The Neurobiology of the Gods
eBook - ePub

The Neurobiology of the Gods

How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams

Erik D. Goodwyn

  1. 272 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Neurobiology of the Gods

How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams

Erik D. Goodwyn

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Where does science end and religion begin? Can "spiritual" images and feelings be understood on a neurobiological level without dismissing their power and mystery?

In this book, psychiatrist Erik Goodwyn addresses these questions by reviewing decades of research, putting together a compelling argument that the emotional imagery of myth and dreams can be traced to our deep brain physiology, and importantly, how a sensitive look at this data reveals why mythic or religious symbols are indeed more "godlike" than we might have imagined.

The Neurobiology of the Gods weaves together Jungian depth psychology with research in evolutionary psychology, neuroanatomy, cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, mental imagery, dream research, and metaphor theory into a comprehensive model of how our brains contribute to the recurrent images of dreams, myth, religion and even hallucinations. Divided into three sections, this book provides:

  • definitions and foundations
  • an examination of individual symbols
  • conclusive thoughts on how brain physiology shapes the recurring images that we experience.

Goodwyn shows how common dream, myth and religious experiences can be meaningful and purposeful without discarding scientific rigor. The Neurobiology of the Gods will therefore be essential reading for Jungian analysts and psychologists as well as those with an interest in philosophy, anthropology and the interface between science and religion.

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Part 1

Definitions and foundations

Chapter 1

Symbols, biology and depth

Gods, demons, angels … muses, spirits, ghosts … fairies, devils, imps, fauns, unicorns, dragons, poltergeists, ghouls, vampires, djinns, werewolves … saviors …
Have you ever wondered why humans have spent so much time writing and worrying about, praying to, running from, blessing, cursing, exorcizing, and placating these entities? If there is so little physical evidence that any of these things exist, why do we spend so much energy thinking about them? Philosophers as early as Epicurus argued that they are pure nonsense, yet since the dawn of our existence humankind has been convinced of the power of these “spiritual” entities. Isn't this irrational? Illogical? Even potentially harmful? Why would such a propensity evolve, when clearly a more rational animal would never waste precious biological resources on self-sacrifice, burnt offerings, or self-mutilation in the name of a god?
Many have tried to explain this phenomenon. Some speculate that religions evolved because certain cultural constructs passed down through the generations survived better than others in the human imagination (Dennett, 2007; Dawkins, 2008). Others argue that religion promotes social “cohesion” (Wilson, 2003), or that it is an “evolutionary by-product” of our propensity to think in anthropomorphic terms (Atran, 2002b; Barrett, 2004; see also Pyysiäinen, 2009). This view holds that our brains are hardwired to detect agency and intent in the environment, so ideas about spirits and gods are naturally “intuitive,” making them memorable and impressive. While these arguments are compelling and have much to recommend them, they are only part of the picture. Explaining the transmission, social function, or ease of construction of religious ideas in cognitive terms still does not address the question of what they mean. Theoretically, any set of arbitrary ideas could be passed on easily, promote social cohesion or be intuitive and we would still have no idea what they represented. Thus we must not only ask why these ideas are so persistent and ubiquitous but also what they are, and why they are so emotionally stirring.
This is obviously no easy question. I will approach it from a medical perspective, based on the scientific literature and my experience with patients in psychotherapy. Unlike the authors referenced above, I am neither an evolutionary biologist nor an anthropologist, but a psychiatrist; I therefore argue primarily from a neuropsychiatric perspective. This awareness should alert you to any potential biases I may have. I am not interested in asserting dogma; rather I seek an explanation that agrees with the best medical and basic research available. I propose to show how we can understand what gods and spirits are by understanding them as a subset of special ideas known as symbols – to which I hasten to add that this is no light statement, reducing the mighty gods to “ideas.” No, hopefully, by the end of the book, you will see how symbols carry the weight of the gods in the human heart, and are very real and potent forces acting on us.
By symbols I don't mean archaic scribbles or mathematical equations, but rather metaphorical representations of thoughts, feelings, actions, environments, and everything else we experience. This may seem like a trivial construct in which to house the gods, but bear with me. As we will see, symbols are a fundamental part of our existence, and they have their origin in our neurobiology – in other words, they are not arbitrary creations of whimsy or poetic conceits, but originate from deep-rooted, innate predispositions as they interact richly with the environment. And some of them are highly charged with emotion – these are the symbols that become gods, not because we “mistake” them for gods, but because that is how they are best represented.

The link between biology and symbol according to early depth psychology

For Freud, most symbolism was sexual, and he believed that dream imagery was rooted in our deepest emotional drives. Thus Freud was perhaps the first of the major depth psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to link dream symbols to our innate human biology, specifically to the most evident of all human instincts, the sex drive. His student and later rival, Carl Jung, had a fundamental disagreement with this emphasis on sex as the primary source of dream symbol meaning. He argued that although, as Freud observed, dream images are symbolic, sex is simply one of many instincts they might portray. For Jung, symbols used basic universal meanings; they emerge from the “collective unconscious”; that is, the unconscious ground that all of us share as humans. This collective unconscious was built over millennia by natural selection and is inextricably bound with the environment. It was the source of the meaning behind these symbols, and included much more than the sex drive. He argued that the universal core of meaning behind each important symbol was the “archetype,” an instinctual prototype, sexual or otherwise, related to the symbol in human consciousness. Jung felt that recurrent images were not mere arbitrary images that could mean anything, but rather they had a relatively fixed, emotionally powerful meaning that was frequently only dimly grasped and hard to verbalize, but nonetheless was widely shared. As we will see, many of the opinions of Jung and many later theorists can be revisited in light of modern empirical research, with some important modifications.
From the very beginning, Freud envisioned a “scientific psychology” in which empirical research in neurology could be used to better understand psychopathology (Freud, 1923). However, lack of neurobiological knowledge made this impossible at that time, and he abandoned this goal. Later psychoanalysis branched off into Adler's “individual psychology,” and then Jung's “analytical psychology.” Freudian psychoanalysis further subdivided into various schools of thought, including drive theories, object relations schools, and self psychology. During the early part of the twentieth century, these schools developed largely independently of empirical research in psychology. This was because the school of behaviorism (Skinner, 1953), which at that time prevailed, presumed that the mind was not only a “blank slate,” imprinted by experience, but also a “black box.” Truly rigorous scientific inquiry, it was argued, must discard “unscientific” concepts like Freud's unconscious, repression, or even mental states in general. This ultra-positivistic viewpoint caused a rift in psychology, the effects of which are still present. In the meantime, discussion of symbols and their meanings went by the wayside when it came to empirical research and was relegated to the depth psychology schools.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the decline of behaviorism with the advent of cognitive psychology (McDonald and Okun, 2004). For the first time in decades, the mind was being studied in terms of its internal structure, rather than as a collection of stimuli and responses, and the success of cognitive psychology has revolutionized the field. Meanwhile, the neurobiology research Freud wished for has progressed tremendously. Neuro-imaging techniques enable researchers to investigate the brain in vivo, giving us an unprecedented ability to correlate neurobiology with function. This revolution in the study of the mind began in the 1970s with John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (Tooby, 1976a, 1976b; Cosmides and Tooby, 1992; Tooby and Cosmides, 2005; Tooby et al., 2005) when evolutionary theory, long since neglected in the study of the mind, began to be rigorously applied to psychology.

Understanding symbols neurobiologically

Because of the historical progression of psychology since Freud, the interpretation of symbols has remained largely detached from neurobiological research. But this situation need not continue, as we now have an abundance of data from the neurobiological sciences that should shed some new light on the older ideas that dream and fantasy symbols had their origin in the biological “drives” bequeathed to us by evolution. The primary focus of this book, then, is to propose a model for understanding dream, fantasy, and religious symbols in terms of our brain physiology. As I will show, there is a great deal of data from a variety of sources that we can use to address these questions. Despite the fact that Freud originated the idea of linking dream symbols and neurobiology, you will find that I refer to Jung quite a bit more than Freud. I have two reasons. First, Jung did not limit himself to sex, aggression and the Oedipal complex – rather, he considered these aspects of the mind to be among the many “archetypal” processes (Jung, 1990). Second, the hypothesis that symbols can be understood in terms of our neurobiology was expanded a great deal by Jung's theory, whereas Freud concerned himself less with symbols and more with defense analysis and transference – very important concepts that are beyond the scope of this work.
Jung and his students developed the most complete system for the interpretation of symbols that can be compared to those used by empirical science. In fact, several recent Jungian analysts have already attempted to work along these lines (Knox, 2003; Stevens, 2002) – Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule (2010), for example, in his Jung in the 21st Century, reviews many of the finer points of Jung's theory in light of modern research in a variety of fields, and finds Jung's theory agrees very well with the data of anthropology, evolutionary biology and primatology. Furthermore, the Jungian analyst David Rosen and his colleagues (Sotirova-Kohli et al., 2011) have produced empirical evidence that supports the existence of a collective unconscious – in this case, evidence for an underlying universal mechanism of symbol construction.
This study is therefore a synthesis – an attempt to organize and combine many fields under one framework that we can use to understand spontaneous, emotionally meaningful symbols. In so doing, one rapidly encounters Jung, because he had so many observations about the subject. As we will see, many of his ideas hold up remarkably well despite their age, and are not inconsistent with many other theoretical positions.

The “collective unconscious”: Jung's universal human nature

Before we can investigate what empirical research has to say about the existence of a “collective unconscious” (a term that unfortunately conjures up metaphysical ideas Jung did not intend), or any universal human nature from which symbols emerge, we must first try to understand what exactly Jung was trying to describe. Jung attempted to define the term in his paper “The concept of the collective unconscious,” first published in 1936:
In addition to our immediate personal conscious … (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals and is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and give form to psychic contents.
(Jung, 1959b: 43)
This idea, radical for its time, was essentially a rejection of the “blank slate” concept that was prevalent in the surrounding social and cultural environment at the time (Pinker, 2002); Jung repeatedly attacked the idea of the blank slate, stating:
It is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the new-born child is a tabula rasa [blank slate]…Insofar as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes but with specific ones. … These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes.
(Jung, 1959b: 66, emphasis in original)
The good thing is that psychologists do not believe in the “blank slate” anymore (Goodwyn, 2010a), so the question therefore becomes “what is the nature of the innate mind?” and what about these “archetypes”? As later Jungians have pointed out (Hogenson, 2004), Jung struggled to define the archetype, which seemed to be a deeply felt, but elusive, intuition. One attempted definition was to identify archetypes as “inherited instincts and preformed patterns … typical mode[s] of apprehension … wherever we meet with uniform and regularly recurring modes of apprehension we are dealing with an archetype” (Jung, 1919: para 280). He also often compared archetypes to biological instincts:
instincts are not vague and indefinite by nature, but are specifically formed motive forces which … pursue their inherent goals. Consequently they form very close analogies to the archetypes, so close, in fact, that there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behavior.
(Jung, 1959b: para 91, emphasis in original)
Similarly, he stated that there is “no justification for visualizing the archetype as anything other than the image of instinct in man” (Jung, 1959a: para 278). Jung frequently emphasized the instinctual origin of the archetype – this speaks to the same issue of symbol neurobiology that we are exploring. Because humans are capable of articulation, he argued, we come to know these instinctual forms through themes found in myth and folktale, and in highly elaborated form in religious doctrine, but their source, he argued, was instinctual. This is the crucial element I am considering in the present work, in particular with respect to the experiences of gods and spirit beings.
Jung proposed that much of human life is directed by a group of universal instinctual processes he termed the “collective unconscious” and its archetypes, though he acknowledged that experience is important in the development of individual “complexes” (Jung, 1959b: 42). Jung argued that emotional ideas and concepts have an “archetypal core,” meaning that they are under the direction of a highly specific preexisting archetype/instinct that forms the scaffold for the images and experiences that surround it. For Jung, the mother complex, for example, does not emerge spontaneously via some generic learning mechanism that associates a child's mother with food or “rewards,” but rather emerges from an innate, specific mechanism that orients the child toward its mother, and makes emotional associations to those stimuli that are enduring – the mother complex. In his words:
The mother archetype forms the foundation of the so-called mother complex … [however] My own view differs from that of other medico-psychological theories principally in that I attribute to the personal mother only a limited aetiological...


  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgment
  8. Foreword
  9. Part 1 Definitions and foundations
  10. Part 2 Individual symbols
  11. Part 3 Conclusions
  12. Appendix: Affective neuroscience and imagery
  13. Notes
  14. Bibliography
  15. Index
Estilos de citas para The Neurobiology of the Gods

APA 6 Citation

Goodwyn, E. (2012). The Neurobiology of the Gods (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)

Chicago Citation

Goodwyn, Erik. (2012) 2012. The Neurobiology of the Gods. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Goodwyn, E. (2012) The Neurobiology of the Gods. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Goodwyn, Erik. The Neurobiology of the Gods. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.