Religion and the Brain

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Biology 202

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Religion and the Brain

Faiza Mahmood

Traditionally, modern science has treated religion with an attitude of apathy and indifference. In direct contrast to the reason and logic underlying our understandings of modern science, the foundation of religious and spiritual sciences lies in the existence of a reality beyond the comprehension of our senses. The nature of spirituality remains consistent, free from the constraints of time, faith and culture. As a result, it has been suggested that such commonality of experience may in fact reflect "a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain" (1)

In addition, researchers have also posed the question of whether the human brain is programmed to believe in a higher power, and whether faith is an innate mental faculty or one that humans have developed (2). Eager to find the answers to such questions, recent years have seen the development of the field of neurotheology the study of the neurobiological foundations of religion and spirituality.

Adherents of the world's many faiths share a common goal in their search for existence of an entity greater than the self. . (2). Furthermore, existence of such an entity implies a denial of any great significance to be attributed to the self. Indeed, the goal of many spiritual beings is to achieve a sense of oneness with an aforementioned higher being. At the center of most spiritual experiences is an increased emotional state in combination with a finely honed sense of focus, free from extraneous sensory stimuli. (1)

Such conditions lend themselves to a state in which one becomes detached from time, fear and sense of self only to be united with a greater entity. (1)
The desire for such an experience is prominent in most all human societies; in fact, research has shown that such religious experiences act directly on the frontal lobes of the brain to promote optimism as well as creativity. (1)
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that religious people are generally healthier and live longer lives. Research even suggests that regular prayer or meditation lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and decreases depression and anxiety (2).

In the 1950s, basic studies of the human brain focused on the brain's electrical activity; subsequently, researchers were able to appreciate a relationship between meditation and changes in brainwave activity. However, these early investigations were of limited capacity and were unable to provide information on the exact areas of the brain that were affected and, more importantly, why those changes occurred. Advancements in technology, including the availability of SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) machines, have allowed researchers to examine live, functioning brains. In recent years, the field of neurotheology has used such technology to pinpoint which brain circuits become active when having a spiritual experience through a divine encounter, intense prayer, or sacred music (1).
At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili sought to identify the spirituality circuit of the brain by collecting data from Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns. Newberg and D'Aquili imaged the brains of their subjects while they were deep in prayer/meditation. For example, the Buddhist would typically be made comfortable on the floor of a room lit by few candles. A string of twine would be placed next to the subject, and he would then proceed to focus his mind until he felt that his true inner self had surfaced, to the point where he felt "timeless and infinite" (Begley). Finally, when the intensity of the experience peaked, the subject would tug on the string, at which point radioactive tracer would be injected into the subject, followed by a SPECT study. The SPECT machine detects the location of the tracer as it travels in the blood; as such, SPECT is able to track the flow of blood to the brain, where increased flow correlates with increased neuronal activity. Multiple trials on several subjects allowed the researchers to pinpoint which areas of the brain were being utilized, which has since enabled them to better explain how various religious rituals affect human beings (1). .

Not surprisingly, the prefrontal cortex (area of concentration and attention) was repeatedly lit up in all the SPECT images. However, what was impressive was a quieting of activity in the superior parietal lobe, location of the orientation association area (3). . This area is known to deal with the body's spatial orientation, as well as its perception of space and time. In particular, the left OAA produces a sense of the body's physical delimitation, and the right OAA informs the self with regards to the physical space occupied by the body (1). . These areas are crucial to our spatial understandings; such that lesions in these areas can result in an inability to move from one corner of a room to another. The lack of activity in the OAA can probably be attributed to the lack of sensory input, which may be secondary to the intensity of focus required for meditation (1). . Thus, the brain is unable to form boundaries between self and non-self and is thus given to "perceive the self as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything" ((4). ).

Additional research revolves around the area of temporal lobe epilepsy. Studies have shown that certain religious experiences, specifically visions, can be mimicked by electrical stimulation to the temporal lobes. Temporal lobe epilepsy is the result of abnormal bursts of energy to that area, resulting in extremely vivid visions and voices. Such epilepsy is rare, but researchers have suggested that transient, focused bursts of energy may be responsible for certain mystical experiences (1). . To test this theory, Michael Persinger of Laurentian University fitted his subjects with helmets that created a magnetic field triggering electrical activity in the temporal lobes, resulting in what his subjects described as "an out-of-body experience, a sense of the divine" (1). As such, Persinger believes that religious experiences are the result of so-called "mini electrical storms" in the temporal lobes storms that may be triggered by anxiety, hypoglycemia, fatigue and personal crisis. Indeed, this provides an interesting explanation for the circumstances that often lead people to "find God" (1).

In light of such research, one may start to question whether religious experiences are merely a consequence of brain activity without any independent reality. However, Newberg insists that "it's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations are caused by brain activity than it is to say that the neurological changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist." Therefore, one can still not be sure whether spiritual experiences are a product of the brain, or if the brain is just experiencing a spiritual reality. It seems that even in light of the experiments carried out the question of whether our brain creates God, or whether God has created our brain is one debate that will not be settled anytime soon, if ever. What you believe is in the end, a matter of faith


1) Begley, Sharon.. Religion and The Brain. Newsweek International, US Edition, May 7, 2001.

2)God on the Brain-Programme Summary

3)Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience

4) Newberg, Andrew and Eugene d'Aquili.. Why God Won't Go Away. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

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