The cognitive neuroscience of religious experiences (or neurotheology, as some have called it) is an area of research that I will be moving into, and will eventually become a main focus of this blog. Related to this is the cognitive neuroscience of anomalous psychological (paranormal or parapsychological) experiences, and although I will not be researching this, it is something I'd like to explore, at least theoretically.
Neurotheology has already proven to be controversial, despite being relatively new. Some, for example, have said that scientists involved in this kind of research are trying to disprove the existence of God. This is not the case; regardless of whether or not one is religious, the human brain has a capacity for religious belief.
There are some characteristics which are often said to be unique to our species, language being one of them. However, many species in the animal kingdom have complex forms of communication; recent research suggests that dolphins call each other by name and that songbirds can learn recursive grammar.
I suggest that our capacity for religiosity and spirituality is something that sets us apart from other animals, and that investigating how we evolved this capacity is fundamental to understanding how our species evolved from its hominid ancestors.
The evolution of religious belief must be regarded in the wider context of the evolution of culture and all that it entails – art, science and technology, for example.
An expansion of the neocortex was needed to accomodate these cognitive skills, but the human brain probably reached its present size for other reasons. The transition to bipedalism probably had a large role to play in the expansion of the cortex, as the forelimbs which were freed up became more versatile, requiring an enlargement of the motor cortical areas which control them.
The neural circuitry underlying cultural cognitive skills occurred as a by-product of that cortical expansion.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of scientists investigating religion. The scientific approach to investigating religion will require a synthesis of diverse disciplines, particularly anthropology, archaeology, cognitive science, neuroscience and psychology.
Science and religion are two different, but not incompatible, ways of looking at the world. Neither one can claim to provide absolute truth, but a combination of the two will undoubtedly give us a better understanding of reality than either could on its own. The time is right, therefore, for the reconciliation of science and religion.