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Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
"How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust." Xenocide, Orson Scott Card (1)
As a Unitarian Universalist, but more importantly as a human, I search to understand my place in the universe. Sometimes this is through looking at the vastness of the night sky, but usually, or at least on those days that are cloudy, the search is through religion; namely, the entity of God. People from time immemorial have had some sort of religious practice, whether it was sacrificial or if they had multiple gods, there has always been a sense of something larger than ourselves. However, if our lives can be described in one sense as the summation of all our sensory inputs and thoughts through the brain, then does that make a religion just another output of our minds?
In more recent years, scientists have started to take on this question and study it through neurobiology and the brain structure. Doctors and scientists looked at people with epilepsy, specifically temporal lobe epilepsy, for they are known to have deep religious experiences during the seizures. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, who headed the experiments at the University of California at San Diego found that those with temporal lobe epilepsy, in comparison to normal patients, were more responsive to religious words and images (2). "Spiritual experiences are the inevitable outcome of brain wiring," said [Andrew] Newberg. "We believe that the human brain has been genetically wired to encourage religious beliefs" (3). Dr. Newberg and the late Dr. Eugene d'Aquili worked on tracing the parts of the brain dealing with religion through nuns and monks during prayer. They studied the gray matter of the brain by using a single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT), which allowed them to detect the areas of the brain that received more blood during the religious experience, where more blood usually equates more activity. Their results indicated that there was "increased activity in the frontal lobes, the attention area, and decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe" (3). The frontal lobe activity should not surprise most people simply because it is the area that is commonly associated with the higher mental activities and specifically with humans.
However, the surprising result of this study was the decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, or what is called the orientation association area (OAA). This area of the brain, "which must constantly generate a clear, consistent awareness of the physical limits of the self in order for us to function," (3) may also allow humans to "transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is" (4). Newberg and d'Aquili further hypothesized that the process of deafferentation, which is when a brain structure is somehow deprived of sensory input, may be responsible for the experience of a unitary state with a higher being or larger group (3).
Why would humans block certain signals in order to lose their sense of self in a highly competitive world? This really does not work in conjunction with evolution and survival of the fittest if we all feel a connectedness to each other. People do have to access this event through a ritual of some sort, namely prayer or meditation in this case, so that we all are not walking around in a state of connecting bliss. Perhaps it is some way that the brain has evolved to flood it with a euphoric feeling of floating in the web of others instead of rigidly controlling the self, something akin to a brain holiday. On the other hand, if "mystical prayer and sexual bliss use similar neural pathways," then the reasoning behind this process could have a basic function in the brain. (3) It is true that two of the most basic systems, the arousal and quiescent systems, are involved in religious activity (3). This explains why religion is so popular if the nerves that are excited are the same as those that are excited for sexual arousal. If it feels good, why stop doing it? Does that then make religion innate, or at least faith in something larger? If the source for our religious feelings lies within us in the brain, then does that necessarily mean that we are "believers" whether we want to be or not? I believe that the key here is the ritual of prayer or meditation. Without this key element to trigger the brain to feel a connectedness, which would be a conscious decision at an individual level, then the "faith" lies untouched. It is nice to believe that at some level, we can feel like we are in a greater group than just ourselves.
What does this mean for organized religion? Obviously, religion is a touchy subject for many people and these are highly controversial bits of information. Not being of an organized religion that takes a stand one way or the other in recognizing a god, I can see that finding a "God part" of the brain could cause trouble for many people. It could mean that the way they had conceived of God and what they had learned their whole lives was being repudiated. It reduces a whole belief system into a few nerves. On the other side, I think it is nice to know that "God" could be with each of us, all the time. Just because there is the capacity to believe in something does not mean that you do or that the something you can believe in is defined. There is a vast difference between a feeling of connection to something greater and a religion.
The other thing to keep in mind about these findings is that they may not even be the "God part" of the brain. It could just be that the part of the brain recognized as the "God part" has just been associated with religion because of the cultural construct that religion is good. The people tested by Newberg and d'Aquili were obviously happy with their religions, otherwise they would not have devoted their lives to it. Perhaps it was simply a happy part of the brain that has been identified, which religion happens to work into. Certainly if the neural pathways of the religious experience and the sexual experience are similar, then pleasure has something to do with it. Those with temporal lobe epilepsy may be able to describe their experiences in terms of sexual bliss as well as religious bliss. Neurotheology, as the field is now being called, is still quite new and the field is advancing every year. There may be more methods of evaluating processes in the brain coming soon, if we can ever truly understand all the complexities of the brain.
Card, Orson Scott. Xenocide. New York: Tor Books, 1991; page 335.
2)"'God spot' is found in the brain" Steve Connor, LA Times, 29 October 1997.
3)"Exploring the biology of religious experience" Rich Heffern, National Catholic Reporter.
Newberg, Andrew and Eugene d'Aquili. Why God Won't Go Away. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001; page 9.
Albright, Carol and James Ashbrook. Where God Lives in the Human Brain. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2001.
6)"Religion and the Brain" Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 9 November 2001.
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