Wednesday, September 15, 2010

God, Sex, Heroin and the Brain

Have you already heard of Matthew Alper’s book, “The God Part of the Brain”? The teasing subtitle is “ A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God”. This is a book that provides “excellent reading” according to Edward O. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Price-winner and a leading, world renowned, evolutionary biologist. “An essential book for those in search of a scientific understanding of man’s spiritual nature” writes Elena Rusyn, from the Harvard Medical School.

The argument: the belief in the existence of a God, a soul, an afterlife, is cross cultural, which means that it is “wired” in our genes, a universal human condition and not the product of culture and imitation. Man is the only creature endowed with self-consciousness, including the conscience of his own inevitable death, which generates high anxiety. Anxiety and fear are evolutionary useful and even necessary for survival, but up to a point beyond which it becomes debilitating and paralyzing.

The pain that the conscience of our future death creates is relieved and accommodated through a belief in the existence of a God, of a spiritual reality, of another world, and of immortality. God is the product of an inherited human perception, the manifestation of an evolutionary adaptation, a coping mechanism that emerged in our species (as we progressively acquired self consciousness through our long evolution away from our primate ancestors) to enable us to survive our unique and otherwise debilitating awareness of death. In a way this belief is a pain reliever. Thus the link with psychedelic drugs and such practices as prayer, chant, dance, that many world cultures have used a means through which to evoke a mystical experience. As noted by C.D. Batson, “Psychedelic drugs have been used to stimulate religious experience since the dawn of history”. And of course Karl Marx defined religion as “the opiate of masses”.

Our progressively bigger brain also evolved and was selected for its survival value. It included a belief in God and an afterlife which produced a drug-like intensely pleasurable experience.

Is there scientific evidence of a link between the way the brain functions and pleasure intensity or pain reduction?

Yes indeed. Biologists are making much progress in the precise understanding of how that big brain produces pleasure.

Max Miller posts a fascinating report in, “Braingasm: Sex and Your Synapses” here .

Here is a short summary:

In his Big Think interview, Rutgers psychologist Barry Komisaruk, a pioneer of neuroscientific sex studies on the female orgasm, told us what science knows about “la petite mort”. One early study of orgasms, he explains, suggests that the subjective experience of orgasm is very similar between men and women. They seem to be hardwired to experience sexual pleasure in the same way.

Newer brain imaging technology shows that the part of the brain most activated during orgasm is the one responsible for the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter most essential for the brain’s reward circuit, the same circuit that is exploited by drugs like cocaine and heroin. This accounts for both the fact that heroin addicts experience orgasmic pleasure as a result of their drug use as well as the fact that heroin addicts have suppressed sex drives, likely because this region is already stimulated so intensively by the heroin.

During orgasm, areas involved in self-control and social judgment are deactivated. Komisaruk also identified a notable difference in women: the activation in the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved in increasing trust and human bonding.

My comment: this finding relates well to what we know of the biology of reproduction and child production and rearing. The maternal investment in children is much higher than the father’s one, and the division of labor, the specialization of women in raising children for several years (which reduce their mobility and resource gathering ability) induces them to look for a man capable of a strong and durable commitment to provide them (and their children) with adequate resources. Men on the other hand maximize their "inclusive fitness" (the overall dissemination of their genes) by having as many intercourses with as many women as possible, thus preferring low commitment. It is thus evolutionary efficient for women to experience attachment during an intercourse that can lead to pregnancy, while it is not for men.

The progress of scientific knowledge of the brain’s chemistry, allied to evolutionary theory, is thus explaining many aspects of human behavior, from sex to God and to drugs, that puzzled philosophers and moralists since the dawn of civilization.

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