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Soaking the Brain in Different Chemical Baths; By Religious Experience

Anna G.'s picture

When the brain is exposed to different chemicals, its behavior and action can change. What comes to mind when one usually thinks of chemicals is alcohol and drugs. We all expect exogenous chemicals to cause a change in the brain. What we might not expect, is that simply thinking can change the bath of chemicals our brain is exposed to. In particular, thinking of God.


For years, people have relied upon religion to give meaning to their lives. Religion has given people a feeling of comfort, of enrichment, in an otherwise mundane world. However, lately the atheists of the world have come together to attack religion. Religious people are often passed off as unintelligent or naïve people.


As a person who’s looked at the arguments for and against religion, and rejected it, the question I’m left pondering is why so many people cling so tightly to it. I must say, I find myself in accordance with Richard Dawkins, who says there must be an evolutionary advantage to having a brain that is capable of believing in a God(s) of some sort. These reasons could range from its advantages in creating social groups or simply as a byproduct of large, social brains developing. [1]


So if it’s a trait that has been selected for, this must mean it is tangible. Which means, as neuroscientists begin to probe into the unknown, it’s not unrealistic to say that areas that are implicated in religious experiences should become elucidated. And, once the regions become elucidated, it’s only time until the pathways and mechanism also do.


One way to delve into this topic is by way that most things in the brain are investigated; through disorders that exist that affect it. Patients who have temporal lobe epilepsy are known to experience religious visions. One person with temporal lobe epilepsy, Gwen Tighe, thought that she had given birth to Jesus due to her condition. This brings into question famous historical biblical and other religious prophets and visionaries. Perhaps their strong belief in their visions really came from a form of epilepsy in their temporal lobes. [1]


An experiment was done with patients with temporal lobe epilepsy to monitor their excitation levels from different sets of words. By measuring the sweat response of the patients, the researches could tell how neutral, sexual, and religious words each affected the patients. In the control group, people had higher levels of excitation with the sexual words. In the group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, religious words afforded the highest level of excitation, followed by neutral words, and last of all, in an interesting twist, sexual words. [1] [4]


The first step in trying to figure out how a system in the brain works always consists of studying it in cases where it has gone wrong, since this most obviously shows the intermediates that are involved. The next step is trying to model this disorder, to manipulate the system to try to figure out if it is reproducible and hence understood by researchers. This is what Dr. Michael Persinger did. [3]


Dr. Persinger created a helmet which was created to focus magnetic fields upon the temporal lobes of the helmet-wearer. While the results were less colorful than what might be expected, there was a somewhat significant result from this study. 80% of the patients involved claimed they felt a “presence” when wearing the helmet. Dr. Persinger called this a “sensed presence” which can be equated to the feeling that a supreme being is present at all times with us. Of his results, Dr. Persinger said, “Feeling something beyond yourself, bigger in space and time, can be stimulated.” [1] While the results from this study leave much to be desired, and in my opinion, do not demonstrate conclusively that the wish for a belief in something bigger is directly correlated with temporal lobe stimulation, they do show an elementary correlation between temporal lobe stimulation and religious feeling. [5]


When this test was conducted on famous atheist Richard Dawkins, he claimed to not feel any type of religious feeling. [1] While this may be due to some compensatory mechanism (I assume to get him to participate they must have at least hinted at the helmets purpose), it also points out a flaw in the experiment that is more than the researchers justification that people differ in religious inclination. If the stimulation was strong enough, the signal should create a religious feeling, if other parts of the brain aren’t involved and overriding the feeling. The next step in investigating this system then would be to determine what other brain systems are involved.


Another study by the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg used brain scans in meditating Buddhist monks. They found that at the height of a meditative trance there was increased blood flow to the temporal lobes, but that blood flow to the brain’s parietal lobes was essentially shut down. This is interesting because the parietal lobes are involved in integrating sensory information, and in giving us a sense of place and time. In many religious, losing oneself in the grandness of a superior being is the goal that adherents strive for. Perhaps it is due to this lack of blood flow to the parietal lobes that is responsible for this feeling of a loss of self. [1]


One study conducted by Mario Beauregard looked at a comprehensive scan of the brain of 15 nuns utilizing fMRI. The nuns’ brains were scanned to determine what regions of the brains were invigorated during the memory recall of an intense communion with God, as opposed to just a relaxed state and an intense social experience. The researchers found 6 regions of the brain that were selectively active during the nuns’ recall of a communion with God. [4]


They include the caudate nucleus, which is supposed to be activated due to the nuns’ unconditional love for God. The insula was also implicated, usually associated with body sensations and social emotions, and is thought to play a role in the evident pleasurable feelings that are related to a communion with God. As opposed to what Newberg found, Beauregard found that there was increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe. It has been suggested that perhaps excess activity in this region causes a similar result to what limited activity does. The 4th area that was seen to be active was medial orbitofrontal cortex, which researchers suggest might be involved in weighing how pleasant an experience was. The 5th area that was shown to be active was the medial prefrontal cortex, which it has been suggested is involved in the conscious awareness that one has of a certain emotional state. And the 6th area that was shown to be active was, as could be expected, the middle of the temporal lobe. [4]


From these results, we can see that there is not a specific “God Spot” in the brain, which could have been guessed, since we know brain activity is the synthesis of many different systems and inputs. It is not only the temporal lobe that is involved in religious feeling, but widespread neural networks in the brain that modulate thinking. [4]


This leaves space for different people to create their own God pathways, which more accurately mimics reality. In reality, everybody finds God a different way. There are Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Muslims, Atheists, Mystics, (etc, etc, etc) all of whom can reach a religious state in a different manner. [2]


Does the fact that religious beliefs have a biological basis subtract from its enhancive value in many peoples’ lives? Of course not. Everything that exists has to have an explanation for why and how it exists, and our brain is no different. Just because we may be able to map out the brain processes that are involved in mediation and prayer doesn’t take away from how it helps center and give reason to peoples’ lives, but simply helps satiate the curiously of those of us who want to know why religious people feel the way they do. In fact, there have been numerous studies published that show there seems to be a correlation with longevity and religion, meaning perhaps even us skeptics have something to learn from the “naïve” religious people some of us are so quick to dismiss are stupid.


Perhaps this is another gap that needs to be bridged before we can really understand what makes us conscious. If our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and the very feeling of our own self and existence can be so easily manipulated, how do we know they’re not without our knowledge all the time? And in fact, they probably are, its something we accept without realizing we accept it. We accept that our genes and environment make us up, but we assume we have some control over the choices we make. In reality, our choices make themselves, in a reinforcing cycle. We have free will at a certain level, but at another level, we have none. Through mediation perhaps we can increase blood flow to the temporal lobes, there’s a limit to what we have to work with.


Even if we begin to understand this phenomenon, we have to understand what to do with the knowledge that we have gleaned. With religious people having brains that are connected and grown, and indeed function, in different ways from non-religious people, this creates a difference in the realities that our brains construct. This creates an issue in whose is the “true” reality. Is it the reality of the majority (in the US, Christians) or the reality of science (in most peoples' eyes, atheists or agnostics)? When laws are made, should they take into account to realities that people create, even where they differ? Should some realities be held above others?


However, we all have the potential to find the same level of relaxation and calmness that religious people find through prayer and mediation. Some people find it through God, while others find it in Nature, or just in simple existence. In regards to what seems to have been a similar experience to a religious experience, Sartre has said, “I exist. It's sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light: you'd think it floated all by itself. It stirs. It brushes by me, melts and vanishes.” A religious experience doesn’t have to be based on the belief in an all powerful, omnipresent god, but can just be awe of life itself. Perhaps if we all took 20 minutes a day to reflex upon what awed us, we’d live in a world more beautiful and peaceful than what exists today.










1. BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - God on the Brain. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from BBC Website


2. IBSS - Christian Counseling - The God part of the brain. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from IBSS Web site:

3. Miller, R O.A.K. How the brain creates God. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from NW Botanicals Web site:

4. Biello , D Searching for God in the Brain. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from Scientific American Web site:

5. Hitt , J This is your brain on God. Retrieved April 18, 2008, from Wired Magazine Web site:



Paul Grobstein's picture

religion, the brain, and awe

One could presumably do similar studies on the brains of people who say they don't believe in a higher power? I wonder what similarities/differences would be found in comparing brains during a "religious experience" and in a state of "awe of life itself"?