Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part II

Image courtesy of Andrew Newberg, NPR.

Image courtesy of Andrew Newberg, NPR.

In Part I we looked at the importance of music in Mesopotamia and its specific role in communing with the gods. Fast forwarding nearly four millennia we found a remarkable similarity in the strains of American gospel music and the belief that the ecstasy of song enables the Holy Spirit to enter the bodies of the faithful. What is the nature of this willingness to give up one’s self to a higher being? How does music play a part? Is rapture—a potent driving force among believers—real?  Let’s look further at the reason for this music/spiritual connection by venturing inside the anatomy of the brain and as well exploring humankind’s long and precarious evolution of mind and body.

The neurology and self-selection theories of faith

There have been theories posited—understandably controversial given the way faith is understood and embraced—about why people seek a higher power.  In geneticist Dean Hamer’s 2005 book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes, he claims that a version of the VMAT2 gene, which has been dubbed the “God Gene,” accounts for the spiritual nature of the great prophets and those who follow them.[1]  Many religious leaders have condemned this theory, saying it reduces the true power of faith to biochemical reactions that have little to do with free will and sublime belief.  Hamer has allowed that other genes do come into play and that a complex series of chemical reactions can lead to the euphoria of spiritual oneness.  He also asserts that simply a response such as this does not necessarily mean a person will be one of the faithful or even adhere to a religious set of principles.[2]  That seems to be linked more with societal and familial ties.[3] Hamer’s other work proposed the genetic foundations of sexual orientation and of anxiety.  As with the “God Gene,” his “gay gene” theory also enflamed popular, scientific, political and religious quarters, but other researchers since then have confirmed aspects of his thesis.

Muslims praying towards Mecca; Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Image courtesy of Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil.

Muslims praying towards Mecca; Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Image courtesy of Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil.

What actually happens inside the brain when people have a spiritual experience? Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist, researcher and pioneer in the field of “neurotheology.”  He has studied brain scans of people praying and meditating to understand better the nature of religion and spirituality.  He uses imaging technology called single photo emission computed tomography (SPECT) to track blood flow and how it affects areas of the brain. In his research Newberg has studied the worshipping faithful including Tibetan monks, Catholic nuns and Sikhs.  What he discovered was that the frontal portions of the brain (associated with focus and concentration) as well as the limbic system (governing powerful emotions, including rapture) flare up when a person is meditating.  Conversely, activity in the parietal lobe (responsible for “anchoring” the mind with a sense of time and place) wanes. He doesn’t say that this proves the existence of a higher power, but rather that something deliberate does happen in the brain when people pray with intensity.  Interestingly, experiments with people who describe themselves as non- believers or as having significant questions as to God’s existence do not show the same patterns.  In the end, Newberg says that the success of neurotheology is related to “open-mindedness.”[4]

For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion. But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.[5]

Another view of religion’s origins is offered by biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson.  They argue that religion has the markings of evolved behavior based on natural selection.  They provide two circumstances in human evolution that predisposed humans to a belief system.  The first is that the egalitarian nature of hunter-gathers led them to find common attributes needed to survive as individuals and as a group. Altruism and its bonding powers proved beneficial for individuals and by default, the group, and was therefore inculcated into the culture through its rituals and practices.  These altruists passed on their genes and cultural values to their descendants.  The second point is that in an era where groups fought ferociously for resources, altruism and religion bound people together and strengthened their cultural bonds, again promoting survival.  Because these behaviors developed through natural selection millennia ago before humans moved beyond the African continent, they are hardwired into our neurology.[6]

Where does music fit in with these theories?

Let’s return to our original discussion on the effects of music.  As humans we are in a constant battle to temper our impulses.  At our core we are highly emotional creatures. Music is an easy trigger.  Musicologist Leonard Meyer’s landmark Emotion and Meaning in Music published in 1956 was the first treatise looking at the psychology of music.  Taking the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 Meyer posited how a piece’s ambiguity and shattering of expectations are sources of pleasure for the listener. It provides the frisson, that moment of rapture.[7] According to Meyer:

For the human mind, such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty. This nervous anticipation and uncertainty create feelings. Music makes us uncomfortable and we love it.[8]

Image courtesy of Wired Magazine, "The Neuroscience of Music".

Image courtesy of Wired Magazine, “The Neuroscience of Music”.

Here’s where neurology enters the picture.  Valorie Salimpoor and a Canadian research team conducted a study recently published in Nature Neuroscience that indicated that prior to a song’s climax or emotional peak there’s a surge of dopamine activity in the brain, mostly in the caudate where the reward center (associated with food, drugs and sex, for example) is located.[9] Dopamine release was measured by such methods as skin conductance, heart rate, breathing as well as the “chills” or “musical frisson” levels, which are established indicators of emotional response to music.  The team used PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques that revealed the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that not only mediates pleasure in the brain but also is necessary to a host of functions critical to survival, such as movement, memory, learning and cognition. Moreover, the study also demonstrated that in listening to music:

Two different brain circuits are involved in anticipation and experience, respectively: one linking to cognitive and motor systems, and hence prediction, the other to the limbic system, and hence the emotional part of the brain. These two phases also map onto related concepts in music, such as tension and resolution.[10]

According to Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro at McGill University: “These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release.”[11]

Religion, music and the limbic system

So the nexus of religion and music is situated in the limbic system, an area where our most primitive, most seething emotions reside, where seductive pleasures flow and where transcendence awaits. Whatever moves us, whether the god we pray to or the music we sway to, the brain demonstrates a dazzling choreography of activity that still cannot be fully defined.  And the questions still remain.  Is there a God?  Is God in the music? Even with our 21st century technologies that can delve deeply into the folds and recesses of our gray matter we may never find an answer.  But in the end, does it matter where ecstasy resides and why?  Maybe it is enough to consider that in our jangled and fiery circuitry, there are moments when we can traverse the vastness of consciousness and space, and where our minds and bodies can join the thousands of supplicants who have gone before in search of the great unknown.

For further consideration:

Alyson Calagna is a DJ who in her new original collection Omtronica mixes mantras, devotionals and poetry with tribal beats. The title is based on the Sanskrit word “Om,” representing Source, God or Light. “Musically,” Calagna says, “it is said to be the sound of the universe, the most sacred mantra.”[12] Listen to a sample of her music here.

Sufi whirling or spinning is a form of engaged meditation performed within the Sema, or worship ceremony. The dervishes seek to reach the source of all perfection by abandoning the self. To do this they use music and spinning to help focus on God. Watch the Sufi whirling dervishes of Istanbul.

On the Wings of Ecstasy is an interfaith music and dance festival that incorporates a number of religious musical styles. Watch here.


[1] Hamer, Dean (2005). The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes. Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-72031-9.

[2] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/16378.php

[3] http://web.pdx.edu/~tothm/religion/Is%20God%20in%20Our%20Genes.pdf

[4] http://www.andrewnewberg.com/research

[5] http://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132078267/neurotheology-where-religion-and-science-collide

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/weekinreview/12wade.html

[7] http://www.music-cog.ohio-state.edu/Music829D/Notes/Meyer1.html

[8] http://factualenquirer.blogspot.com/2012/04/science-of-music-part-2.html

[9] http://thoughtcatalog.com/cody-delistraty/2014/01/music-as-religious-experience-the-neuroscience-of-a-song/

[10] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm

[11] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm

[12]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-ralls/the-spirit-moves-her_b_798519.html

3 responses to “Music Origins: Mesopotamia, American Gospel and the Neurology of Faith, Part II

  1. Pingback: National Anthems: Ancient Elements, Modern Resoundings | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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