God in your brain

God in your brain <–Cool stuff here. Click.

If you’ve been following my most recent posts, you might have seen the picture of Michelangelo’s “The creation of Adam” I posted a couple of days ago. When I saw this image my mind was completely blown. There are a couple reasons I was astounded by this fact (or interpretation, what ever suits your fancy). First, it is awesome that such a famous painting has a neuroanatomically correct brain in it. Second, this is one of the first times that I’ve really gotten a sense of awe and wonder from the non-obvious aspects of high art. The theological and poetic implications of God being painted in a brain in this famous fresco are numerous.

For those that don’t know me, I am both Christian and a scientist. I believe that like science, struggling with one’s belief is a fundamental part of deepening your sense and connection with God (i.e. there is a ‘scientific method’ in faith). I also believe that the teachings and scriptures of most religions, in particular Christianity, are harmonious with the facts or strong theories of science (DNA, evolution, the big bang, etc). Finally, I believe that although science and religion are usually harmonious, there are some questions of religion and faith that science cannot answer because they are not ‘scientific’ questions (i.e. not falsifiable; all questions of science MUST be able to be proven true; e.g. Is there a God?). Beliefs of the answers to these questions necessarily have to be taken on faith whether you believe the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Ok, enough about my beliefs. It is just necessary to put those out there for what I’m going say next to make any sense (hopefully). First, for an description of what others have come up with in interpreting this point see the first few pages in the link above. My interpretation of Michelangelo’s motivations is similar to Dr. Meshberger’s, but I’ll take it a bit further into thoughts on faith and the brain in my interpretation. Here are the point I agree with Meshberger on:

  1. An anatomically accurate depiction of the brain is portrayed behind God.
  2. The figures seem to follow an anatomically interesting pattern in their placement.
  3. Michelangelo was known to believe that the ‘divine part’ we ‘receive’ from God is the ‘intellect’ and this is reflected in the fresco

As you can see the points I agree with are Michelangelo’s interesting anatomical placement of general structures. Given Michelangelo’s well-known fascination and experience with painting and drawing anatomy, I’m not too surprised that the general layout of the figures map onto major divisions in the brain. That’s cool stuff, but what really left me awestruck was the last point on Michelangelo’s belief that our most divine gift from God is our intellect. The thought has crossed my mind before questioning whether the divine or mystic aspects of our experience of God and faith are intended to be our brain. In other words, God is our brain and our brain is God. That in his ‘design’ he put some of his self in us (our brains) and this is evidenced in our ability to think, plan, feel, move, create, and care. This is a relatively new thought for me, so I admittedly haven’t fleshed out the implications of such a question, but it has been fun to think about. Who knows?  I don’t even know what I think of the idea and I’m sure my thoughts will evolve on it, but its neat that a 600 year old fresco got me thinking about it.

His points about Michelangelo’s ‘functional’ placement of figures in the fresco are more contentious in my opinion. Here are the points I disagree with Meshberger on:

  1. The synaptic cleft between God and Adam’s finger
  2. The sad angel below God’s arm was put there because that area is regularly ‘activated’ in PET studies of sadness or depression
  3. God is superimposed over the limbic system…the anatomical counterpart of the human soul
  4. God’s arm extends through the prefrontal cortex

My main argument against these points is that there is no way that Michelangelo could have intended any of these coincidental functional placements because those facts were FAR from being known in the early 1500s. Civilization, especially European civilization, didn’t have a map of the world in 1508, let alone a functional map of the brain.  We don’t even have a full functional map of the brain in 2013 (though hopefully we will at some point through projects like this http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/science/project-seeks-to-build-map-of-human-brain.html). The idea of a synaptic cleft or that neurons weren’t continuous (‘the neuron doctrine’) didn’t exist until Ramon y Cajal theorized about it around 1905. Functional mapping of the brain was relegated to lesions of the brain and animal models before neuroimaging like PET and fMRI were introduced in the late 20th century and many scientist are still dubious of neuroimaging techniques (although in fMRI most neuroscientist just want more evidence that the signal is depicting with we expect it to depict and more supportive evidence is found every year). Even phrenology didn’t exist until around 1796, which though bunk, is thought to be the historical starting point of people thinking that particular areas of the brain were responsible for particular functions. All of these functional distinctions in my opinion are surely coincidental, even if they are interesting coincidents.

Regardless of Meshberger’s functional anatomy interpretations, the overall thought is interesting to ponder. I’ll likely be looking into this more in the future to see if and what other interpretations might be out there. Share your thoughts on these thoughts below and thanks for reading!

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