Exploring Neurospirituality with Michael Ferguson

To Michael Ferguson, contemplating spirituality in both the chapel and the laboratory makes his experience of religion more rich.


{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}n paper, Michael Ferguson’s life seems full of incongruities.

Ferguson has held simultaneous appointments at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Divinity School. He leads pioneering research at the intersection of theism and neuroscience through the Neurospirituality Lab, which he founded. Ferguson is also a practicing Catholic, though he was raised Mormon. He survived gay conversion therapy in his twenties, and he and his husband received the first same-sex marriage license in Utah.

Sitting in St. Paul’s Parish on Mt. Auburn Street, Ferguson explains how these seemingly disparate aspects of his story — faith and science, religion and sexuality — fit together.

His interest in neuroscience, he says, first developed as a child in the Mormon church.

“I’ve always, since as long as I can remember, been really interested in the spirit world,” Ferguson says. “That fascination with the spirit world, and with the human spirit, persisted all through my adolescence and through my undergraduate education. And if you’re interested in visualizing the human spirit, then brain imaging is a pretty good way to go.”

Eventually, this interest evolved into a Ph.D. at the University of Utah, where Ferguson conducted fMRI brain scans to identify the brain regions involved in the Mormon phenomenon of “feeling the Spirit” — sensing a connection to the divine during worship.

His graduate school research, along with a postdoc that focused on theoretical neuroscience and intelligence, set him up to found the Neurospirituality Lab at Harvard.

On his website, Ferguson describes neurospirituality as “an emerging discipline that fuses neuroscience and spirituality studies in order to understand human experience in a new way.” Currently, his research is focused on localizing and comparing mystical versus dogmatic experiences of spirituality in the brain.

As we talk, Ferguson’s scientific description of spirituality stands in contrast to the wooden crucifix hanging across the room in St. Paul’s Parish. With traditional imagery of Jesus Christ appearing in every direction, the discussion feels out of place.

To Ferguson, though, contemplating spirituality in both the chapel and the laboratory makes his experience of religion more rich. Uncovering the neuroscience of spirituality is just another way of explaining existing theological narratives. “Somewhere along the line, I became comfortable that there’s multiple ways of explaining the same phenomena,” he says.

In part, Ferguson attributes his comfort with this multiplism to his experience as a gay Mormon. “Being gay created this space between subjective and objective ways of explaining,” he says. “I hold these two different storylines in conversation with each other.”

Learning to reconcile the Church’s narrative of homosexuality with his internal identity was a challenging process. When he was 22, Ferguson attempted to change his sexuality through gay conversion therapy – desperately hoping to fulfill the Mormon expectation that he should marry a woman.

Instead, the experience eventually empowered him to come to terms with being gay. “Going through conversion therapy was a refiner’s fire in the sense that it really made me trust my own experience, that this is a reality of my soul,” Ferguson says.

In January 2012, Ferguson met Seth Anderson, his future husband. At the time, same-sex marriage was illegal in Utah, but the ban was unexpectedly overturned in December 2013. When they heard the news, the two rushed to the County Clerk’s office, unsure if they would have minutes or days to receive their marriage license before the law was changed again.

Ferguson has probably told this story hundreds of times, but tears still roll down his face as he describes the moment to me. “It was just so improbable the way that everything lined up to allow that to happen. It continues to be something that when I think about it, I’m just flabbergasted,” he says.

Seventeen days later, the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses was halted when the state appealed. After nine months, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal case, Utah was formally ordered to recognize same-sex marriages.

In 2012, Ferguson and several others filed a lawsuit for consumer fraud against JONAH, the company that had offered their conversion therapy ‘treatment.’ Three years later, JONAH was found guilty. Ferguson v. JONAH marked the first time an American court declared that homosexuality is not a mental disease or disorder — a critical case in the gay rights movement.

Last December, Ferguson and Anderson celebrated their tenth anniversary.

Today, Ferguson is a practicing Catholic but leads the choir at the local Mormon congregation where his husband practices. “Neither one of those traditions are traditionally known for being celebratory of same-sex relationships,” he says, chuckling.

The tension between his identity and his faith tradition doesn’t bother Ferguson. Like a true scientist, he describes his experience with Christianity using the analogy of principal component analysis, a mathematical method for comparing datasets.

“When you have complex systems, and there’s a lot that’s happening in there and there’s lots of signal and lots of noise, you can decompose it and try to say, ‘What are the key principles? What are the key components of this system?’” he says.

To Ferguson, the key components of Christianity are loving God, loving humans, and loving nature. When he applies this analysis on his own set of internal values, he comes up with the same three principal components.

Ferguson chooses to pay attention to these three areas where his core values align with religion’s instead of places where they might disagree. “If there’s tension between the 10th and the 12th, and the 50th, and the 100th component in the system of the tradition and the system of my soul, those are so far down on the priority setlist relative to the convergence and the resonance between the big three components of both of those systems — the tradition and my soul,” he says.

I ask whether his experiences have ever made him question his belief in God.

“The nature of God has been radically shifting for me,” he responds. “On the one hand, you’ve got an impersonal mystery force, and then on the other hand, you’ve got a being who is acutely aware, intelligent, and concerned about day-to-day events in each human’s life. That’s really wide terrain. So that one word, ‘God,’ covers so much conceptual territory that I’ve never felt like I needed to step outside of it.”

Ferguson rigorously engages with this ‘conceptual territory’ by exploring and sharing new perspectives on spirituality. Currently he is teaching an online course on mindful self-compassion. He also leads monthly trips for students to visit a religious sisterhood of Carmelite nuns in Roxbury, a group dedicated to contemplative servitude. He finds their dedication to contemplative servitude not only inspiring, but “an important staple in the human ecosystem.”

This appreciation for various cultural traditions of worship has shone through in his position as Director of Wellness and Self-Discovery for first-year residential programming. He says the position has provided a “creative challenge” to appropriately incorporate both secular and religious spirituality into residential wellness.

As part of this effort, Ferguson recently directed an Earth Compassion Retreat at the Harvard Forest for students over spring break. At the retreat, students participated in sacred Native American traditions with the pipe holder of a local tribe, experienced sound meditation with an opera singer, and practiced Qigong exercises with a master teacher. Other scholars at the retreat represented Muslim, Jewish, and Christian perspectives.

“It went so well that I was deliriously happy for the whole week following,” Ferguson tells me.

If there’s one apparent throughline for his experiences, it’s his desire to explore spirituality from as many perspectives as possible.

“Once you get on board with the concept of epistemological pluralism, it’s okay for there to be multiple qualitative narratives for common experience and common events,” Ferguson says.