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the brain and religion

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Why do people believe that there is a god? Some experts, such as anthropologist Scott Atran, believe that our propensity for religious belief is a byproduct of evolution (Brooks). New scientific evidence is suggesting that the neuronal pathways of our brain both reinforce religious belief and are altered by it.

            The desire to understand cause and effect is a basic human characteristic, one that undoubtedly would have been advantageous to our ancestors struggling to survive in the prehistoric jungles of Africa. Knowing why an event occurred allows us to prevent or encourage its reoccurrence. But there are many whys that we do not have simple answers to. Why are we here? Why does the sun rise? Why do giraffes have such long necks? The combination of our evolutionary need to establish cause and our limited ability to do so inevitably leads us to create stories, or myths, or religions about that which we cannot rationally explain. 

            Science has discovered why the sun rises and why giraffes have their necks, and now some scientists are trying to find out why religion persists. The answer may be in the wiring of our brains, By scanning the brains of people during religious activity, scientists can see which parts of the brain are involved. One study looked at the brains of students reading a psalm. Three parts of the brain were activated: the dorsilateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal, and medial parietal cortices. The first is responsible for storing well-structured knowledge and memories. The second is responsible for visual memory. And recent evidence suggests that the third is involved in the automatic control of readiness for action. The combined activation of these parts would suggest that psalm reading or recitation makes one feel ready to act based on shared structures of knowledge and visual memories, perhaps explaining why religious individuals sometimes recite this psalm in stressful or frightening times. Recalling religious teachings (structured knowledge) and comforting visual memories, combined with as sensation of readiness, would probably ease the stress of the situation and give confidence to the believer (Azari).

            In another study, it was the inactivated rather than the activated parts of the brain that were interesting. Andrew Newberg looked at the brains of Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhist monks during prayer or meditation. The results showed a significant decrease in activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe. This is the region of the brain responsible for spatial orientation, and is known as the orientation association area (OAA). The deactivation of the OAA would make it difficult for a person to distinguish between himself and the rest of the world, allowing the nuns to feel connected with God and the monks to feel one with the universe. Such an experience would likely strengthen and reinforce religious belief (Heffern).

            If reading a psalm or saying a prayer can temporarily alter the functioning of our brains, can long-term religious belief change it more permanently? One study suggests that it can. The study shows that the brains of religious and nonreligious people differ in the way in which they think about the self. When nonreligious people respond to stimuli relating to themselves or self-judgment, a part of the brain called the ventral prefrontal medial cortex is activated. However, the Christians’ brains responded to self-related stimuli with a different part of the brain-the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. The DMPFC is involved in evaluating the mental states and opinions of others. The authers of the study believe that the difference is likely due to the Christian doctrine of denying oneself in order to “highlight the human contingency and dependence on God.” They believe that the participants of the study were using their DMDFCs to evaluate themselves from God’s perspective rather than using their VMPFCs to evaluate themselves from their own memories and experiences as non-religious people do (Han).

            The studies describes above might explain why religion persists-the brain both reinforces religion and changes in response to it-but how do we explain why some people are religious while others are not? If we are to accept that it is in a way an evolved train, then it follows that religion must be heritable. Some studies suggest that it may in fact be. One scientist, Dean Hamer, found a positive correlation between a certain allele of the VMAT, or vesicular monoamine transporter, gene and spirituality. However, the gene accounted for only a small percent of the variation in spirituality scores (Horgan).

Another scientist, Rick Strassman, believes that predisposition to religious experience may be effected by differing levels of a compound called dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. DMT is the main ingredient in a hallucinogenic tea, ayahuasca, used in religious rituals in South and Central America and in the American Southwest. Small amounts of the compound also occur naturally in the human body. To test his theory, Strassman injected volunteers with DMT and recorded their experiences.

Many participants reported sensations sometimes associated with religious experience, such as “bliss, ineffability, timelessness, and reconciliation of opposites; a certainness that consciousness continues after death of the body; and contact with an extremely powerful, wise, and loving presence.” Some felt that they had left their bodies and were moving towards a light at the end of a tunnel. Others thought that they were being eaten alive by giant bugs. Strassman’s study was inconclusive, but interesting (Horgan).

Regardless of how religion evolved or the form that it takes, it is clear that religion is deeply intertwined with our brains. The feeling of oneness and unity brought about by prayer or meditation reinforces belief, and belief alters the perceptions of the brain. Perhaps the often asked question—Does God exist?—is irrelevant. Our own brains insure that God will persist in some form or another for a long time. Perhaps Emily Dickenson had something similar in mind when she wrote:

The Brain is just the weight of God—For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—And they will differ—if they do—As Syllable from Sound— 

Works Cited

Azari, Nina et. Al. “Short Communication: Neural correlates of religious experience.” European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol 13, 2001.


.Brooks, Michael. “Natural Born Beleivers.” New Scientist, Vol. 201, 2009.


.Heffern, Rich. “Exploring the Biology of Religious experience.” National Catholic Reporter. 2001


.Han, Shihui et. Al. “Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing.” Social Neuroscience, Vol. 3, 2008.


.Horgon, John. “The God Experiments.” Discover, Vol. 27, Issue 12, 2006.