Children, Non-Human Animals and Spirituality

by Dr. Maskil David Cycleback

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”– Picasso

“There is absolutely no reason to believe (the ability to have spiritual experiences) is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”– neurology professor Kevin Miller MD

Mysticism and spirituality involve the brain naturally if unusually functioning in particular ways. With their brains functioning differently than that of adult humans, and young children and non-human animals literally perceiving the world differently, children and non-human animals appear to be able to, if perhaps not more able to, think in spiritual ways. 

Psychology professors Lisa Miller of Columbia University and Diana Divech of Yale have written that children are born hardwired for mystical thinking, and this type of thinking is important for their mental development.Australian child psychologist Rebecca Nye writes that “a growing body of research demonstrates that children’s spirituality is not something esoteric, nor something exclusive to precocious children. Also, it is not limited to particular religious exercises, nor something we need to turn to the early lives of saints to find out about.” (Divech 2015) (Nye 2009)

Princeton University psychologist Julian Jaynes and Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wrote that children’s brains lack the mature cognitive structuring of adults that normally suppresses mystical thinking in our daily lives. Jaynes says that it is not coincidence that traditionally many religious “seers” were children. This also indicates that the spiritual or mystical way of thinking is something they often grow out of. (Dennett 2005) (Jaynes 1976) 

Notice that in stories how often it is the child who has the transcendental experiences that the adults don’t. Peter Pan to The Exorcist to Wizard of Oz to Little Red Riding Hood. In The Shining, five year old Danny has epileptic-like seizures where “It’s like when I go to sleep, he shows me things.” In Peter Pan, Peter’s childhood experiences are forgotten as an adult. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has her fantastic adventure while knocked out, literally being in a different state of consciousness. 

Further, in many ways children psychologically and optically perceive the world differently than adults. The following are two particularly fascinating examples:

  • Adults’ brains combine senses to make one holistic perception of the physical world. However, young children’s brains keep separate each sense, including eye-to-eye. The result is that adults can identify some physical qualities in a scene that young kids cannot, and kids can identify physical qualities that adults cannot.  (University College London 2010)
  • For kids under a certain age, what they know is more important than what they see. When asked to draw a coffee cup in front of them with the handle hidden from view on the other side, an adult will draw a cup as seen without a handle. The young child, who can’t see but knows there is a handle on the cup, will draw the cup with a handle on the side.  (Oxbridge Academy 2019)

The question to ponder is which drawing is more accurate. Consider that Picasso, who trained himself over years to draw like a child, was a pioneer in cubism. His cubist paintings the three dimensional sides of a figure in two dimensions.

Non-Human Animals

While humans can never know what non-human animals’ perceive, and non-human animals’ perception involves sensory information outside of human’s sight and hearing, a number of medical scientists believe non-human animals have the capability of having spiritual and mystical experiences.

As with young children, non-human animals do not have the advanced cognitive structuring that adult’s human use, and process information using the emotional parts of their brains. Some thus believe non-human animals thus have more direct, realistic experience of their physical world

Research points to spiritual experiences coming from deep primitive areas of the human brain. These areas are shared by other animals with similar brain structures. University of Kentucky neurology professor Kevin Nelson and University of Colorado evolutionary biology professor Marc Bekoff both believe animals have spiritual experiences comparable to what humans have.  (Nelson 2012) (Beckoff 2009)

Writes Miller: “It is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences . . . In humans, we know that if we disrupt the (brain) region where vision, sense of motion, orientation in the Earth’s gravitational field, and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch. There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”  (Nelson 2012)

References:

Bekoff M. (2009), “Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences? Yes, They Do.”, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/200911/do-animals-have-spiritual-experiences-yes-they-do

Dennett D (2005), “2005 : WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?”, stage.edge.org/response-detail/11902

Divecha D (2015), “How Does Spirituality Grow in Children?”, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_does_spirituality_grow_in_children 

Jaynes J (1976), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” Houghton Mifflin

Neson, K (2012), The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience Reprint Edition (Plume)

Nye R (2009), Children Spirituality (Church House Publishing)

Oxbridge Academy (2019), “How Children See the World Differently to Adults”. https://www.oxbridgeacademy.edu.za/blog/how-children-see-the-world-differently-to-adults/

University College London. “Children and adults see the world differently, research finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913153630.htm>