The Brain and Religion

mcurrie's picture

            Religion experiments have been performed to figure out the religious experience, how the pattern of neural synapses will result in feeling embraced and in the presence of the ultimate being. Through these experiments scientists have found parts of the brain that are triggered and even a neuron that is triggered when a person sees or hears the word God. With these findings there is the debate if the brain formed a capacity for religion, if there is a specific neuron that makes one more susceptible to religious belief or if religion is just an imprint, something that forms from exposure.

            There are two capacities that can contribute to religion, the soul or spirit and the mechanisms of the brain. When first exposed to the idea of God the brain “rebels” in believing in the unknown and uncertainty of the idea and releases a large amount of transmitters that result in emotions of anxiety, curiosity, irritability, frustration and excitement. This may also occur with other abstract ideas. In order to make sense of God, humans form their own reality, making God more human, giving it human qualities so they can relate to and understand the idea set before them, which is why God has many human characteristics. If a person does not figure out a way to reason with the idea of God they can become depressed. This may be due to feeling out of the loop and since humans are social, being left out may result in detachment and feelings of loss.

          Although the idea of God may have been created to make sense of occurrences that did not have an explanation. Darwin believed that mammals and humans share the ability to imagine natural objects animated by spiritual or living essences, like a parasol being lifted into the air by the wind, or the movement of objects that have not been touched5. This may also be true for inanimate objects, for example, miracles. When an unexpected occurrence happens many can perceive it as a miracle and try to explain the miracle by creating a meaning for it that places the idea into reality.

            Or God may have been formed to explain a person’s place in the world, their purpose in existing by having someone watching over them, approving and condemning their choices. God may very well have been an idea created by the brain in order for humans to understand the unexplainable so that they would not become depressed. God could be a survival mechanism to ensure that humans don’t die off due to being too depressed over the unknown.

            With all of the reasons God is present in our reality, there is still the question of if this belief is already set in our minds or if it was created by the brain.

            Within the brain of a child when first being told stories about God by their parents the memory starts out as a neuron that remembers the word God as a noun. As the child grows up, and is exposed to more stories and explanations and they figure out their own views on God, the neuron is connected to others and eventually becomes a complex pattern in the brain that is the belief and holds the experiences of God. This occurs in the mature frontal lobe which is part of the imagination and creativity. Although the one neuron that responds to the word God has not been labeled as the God neuron, it fires in recognition of the word and does control the entire religious experience.

            When a person experiences some religious occurrence they feel warm and fuzzy, excited, calm, and a sense of oneness. When a person experiences God or some religious occurrence and feels a sense of calmness it can be attributed to the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system while the feeling to love can be due to the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system7. In order to store the experience as a memory a person needs to label the memory with a word or description. When meditating, praying, chanting, et cetera a person blocks out external stimuli and enters the pathway to the spiritual. In this occurrence the neural activity decreases in the region of the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe which accounts for a person orientation in space5. When meditating or chanting the feeling of being on another plane or realm may be caused by shutting down the lobe that helps a human orient themselves. When reliving an experience of union with God or religion the caudate nucleus is stimulated which controls happiness, romantic, and maternal love9. The nucleus can account for the feelings a person has when they feel a connection with God, in feeling loved and loving them in return and being in a state of happiness. What can also be stimulated is the temporal lobe which has been associated with people hearing voices in their heads or seeing apparitions. If a person has head trauma, the left side of the brain interprets activity in the right as a sensed presence. With all of the different sections of the brain being stimulated whenever a person has a religious experience it can be very hard to determine if there is a single neuron that connects all of the feelings and makes one feel connected to God5.

            The support and findings of certain neurons and sections of the brain being stimulated when reliving a religious occurrence can support both sides of the argument. Figuring that the brain is involved does not mean that God is only a made up idea of the imagination, God could be a being that gave us the mechanisms to sense its presence and help us communicate with him5. Of all the articles that I read, a few stated that there is no specific God spot since a large pattern of neurons and sections of the brain are stimulated making it difficult to pinpoint a specific area or neuron. Especially since all religions are different and can have a different effect on the brain resulting in different pattern of stimulus. But none truly supported the belief that the mechanisms for experiencing religion are completely from the soul or just the brain. Nor does the articles disprove that God does or does not exist. With the information given it is left up to the reader to figure if there really is a predestined or susceptibility to believe in God or that the belief is only a result of exposure to religion in society. The research has just found some parts of the brain are stimulated are using the information to explore the brain and understand what occurs. The information is also being used for medical purposes to see how meditation and prayer can decrease blood pressure and heart rate and change hormone levels that can help the immune system. Although it has been argued that humans lean more towards belief than not believing in order to be safe since not believing and having God exist could result in eternal damnation3. Being “more safe than sorry” can make it easier to believe in God. With the observations of the temporal, caudate nucleus, and decreased activity in the posterior superior lobe aiding in the explanation of the religious experience you decide if these mechanisms are part of the soul, created by God, or are just formed by mechanisms of the brain, as an idea created by the brain. 

 

References:

1)   Barclay, Laurie. (2001). Is God a state of mind?.WebMD Health News,  

     Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/news/20010411/is-god-state-of-

     mind

2)   Begley, Sharon. (2009, August 13). (un)wired for god; religious beliefs may

     not be innate. Newsweek, 154(9), Retrieved from

     http://www.newsweek.com/id/211746

3)   Gay, Volney. (2009). Neuroscience and religion: brain, mind, self and soul.

     Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

4)   Holmes, Bob. (2001). In search of god. New Scientist, Retrieved from

     http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic or www.newscientist.com

5)   Horgan, John. (2006, December). The God experiments. Discover: Science,

     Technology and the Future, Retrieved from

     http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/god-  

     experiments/?searchterm=the%20god%20experiment

6)   N/A, Initials. (2009). Brain differences found between believers in god and

     non-believers. Science Daily, Retrieved from

     http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090304160400.htm

7)   Newberg, Andrew, & Waldman, Mark Robert. (2009).How God changes your

     brain. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

8)   Peterson, Greg. (1999). God on the brain: the neurobiology of

     faith. Christian Century, Retrieved from http://www.religion-

     online.org/showarticle.asp?title=503

9)      Than, Ker. (2006). No 'god spot' in the human brain.Live Science, Retrieved

     from http://www.livescience.com/health/060829_god_spot.html

 

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

God and the brain

"you decide if these mechanisms are part of the soul, created by God, or are just formed by mechanisms of the brain, as an idea created by the brain."

Sounds reasonable.  Any suggestions about how to decide?  Or about why different people decide differently?  Or about how it happens that for many people the question just doesn't occur?

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