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.
The links for the study again:
- a new study out that studies brain activity and religious beliefs – abstract and links.
- PDF here (only six pages including pictures);
- related article in the Independent.