God and the Brain
Is Belief a Psychological Condition?
Synopsis: Findings seem to point to a region of the brain commonly referred to as the 'God Spot' or 'God Module', that when stimulated creates hallucinations that are interpreted as mystical or spiritual experiences. This 'spot' is stimulated during meditation and prayer and is affected by electromagnetic fields and epilepsy. The resulting hallucinations may be the cause of mystical, spiritual and paranormal experiences as they can give feelings such as a presence in the room or an out of body experience. In the case of epileptics, this may be the reason for many of them becoming obsessed with religion. For those who experience the stimulation it is explained related to their own personal beliefs; a visit from an angel or lost loved one, an extraterrestrial encounter, a higher plane of consciousness or a visit from God.
The God Spot
by D. Trull
Scientists, philosophers and atheists have long argued that God and spirituality are constructs of the human mind, although that opinion generally hasn't been a popular one. After centuries of bloody holy wars and fierce theological dispute, the controversy of the Creator's existence has taken a strange new turn: humanity may finally have uncovered tangible evidence that the phenomenon of religious faith is all in our heads.
A group of neuroscientists at the University of California at San Diego has identified a region of the human brain that appears to be linked to thoughts of spiritual matters and prayer. Their findings tentatively suggest that we as a species are genetically programmed to believe in God.
The researchers came upon these cerebral revelations in the course of studying the brain patterns of certain people with epilepsy. Epileptics who suffer a particular type of seizure are often intensely religious, and are known to report an unusual number of spiritually-oriented visions and obsessions. Measurements of electrical activity in the brains of test subjects indicated a specific neural center in the temporal lobe that flared up at times when the subjects thought about God. This same area was also a common focal point overloaded with electrical discharges during their epileptic seizures.
Could this heretofore unidentified part of the brain -- nicknamed the "God module" -- actually be some sort of physiological seat of religious belief? The scientists who discovered it believe it might be. They have performed a further study comparing epileptic subjects with different groups of non-epileptics -- a random group of average people, as well as individuals who characterized themselves as extremely religious. The electrical brain activity of the subjects was recorded while they were shown a series of words, and the God module zones of the epileptics and the religious group exhibited similar responses to words involving God and faith. No word yet on whether the brains of atheists and agnostics might flatline the monitors, but the parallel results among the strong believers are considered impressive.
"There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion," the research team announced at a conference for the Society for Neuroscience. "This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society."
Anthropologists and Darwinian theorists have frequently speculated that religion may have developed as a self-policing mechanism as cooperation with others became useful. With their intelligence and skills at making weapons, there was little to stop early humans from slaughtering each other like wild maniacs, until they began to fear unseen beings even bigger and badder than themselves. This sort of adaptation has always been considered a purely psychological function, but now we have the first evidence that the religious instinct may be physically hard-wired right into our noggins.
Which brings us to the most intriguing conundrum posed by the discovery of the God Spot. It's a double-edged sword shoved right through the heart of the science vs. religion debate, bearing either good news or bad news for the faithful masses depending on how you answer the chicken-or-the-egg question: does it mean that God created our brains, or that our brains created God?
"These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the God module's discoverers took care to note, plainly anticipating a reception of fire and brimstone from certain quarters. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."
No matter how inconclusive or sketchy they label their findings as being, these scientists will inevitably be denounced as heathenistic blasphemers doing the work of Satan. Yet at the very same time, other equally devout worshipers will praise this discovery as a beautiful and wondrous epiphany that spells out God's great plan.
So what'll it be? A sacred temple in the temporal lobes, or an incidental conflagration of the synapses? The Kingdom of Heaven confined to the insides of our skulls, or "I think of God, therefore He is"? Touched in the head by an angel, or brainwashed into belief by biology?
Believe what you want, but either way, I think those who draw any serious mechanistic or teleological conclusions from this research ought to have their heads examined, as well.
Sources: The Times (London); The Los Angeles Times
'God spot' is found in brain
by Steve Connor
LA Times, Wednesday 29 October 1997
SCIENTISTS believe they have discovered a "God module" in the brain which could be responsible for man's evolutionary instinct to believe in religion.
A study of epileptics who are known to have profoundly spiritual experiences has located a circuit of nerves in the front of the brain which appears to become electrically active when they think about God.
The scientists said that although the research and its conclusions are preliminary, initial results suggest that the phenomenon of religious belief is "hard-wired" into the brain.
Epileptic patients who suffer from seizures of the brain's frontal lobe said they frequently experience intense mystical episodes and often become obsessed with religious spirituality.
A team of neuroscientists from the University of California at San Diego said the most intriguing explanation is that the seizure causes an overstimulation of the nerves in a part of the brain dubbed the "God module".
"There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion. This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society," the team reported at a conference last week.
The results indicate that whether a person believes in a religion or even in God may depend on how enhanced is this part of the brain's electrical circuitry, the scientists said.
Dr Vilayanur Ramachandran, head of the research team, said the study involved comparing epileptic patients with normal people and a group who said they were intensely religious.
Electrical monitors on their skin a standard test for activity in the brain's temporal lobes showed that the epileptics and the deeply religious displayed a similar response when shown words invoking spiritual belief.
Evolutionary scientists have suggested that belief in God, which is a common trait found in human societies around the world and throughout history, may be built into the brain's complex electrical circuitry as a Darwinian adaptation to encourage co-operation between individuals.
If the research is correct and a "God module" exists, then it might suggest that individuals who are atheists could have a differently configured neural circuit.
A spokesman for Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, said whether there is a "God module" is a question for scientists, not theologians. "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief," he said.
Brain region may be linked to religion
Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1997
by Robert Lee Hotz
Los Angeles Times
NEW ORLEANS - No one knows why humanity felt its first religious stirrings, but researchers at University of California at San Diego reported yesterday that the human brain may be hard-wired to hear the voice of heaven, in what researchers said was the first effort to address the neural basis of religious expression.
In an experiment with patients suffering from an unusual form of epilepsy, researchers at the UC San Diego brain and perception laboratory found that the parts of the brain's temporal lobe - which the scientists quickly dubbed the "God module" - may affect how intensely a person responds to religious beliefs.
People suffering this type of seizure have long reported intense mystical and religious experiences as part of their attacks but also are unusually preoccupied with mystical thoughts between seizures. That led this team to use these patients as a way of investigating the relationship between the physical structure of the brain and spiritual experiences.
In a carefully designed experiment, the researchers found that one effect of the patients' seizures was to strengthen their brain's involuntary response to religious words, leading the scientists to suggest a portion of the brain was naturally attuned to ideas about a supreme being.
"It is not clear why such dedicated neural machinery . . . for religion may have evolved," the team reported yesterday at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. One possibility, the scientists said, was to encourage tribe loyalty or reinforce kinship ties or the stability of a closely knit clan.
The scientists emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of brain chemistry. "These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the team said. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."
Until recently, most neuroscientists confined their inquiries to research aimed at alleviating the medical problems that affect the brain's health, and to attempts to fathom its fundamental neural mechanisms. Emboldened by their growing understanding of how the brain works, however, scientists are now investigating the relationship between the brain, human consciousness and a range of intangible mental experiences.
Craig Kinsely, an expert in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia, called the new study "intriguing."
"People have been tickling around the edges of consciousness, and this sort of research plunges in," Kinsely said. "There is the quandary of whether the mind created God or God created the mind. This is going to shake people up, but (any conclusion) is very premature."
Vilayanur Ramachandran, the senior scientist involved in the experiment and the director of the center for brain and cognition at UC San Diego, said, "We are skating on thin ice. We are only starting to look at this.
"The exciting thing is that you can even begin to contemplate scientific experiments on the neural basis of religion and God."
This Is Your Brain on God
Issue 7.11 - Nov 1999
Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.
By Jack Hitt
Over a scratchy speaker, a researcher announces, "Jack, one of your electrodes is loose, we're coming in." The 500-pound steel door of the experimental chamber opens with a heavy whoosh; two technicians wearing white lab coats march in. They remove the Ping-Pong-ball halves taped over my eyes and carefully lift a yellow motorcycle helmet that's been retrofitted with electromagnetic field-emitting solenoids on the sides, aimed directly at my temples. Above the left hemisphere of my 42-year-old male brain, they locate the dangling electrode, needed to measure and track my brain waves. The researchers slather more conducting cream into the graying wisps of my red hair and press the securing tape hard into my scalp.
After restoring everything to its proper working position, the techies exit, and I'm left sitting inside the utterly silent, utterly black vault. A few commands are typed into a computer outside the chamber, and selected electromagnetic fields begin gently thrumming my brain's temporal lobes. The fields are no more intense than what you'd get as by-product from an ordinary blow-dryer, but what's coming is anything but ordinary. My lobes are about to be bathed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect my mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation that I am seeing God.
I'm taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as "having a religious experience" is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence."
Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one's grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.
It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn't shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.
To those of us who prefer a little mystery in our lives, it all sounds like a letdown. And as I settle in for my mind trip, I'm starting to get apprehensive. I'm a lapsed Episcopalian clinging to only a hazy sense of the divine, but I don't especially like the idea that whatever vestigial faith I have in the Almighty's existence might get clinically lobotomized by Persinger's demo. Do I really want God to be rendered as explicable and predictable as an endorphin rush after a 3-mile run?
The journey from my home in Connecticut to the mining district north of Lake Huron is, by modern standards, arduous. Given what's in store, it's also strangely fitting. When you think of people seeking divine visions, you imagine them trekking to some mountainous cloister. The pilgrimage to Persinger's lab is the clinical counterpart.
The trip involves flying in increasingly smaller puddle-jumpers with increasingly fewer propellers until you land in the ore-rich Ontario town of Sudbury, a place that's been battered by commerce, geography, and climate. Jags of red rock and black iron erupt from the landscape, often bolting right out of the pavement. The weather-beaten concrete exteriors of the city's buildings speak of long, harsh winters.
A short car ride through stony suburbs ends at a forlorn cluster of a dozen buildings: Laurentian University. Near Parking Lot 4, I am met by Charles Cook, a grad student of Persinger's. He leads me into the science building's basement, then to the windowless confines of Room C002B, Persinger's lair.
Waiting there is Linda St-Pierre, another graduate student, who prompts me to sit down, then launches into a series of psychological questions. I answer a range of true-or-false statements from an old version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a test designed to ferret out any nuttiness that might disqualify me from serving as a study subject. When read individually, the questions seem harmless, but as a group they sound hopelessly antiquated, as if the folks who devised the exam hadn't checked the warehouse for anachronisms in five decades:
I like to read mechanics magazines.
Someone is trying to poison me.
I have successful bowel movements.
I know who is trying to get me.
As a child, I enjoyed playing drop-the-handkerchief.
I'm escorted into the chamber, an old sound-experiment booth. The tiny room doesn't appear to have been redecorated since it was built in the early '70s. The frayed spaghettis of a brown-and-white shag carpet, along with huge, wall-mounted speakers covered in glittery black nylon, surround a spent brown recliner upholstered in the prickly polymers of that time. The chair, frankly, is repellent. Hundreds of subjects have settled into its itchy embrace, and its brown contours are spotted with dollops of electrode-conducting cream, dried like toothpaste, giving the seat the look of a favored seagulls' haunt. NEXT> (page 1 of 5)