions of the inner life as one moves toward God from Teresa of Avila, an influential sixteenth-century nun with a gift for describing the subtleties of various spiritual states. There are parallels in what she writes to what neuroscience is starting to understand.
This is a very inadequate introduction to this two-part episode. May is still serve to whet your appetite for a great listening and spiritual adventure. Don’t miss out!
Neuromichael.com (Michael’s website)
Michael Ferguson, “This is Your Brain on God,” TEDx Salt Lake City, October 2016