Description

This unique course offered through Harvard Divinity School explores the rich varieties of historical and contemporary spiritualities through conceptual lenses of cognitive neuroscience. The course will selectively survey the history of neuroscience, philosophy of mind, principles of network neuroscience, and brain mapping studies related to spirituality. Neuroscience content will be paired with classic texts from world spiritual traditions, curated to support discursive exchange between neural and spiritual epistemologies. Course participants will be expected to critically consider ways that the emerging neuroscience of human spirituality variably universalizes, contextualizes, and transforms an understanding of the sacred.

No background coursework in either neuroscience or spirituality studies are assumed for this course. Students with exposure to either neuroscientific or spiritual streams of knowledge, though, will likely find their educational background in these disciplines helpful throughout the semester. All students regardless of their educational background or current educational track will be expected to demonstrate an introductory level of understanding about the human nervous system; a superabundance of knowledge in spirituality studies—while impressive—will not be considered compensatory for failure to apprehend scientific principles presented in the course.

During our classroom sessions, we will intentionally cultivate a learning environment that is grounded in the principles of humility, gentleness, and curiosity. By the end of the semester, the successful student will be able to articulate in general and specific terms an integrated synthesis of neuroscience and spirituality, and will be equipped with essential knowledge and skills to contribute to research on this exhilarating fusion of disciplines.

Semester at a glance:

September 9 – Welcome & Course Introduction

September 16 – Let There Be Dark; Spiritual Phenomena; Meet the Brain

September 23 – Meet (more of) the Brain; Infused Biology

September 30 – Metaphysics of Neurospirituality

October 7 – Spiritual Personalities

October 14 – Neuroscience of Meditation (Mindfulness)

October 21 – Neuroscience of Meditation (Compassion); Introduction to Prayer Studies

October 28 – Neuroscience of Prayer

November 4 – Spiritual Senses

November 11 – Shamanism; Psychedelic Medicine

November 18 – Clinical Neurospirituality; Semester Synthesis

 

Assigned Readings & Activities

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 Welcome & Course Introduction

Sept. 9 classroom session – Welcome & Course Introduction
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Let There Be Dark; Spiritual Phenomena; Meet the Brain

Required readings in lead of Sept. 16 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Neuroanatomy through Clinical Cases, pp. 13 – 21
  • A cartography of ecstatic and meditative states (Fischer, 1971)

Spirituality:

  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, “Spirituality: The Search for the Sacred”

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons (Ferguson, 2018)

Books:

  • Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 3: The Reality of the Unseen
  • The Mystical Theology
  • Practical Mysticism
  • Love Is A Stranger
  • Living Flame of Love
  • Principles of Neural Design, pp. 64–89 (“Distributing output patterns” through “Conclusions regarding organization of mammal brain”)

Sept. 16 classroom session – Let There Be Dark; Spiritual Phenomena; Meet the Brain
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Meet (more of) the Brain; Infused Biology

Required readings in lead of Sept. 23 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Principles of Neural Design, pp. 58—64 (“Saturn’s scythe sets brain design” through “Resurrection”)

Spirituality:

  • Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology
  • The Tao Te Ching

Required activities:

  • Download MRIcro neuroimage viewing software
  • Download FSLeyes neuroimage viewing software
  • Download the Harvard-Oxford digital atlases of cortical and subcortical regions
  • Download the 7-component network parcellation from Yeo 2011

Supplementary readings:

Articles:

  • The human brain is intrinsically organized into dynamic, anticorrelated functional networks (Fox, 2005)
  • The organization of the human cerebral cortex estimated by intrinsic functional connectivity (Yeo, 2011)

Supplementary activity:

  • Explore neurosynth.org

Sept. 23 classroom session – Meet (more of) the Brain; Infused Biology
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Metaphysics of Neurospirituality

Required readings in lead of Sept. 30 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Fluid and flexible minds: Intelligence reflects synchrony in the brain’s intrinsic network architecture (Ferguson, 2017)
  • Loneliness and meaning in life are reflected in the intrinsic network architecture of the brain (Mwilambwe-Tshilobo, 2019)

Spirituality:

  • From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Chapter 3: On the Origin of Reasons
  • De Anima (On the Soul), Book 3, Chapters III-VIII
  • The Phenomenon of Man, Chapter 2: The Within of Things

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • Hylomorphism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Mere Hylomorphism and Neuroscience (Madden)

Books:

  • The Phenomenon of Man, Chapter 1: The Stuff of the Universe
  • Varieties of Religious Experiences, Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology
  • Galen on the Brain, Chapter 2: Galen’s Methods and Materials for Investigation of the Brain

Sept. 30 classroom session – Metaphysics of Neurospirituality
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Spiritual Personalities

Required readings in lead of Oct. 7 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Spirituality and religion in epilepsy (Devinsky, 2008)
  • A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain lesions (Ferguson, 2021)

Spirituality:

  • Practical Mysticism, “Love and Will”

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • Self-transcendence as a measurable transpersonal construct (Garcia-Romeu, 2010)

Books:

  • The Quran
  • The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5

Oct. 7 classroom session – Spiritual Personalities
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Neuroscience of Meditation (Mindfulness)

Required readings in lead of Oct. 14 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density (Hölzel, 2011)
  • Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness (Vago, 2012)

Spirituality:

  • The Way of the Bodhisattva (complete by October 21)

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation (Tang, 2015)
  • Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness (Lazar, 2005)
  • Disentangling the neural mechanisms involved in Hinduism- and Buddhism-related meditations (Tomasino, 2014)
  • How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective (Hölzel, 2011)
  • Meditation effects within the hippocampal complex revealed by voxel-based morphometry and cytoarchitectonic probabilistic mapping (Luders, 2013)

Books:

  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, “Meditation and Positive Psychology”

Oct. 14 classroom session – Neuroscience of Meditation (Mindfulness)
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Neuroscience of Meditation (Compassion);
Introduction to Prayer Studies

Required readings in lead of Oct. 21 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation (Lutz, 2008)
  • Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions (Hofman, 2011)

Spirituality:

  • The Way of the Bodhisattva

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • The neurophysiological basis of compassion: An fMRI meta-analysis of compassion and its related neural processes (Kim, 2020)
  • Self-compassion in clinical practice (Germer, 2013)

Books:

  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, “Compassion”
  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, “Forgiveness”

Oct. 21 classroom session – Neuroscience of Meditation (Compassion); Introduction to Prayer Studies
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Neuroscience of Prayer

Required readings in lead of Oct. 28 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience (Beauregard, 2008)

Spirituality:

  • Interior Castle, Book 4
  • Song of Songs (Hebrew Bible)

Supplementary readings:
Articles:

  • Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns (Beauregard, 2006)
  • Effect of a one-week spiritual retreat on dopamine and serotonin transporter binding: a preliminary study (Newberg, 2018)

Books:

  • Third Spiritual Alphabet, Sixth Treatise: Frequently practice recollection so as to train yourself in its use

Oct. 28 classroom session – Neuroscience of Prayer
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Spiritual Senses

Required readings in lead of Nov. 4 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Seeing mathematics: perceptual experience and brain activity in acquired synesthesia (Brogaard, 2013)
  • The neural correlates of coloured music: A functional MRI investigation of auditory-visual synaesthesia (Neufeld, 2012)

Spirituality:

  • The Spiritual Senses, Chapter 9: Bonaventure

Supplementary reading:
Articles:

  • Colored halos around faces and emotion-evoked colors: a new form of synesthesia (Ramachandran, 2009)
  • Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness (Safran, 2015)
  • The neural correlates of coloured music: A functional MRI investigation of auditory-visual synaesthesia (Neufeld, 2012)
  • The repurposed social brain (Parkinson & Wheatley, 2015)
  • A human memory circuit derived from brain lesions causing amnesia (Ferguson, 2019)
  • Revisit – Fluid and flexible minds: Intelligence reflects synchrony in the brain’s intrinsic network architecture (Ferguson, 2017)
  • Lesion network localization of free will (Darby, 2018)

Books:

  • Doctrine & Covenants (LDS canon), Section 8
  • Principles of Neural Design, Chapter 8: How Photoreceptors Optimize the Capture of Visual Information
  • Principles of Neural Design, Chapter 11: Principles of Retinal Design

Nov. 4 classroom session – Spiritual Senses
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Shamanism;
Psychedelic Medicine

Required readings in lead of Nov. 11 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Brain network reconfiguration and perceptual decoupling during an absorptive state of consciousness (Hove, 2015)
  • Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin (Carhart-Harris, 2012)

Spirituality:

  • Trends in Contemporary Research on Shamanism (DuBois, 2011)

Supplementary reading:
Articles:

  • Revisit – A cartography of ecstatic and meditative states (Fischer, 1971)
  • Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music (Salimpoor, 2011)
  • Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion (Sievers, 2013)
  • Increased functional connectivity after listening to favored music in adults with Alzheimer dementia (King, 2019)
  • MDMA-assisted therapy for severe PTSD: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 study (Mitchell, 2021)

Nov. 11 classroom session – Shamanism; Psychedelic Medicine
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Clinical Neurospirituality; Semester Synthesis

Required readings in lead of Nov. 18 classroom session:
Neuroscience:

  • Altruism and “love of neighbor” offer neuroanatomical protection against depression (Miller, 2021)
  • Spiritual experiences are related to engagement of a ventral frontotemporal functional brain network: Implications for prevention and treatment of behavioral and substance addictions (McClintock, 2019)

Spirituality:

  • Handbook of Religion and Health, Chapter 7: Depression
  • Handbook of Religion and Health, Chapter 11: Alcohol and Drug Use

Supplementary reading:
Articles:

  • Psychiatry Needs to Get Right with God (Rosmarin, 2021)
  • Spiritual psychotherapy for inpatient, residential, and intensive treatment (Rosmarin, 2019)
  • Spirituality in Recovery: A Lagged Mediational Analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Principal Theoretical Mechanism of Behavior Change (Kelly, 2010)

Nov. 18 classroom session – Clinical Neurospirituality; Semester Synthesis
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Assignments:

There will be three major assignments across the length of the semester:

  1. i. Outline of a spirituality classic of your choosing (with instructor approval).
    ii. Outline of at least three experimental neuroscience articles (i.e., not review articles).
    iii. A “neurospirituality dialogue” (4-6 pages, double spaced) between the spirituality classic and the neuroscience articles. Due October 7th.
  2. A written essay (8-10 pages, double spaced) exploring a specific category of transcendental perception (e.g., truth, beauty, goodness, etc.).
    Due November 4th.
  3. A video adaptation (approximately 3-5 minutes long) of either your “neurospirituality dialogue” or transcendental perception written assignments.
    Due December 2nd.

Exam and Quizzes:

There will be a one-hour midterm exam held in class on October 7th.

There will also be six short reading quizzes throughout the semester.

Spiritual Explorations:

This is admittedly the most amorphic component of your grade, and most of you will receive 100% on your spiritual explorations provided that you put forward even a minimally-reasonable and good faith effort to explore some form of spiritual discipline—completely at your discretion and choice—across the length of the semester. We will discuss this Spiritual Explorations requirement in more detail on the first day of class.

Semester Grade:

Your semester grade will be assigned based on a simple calculation of the following criteria:

15%: “Neurospirituality dialogue” written assignment
15%: Transcendental perception essay
15%: Video adaptation project
15%: Mid-term exam
15%: Spiritual explorations
15%: Reading quizzes (top 5 scores combined)
10%: In-class participation & citizenship

Policies

  1. Extensions and incompletes will be allowed only in extenuating circumstances and with the prior permission of the instructor.
  2. Any student for whom an accommodation is needed based on disability or difference of ability should feel supportively encouraged to communicate this to the course instructor at the beginning of the semester.

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