This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
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To the Christian, including myself, this belief sounds absurd. How can one reduce what is deemed Holy to an organic brain dysfunction? The neurobiological bases of religious experiences has not only been researched through examination of temporal lobe epileptic seizures, but it has also been researched in the meditative states and prayer sessions of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, respectively (5).) This paper seeks to present and examine some scientific observations that link the experience of God (thus, surpassing the argument that God exists), and the changes in neurological activity that occur during these experiences. Prior to taking this course in neurobiology and behavior, I firmly believed that the brain equals behavior and that additional experiences of the mind and soul arose from the multitude of activity within the brain. However, I still questioned my assumption that the soul lies within the brain. Subsequently, I came across a Newsweek article titled "Searching For the God Within," respectively (5).) The article presents the research of Dr. Andrew Newberg and his research team. He and his team examined the brain activity of Tibetan Monks during their peak transcendent state during which they say they experience a oneness with the universe. Upon examination of single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) images of a resting brain and a meditative brain, Dr. Newberg concluded that there was a noticeable difference in the activity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (7).) The change in activity of the frontal lobe was accounted for by the intense concentration used to focus the mind inward on the position and essence of the body (the true self), and the insensitivity to sensory information. This exclusion of sensory information processing resulted in a decreased activity of the parietal lobe. The parietal lobe is a portion of the cerebral cortex responsible for processing information about the orientation of the body within time and space (7).) Newberg and his team claim that this action of the brain is also found in Franciscan nuns praying to God.
This research information appears to account for the brain activity of daily religious activities (i.e. prayer, meditation, fasting); however, it does not quite explain the supernatural experiences like those experienced by Moses and others seeing angels (4).) How does science account for the experiences of those who claim to see God or sense God as a physical being that is somehow in close contact with them? Patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) often claim to have sudden revelation or supernatural experiences with angels (or with the opposing, satanic angels). Scientists have located this activity to regions of the limbic system and the middle and lower portions of the temporal lobes (6).) One writer cites the correlation between the limbic system and disorders of the self (such as depression and schizophrenia), as evidence of a possible disorder that causes people to see a higher being beyond the self, God.
This writer, Todd Murphy, also mentions something called "The Forty Hertz Component," a portion of EEG readout, this data correlates with activity within the temporal lobe (6).) Murphy notes that this EEG activity is present both in waking states and in REM states; however, it is absent in non-REM sleep. Apparently the presence of EEG activity within this region supports evidence that a person is truly "existing," communicating with the world around him, and responding to this world. The presence of two temporal lobes regions on opposing sides of the brain work together as one to produce this communicative activity. In the case of temporal lobe epilepsy, individual's temporal lobes are working disconcertedly, thus producing the feeling that there is another being, in addition to the self, that can be sensed (6).) This would account for the reported experiences of seeing angels or devils.
On the contrary, changes in activity are not always reported as religious experiences. Jack Hill, a guinea pig for researcher Michael Persinger, underwent an experiment that examined the results of temporal lobe electromagnetic probing (1).) Hill simply re-experienced passed occurrences, remotely related to religious experiences (he recalled joining a meditation class), during adolescent hood. The events certainly did not mimic the visions of angels others have reported. This may suggest that activity within the temporal lobe must be activated through specific pathways to produce the religious experiences claimed by others. Could others be more prone to religion due to their ability to easily access these pathways? Are these pathways accessed intentionally or by accident for those who are new to religion? In addition, how do the two sides of religious communication, speaking to God and hearing from God translate into brain activity? From the information that I have surveyed, it would appear that the frontal and parietal lobes are responsible for experiences of speaking to God, while the experiences of hearing from God are a result of activity from the parietal lobe.
This information only provides an introduction to the relationship between the brain and religious experiences. I would like to find more information concerning the communication with God. Not all of those who say that they experience God have profound or intense experiences. What about those who simply say their daily prayer, and find that throughout their day events will go according to their prayers? Can that be accounted for through the activity of the brain? I would like and will continue researching this topic to find information concerning the existence of our soul. This is simply a starting point.
3) The God-Part of the Brain
3) Hardwired for God
3) Tunnel Vision
3) Searching For the God Within ,
3) How the brain creates the experience of God.
3) The Effect of Meditation on the Brain activity in Tibetan Mediatators
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