REA conference, part one

Near Toronto

David Hogue spoke on the topic “Practicing Religion, Forming the Faithful” in the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) Annual Meeting for 2011. Hogue is a professor at Garrick Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois, and has research interests in ritual, liturgy, pastoral care, and brain science. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Hogue gave a brief orientation to the physiology of the brain from the point of view of a practical theologian. He also pointed out that neuroscience is investigating questions that religions have been pondering for a long time. He believes both science and religion can contribute productively to an ongoing investigation of these questions.

Hogue said he is convinced that experiences of spirituality are grounded in experiences of everyday living, and in particular he’s interested in storytelling, memory, and human relationships. These three areas are also topics of interest to neuroscience. Rather than discuss “spirituality” per se, he chose to focus on these three specific areas to engage religious education with neuroscience.

In an interesting aside, Hogue pointed out that neuroscience has discovered that the left parietal lobe of the brain seems to support our sense of the self as being separate from the rest of the world; the right parietal lobe seems to orient us in space and time. Some researchers have found some evidence that during worship services, input into these two lobes is reduced. This finding seems to correlate with Hogue’s observation that in worship services, individuals may feel a part of a larger whole, and not related solely to the particular time and place where the worship service is happening.

Telling stories

Drawing on the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Hogue said, “We desperately need to make sense of the world and our lives.” Gazzaniga did research in the mid-twentieth century on epileptics that had been treated by having the neurons between the left and right brain hemispheres severed. This proved to be an effective treatment for epilepsy, given the state of medical science at the time, and it also allowed researchers to learn about how the two hemispheres of the brain function.

In one experiment, the eye controlled by one hemisphere was shown a snow scene, while the eye controlled by the other hemisphere is shown a chicken; then the subject is asked to choose other images that relate to the image they had just seen. When the eye controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain was shown the snow scene, the hand controlled by that image chose a shovel (to shovel the snow, obviously). But the centers of speech and logic were controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, and when the subject was asked to state why s/he had chosen the shovel, the left hemisphere of the brain really didn’t know why (because the two hemispheres had been separated). So the subject said the shovel was chosen in order to shovel the chicken manure.

This of course was not the case, but as it turns out, the brain is extremely adept at coming up with reasons for actions after the fact. The left brain is constantly making up stories about what we do; the brain is capable of making sense of the world, and it needs to do so. Speaking of this experiment, Gazzaniga said that the left brain wove its story in order to convince the subject that it and the subject were in full control. He also famously said, “Biography is fiction. Autobiography is hopelessly inventive.” To which Hogue added, “Telling stories is always a process of interpretation and selection.”

Narratives, then, are some of the primary building blocks of the self. The need to make sense of the world and our lives is rooted in our biology. Hogue quoted Dan McAdams, who said, “Defining the self through myth [story] may be seen as an ongoing act of psychological and social responsibility. Because our world can no longer tell us who we are and how we should live, we must figure it out on our own.”

Speaking as a practical theologian, Hogue said that a central thing that religions and religious communities do is to tell or construct stories. “We remember best in relationship,” he said. The stories we enact in worship and education settings within our religious communities help us to make meaning.


Turning to memory, Hogue gave an overview of how neuroscience understands memory. He laid out two schemas for categorizing memories. First, considering the duration of memory, memories can be categorized as working memory (e.g., for as long as a task goes on), short-term memory, and long-term memory. Second, considering the content of memory, memories can be categorized as follows: semantic memories, concepts and facts; procedural memories, skills and habits; and episodic or autobiographical memories, that is, of explicit personal incidents.

The shift from short-term to long-term memories is of particular interest to Hogue. We usually experience our memories as being fairly discreet, as if they are wrapped up in a neat package in stored in a discreet file drawer. However, neuroscience has discovered that the reality is quite different: we observe an event, and the brain stores the different sensory aspects of that memory in different parts of the brain, so the visual memory will be stored in one place, and the auditory memory in another place, etc.

The brain puts all those memories together in the “binding event” — our brains actually reconstruct our memories as we recall them. Hogue said, “We never remember the same event in the same way twice.” Memories are rebuilt each time we need them. The hippocampus plays a critical role in moving the short-term memories into long-term memories, and as long as the hippocampus is functioning properly, our brains do a pretty good job at remembering.

Hogue pointed out that memories are central to who we are. Giving the example of someone whose hippocampus was injured, such that this person could no longer construct long-term memories, Hogue made clear that the hippocampus helps us construct a map of the outside world, and then in a sense places us within that map. Since memories are central to who we are, creating and re-creating memories are in fact central acts of our religious communities.


Empahty obviously plays a central role in religion. And interpersonal or social neuroscience is now deepening our understanding of social processes like empathy. “I’m increasingly convinced that social neuroscience overlaps the concerns of practical theology,” said Hogue. Practical theology includes the discipline of religious education.

As an example of social neuroscience, Hogue gave an overview of mirror neurons and how they work. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when one is watching someone else doing something. Mirror neurons were originally discovered when researchers were investigating which neurons fired when a certain species of monkey picked up food. The researchers were surprised to discover that when the monkey was doing nothing with its own hands, but was watching a human researcher picking up food, neurons fired in the monkey’s brain as if the monkey were carrying out the action, not the human.

Mirror neurons are important when studying empathy, imitation, language development, and learning more generally. In human beings, hearing an action word can cause mirror neurons to fire. They also equip us to read the emotions of those around us, just by looking at faces. (Some researchers now believe that autistic children may have deficits in mirror neurons.) Clearly, the research around mirror neurons does have important implications for practical theology.

Hogue identified four areas where the interests of neuroscientists and practical theologians overlap in terms of studying human relationships.

First, neuroscience challenges notions that there is some sort of separationg between the body and the “soul.” Neuropsychologist Warren Brown has said that soul “is not an essence apart from the physical self.” That is, we are embodied creatures; and neuroscience can help practical theologians reclaim the value of the body, and can remind us to care for the whole person.

Second, neuroscience raises serious questions about the relationship between humans and non-human beings. Neuroscience is, thus far, still affirming that there is significant distance between human beings and other beings in the areas of symbolic capacity and complex language. However, Hogue said that “we share significant empathy-like structures” with other animals; and not just other primates, but also with rats. Neuroscience should cause us to rethink our relations with animals, said Hogue, and Christians like himself will have to rethink the meaning of having dominion over other beings. “Am I my brother’s keeper, or my keeper’s brother?” Hogue asked humorously.

Third, neuroscience gives us useful insights into the “technologies” of education and spiritual formation. He referred specifically to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to “rewire” itself; repeated experiences cause changes in our brains. Thus, neuroscience suggests religion should shift from ideology to practice. As Hogue put it, “Right practice might replace right belief as a core commitment of our religious communities.” [For us Unitarian Universalists, then, it won’t be enough either to affirm the oneness of God or to doubt the existence of God.]

Hogue emphasized the importance of practice to religions. There’s an old saying that prayer changes things, but, Hogue said, “We now know that prayer change brains.” That is, the practice of prayer may or may not effect change in the wider world, but through neuroplasticity the practice of prayer has the potential for actually changing the brain. Furthermore, “what we do shapes our experience,” Hogue said. “Our religious communities would be well served to pay attention to what we do with our bodies.

Fourth, neuroscience is demonstrating the essential relatedness of human beings. “There’s a very real sense in which the soul only exists in connection with other souls,” Hogue said. Neuroscience is showing us that brain and body require social relationships. At the same time, social relationships are constrained by other biological processes, such as the human preference for close kin and the distrust of strangers. This places greater importance, Hogue said, on the Biblical emphasis on love, in terms of the way love serves as both a form of social relationship and a way to counter biological preferences for kin.

During the question and answer period, Hogue spoke briefly about memory and social media. Hogue said he thinks we have to consider memory as not so individualistic, and spoke of the importance of community and social memory. Drawing on the example of younger people who move frequently and aren’t able to form lasting bonds with religious communities that can serve as a repository for social memory, he asked, “Where are their communities that help them hold memories?” Hogue said he thinks perhaps social media and the Web are providing some younger people with a way to hold social memories.

4 thoughts on “REA conference, part one”

  1. What an excellent summary! It sounds like it was a very stimulating conference.

    Since religion is a human activity, improved knowledge about how humans function and behave will have to have an impact on religion. I like how you are thinking of it in terms of what it implies for UUs.

    I also like the idea of placing more emphasis on practice than belief. Once again, though, it brings us back to the question of what practices are the ones we should follow. Neuroscience seems necessarily silent on that question — Hume’s dictum that is doesn’t determine ought. Is some form of utilitarianism the best that science can offer?

  2. This is an excellent summary, and I’m particularly intrigued by the questions embedded in your last paragraph. They are similar to the ones I’ve been pondering since yesterday.

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