God on the Brain

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Biology 202

2006 First Web Paper

On Serendip

God on the Brain


Rene Descartes imagined the human being as composed of two essential components: the material body and the immaterial soul. The Cartesian dualism of this situation creates many useful devices when thinking about spiritualism and the brain after all, it is only the spirit of the body communicating with a higher power. When one dies, the soul can live on leaving its material housings. However, it presents a problem referred to as the Cartesian gap. Namely: how does the immaterial soul interact with the body? Where do the spirit and the corporeal interact?
Establishing the spiritual as part of the soul, observing a physical change would seem to correspond to the soul as having a material connection. This would not negate the existence of a soul. However, if the soul can establish a physical change in the body, it would be logical to assume that the soul if affected by the body. Yet if a connection exists, and a person experiences religious phenomena, the body would then be affected. If the reverse would be true, that the soul can be affected to perceive "god" because of stimulation of the body, the nature of religion and the relationship between religion and the mind would be thrown into question.
It is well known that ancient mystics used hallucinogenic drugs or volcanic vents to communicate with the gods or god (1). Indeed, even today, many religions rely on chemical means to communicate with gods or to enhance the experience. Yet this, to some, trivializes faith into a sensation and not a way of life. Yet if religion has a biological component,

This investigation is not trivial. According to New Scientist, "more than half of people report having had some sort of mystical or religious experience" (2) Wars are often fought over religion, and perception of religion has managed to become central to the political debate in the United States. However, in an increasingly secular world, a growing cadre of people is reporting no feeling of a higher power. These atheists and secular humanitists (3) are drastically different from agnostics because of their perception. Agonists still believe in a supernatural power while atheists and secular humanists do not.
If god is a component of the brain (4), such as a "God Module", then these differences may mean that we need to have a more liberal view of religion. Of course, religions can still operate within these confines. For instance, a Calvinist would claim that those not biologically favored to experience God are not members of the elect. Nevertheless, it casts doubt on the universality of any divinity.

A study by Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that when experiencing deep religious connections, people seem to lose a sense of their "self". This is a sensation is not limited to ordinary people. "Einstein, with his feelings of humility, awe, and wonder and his sense of oneness with the universe, belongs with the great religious mystics." (5) In addition to this feeling, their brains undergo several physical changes.
It is important to note that the researchers could not replicate the intense religious experience that some people experience because it is difficult to replicate in the lab. Instead they looked at meditation and prayer, conditions which induce similar states, although less intense.
Primarily, part of the parietal lobe shuts down during mediation and prayer, during which the subjects reported that "It feels like a loss of boundary. It's as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected."(6) The left hemisphere of the parietal lobe maintains a sense of the individual's body image, while the right-hemisphere handles its context, or "the space and time inhabited by the self."(7) Newberg hypothesizes that with mediation, people learn to develop this feeling of oneness, and they cut off their perceptions of the outside world. In other words, to experience a religious event, the self-definition of the brain shuts down
The researchers also "found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention" (8). These parts are components of the brain's reticular activating system. It is comprised of nerves in many parts of the brain, including the thalamus, hypothalamus, brain stem, and cerebral cortex. This is consistent with the results and common sense: people must concentrate in order to meditate or pray. But it also implies that the people in the study have developed control over their experiences.
The implication is that people have a degree of choice, or can develop control, over their definition of self. But it also suggests that since there are biological differences in people, people have a natural different affinity towards religious experiences. This does not mean that some people are more religious than others: training and cultural aspects have a great affect on people.

There is a group of people who have little or no control over their religious experiences: a certain subset of people who are epileptic. These individuals provide evidence that limiting religious experience to the parietal lobes and attention is not simply enough.
Firstly, after experiencing a seizure, some epileptics reportedly felt a "religious experience" or "know why there is a cosmos." (9) In addition, some temporal lobe epileptics display hypergraphia "writing large, complicated tomes, often of mystical or personally religious significance" and decide to take part in a number of different religions.
In other cases, as a result of the "kindling", or "strengthening of neurophysical connections, often involving the limbic system," (10) some patients have responded with increased sensitivity to religious ideas and icons. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (11), the researcher involved in these circumstances, believes that the brain become more sensitive to religious emotion, or that emotions experienced result in increased religious belief. The latter explanation would be in regards to individuals trying to explain their strange experiences through ideas available, namely religion.
Many times, those who suffer limbic system epileptic seizures, or seizures of the temporal lobes, report religious experiences. Jeffery Saver, a neurologist from UCLA, says that "This is similar to people undergoing religious conversion, who have a sense of seeing through their hollow selves or superficial reality to a deeper reality."
Other research supports the role of the limbic system. Jeffery Saver explains why it is so difficult to convey these religious experiences. "That the temporolimbic system is stamping these moments as being intensely important to the individual, as being characterized by great joy and harmony. When the experience is reported to someone else, only the contents and the sense that it's different can be communicated. The visceral sensation can't."

Faith is, by definition, unable to be proved. It is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."(12) It is could be proved, then there is no need for faith to exist. Finding a material correspondence for spiritual activities does not make them any less real to the perceiver, but it does make the experience more deeply rooted in the material world.
Finding religion as a biological component in the brain does not negate the role of religion in society. More than simply an opiate for the masses, religion helps form and maintain social bonds. However, recognizing its biological roots is important to understanding differences between people's religious experiences. As much as homosexuality is now accepted as a biological difference, hopefully religion can be seen for its biological nature.

Web Sources
1)Delphic Oracle's Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors, Example of how mystics used drugs in various forms to stimulate a religious experience
2)In Search of God, New Scientist article on God in the brain
3)Wikipedia of Secular Humanism
4)God in the Brain, collection of articles on God's relationship in the brain
5)Einstein's Religious Views, for more information about the values and morals of Einstein
6)In Search of God
7)God in the Brain
8)In Search of God
9)God in the Brain
10)God in the Brain
11)Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Page about the researcher
12)Hebrews 11.1, (King James Version)

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