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God in the Brain

kjusewiczh's picture

As someone who went to Catholic schools for the majority of my life, I have never understood God. I can rationalize why people may want to believe in a higher power, it’s the actual believing that has always been beyond my grasp. For this reason, I wanted to look at why humans believe in a higher being. What is it that compels us to find an ultimate cause for everything? I had never heard a scientific answer for this question; I wanted to find out what parts of the brain are suspected to be the cause of humankind’s belief in a higher power.

The first thing I looked into was why humans feel compelled to find a specific cause for things and for the organization of the universe. It has been suggested that this perhaps occurs because the human brain desperately tries to search for order and patterns in a world where these things are not readily observable. Experiments on people who have had their corpus callosum cut have revealed that at our core we are organisms who search for patterns and meaning. These people are shown two different pictures that register in two different sides of their brains. However, only the left side of the brain is able to verbally communicate what they chose and why. When they see the choice of the right side of the brain, the person instantly searches for meaning and finds a way to connect the two pictures (1).

This fact gives us a very interesting insight into how the human brain works. Even when there is conceivably no connection between things and no recognizable meaning, humans will search for the meaning anyways. We are hard-wired to recognize patterns and form meanings in these patterns. For humans God seems to represent two things. First he represents the ultimate way to order the universe. He is the end result of the patterns that we have observed; God is our way to reflect our brain in the universe (1). God also seems to have another purpose for us, however. He also helps us to connect ourselves to the universe. The universe is no longer an obscure disconnected place, it is our home. We can recognize the “creator” of the universe as a human-like being who reflects who we are at our best (1). God allows us to explain the universe and connect ourselves with it.

Two scientists, James Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright came up with an evolutionary explanation for why God mirrors the brain. They believe that there are three main evolutionary sections of the brain, and these three sections represent the three sides of God. The first section of the brain is the reptilian section or the responsive section. This section of the brain is believed to be the oldest part and is responsible for being territorial and hierarchical. This section is believed to be in control of the belief that God is all-powerful and is in control of the whole world. They named the second part of the brain the paleomammalian, which causes emotional responses. They believe that this section is the part that causes God to be considered an all loving and nurturing God.
The third section is the rational brain, which is in charge of pattern and meaning finding and organization. They believe that this is the reason that God is believed to be the ultimate being of reason (2). Ashbrook and Albright believe that these tree sections combine to cause the human brain to create the ultimate reflection of how it behaves – God.

While these hypotheses about why we believe in a higher power seem plausible in the present day, I am still skeptical. The reason why I remain skeptical is because of ancient deities. While the present day God is loving, nurturing, and believed to be the ultimate power, ancient deities were none of these things. Greek gods were adulterous, vengeful, and not all powerful. Greek gods were in charge of one specific area usually, for example there was the god of wine or the god of thunder. These gods were not a reflection of the ordering of the brain but instead a reflection of the world around these people, and yet they still worshiped these gods in the same way that we worship God today. This inconsistency led me to question the above hypotheses and to look for actual neurological evidence for the belief in God.

One hypothesis I came upon involves the prayer and the quieting of the orientation association area. Andrew Newberg looked at people who mediate or pray to a god. He would allow the person to pray or meditate in a darkened room. When the person felt like he/she was at the peak of spiritual connection, Newberg would inject a radioactive tracer and take a picture of the person’s brain. This imaging led to the observation that during these times of complete spiritual connection the prefrontal cortex lights up, but a bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe were completely quieted (3).

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain in charge of focusing, which logically would be activated during intense periods of concentration, like prayer. The neurons in the superior parietal lobe allow us to separate our body from the rest of the world, ourselves from everything else. This would explain why prayer makes people feel as though they are one with the universe and with God. Newberg states that subjects express a feeling of enlightenment, peace, and unity (3). This could explain why people want to believe in God and believe so much in the power of prayer.

Another proposed cause for belief in God is a condition called temporal lobe epilepsy. Michael Persinger studies people with temporal lobe epilepsy and people without it to try and figure out what it is that causes people to believe so powerfully in God. He has observed that people with temporal lobe epilepsy have observed seeing intense religious visions and hearing the voice of a higher power. Persinger has studied these people and noticed that these visions only occur during epileptic fits (4).

This fact leads to a very interesting question regarding the temporal lobe. Does the temporal lobe only cause this during epileptic fits or can it act in the same way in someone without temporal lobe epilepsy. Persinger also studied this. He stimulated the temporal lobes of people without temporal lobe epilepsy and asked them to describe how they felt. Over 80% described feeling as though a higher being was in their presence. Persinger also showed these people a variety of words, neutral, erotic, and religious. The same 80% of stimulated people and people with temporal lobe epilepsy had the strongest reaction to religious words (4). This leads me to believe that the temporal lobe is strongly connected to the belief in God and religion. But, it also appears that this stimulation does not cause uniform belief among all people.

These studies have led me to believe that religion and the belief in God really is not uniform. Everyone has a different brain and thus not everyone necessarily believes in a higher power. These studies and hypotheses, however, still do not completely explain what causes people to believe in God or why there is such a difference in ancient gods versus the present day God. The possibilities that I have presented in this paper could be individual causes or could all be working together to cause people to believe in God. God is clearly in our brain, but the exact location is not known. Is an act of the whole brain working together, or is it just one area of the brain that causes this belief in God. It is still a mystery, not only to me, but also to scientists, but the belief in God is a little closer to being explained.


1. Albright, Carol Rausch, and James B. Ashbrook. Where God Lives in the Human Brain. Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc, 2001.
2. Bulkeley, Kelly, ed. Soul, Psyche, Brain: New Directions in the Study of Religion and Brain-Mind Science. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
3. Begley, Sharon. “Religion and the Brain.” Newsweek International. 2001. <>.
4. “God on the Brain.” BBC:Horizon. 2003. <>.