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A Harvard psychiatrist goes searching for the divine spark in us all—and finds it firmly planted in the part of the brain that's wired to make us care about each other.
George E. Vaillant, MD, knows the bad rap spirituality often gets: "People either confuse it with spiritualism—crystals and telepathy and bending spoons from a distance, all of which make many people uneasy—or they think of it in terms of contemplating one's navel and being very self-absorbed." n Vaillant is a psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School professor, and the director of Harvard's Study of Adult Development: not the likeliest candidate, on the face of it, for the job of spiritual cheerleader. But in his latest book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, he attempts to give spirituality new respectability and—in light of antireligion books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith—to find in religion something scientists, academics, and even atheists can stand up for. Vaillant's premise is that spirituality is simply the experience of positive emotions: faith, hope, love, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, awe, and especially joy—emotions for which humans are hardwired, and "the very emotions that are in the Psalms."

His ideas are optimistic, unpredictable, and engaging, as we discovered when we asked him to tell us more....

"When people experience joy and awe and love, they say there's something incredible going on inside them, and it must have been put there by some higher being. In the English language, 'God' is what we've chosen to call these feelings. We say God because it's the best we know.

"We have to confabulate words, because positive emotions occur in a part of the brain that doesn't have language attached to it. It's not unlike Freud thinking that what was important about early childhood was food because people who were deprived of their mothers lie on the couch and talk about breasts and ice cream sundaes. Later it became clear that what's important to an infant is eye contact and being held; food was just the metaphor.

"If you pay attention to what spiritual people spend their time doing—whether it's Saint Ignatius or the Buddha—you see that what they're doing is serving other people. The important thing about positive emotions is they're not focused on me, not focused on the individual.

"This is not about spirituality as some kind of self-help. It's more like a barn raising. Self-help is like tickling yourself. No one since the beginning of time has been able to tickle themselves or give themselves a massage. If you want to feel good, get another person to rub your back. Even better, rub someone else's.

"We know that human evolution was based on the need for better social organization to protect our defenseless young from getting eaten by lions. There was a need for unselfish relationships. The positive emotions serve the need of creating and consolidating community.

"When I was in medical school, I was taught that the hypothalamus was the part of the brain that held all the important emotions—the ones related to feeding, fighting, and fornication. Then we discovered the neocortex—the part of the brain that gives us the ability to talk and think and do multiplication tables. And then in the 1950s, the neuroscientist Paul MacLean came along and said, Here's this big area of the brain that mammals have and reptiles don't, and what is the difference between mammals and reptiles? Mammals care for their young. They trust their parents. They know how to play. That's the limbic system. It's the site of positive emotions—the site of spirituality.

"Nowadays, many people know something about the limbic system. They've heard of the amygdala, a part of the system that's important in making experiences salient and memorable, especially those involving fear. They've heard of dopamine, one of the limbic system's key neurotransmitters, because it's associated with addiction. But what happens if we say, as Thomas Insel, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, did, Hey, our ancestors didn't shoot dope and still they had this elaborate capacity to be addicted. Maybe it was for some other reason. Maybe that's what attachment is about—the attachment that lets your 5-year-old be a real pain, and yet you still love her to pieces. I would add that this is the kind of attachment that gets projected onto the Virgin Mary and the Buddha.

"Parents smiling with their child, playing games, cuddling, reading together: All of these do the same thing that deep meditation and praying do, which is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.

"Until you had religion that said love and compassion were more important than sacrifice, guilt, and fear—it wasn't until you had that, that any city could survive. All of the world's great cities self-destructed until you had this shift in how you used religion—from ritually supporting negative emotion to ritually supporting positive emotion.

"Positive emotions work better than negative emotions in an evolutionary sense. The forgiveness of the Marshall Plan led to a much safer Europe than the retributive justice of the Versailles Treaty. Ideas supported by positive emotions have a survival power that ideas built on negative or greedy emotions don't. And yet you have to be patient to see this. If you look just at the past 2,000 years, it's easy to complain about how awful things are.

"Of course we can blow ourselves up, or global warm ourselves out of existence. But I think without any question the world is evolving toward the good. In Europe the homicide rate in the late 20th century was 2 percent of what it was in the 13th century. Over two centuries, Europe's approach to Africa has been to replace slave traders and empire-building evangelists with nongovernmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. Only in the past century have nations—yes, even the U.S.—spent more of their gross domestic product on healthcare than on defense.

"A friend of mine said that if Buddhism is too good to be true, the Enlightenment was too true to be good. But all joking aside, the realms of science and emotion, or science and religion, aren't incompatible or at war with each other; they're just in different parts of the brain.

"Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris aren't wrong in saying that religion is dangerous. Religion can be dangerous. But the rituals of the world's great religions are the most reliable way to a conscious focus on positive emotion. It's not unlike automobiles, according to Ralph Nader. Yes, cars are terrible, and they do awful things, but they've also been an immense boon to the world. The trick is learning to handle them better." 


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