By Patrick McNamara
When I was 12, on family vacation in New Mexico, I watched a group of elaborately-costumed Navajo men belt out one intimidating song after the next. They executed a set of beautifully coordinated dance turns to honour the four cardinal directions, each one symbolising sacred gifts from the gods. Yet the tourist-packed audience lost interest and my family, too, prepared to leave. Then, all of a sudden, the dancers were surprised by a haunting, muscled old man adorned with strange pendants, animal skulls, and scars etching patterns into his body and face.
Because the dancers were obviously terrified of this man I, too, became afraid and wanted to run, but we all stood rooted to the spot as he walked silently and majestically into the desert night. Afterwards, the lead dancer apologised profusely for the tribe’s shaman, or medicine man: he was holy but a bit eccentric. My 12-year-old self wondered how one might become like this extraordinary individual, so singular, respected and brave he could take the desert night alone.
That question has fuelled much of my neuroscience through the years. As I studied the brain, I found that the right arrangement of neural circuitry and chemistry could generate astonishingly creative and holy persons on the one hand, or profoundly delusional, even violent, fanatics on the other. To intensify the ‘god effect’ in people already attracted to religious ideas, my studies revealed, all we had to do was boost the activity of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, crucial for balanced emotion and thought, on the right side of the brain. But should dopamine spike too high, murderous impulses like terrorism and jihad could rear up instead.
Evidence that religion can produce extraordinary behaviours goes back to the dawn of human history, when our ancestors started burying the dead and produced remarkable, ritual art on cave walls. One of the first signs of religious consciousness dates to the upper Paleolithic, some 25,000 years ago, when a boy, also about age 12, crawled through hundreds of metres of pitch black, deep cave space, probably guided only by a flickering flame held in one hand and some fleetingly illuminated paintings on cave walls. When the boy reached a cul-de-sac in the bowels of the cave, he put red ochre onto his hand and made a print on the wall. Then he climbed out of the cul-de-sac and – we can surmise, given his skill and the fact that his bones have not been found – made it out alive.
But where did this boy get his courage? And why leave a handprint on the wall of a remote cave deep in the bowels of the earth? Some experts in cave art think the boy was performing a religious obligation. He, like others who made similar treks into the caves, was leaving a votive offering to the spirit world or gods and becoming a holy man – much like the majestic and terrifying Indian man I had seen when I was 12.
Dopamine probably fuelled his brain.
Picture: Intropin (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons