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October 23, 2011

Neurotheology - This is Your Brain on God

Since the dawn of the human species, mankind has maintained a belief in some form of spirituality, of God or Gods and an afterlife. Are we wired to believe in "something greater" than ourselves? Why are some people more likely to believe - to take leap of faith without question - while others resist, blocked by logic and control? What happens to us physically during these moments of spirituality?

Studies in a relatively new neuroscience field dubbed "neurotheology" are exploring the connection between our brains and God.

Neurologist Vilaynur S. Ramachandran explored a long-standing correlation between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious fervor. He asked some of his epilepsy patients to listen to a variety of neutral, sexual, and religious words while measuring brain activity and found that religious words such as "God" elicited a higher emotional response, indicating that people with this type of epilepsy have a greater affinity for spiritual experience. The temporal lobe was found to be a sort of "god spot" in the brain.

Researcher Michael Persinger took this a step further by creating the "God Helmet" which focuses weak electromagnetic fields on specific areas of the brain's temporal lobe eliciting feelings commonly attributed to spiritual experience. Persinger asserted that spiritual experience is merely the result of electromagnetic activity in specific areas of the brain.

Using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), leading neurotheology researcher Andrew B. Newberg and his colleagues have taken a peek at the brain areas that are activated during prayer and meditation. Buddhist monks showed decreased activity in a portion of the parietal lobe and increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex. Newberg explained that the lowered activity in the parietal lobe could explain the monks reported feelings of being at one with the universe when meditating while the enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex was associated with intense concentration.

Quebec neuroscientist Mario Beauregard believes that there is no single "god spot in the brain" or even a few "god spots" as Newberg suggests, but rather a complex network is involved in spiritual experience. To test his theory, he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of nuns while they altered between religious and control states. He discovered six regions to be involved including increased activity in the caudate nucleus (possibly involved in the nuns' feeling of love for God), neural sparks in the insula (could be associated with pleasurable feelings felt), augmented activity in the inferior parietal lobe(oddly the opposite of Newberg's findings), and other regions involved to a lesser extent were the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the medial temporal lobe.

In order to further test his hypothesis, Beauregard decided to use a faster technique called electroencephalography (EEG). Using this technique, Beauregard reported lower-frequency waves in the parietal cortexes and temporal lobe associated with a trance-like state.

While such research will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of a God, it may lead to a better understanding of the neural activity associated with human religiosity and spirituality-- why we believe.

Main article:
Biello, D., (2007). Searching for God in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, 18, 5.

Further Reading:
Neural Correlates of a mystical Experience in carmelite Nuns. M. Beauregard and V. Paquette in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 405, No. 3, pg. 186-190; Sept. 25, 2006

Why We Beleive What We Believe. A. Newberg and M. Robert Waldman. Free Press, 2006

The Spiritual Brain. M. beuregard and D. O'Leary. harperCollins, 2007.
Posted by      Samantha H. at 9:49 AM MDT
Tags: religion


  Christina U.  says:
So Beauregard found that there was increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe of the nuns' brains, whereas Newberg found that there was decreased activity in the entire parietal lobe of the monks' brains? I feel like I might be reading this wrong.
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 6:14 PM MDT by Christina U.
  Samantha H.  says:
No this is correct, some of his findings are in contrast to Newberg's findings. Neurotheology is still a new field and there are still many contradictions. The study of religiosity or spirituality is difficult to quantify. Scientists studying the effects of religion on the brain have concluded that religious and/or spiritual experiences have a positive measureable effect, but it is difficult to identify exactly what defines such religious or spiritual experiences. Studies have used diverse definitions including frequency of prayer, attendance at religious services, intrinsic versus extrinsic relationship with prayer and meditation as well as various psychological screens, but no index exists with which to analyze religiosity or spirituality. A positive link has been found relating prayer/meditation to mental and physical health, however the results of these studies have been varied.
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 7:24 PM MDT by Samantha H.
  Christina U.  says:
Aren't there myriad confounds with trying to broadly categorize religion, mainly stemming from the fact that there are a variety of religions and the manner in which each religion addresses god(s) and goddesses, prayer, and devotion? Why not address each religion as its own entity, rather than lumping them all together?
Posted on Mon, 24 Oct 2011 7:33 PM MDT by Christina U.
  Samantha H.  says:
I think most scientists due. But what is really interesting, is that many diverse religions with their own diverse forms of practice are showing many of the same results in the brain. But you are correct. Spirituality is extremely difficult to difine even within one religion.

For example in Christianity (the dominant religion in the United States), there are many diverse forms of practice. Religious practices have been difficult to measure because while prayer is reported as almost universal in the United States, the actions, beliefs and commitment of those who partake varies dramatically. For example, while the majority of Americans claim to pray daily, the type, purpose and intensity of such prayer is not consistent. While some may offer a daily prayer of thanksgiving before a meal, others may engage in intensive prayer. Similarly, regular church attendees may do so for diverse reasons. Studies have used various methods to identify participants in prayer research ‚?? from single scales such as reported frequency of prayer and regular church attendance to devotees‚?? perceptions of God as remote or intimate to most recently, using multidimensional measures which include behavioral, social, psychological pathways to religiousness and spirituality. In addition, research has often focused on participants from a specific Christian denomination. The lack of a clearly defined participant selection for studies on the mental health benefits of prayer combined with reported individual religious experiences complicates and, at times, dilutes the data on the benefits of prayer to mental health.

Social responses to Neurotheology differ greatly.
Posted on Wed, 26 Oct 2011 7:56 AM MDT by Samantha H.
  Christina U.  says:
Do you have any running theories as to why a) scientists tend to generalize their results about religious studies and b) why the results can be translated from religion to religion? And for that matter, why research would focus on Christianity in particular?
Posted on Wed, 26 Oct 2011 7:33 PM MDT by Christina U.

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