How can a face launch a thousand ships? Why do lullabies quiet an infant's cries? Must we be mystics to "still our beating hearts"? Over millions of lifetimes, we mammals evolved a range of special neural structures that have equipped us for an increasingly social life. Three of these help resolve a puzzle that has long stumped modern science: Why do archetypal images, prayers and gestures exert a stubborn hold even on scientifically schooled minds? Breakthroughs in the neuroscience of empathy, emotions and our conscious control of the breath have radically changed our view of our nature, helping explain the stubborn power of spiritual imagery, prayers and ritual.
The newest layer of brain behind our foreheads, called the prefrontal cortex, includes "mirror neurons" and other elements that help us read and imitate the facial expressions, vocal tones and bodily actions of others. These same neurons form "resonance circuits" with deeper brain layers that call up in our own hearts the emotions we read behind others' body language. Other parts of this newest cortex, unique to humans, allow us to exert a higher degree of control over bodily functions and primal emotions, helping us integrate neural functions around a conscious intention. Beyond just "reading minds," this new layer of brain allows us to tune our mindset, motivation and actions to meet those of others, sustaining higher social forms of life based largely on communication and teamwork.
The second special structure is a network of two-way links joining prefrontal areas with our emotional processing centers in the inner brain layer we share with the oldest mammals. Called the limbic cortex or "ring-like covering" since it arches like a ring over the core brain we share with reptiles, this inner layer of neurons holds the older half of the resonance circuits that support empathy and our higher control of motivation. Recently, we've learned that this network empowers us to consciously shift from reactive emotions like fear, rage and shame into proactive emotions like trust, care and love, a shift our newer cortex needs to support our full capacities for social engagement. This network is keyed into our ability to read the facial, vocal and bodily language of others' moods, and in turn influences and is influenced by our own face-voice-body expressions.
Finally, there's a missing link connecting the muscles of our face, voice, inner ear and breath to our reptilian core brain and the primal life-support centers of the brainstem. As our amphibious ancestors became the first mammals, the nerves that used to serve gill arches morphed into new "cranial" nerves linking our facial, vocal, auditory and respiratory muscles to our brainstem. One of these was a new branch of the ancient nerve that controls breathing, digestion, excretion and reproduction. Called the "vagus" or "wanderer" because it works to sense and regulate most of our internal organs, this nerve also counters the fight-flight reflex and supports our ability to relax the body, calm breathing and put a "brake" on heart rate. The new branch of this nerve only we mammals have, dubbed the "smart vagus," lets us consciously control breathing and also networks with the nerves repurposed for social expression, to feedback on our basic life support rhythms and bodily tone. It's thanks to the smart vagus, plus the new hormones oxytocin and vasopressin it releases, that our fears melt, our breathing slows, and our hearts calm when we recognize the face, voice and gestures of a loved one.
What does all this have to do with religious symbols and rituals? However social our brains have grown, nothing in the 70 million years it took for them to evolve could have possibly prepared them for the unnatural conditions that emerged in the eye-blink of civilization. Our pre-historic ancestors knew too well that our natures straddle the fence between higher social capacities and the reptilian self-protective instincts mammals needed to survive in the wild. Soon, they also learned that familiar masks, chants and dances helped us stretch our circle of kinship and tip the balance of our capacities in ways that helped adapt us to ever larger, more complex social groups. This is why the world religions that spread with civilization were set up like extended human families, to revolve around remembering the image, words and deeds of universal, model ancestors.
Of course, this strategy for cultivating our social brains had limits: fostering a childlike dependence on religious leaders, symbols and rituals; and developing a mindset of exclusivity that led religions to clash not merge. This is partly why the Buddha's mission to extract spiritual psychology, meditation and ethics from orthodox religions and forge them into a contemplative science of happiness has attracted so much recent interest. But the distinction between Buddhism and more familiar religions blurs when it comes to the richly symbolic Buddhism of Tibet.
Not only does Tibetan Buddhism revolve around close mentoring bonds that remind us of bonds to imams, priests and rabbis, but its practice involves archetypal images, prayer-like affirmations, ritual gestures and an ecstatic tone that seem more like old-time religion than meditative practice. Leaving aside how this tradition relates to more familiar forms of Buddhism, I see it as a natural expression of Shakyamuni's mission. Just as Freud made minstering to the soul a science-based practice and Jung made religious imagery a psychotherapeutic art, so the Process Oriented "Tantric" Buddhism of Tibet makes a contemplative science of spiritual mentoring, archetypal imagery and altered states of communion.
While the science of Jung's day could not support his claim that archetypal imagery helps prime positive social emotions and neural energy, we now know he was right all along. And he was also ahead in his interest in the role-modeling imagery and transformational arts of Tibet. Now that brain science has helped explain the natural power and social benefits of spiritual imagery, affirmation and gestures, I predict we will see the next wave of interest in meditation turn to the "divine science" of Tibetan Buddhism.