Does the G-Spot really Exist?
People who claim to have had religious or spiritual experiences or personal connections with a divine being often describe their experience in the same way. They tend to report a sense of enlightenment, the loss of a sense of self and time, and feeling of being one with the world around them (1). This description persists cross culturally, overtime and regardless of religion. Due to the fact that so many different people have such similar mystical experiences scientists propose that there must be some common thread that links these individuals together. Naturally, since all of our other experiences are processed in the brain, why not look for an area of the brain that processes G-d, or a G-spot?
This is precisely what Dr. Mario Beauregard from the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal set out to do in 2006. His subjects were fifteen cloistered Carmelite nuns ranging from 23-46 years old. He used a technique that employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity during a religious experience. However, the nuns informed the researcher that they cannot call upon G-d at will, so they were instructed to recall and relive the most intense religious experience they ever had, while Beauregard and team members studied the fMRI. Their results did not support the hypothesis that there is a single G-spot. However, the fMRI did reveal that many different regions of the brain are activated during the recollection of mystical experiences (2).
Another team of researchers interested in a similar question used a different research method on the brains of Tibetan Buddhist mediators. Researchers Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili of the University of Pennsylvania injected subjects that were deep in a deep meditative trance with radioactive dye. The results of this study did reveal that areas in the front of the brain, typically associated with concentration were highly active while the subjects were in a meditative state. However, what might be even more telling are the areas of the brain that experienced a decrease in activity. Newberg and d’Aquili found an unusually small amount of activity in the parietal lobe of the brain which is responsible for orienting an individual in three-dimensional space (3). The lack of activity in this area might explain why people feel like become one with the universe when they have what they believe to be a mystical experience.
While this explanation does seem to make sense, it does not provide any evidence for or against the existence of G-d. Simply because there is a physiological change does not mean that the change was necessarily caused by a divine entity. In fact, neuroscientist Michael Persinger has designed a helmet that elicits the same feelings as those experienced by nuns in prayer and Buddhists in meditation. The helmet accomplishes this feet by generating what Persinger refers to as “mini electrical storms in the brain.” The helmet has been shown to cause four out of five people to feel a spectral presence in the room with them (4). Similarly, after brain surgeries in which the neurosurgeon stimulates the limbic system, patients tend to report experiencing “religious sensations” (4). Yet, the question that begs to be asked is; why are feelings of unity with the earth and a presence in the room attributed to religion or otherwise spiritual power?
As a Sociology major who studies racial relations, I know that people love to try to categorize. In the case of race, on the 1998 General Social Survey (GSS) there were three “boxes” that an individual could be placed in: White, Black or Other. Obviously there are many U.S. citizens who do not fit into the “White box” or the “Black box”. In an attempt to categorize these people, the GSS created the “Other box”. In the case of unexplainable feelings and occurrences, people create the “G-d box” in an attempt to make sense of the experiences that do not fit neatly into any other boxes that are known to exist in the brain.
Yet, upon further analysis religious/spiritual experiences do, in a sense, fit into a pre-existing box. The description of a religious experience is similar to the symptoms of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Melvin Morse, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, reported that after a TLE a twelve year old girl claimed to have experienced leaving her physical body and traveling down a tunnel toward a place that she assumed to be heaven (5). Consider also that the prophet Muhammad and the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith Jr. both claimed to have been spoken to by G-d and were both suspected to have TLE (6). What are the implications of likening something that our society considers to be a handicap/disorder to something that is praised and respected? This research sheds light on the way that we are socialized to think of certain things as disabilities when, in fact, they may very well be special gifts from the higher being him/herself!
I am left with a few questions regarding G-d and the brain. How does ones environment effect what they judge to be a religious experience? For instance, if one were to experience a loss of self or feel the presence of someone/thing with them, would they attribute it to a holy spiritual entity regardless of whether they were in a house of worship or in a dark abandoned alley? I am also unsure what the role of the I-function is in these experiences. Newberg and d’Aquili’s research showed activation in the area of the brain responsible for concentration suggesting I-function involvement. However, loss of a sense of self infers that there is no I-function involvement. Also, the Tibetan mediators make a conscious decision to have these experiences but some people are overcome by the feeling without even soliciting it. I think that the bottom line is, sometimes people experience things that they are unable to explain in terms that everyone around them can relate to. When this happens, the neocortex takes in that information and combines it with social and cultural cues and subsequently spits out a story about G-d. I do not believe that this paper has reached any amazing conclusions, rather, I’d like to consider it my first step ( of many ) toward getting the notion of how G-d and religious experiences are played out in the brain, a little bit less wrong.