Is There a "God Spot"?
Web Paper 3
Is There a "God Spot" in the Human Brain?
The question of whether or not god is real is often an all consuming one in our lives, however it has been suggested by suggested by scholars of numerous disciplines that god, may in fact be a product of the human mind. Recent discoveries in neurobiology have led some scientists to believe that there may be a specific part of the brain that causes religious feelings in humans. The temporal lobe has been identified as a possible "god spot" in the brain, as temporal lobe seizures have been known to induce personality changes including increased "philosophic religiosity"(1). One scientist who has explored the possibility of the "god spot" in the temporal lobe is Michael Persinger. Persinger has suggested that belief in god, specifically spiritual experiences in which one feels as if they are interacting with god may stems from seizures or electromagnetic stimulation in the temporal lobe of the brain. In order to test his theory, Persinger developed the "god helmet", which emits weak electromagnetic fields that are meant to stimulate the temporal lobe (2). In this paper I would like to explore the idea of the "god spot" in the brain, through both Persinger's "god helmet" experiments and like minded ones.
The temporal lobe is the part of the brain containing the hippocampus and the amygdaloid nucleus. The temporal lobe contributes to auditory perception, language, memory, and emotion (3). Temporal lobe seizures are referred to as simple partial seizures, and can be caused by a variety of agitators, including traumatic injury, infection, stroke or brain tumor. The seizures can produce visual, olfactory or auditory hallucinations, or odd emotional changes (3). Temporal lobe seizures can often cause feelings of euphoria, or fear (3). Patients who have had temporal lobe seizures can often experience noticeable personality change such as humorlessness, obsessiveness or an increased faith in god (3).
In conducting his "god helmet" experiments, Persinger studied a number of cases in which patients claimed to have had religious visions, or to have communed with God in some way, that may have been effected by increased electromagnetic stimulation to the temporal lobe (4). One of these cases was a young woman who had a felt a presence which she believed to be God, late at night (4). During these instances of a sensed presence, the woman felt stimulation in her vagina and uterus and claimed to feel a the outline of a baby on her left shoulder (4). She interpreted this stimulation as a signal that God had chosen her to have a child (4). It was then discovered that the young woman had sustained injuries to her left frontal lobes as a child which had never caused any irregularities up to that point (4). The young woman did, however sleep with an electronic clock close to her head which may have evoked an electromagnetic field strong enough to cause electrical seizures in the temporal lobe (4).
In the god helmet experiments, Persinger used eight electrodes on the scalp, along with a helmet which contains sensors to stimulate the right temporal lobe with low electromagnetic fields (5). Persinger's goal in this experiment is to cause the patient to experience a "sensed presence" in the room as a result of stimulation to the temporal lobe (4). 80 percent of participants in Persinger's experiment reported feeling a sensed presence while the magnetic fields were stimulating the temporal lobe (5). However, many patients did not recognize God as the sensed presence, or have any other religious awakening (5). Persinger has accounted for this difference by stating that temporal lobe sensitivity varies individually, and that people who have temporal lobe epilepsy may be particularly susceptible to magnetic fields (5).
Other experiments have been conducted that explore the possibility of a god spot, that do not focus on stimulation of the temporal lobe in order to create a religious experience, but instead attempt to track which elements of the brain are activated during an organic religious experience. Mario Beauregard, of the University of Montreal, performed an experiment on over a dozen cloistered nuns who had all reported feeling an intense union with god (6). The nuns were placed in an MRI and asked to relive the experience in their minds. The MRI scans showed that when the nuns recalled the memory of an intense experience with god, multiple parts of the brain were activated rather than a singular area (6). Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a similar experiment, in which he studied the mind of a buddhist man during meditation through radioactive tracers in the man's bloodstream (5). Newberg found that the temporal lobe was activated while the man was meditating (5). However, Newberg also found that the parietal lobes, which provide perception of the body and the space around it, were almost completely inactive during the height of meditation (5). While many claim that these experiments refute Persinger's theory of the temporal lobe as the "god spot", if one subscribes to Emily Dickinson's view of the brain, then this debate seems somewhat irrelevant. While there may be specific triggers for "spiritual experiences", it seems illogical that there would be one specific site in the brain that creates a faith in god. These experiments attempt to address faith as existing outside of the I- function, as if the concept of God were the result of specific brain functions. However it seems that Religion and faith are far more complicated than that, and most certainly heavily influenced by the social and cultural environment in which one was raised, and the experiences we have. While these experiments have successfully proven that cathartic religious experiences may often have neurological roots, it seems that faith and religion must be a part of the I-function. While there may be "god spots" in the brain that generate religious impulses, it is the way that our brain interprets these spiritual instincts generated by these spots, or other cultural, social or personal experiences, that creates our faith.