Belief in the Afterlife

ddl's picture

The belief in an afterlife (or continuance of experience after the end of one’s bodily lifetime) is a principle shared between many of the major religious and philosophical ideologies to date.   The impact and behavioral implications of this concept are widespread, evidenced in the practice of ethics and morality in order to reach this ultimate goal.  As such an influential and consistently maintained conviction, it therefore seems probable that structural or other neurological trends within the nervous system would exist, accounting for the varying degrees of similarity or discrepancy in one’s interpretation of the afterlife (and other religious precepts).  Are individuals in fact predisposed to holding a particular stance about their belief of an afterlife or lack thereof?  What mechanisms may account for developing certain beliefs about the qualities that define life after death?  Why do we develop such convincing notions of something that cannot be determined by our sense-based perception?  

Throughout history, there have been innumerable positions taken to contend either for or against the existence of life after death, from the Christian tradition describing a euphoric heaven and a vile hell, to the ideas of reincarnation held sacred by followers of the Hindu religion.  Yet others, still, (such as atheists) maintain that there is no existence of an afterlife.   Is there a neurological basis that can account for why individual develop a notion of the afterlife and which can help to explain this wide spectrum of varying beliefs?  The answer appears to be yes.  Studies conducted by Professor Jordan Grafman and his colleagues of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke have attempted to identify the specific areas of the brain that are responsible for dealing with religious convictions.  This study made use of forty participants from a collection of prominent monotheistic denominations and screened for the brain’s activity when each individual responded to specific questions about the nature of their God and other religious beliefs.  Findings indicated that several areas of the cortex were collaborating in the effort to process and generate information pertaining to religion and related concepts (1).  The lateral frontal lobes appear to be most active during questions about the nature of God or other entities existing in the world, while the medial temporal and frontal gyri seemed to be evaluating statements such as “God is wrathful” (indicating this area’s possible role in associating a particular set of qualities to a given religious concept, such as the afterlife) (1).  It is also interesting to note that, “when more abstract or doctrinal questions were raised, it was the right inferior temporal gyrus – the circuitry which helps us understand metaphor – which was most engaged” (1).  This may explain the human ability to generate and understand concepts, like the nature of life after death, which lack the ability to be detected using strictly sense-based perception.  These abstract ideas may be established by extending the encounters that a person accumulates throughout their lifetime, in effect using these experiences to develop a specific interpretation of what will happen after he or she passes away.  Similarly, it makes sense that this part of the brain is being used for faith-based thought because such concepts can only be described or related to using metaphors, serving as speculation for what we lack the ability to prove using sensory data.  Also, as multiple areas of the brain appear to be necessary to accomplish thought or reflection upon one’s religious convictions, the interconnectivity of the neuronal signaling pathways which link these various areas must be pivotal in determining exactly how people think about and develop their specific set of beliefs.  This could mean that there may be detectable neurological patterns that underlie the differences in beliefs between people of different denominations or those beliefs that are consistent amongst individuals who carry the same convictions.  Indeed, this appears to be the case, as according to research from the University of Toronto which examined the brains of believers versus non-believers, those who maintained some religious convictions exhibited less neuronal firing in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), (which is thought to be responsible for producing a feeling of anxiety upon making errors) (4).  This, in turn, raises the interesting quandary about how much of this observed difference in neurological signaling is caused by that person’s choice to follow a certain set of beliefs versus how much of this patterning is innately or genetically conferred.  In this light, it may very well be plausible that an individual is biologically predisposed to believing a certain way about his or her afterlife, God, or any other religious trend, as the neurological signaling patterns which have been linked to causing such beliefs could have been influenced by one’s hereditary makeup.  Consequently, they may not be entirely a product of personal choice.  Regardless, this shows that there is a biological foundation that dictates the ways in which we view religious notions, such as the afterlife, and that differences in these beliefs appear to be linked to the signaling and interconnectivity of one’s nervous system.

So then, why does the belief in the afterlife appear to be so convincing/appealing to those who choose to believe in it?  Mary Roach, author of the book “Spook”, presents a very interesting viewpoint about the nature of human belief through her research conducted on the existence of the afterlife.  Although unable to definitively prove the existence of life after death, she ultimately concludes that if one chooses to place his or her faith in a particular idea or concept, that they are more likely to elucidate supportive evidence of this conviction than others who have the mindset that they do not believe  (3).  This leads to the interesting hypothesis that the brain may in fact be responsible for generating the concept of the afterlife (or at least fundamental backing of this idea) in those who have opted to place trust or merit in this precept.  Elaborating on this idea, those that have made the decision to accept a particular interpretation of the afterlife and envision it as being a certain way are more likely to think about it in this fashion and formulate support for their explanation (even subconsciously) more so than others who don’t possess this particular belief.  But why?  Maybe it’s because holding such ideas as truth has effectively programmed the storyteller (see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes under heading the Bipartite Brain) component of the brain to explicate on these ideas in this specific way, causing it to confabulate consistently to make that person’s selected beliefs seem most probable (2).  Perhaps, our vision of the afterlife is merely an attempt of the storyteller component of our brain to elaborate or expand on that which cannot be perceived with our senses in the most coherent and cohesive means possible. So does this mean that those who believe in the afterlife are effectively being lulled into a false sense of security by their confabulating brain function and storytelling mind?  Perhaps and perhaps not; the only way to find out may be to do so experientially, when one’s time comes.

The interpretation of one’s religious views, including one’s stance on the existence of the afterlife, is clearly a very complex and integrated process that seems to have a fundamental and detectable basis within the human nervous system.  However, ultimately, there appears to be a limit to the amount that science can tell us about ideas and concepts which exist purely within the realms of human trust and faith.  Questions pertaining to the existence and nature of the afterlife will remain highly contested, only to be definitively answered at the moment when an individual is to experience what happens for his or herself.

References

1)  Bingham, John.  “Scientists searching for brain’s ‘God spot’ find belief circuits”.
Telegraph.co.uk.  March 10, 2009. 26 April 2009 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/4966118/Scientists-searching-for-brains-God-spot-find-belief-circuits.html>

2)  Biology 202 Lecture Notes, on the Serendip web site,
http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes; accessed 25 April 2009.

3) Roach, Mary.  Spook.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  2005.

4)  University of Toronto. "Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And
Non-believers." ScienceDaily 5 March 2009. 26 April 2009 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/03/090304160400.htm#>.

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and the question of an afterlife

"only to be definitively answered at the moment when an individual is to experience what happens for his or herself"

Or, in lieu of a persistant ability to gather senory inputs and create stories out of them, not answered?  

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