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