Raymond F Paloutzian, Steven A Rogers, Erica L Swenson, Deborah A Lowe. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Whether an event that people have deemed a miracle was actually caused by a supernatural agent or some other sacred act or thing, the process by which people come to conclude that an event was a miracle is psychological. It depends on what the event means to the person in light of the context and as learned from the past, from others, and from social groups and institutions, for example, from a religion whose history claims miracles. Our goal here is to understand the processes through which the mind attributes miraculous properties to events. To get there, namely, to learn how humans make miraculous meaning, let us (1) explore what constitutes the miraculous, for example, is an event deemed to be a miracle necessarily religious?, (2) elaborate the model of global meaning systems and its underpinnings from social and clinical psychology (Park 2005a, 2005b; Park and Folkman 1997; Silberman 2005), (3) situate the attribution process within a meaning system framework, (4) integrate the results, aided by the operation of related processes such as schemas, expectancies, and perceptual sets, and (e) incorporate some recent knowledge from neuropsychology that may shed light on how attribution processes might be mediated within meaning systems as information is processed within the brain.
Given this psychological approach to understanding miracles, the concern is not so much to find out whether they actually happened in the raw historical past or actually happen today. It is instead to learn how the human mind is able to construct and sustain the perception and abstraction of the miraculous, that is, how human mental processes work to make an inference that special, unique events that are different from those by which nature normally operates cause a certain event to happen. It may turn out that what is miraculous, like what is true, is in the meaning system of the beholder (Paloutzian 2006). In the end, we hope that we can move one step toward the goal of an integrated, multilevel, interdisciplinary paradigm (Emmons and Paloutzian 2003) for understanding how people construct a perception of a miracle and the broader capacity of the mind to abstract, imagine, and infer causality.
A miracle is an event to which special, nonobvious causal processes, which are presumed to operate differently from ordinary natural processes, are attributed. Such an event is often considered a sign of something else (Woodward 2000). Events deemed miraculous may be of either an everyday, common sort or rare and unusual. Let us explore the scope of phenomena called miraculous.
Narrow or Broad?
Miracle Attributions to the Ordinary
Before explaining the two technically useful meanings of the term, let us illustrate the colloquial usage of miracle, the effect of which renders the term technically useless but psychologically revealing. This occurs when the concept is used to apply to everything such as when a minister or priest, while giving a weekly sermon or homily to the congregation, says that it is obvious that God performs miracles. The growth of plants, the appearance of the sun, the force of gravity that keeps us on the ground, the cry of a newborn baby are all miracles; everything is a miracle! This may or may not be so in light of whatever may be the true ultimate ontology, but categorizing all events as miraculous gets us nowhere as far as psychological understanding of how people come to think that an event is a miracle is concerned.
Extending this point means that colloquial uses of miracle—such as a religious person saying that every day is full of miracles, or an unemployed job seeker who receives a job saying that it was a miracle, or a person whose home was saved from a California fire saying that it was a miracle—are set aside in any technical sense because they cannot be said to be due to a fundamentally different process. But many people, nevertheless, attribute miraculous properties to ordinary events anyway. This is powerful evidence that humans have a need for meaning and that if a clear meaning is not present on grounds of logic or evidence, people will invent one (Park and McNamara 2006). If the capacity of the mind to read miraculous meaning into ordinary events is so strong, the ability of the human mind must be both strong and compelling to dogmatically insist on unique, supernatural, or other special processes to confirm the truth of purported past and future events deemed miracles, though nonobvious, counterintuitive, and extraordinary. Whatever else humans are, they are meaning-constructing creatures. Our job is to learn how they do this in the context of attributions of the miraculous.
Miracle Attributions to the Unusual: Type N and Type I
While recognizing the concerns with the colloquial, religious, and spiritualistic uses of the term miracle in everyday speech, we highlight that there seem to be only two connotations of the term that are technically useful in setting apart from other events reports of experiences that are purportedly due to unique processes. Let us call them events deemed to be miracles of type N and of type I.
Type N includes those miracles that seem to conform to natural processes and are therefore explainable by known naturalistic means, although they may be accented or heightened versions of them. They seem to be prominent in major religions as an indication of the deity at work. For example, when the book of Exodus relates that God parted the Red Sea, it also says that a wind blew, the sea parted, and the children of Israel went across on dry ground. The parting of the sea was a type N event, and the attribution of the miraculous process goes to God plus wind, with wind as the natural part of the process. The book of Exodus also describes 10 plagues, most of which involved natural processes, including a red-colored form of algae or bacteria capable of making rivers look like they turned to blood, swarms of flies, hail, frogs, boils on human skin, and locusts in swarms sufficient to destroy vast crops.
In these cases, it seems that natural processes were at work as part of whatever other processes humans might invoke to explain the events. Similar examples of special type N events, often considered to be signs, are reported to have occurred at every major turning point in the life of Buddha (Woodward 2000). These include the synchronous appearance of swans, peacocks, parrots and other birds, trees and bushes that bloom out of season, lotus blossoms of very large size, and the spontaneous multiplication of supplies of honey, oil, and sugar. Analogously, Muhammad was said to have invoked Allah for rain, and it then started to rain heavily (Woodward 2000), an event of type N that followers deemed a miracle.
In contrast, type I seems inexplicable and instead requires supernatural or other special accounts; it includes those miracles that do not seem to conform to natural processes and are devoid of scientifically established explanations. For example, Jesus turning water into wine, for which there is no known chemical process; Jesus walking on water, for which there is no known anti-gravitational force; and a corpse dead and buried in the ground for several days resuscitating to ordinary life, for which there is no known biological process. These would be examples of type I. Similarly, Muhammad is said to have multiplied food and to have blinded an opposing army with a handful of dust, and Buddha is said to have risen in the air, divided his body, and then rejoined the pieces (Woodward 2000). Events of this sort can perhaps be called “zap” or “presto” miracles, namely, the sort of event that a superhuman agent could presumably do by a snap of the finger or by merely speaking the event into existence out of nothing. The best common term that we can think of for the process behind events purported to have occurred this way is magic. People who believe in type I miracles believe in magic, as far as knowledge of natural processes is concerned.
Universal or Necessarily Religious?
Given that miracle attributions are made to both ordinary and unusual events, that they are purported to have occurred across cultures and time (cf. Waida 2005), and that they are especially prominent features of the world’s great religions (Woodward 2000), it is easy to conclude that they are universal and uniquely religious and always attributed to the operation of a god or other agent, whose existence and function are counterintuitive; however, while reports of miracles seem to be made across cultures, they do not seem to be made by all individuals. Some people claim them and some people do not. Also, by observation of people’s behavior, it seems clear that not all miracle attributions depend on a claimed religious base or postulate of an active counterintuitive agent, although from a scholarly point of view, such a base or postulate may be implied. For example, whereas the process that produced an experience deemed religious can be inferred to be of two sorts, namely, (1) from a counterintuitive agent or (2) a thing set apart, whether that thing is an object, idea, taboo, or ritual (Taves, forthcoming), the cause of an event deemed miraculous seems to require attribution to an agent of some kind, whose existence and function is counterintuitive, regardless of whether it is construed to be religious by people experiencing it.
Yet, although miracle attributions seem to be neither universal at the individual level nor necessarily religious, they are purported to occur today with such routine frequency that we are tempted to say that the claim of the unique is, paradoxically, ordinary. Without belaboring the point with endless news reports, suffice it to say that apparitions of the Virgin Mary, faith healings, and myriad other miracles are claimed. Moreover, the belief in a future miracle can prompt present extreme behavior. For example, some of the young men and women who have given their lives in the jihad against the West did so with the belief that they would be miraculously rewarded in heaven for having martyred themselves for Allah. In fact, one hypothesis could be that a human tendency to make miracle attributions is evident cross culturally in a fashion analogous to other phenomena (Rogers and Paloutzian 2006), suggesting that the tendency to make such inferences may have come about along with the tendency to imagine, in the early stages of the development of human beings (Boyer 2007). But the ability to infer and imagine hinges on the ability to think in a way that enables the ideas about something to take on some other meaning.
Miracle Attributions and Meaning
It is obvious that an event that is called a miracle carries special meaning to those who so label it. Given the breadth of phenomena to which miracle attributions can be made, it seems clear that the inference that an event was caused by a miraculous process hinges not narrowly on the properties of the event, but on what the person perceives it to mean; that is, it does not hinge on the frequency, familiarity, or intensity of such events, although such factors might be taken into account. Specifically, a miracle attribution requires that a special meaning be ascribed to an event, instead of a mundane one. Thus a miracle attribution takes place within the larger system of meaning that the person uses to negotiate the world. Meaning systems are multilevel and include aspects from at least the social to the neurological levels of analysis (Park and Folkman 1997; Silberman 2005). Let us therefore examine the meaning system framework in which the deeming and attributing to nonordinary, nonobvious, or counterintuitive causal processes are made. We will then be in a position to explore possible neuropsychological substrates for such processes. People make miracle attributions in and through their meaning systems.
It has long been known that people need a sense of meaning and purpose (Baumeister 1991; Frankl 1963; Wong and Fry 1998) and that they use a variety of cognitive strategies to arrive at attributions about the causes of events (Malle 2004), including those most suggestive of miraculous processes; that is, humans are inclined to make supernatural attributions (Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick 1985). What needs to be assembled is a picture of the processes through which people arrive at miracle attributions based on the principle that a person has to fit new information that comes in through the perceptual system into the person’s already existing global meaning system (Park 2005a, 2005b; Park and Folkman 1997). Teasing apart the components of a meaning system will help us understand how they interact in enabling people to make sense of life’s events and how they work when attributions of miraculous processes are made.
The components of meaning systems have been presented in different ways (Park 2005a, 2005b; Park and Folkman 1997; Paloutzian 2005; Silberman 2005), but each presentation seems to capture their essential features. Briefly stated, global meaning refers to individuals’ general orienting systems (Pargament 1997) and consists of beliefs, goals, and subjective feelings (Park and Folkman 1997; Reker and Wong 1988). People have a global definition of meaning that is partly captured by identifying beliefs and overall goals. This definition could be either explicit and clearly identifiable or implicit and less precisely seen. That the meaning is expressed in the beliefs and overall goals suggests that the person will have some sense of meaningfulness in life. Each of these, respectively, is translated into (1) interpretations of incoming information in light of the beliefs, (2) strivings for short-term project objectives, and (3) a daily or short-term sense of satisfaction and positive feeling.
When information enters a person’s system, it is immediately perceived with the person’s global meaning lens. The beliefs that guide the perception and interpretation of incoming information are central to how the person defines himself or herself and to whether the person fundamentally sees the world as safe versus unsafe, fair versus unfair, predictable versus random, just versus unjust, and loving versus hostile (Silberman 2005). Beliefs may or may not be cognitively optimal and include such assumptions as whether there is an ultimate being and, if so, what the nature of that ultimate being is, whether it supersedes all else about life, and whether it can be or is active in causing events to happen. Thus global beliefs, such as whether or not there is a god, justice, predictability, coherence, fairness, and responsibility, cluster to form the basic mental eyeglasses through which people interpret whatever experiences come to them (Janoff-Bulman and Frantz 1997; Park, Edmondson, and Mills, forthcoming). When people encounter discrepancies or situations that could challenge or stress their global meaning, they appraise the situations and assign a new meaning to them (Park 2005a, 2005b). Also, when people have a clear and global meaning system through which they see the world, they are preset to interpret new information to mean something consistent with that already-in-place system. The implication is that just as meaning shapes seeing (Koivisto and Revonsuo 2007), meaning also shapes inferences about what is seen, namely, about the processes that produce the events that one observes. This can include the attribution of miraculous process as the cause of events.
Goals, Attitudes, and Values
The aspect of meaning systems subsumed by the concept of goals can be thought of in both short-term and long-term senses (Emmons 1999; Paloutzian 2005). Long-term, generalized goals might better be called overarching purposes that define a general orientation for attitudes and actions over the long haul. Specific goals might better be understood as near-term targets, places that a person wants to be within a realistic time frame. For example, an overall purpose might be “doing whatever God wants with my life,” whereas a near-term goal might be something like “tell my wife and children each day this week that I love them.” The adoption of a specific set of long-term purposes or near-term goals both feeds and is a reflection of three other aspects of meaning systems, attitudes, values, and self-identity-worldview (Paloutzian 2005), each of which is at an increasing level of abstraction relative to the others. But each one confronts and is confronted by the new information that enters the mental system, and these elements assess that information among themselves and against those aspects of the system that are superordinate such as global beliefs or a locus of ultimate concern. This constitutes an appraisal process through which the new information is either allowed to stand as is or must be altered to fit the system (Park and Folkman 1997). Thus the goals, attitudes, and value components of people’s meaning systems can facilitate miracle attributions for those whose global beliefs prepare them to do so.
Meaning Making and Attributions
When the incoming stimuli do not fit with the existing global meaning, a person can process the information either by assimilating it or accommodating to it (Joseph and Linley 2005). If the information can straightforwardly fit the existing meaning system, it is assimilated, and if beliefs about supernatural agency are already in place, then the event can be perceived as miraculous (Parkes 1975, 1993; Joseph and Linley 2005). For example, if someone’s meaning system includes the notion of an active, powerful, and good God who will do what you ask, and if that person’s loved one gets well from a disease after God was asked for a cure, then the event can be assimilated into the existing system and be attributed miraculous properties: “God performed a miracle in curing my loved one when I asked God to do so.” What greater confirmation of the truth of one’s faith could one ask for?
However, the incoming information may be too discrepant from a person’s global meaning, making assimilation impossible (Janoff-Bulman 1992). In these instances, the event or stimuli is so incongruent with one’s beliefs that a radical overhaul of one’s meaning system occurs. This type of meaning making, in which people change their global beliefs or goals, has been termed accommodation (Parkes 1975, 1993; Joseph and Linley 2005). For example, someone who claims no religious beliefs may see the spontaneous remission (cure) of an advanced cancer and, as a consequence, overhaul his or her global beliefs and account for this event as a miracle performed by God.
The preceding illustrations show that when a person perceives an event as a miracle, he or she is attributing the event to a special nonordinary, counterintuitive causal process. For most day-to-day events, it is not necessary to invoke such attributions because on most days, people do not encounter the unusual sorts of events that would prompt them. Thus it seems that attributions of miraculous processes are most likely to occur when (1) a person comes preset to interpret events and the world in that way or (2) the event one encounters is sufficiently discrepant with what one ordinarily expects that one is pressed to arrive at a miracle attribution.
Much of this attributional process can be traced to a neurological level, where there are neural substrates and operations that lead individuals to construct meaning and miracle attributions out of counterintuitive information. Currently there is no unifying, neuropsychological theory for miracle attributions, largely because they are difficult to operationalize and because very few empirical studies have looked at miracle attributions per se; rather, there are converging lines of evidence from related fields that make it reasonable to implicate similar neural processes in the process of making meaning out of events that are deemed miraculous. For example, neurophysiological studies show increased activity of specific regions of the brain during meditation and other spiritual practices (Azari et al. 2001a, 2001b; Newberg et al. 2001). Granted, meditation and spiritual practices are different than ascribing an event to the category of a miracle. But there are likely attributional processes involved in these activities, which suggests that similar studies may help point to preexisting cognitive structures that mediate our interpretation or attribution of events as miraculous.
In a sense, miracle attributions are not a dramatic departure from, but a predictable by-product of, ordinary cognitive function (Boyer 2003). Interpretations of what we perceive as unordinary may therefore be mediated by relatively ordinary mental and neural mechanisms. One of the particular mechanisms involved seems to be an agency-detection and multilevel attribution processing model for making miraculous meaning of an event. More directly, counterintuitive information likely triggers an innate and naturally selected single agency-detection system (Barrett 2004), which is trip-wired to respond to fragmentary information, inciting inferences of miraculous processes (Atran and Norenzayan 2004).
A quick overview may help before unpacking the details of the model. When the brain is confronted with counterintuitive information, it experiences a state of arousal. This hyperalertness activates the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which distributes the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which in turn stimulates the thalamus. Stimulation of the thalamus, however, inhibits or blocks communication with the posterior superior parietal lobule (PSPL), so that the brain cannot analyze and integrate higherorder sensory information (Newberg and d’Aquili 1998, 2000). The brain is left to interpret the information according to preexisting schemas that likely reside in the memory systems of the temporal lobe. For those with schemas that lean toward miracle attributions, the brain may make meaning out of the counterintuitive information by ascribing miraculous properties to it. Notably, this is only one potential model that does not likely encapsulate every method or approach by which events are interpreted as miraculous; however, it may help to focus on each stage of this neuropsychological model as a way of understanding some of the potential mechanisms involved in imparting events with meaning through miracle attribution.
Detection of Counterintuitive Information
As this synopsis suggests, the first stage in the neurological model involves detecting and responding to ambiguous and counterfactual information. By its nature, miraculous meaning is counterintuitive. It does not immediately make sense given one’s knowledge of natural processes and what one expects under normal conditions. As Leif Enger (2001, 3) says in his best-selling book, Peace Like a River,
Miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: they rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave, now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.
Unusual events, therefore, do not pass by unnoticed, but rather arrest our attention at a perceptual level: visual, auditory, or tactile. The increased attention garnered by such counterintuitive information leads to some elevation in arousal. This hyperarousal stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the portion of the nervous system that elevates heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and oxygen metabolism when confronted with unusual or arousing stimuli. When something enters the mind through the senses that is not rational or logical, whether this is because it violates the law of nature (Hume, as cited in Pojman 2001) or because we expect all things to operate according to certain rules or sequential orderings (Atran and Norenzayan 2004), neural signals are sent off to activate the ANS. This may happen particularly when the left-sided and rational side of the brain becomes frustrated and triggers a limbic response (Johnstone and Glass, forthcoming).
Studies have found this to be true with many kinds of counterintuitive information, and it may apply to miracle attributions. We have emotional and physiological arousal to shadows, to rivulets and clouds that form distinct patterns, and to things that appear to occur via magic. The mere exposure to death scenes can activate adrenaline and lead to an increased belief in God’s existence and miraculous intervention (Atran and Norenzayan 2004). Even babies who are shown unexpected phenomena in which universal assumptions are violated display surprise by looking at the stimuli longer than at something more commonplace (Spelke 1991; Spelke, Phillips, and Woodward 1995). Perhaps this is why the ANS is so heavily involved in religious rituals and spiritual meditation (Newberg, d’Aquili, and Rause 2001). Each of these spiritual or religious events elicits changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It is not exactly clear why this happens, although Newberg, dAquili, and Rause (2001) suggest that it may have something to do with an alteration between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS, with the former being the arousal system that surges in situations of intense readiness, and the latter designed to maintain homeostasis and balance. They normally operate in antagonistic fashion, but in cases of spiritual hyperarousal, the resulting excitement may overwhelm this antagonistic reaction and result in altered states of consciousness. The same may be true in some cases of events and stimuli that we interpret to be miracles.
There is also a strong emotional tone to the sensations and perceptions that we call miracles, which reflects involvement of the limbic system. Events that are deemed to be miraculous can arouse emotions of joy, shock, relief, or fear. This may partially explain why psychedelic drugs, or entheogens, result in spiritually based perceptual alterations of actual objects. These drugs may activate limbic structures involved in signaling the significance and emotional tone of events, thereby facilitating religious types of experiences (Hood 2005). Perhaps the limbic system and the ANS work together to create a salient emotional experience in response to counterintuitive information. In a way, miracle attributions may in part arise from a greater or lesser degree of anxiety and activate mechanisms that automatically respond to situations of uncertainty.
One of the particular mechanisms by which we respond to this arousal and deal with this counterintuitive information is by imposing agency and causality. When the brain detects sensory information, it engages in a process of interpretation to understand and assign meaning to that information. According to Atran and Norenzayan (2004), the brain is wired with an agency-detection mechanism that is ready to be triggered by ambiguous information as a way of imputing causality to events. This agency-detection mechanism is likely to be dependent on the neurocognitive networks in the frontal lobes, particularly the PFC (McNamara 2001). In addition to mediating planning, goal-directed behavior, social inhibition, and insight, the PFC is responsible for agency detection and attributing independent mental states to oneself and others. Its dense interconnection with several limbic sites and its diffuse projections throughout the brain allow it to regulate emotions and output to other cortical regions, and global cortical arousal levels. As the last region to develop in the brain, both in terms of brain evolution and human development, the frontal networks house our intentionality detector, enabling us to assign intentional states to animate objects. These networks also control our theory of mind, namely, the process by which we attribute complex mental representations of intentional mental states (thinking and believing) to other agents and persons.
This is readily apparent among those with frontal lobe deficits, in which damage or perseveration of agency is readily apparent. For example, those afflicted with Capgras syndrome erroneously cling to beliefs regardless of evidence to the contrary, like a patient believing his wife has been duplicated and is an imposter, despite all contradictory testimony. Similarly, those with temporal lobe epilepsy often report spiritual experiences that are related to increased cerebral blood flow in the frontal regions that control how we attribute mental states to self and others (Azari et al. 2001a, 2001b; Newberg et al. 2001). Even among those without frontal syndromes, activation of the frontal lobes has been implicated in religious events (Azari et al. 2005). During meditation, there appears to be increased frontal activity on positron emission topography imaging (Herzog et al. 1990-1991), and single-photon emission-computed tomography imaging with Franciscan nuns and Tibbetan monks has revealed increased activity and blood flow in the dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (Newberg et al. 2001, 2003). Therefore the increased activity of the frontal lobe during spiritual experiences, paired with its role in agency detection and causal attribution, suggests a role in the attribution of miraculous processes. Perhaps the perception and interpretation of an event as miraculous is partially an artifact of the frontal lobe tendency to anthropomorphize novel events or objects.
However, other areas besides the frontal networks may also be involved. One possibility is that miracle attribution occurs along a frontal-parietal-temporal circuit. In addition to increased frontal activation, the preceding imaging studies also demonstrated decreased activation of certain regions of the parietal lobe such as the right posterior superior parietal region (Herzog et al. 1990-1991; Newberg et al. 2001, 2003). The posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL) is involved in the analysis and integration of higher-order visual, auditory, and somaesthetic sensory information. Decreased activity in this area may allow for more transcendental experiences by minimizing the abilities of the PSPL such as decreasing one’s awareness of the self relative to other objects (Johnstone and Glass, forthcoming). There may be a softening of the sense of self and absorption into a larger sense of reality, so that one is better able to view counterintuitive information through a whole or gestalt. Maybe, as Newberg and d’Aquili (1994) suggest, miracles are based on a process that involves increased physiologic activity of the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity of the posterior superior parietal regions.
The precise mechanism by which these areas get activated or inactivated is less clear. Based on the work of Newberg and d’Aquili (1998) as well as Johnstone and Glass (forthcoming), one possibility is that for those making miracle attributions, the hyperalertness that follows from arousing information may activate the PFC. The PFC may then distribute the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which in turn stimulates the thalamus. The thalamus governs the flow of sensory information to cortical processing areas and provides the PSPL with sensory information.
When this sensory information is counterintuitive, however, the reticular nucleus of the thalamus may release the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits neuronal communication with the PSPL, so less sensory input is received by the PSPL (Destexhe, Contreras, and Steriade 1998). In a sense, there is deafferentation, or blocking, of the PSPL via GABAergic effects (Newberg and d’Aquili 1998), so that the brain regions that are active in the usual processing of sensory interpretation are in fact inhibited. Because the PSPL is deafferentated, the brain is left to interpret the information according to preexisting schemas that impose meaning. Put differently, the brain must rely on previously used methods of interpretation to create a meaningful explanation. It is at this point that the temporal lobes may be activated to provide archetypes and templates for meaning.
This is similar to what happens with visual hallucinations. Often, as in the case of those with Parkinson’s or Lewy Body dementia, there are structural abnormalities in the primary visual pathway that prevent the inhibition of visual events (Atran and Norenzayan 2004). When these visual areas are deafferented, the brain is forced to interpret any random neural activity in the visual pathway, resulting in visual hallucinations. Typically, the final image blends internal and external elements from fantasy and memory, which likely reflects temporal involvement in the final stage of forming a miracle attribution.
As this suggests, when the natural process of interpreting sensory information has been inhibited, the brain must rely on other things, such as schemas and context-dependent memory, to make meaning out of the counterintuitive information. With the minimization of right parietal functions, there may be increased activity of left temporal regions that house universal religious archetypes and schemas. These schemas are template-like representations of highly complex cognitive systems of knowledge. The particular cluster of schemas that exist in a person’s mind can influence the nature and sensitivity of the perceptual sets that a person is capable of having. To reconcile and explain all sensory information, we engage in a process of schema-fitting, which involves actively searching through all our schemas to find the most appropriate template or lens for understanding the sensory information in question.
Although it would be an error to say that religion is a schema (Paloutzian and Smith 1995), there are many specific religious schemas that shape our response to everyday events, for example, an Evangelical Christian schema, an Orthodox Jewish schema, a Muslim schema, a Buddhist schema, and so on. Likewise, someone whose schema allows for a predisposition to see special, unique meaning whenever an unexpected event occurs is more apt to make an attribution to the miraculous. This type of schema for miracles is influenced by culture and religious belief systems, typically emerging as children age and form templates for detecting supernatural agency (Boyer and Walker 2000). These schemas may also be adaptive because they allow us to better anticipate outcomes and develop predictable responses (Brown and Caetano 1992). In a sense, because miracles challenge our knowledge of natural processes, the ability to refer to supernatural intervention and agency may offer the emotional benefits of conferring meaning and predictability on the apparently miraculous event.
On a neural level, the activation of these schemas may partiallydology increased temporal lobe activity. In particular, the left temporal lobe may be the primary location for the generation or experience of religious archetypes (Johnstone and Glass, forthcoming; Newberg and d’Aquili 1994). The left temporal lobe system has been implicated in cases of spiritual phenomena such as increased left temporal blood flow in religious delusions (Puri et al. 2001) and hyperreligiosity and religious conversions among those with temporal lobe epilepsy (Bear and Fedio 1977). This increased left temporal activity may activate universal religious archetypes that are shaped by one’s culture, particularly when explanations are needed for counterintuitive information. Considering the link between the temporal lobes and memory, it also ensures stronger recall of counterintuitive events as well as a greater likelihood for relying on similar attributions and archetypes in the future. We recall and recognize counterintuitive information better than other events due to their attention-grabbing quality (Barrett 2004; Boyer and Walker 2000), and it may be that people who readily attribute an event as a miracle have learned contextual cues for doing so, therefore increasing the likelihood of seeing a miracle (Richardson-Klavehn and Bjork 1988).
Put simply, the brain appears to have particular ways of dealing with information that violates natural laws. An attribution to miracles may be a heuristic or mental shortcut that is a by-product of a hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism. The vision of Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun, for example, may represent culturally conditioned priming in anticipation of agency (Atran and Norenzayan 2004). In a sense, we may conjure up the miraculous due to a trip-wired cognitive schema for agency detection when we are confronted with uncertainty.
Putting It into Context
Perhaps an example would be helpful to illustrate this model. Let’s say that someone becomes lost while driving in a winter storm. Suddenly, she sees the taillights of a vehicle ahead of her. She immediately experiences relief and is able to safely follow the taillights to her precise destination. But when she gets to her destination, the vehicle suddenly disappears. One possible explanation, depending on her selection of schemas, might be miraculous intervention. On a neural level, when she reached her destination and did not see the other vehicle, she experienced arousal of the ANS and limbic system due to the counterintuitive nature of the information. Her heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure most likely elevated, and adrenaline was released to the temporal lobe, heightening recall. Her frontal lobe, particularly the PFC, was then activated as a way of trying to determine agency and causal attribution. Although her PFC likely stimulated her thalamus, the counterintuitive nature of the information may have blocked the supply of GABA to the PSPL, thus inhibiting her normal methods of sensory interpretation. Forced to rely on schemas and contextual cues for understanding, she may have made meaning out of the event by attributing it as a miracle.
Again, this says nothing about the veridicality or truthfulness of her attribution and interpretation, but instead demonstrates some of the possible neuropsychological substrates underlying miraculous perception and attribution. As with all working models, it is undoubtedly insufficient to explain every case where meaning is made out of events we deem as miraculous. Many of the aforementioned scientific studies were based on a circumscribed number of individuals, with research questions that were not explicitly intended to be ascribed to the neuropsychological process of miracle attribution. This model is also based on certain assumptions such as the arousing nature of counterintuitive events and the immediacy of the attributional process. It may best apply to those situations when counterintuitive information incites arousal and emotional excitement as well as those cases when there is relatively close timing between the experience of the events and the actual interpretation of the events as miraculous. The elements and sequence of neurological activity may not adequately capture those occasions when events are initially experienced and only interpreted as a miracle years later. Regardless, it seems clear that an integrative approach that combines the knowledge bases of social and clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuropsychology helps us to understand more fully how the human perceptual system makes miracles out of events by attributing those events to the operation of miraculous processes. Perhaps this can open greater dialogue about what is ordinary in our interpretation of the extraordinary.