Each fall, Columbia College proudly hosts the Althea W. and John A. Schiffman Lecture in Religious Studies, featuring a notable speaker in a free event open to the public. This year’s speaker is Dr. Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri. The lecture will be held Oct. 6 at 11:00 a.m. in the Bixby Lecture Hall of the Brouder Science Center.
In 2000, to honor his late wife, Althea, a 1941 Christian College graduate, board of trustee member and Distinguished Alumna ’85, John Schiffman made a $1.5 million gift to Columbia College – the single largest contribution by a living donor in the college’s history – to establish an endowed chair in ethics, religious studies and philosophy, and also to establish the lecture series. The spring lecture series focuses on ethics.
Recently, the college mourned the loss of Schiffman when he died Aug. 5 in St. Louis, Missouri, where he resided. He was 99.
According to Professor of History Dr. Anthony Alioto, who has held the endowed chair since its inception in 2002, Schiffman attended the lectures often and made a point of being well-read about the speakers prior to their talks. He undoubtedly would have found Johnstone’s upcoming lecture entitled, “The Sacred and the Brain,” to be fascinating; Johnstone’s research explores the intersection between brain activity and spiritual experiences.
Johnstone is a clinical neuropsychologist and has been a professor in the University of Missouri Department of Health Psychology for 25 years. His primary research interest is in determining the neuropsychological processes associated with spiritual experiences, specifically, what is happening in the brain rather than the location of such brain activity when an individual has a spiritual experience.
For example, the right hemisphere of the brain processes information related to the idea of “self,” and reduced activity in this part of the brain leads to increased “selflessness,” which can be experienced as spiritual transcendence, or connection with higher powers beyond the self.
His research on relationships across cultures and faith traditions suggests “selflessness” may serve as a universal neuropsychological foundation for spiritual experiences. Additional research also suggests a relationship between selflessness and transcendence for atheists and agnostics, supporting concepts of spiritual atheism and secular spirituality.
Working with religious studies scholars, Johnstone has shown how this neuroscientific research is further supported by multiple texts from diverse faith traditions emphasizing the importance of selflessness for spiritual experiences.
Johnstone holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Duke University. He recently completed fellowships in religious experiences and moral identity at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University, and in science and religion at Oxford University. He serves on the University of Missouri Center on Religion and the Professions Spirituality and Health Research Project, and his findings have been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals.