Cognitive and neural foundations of religious beliefs; what an MRI might tell you about your beliefs in God.

There’s a new study out that studies brain activity and religious beliefs – abstract and links.  PDF here (only six pages including pictures). A related article in the Independent gives the bottom line:

. . . people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God. The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief.

. . . “There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday,” Professor Grafman said.

Page 1 from the published study results:

Religious belief and behavior are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures (1). The biological basis of religion, though, is fiercely debated in fields as diverse as evolutionary psychology, anthropology, genetics, and cosmology. Contemporary psychological theories consider religious belief and behavior as complex brain-based phenomena that may have co-emerged in our species with novel cognitive processes for social cognition, such as Theory of Mind (ToM), and successfully engaged fundamental cognitive mechanisms, such as memory (2–4).


little is currently known about the neural foundations of religiosity. Cognitive neuroscience studies have so far focused on the neural correlates of unusual and extraordinary religious experiences (5, 6), whereas clinical studies have focused on pathological religious manifestations. Hyperreligiosity in patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy motivated early theories linking religiosity with limbic and temporal areas (7, 8), executive aspects and prosocial roles of religion (9) shifted the focus to the frontal lobes (10), while decreased parietal lobe activity was linked to mystical religious experiences (5). Overall, these findings show a low degree of correspondence and no relationship to any proposed psychological architecture underlying religious belief.

The aim and motivation of our research was to define the psychological structure of religious belief, based on fundamental cognitive processes, and to reveal the corresponding pattern of brain activation to determine the relevance of evolutionary theories of cognitive development to the development of religious beliefs. . .

I haven’t had time to read this carefully and reflect on it (assumptions, implications, etc) – most of it is over my head, but I figured some of you with more evolved brains might be interested in taking a look at it in the meantime.  ;-).

HT: Oliver Morin (on a site I follow for Cognitive linguistics). Oliver says (in a pseudo conversation with an imaginary grandmother:

“. . . today a paper published in the third-best scientific review worldwide uncovered an explanation for belief in God: it is controlled by our Brains. So it’s actually a biological thing. Look, the paper comes with photographs of the Brain thinking of God, and lots of complicated figures.”

The Independent also notes related studies:

. . . scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field produced by a “God helmet”. Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings – the helmet’s wearer reports being in the presence of a spirit or having a profound feeling of cosmic bliss.

Dr Persinger said that about eight in every 10 volunteers report quasi-religious feelings when wearing his helmet. However, when Professor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist and renowned atheist, wore it during the making of a BBC documentary, he famously failed to find God, saying that the helmet only affected his breathing and his limbs. . .

I suppose I will feel better if I add a little reminder comment for those of you who may be worried about my salvation when I post stuff like this. First, check out the warning disclaimer I include with this blog – currently down the right column a bit. Second, I believe God works in all kinds of ways–most of which call “natural” even if we prefer to talk about events we see as “supernatural.” Basically, I’m open to God doing all kinds of “natural” things which may seem “supernatural” to me.

My first thought about this whole thing: Looking at the same data doesn’t necessarily lead me to draw the same big picture conclusions that these particular scientists do. In other words, we can agree on the phenomena without agreeing on what they ultimately mean. In any event, this stuff is fascinating, and the more we understand, the better for all of us.

For a Christian perspective we might start with Daniel Kirk’s reviews of Joel Green’s Body Soul and Life: what we are, to what we do, to what we’re saved into,

The links for the study again:

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12 thoughts on “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious beliefs; what an MRI might tell you about your beliefs in God.

  1. Rombo says:

    Ok, Ben, say this prayer after me…:-).

    Seriously, though, is mine a case of Retinal Activation Syndrome or is science shifting gears and moving from disproving religion to investigating it?

    I would call it progress, but that’s just me.

    • Ben says:

      I have no clue what retinal activation syndrome is; I guess my brain hasn’t evolved as much as yours. Unfortunately, this particular scientist thinks he is disproving God. (If you read the articles, he’s very vocal about that.)

      It just goes to show you that we can have the exact same scientific data in front of us but still draw polar opposite conclusions from it. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me like he’s trying to draw broader philosophical conclusions from raw empirical data. That’s one way of interpreting the results and I’m no scientist, but I like to think of it as appreciating and enjoying the complexity of the different ways God works in our brains and lives. The fact that he might influence the same parts of the our brains that we use for other thinking processes doesn’t bother me; nor does the study which demonstrates that spiritual feelings can be replicated by a “God helmet”. My faith in God has to be open to him working in/or through these synapses as well as my perceptions of the world around me or narrative retellings of historical events. These kinds of things shouldn’t scare us. If anything they should help us see God as bigger, not smaller. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

      Thanks for putting a smile on my face with the “repeat after me . . .’

    • Head of Science says:

      Yes we have moved our collective agenda away from this and now will be focussing on our compaign for world domination and thus becoming the new God.

      After this we all be exploring the mystery of the cosmos and lastly finding cures for ecezma.

      On behalf of the whole of science, regards and best wishes.

  2. steph says:

    What qualifies as ‘religious experience’? Something that affects the breathing and limbs perhaps? Perhaps all I need is my swimming cap/helmut and a swim in Lake Waikaramoana. Breathing becomes like meditation in a trance and limbs become weightless. I alway liken this to a sort of religious experience. God is the water, loving, supporting, massaging, clean pure and clear but deep and dark beneath. It’s like being in the womb…

    The research is way over my head. It seems to be suggesting either that the brain creates religion (or God) or that the brain is effectively God. Therefore God is a collective, constantly transforming, evolving, through birth and death which means God is within us which all sounds a bit ‘gnostic’… 🙂

  3. Ben says:

    Steph, I think this scientist is trying to interpret his data to say that the brain creates religion (and God) as an evolutionary survival tactic. And as you already know, I’m a long ways away from any gnostic interpretations.

    BTW, I know a lot of people who share faith perspectives similar to mine, but can’t point to any specific religious “sensations” or feelings.

  4. steph says:

    I understood that was the scientist’s intention – I was just interpreting his ‘evidence’ differently 🙂 and the stretching it to gnosticism was my vague attempt at humour. I’m just likening my tingling, awesome experiences of nature to the sensations felt by those (pentecostals) who claim that they have received the outpouring of the spirit etc etc, but really I can’t get my head around what goes on there. 😉

    • Ben says:

      I was with you on the gnostics, I just had to reassure some of my other friends that I don’t go down that road. Then I couldn’t think of anything really witty to say about your “religious experience” and “when in doubt, don’t say anything” is sometimes the easiest course of action. Cheers

  5. steph says:

    Dear all Ben’s friends,

    Please disregard all my heretical comments. They are absolutely no reflection of Ben’s influence and are merely evidence of my wickedness! 😉

  6. Rombo says:

    Hey Ben,

    I’ve been meaning to come back here and correct myself but am behaving like my usual ‘highly strung exam time self’.

    First, my bad: that should have been Reticular Activating System, that system in your brain that helps you pick certain signals above the noise because your antennae ‘are facing that particular direction’ or some such.

    Second, you are absolutely right… only began to scratch the surface…

  7. What this conversation needs, of course, is to talk to a Temporal Lobe Epileptic to find out what he/she thinks religious experience is and whether or not people other than epileptics can have such experience. I’m always mystified by conversation about TLEptics as if we aren’t in the room—especially conversation that purports to know what our experience is in light of the fact that even catching a TLE seizure on an MRI is nearly impossible.

    • Ben says:

      Like, I said, I’m already way over my head on this topic, but I’d be interested in hearing more of your experiences and thoughts if you are willing to elaborate on what you’ve said here.

  8. kizzuck says:

    Hmm. I have posted some material specifically related to the God Helmet at
    if you are interested.

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