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God In The Brain And The God Outside of It

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Throughout this class we have established that the sum total of our experiences or the culmination of what we are is the result of our brain. The brain indeed is accepted to be capable of creating the range of sensory and perceptual information we interact with each day. The sounds that we hear, the colors that we see, the pain we experience are all presented to us by our brain, and that is how we experience them. The way I see it, our certainty that these experiences are valid stems from the fact that most other people we come across attest to their validity, and even seem to share them with us. In a room with a table, other people will be able to point out the table too. Even though the image of the table is formed in our brain, on the (), it is outside, in the room. The other ()s in the room form the same image. The others think so too. Yet, there exist parts of human existence that cannot be accounted for similarly by a large group of diverse people. Faith in religion, religious beliefs and belief in the presence of God all represent areas of our existence that cannot be equally vouched for by a large number of people. In fact, it varies extremely from one person to another.


In this paper I am going to explore the way religion fits into our brain, and how its presence is explained for by neuroscience. Is God really a creation of the brain and the mind? Does it go with the materialist theory that is used to explain everything else in the subject? Is it reductionist to use neurons and chemical interactions to explain spiritual experiences – that are normally associated with a soul, or an entity that lies outside of the mind, i.e the brain? We can all see the table, but where in the room is God?


Among other things the acknowledgement of, if not belief, in religion sets humans apart from other species. So much of our culture, history and identity are based on and drawn from religion that its influence on us is hard to ignore.


Even though religion and questions of faith have seemed to be at loggerheads with science for centuries, religion is claimed to be a by-product of what scientists consider the basis of creation – evolution[1]. Scott Atran, a proponent of this theory uses the analogy of the palm prints in humans to explain this. The creases on our palms are a by-product of humans working with their hands and have formed that way after centuries of evolution, yet for many cultures the specific patterns of these creases are used for palm readings, for life predictions. Religion also developed as a by-product of the kind of evolution that trained our brains for day-to-day activity. More specifically, the capacity for mystical experience, researchers theorize, is a by-product of sexual development in the human. Evidence indicates that both the arousal and quiescent systems, the most basic parts of the body’s nervous system, are involved in religious activity. Also, the limbic system, the old part of the brain that controls and conveys emotions, seems to be a key player. Other brain organs like the hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus participate, too.


 Indeed, religion draws people together into groups, it helps cope with death and accidents, helps humans survive, adapt and identify danger, and even find mates. There is evidence that people with religious faith have longer, healthier lives. This hints at a survival benefit for religious people.  In that sense one can see why evolutionarily belief in religion was important. 


Has the human brain specifically developed certain parts for religion? It is hard to tell, but studies conducted in the area confirm that specific parts of the brain light up during religious activities. A key player is the temporal lobe. Studies led by Dr. Andrew Newberg in the University of Pennsylvania looked at Fransiscan nuns, Buddhist meditators and Pentecostal Christians and their brain activity during religious experiences. The results, even though preliminary, were strikingly similar across different cultures and practices. The frontal lobe was involved in focussing attention during prayer and meditation. The parietal lobe, the seat of sensory information is concerned with the feeling of becoming a part of something greater and larger than reality. The limbic system is occupied with creating the feelings of awe and joy. Because of the constant nature of these findings, Newberg says ‘There is a biological correlate to them, so there is something that is physiologically happening in the brain.[2]


While prayer and meditation can be classified under fairly normal behaviour, there are some aspects of religion that go beyond what one would call ordinary. Religious visions and revelations or prophecies are known to be experienced by a proportion of the population at all ages and times. Recently, studies have shown that a small minority of patients with a condition known as temporal lobe epilepsy report bizarre religious hallucinations. Rudi Affolter, a confirmed atheist, had a vision at the age of 43 that convinced him he had died and gone to hell. ‘I was told that I had gone there because I had not been a devout Christian, a believer in God. I was very depressed at the thought that I was going to remain there forever.[3]’ Another patient, Gwen Tighe thought she had given birth to Jesus and asked her husband how it felt to be part of the holy family. An extrapolation of this connection between religious visions and TLE to recorded history gives another example. Ellen White, who established the Seventh Day Adventist Movement, had a number of visions which were integral to establishing her credibility as a spiritual leader. White too had TLE, having suffered from a head injury at the age of 9 that caused it. Her character is said to have become more moralistic and religious after the injury. It is at this time she began experiencing these visions. Even though these cases are examples of extremes, it is possible that this is what happens inside our brains too, but at a more moderate level.

While all of the theories discussed so far have their origins in the brains, is it possible that the answer lies outside of the brain? One neurobiologist, Dr. Michael Persinger, claims to be able to create outer-worldly spiritual experiences in everyone by the use of electromagnetic radiation. He has devised a special helmet that creates electromagnetic fields around a person’s brain, to induce electrical changes in the brain’s temporal lobes. According to him a spiritual experience is just a side-effect of the bicameral brain’s feverish activities. The theory is more or less this - when the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a  ‘sensed presence.’[4] Having performed the experiment on more than 900 people, Persinger concludes that different people explain their experiences with religious entities their cultures use. The agnostic use aliens, while some people resort to Freud.

Persinger even goes ahead and explains every paranormal vision by cerebral fritzing. He says that ‘if a region routinely experiences mild earthquakes or other causes of change in the electromagnetic fields, this may explain why the spot becomes known as sacred ground. That would include the Hopi tribe's hallowed lands, Delphi, Mount Fuji, the Black Hills, Lourdes, and the peaks of the Andes, not to mention most of California.’

While as a physics experiment this seems very credible, neurobiologists are largely materialistic – it’s all in the brain, right? Richard Dawkins, atheist and author of books such as The God Delusion and A Devil’s Chaplain, was put under Persinger’s electromagnetic helmet. Like a news article reported, if Dawkins experienced religion under the helmet it would be to his benefit since this would prove that mystical visions could at last be controlled by science and were no longer just at the mercy of a supernatural entity.[5] Did he turn into a devout Christian? No. He claims to have felt some tinglings and strange experiences, but nothing major. It might be too early to write off Persinger’s theories, though. Before the experiment, Dawkins was said to have scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity.


Is there a co-relation then? Can your temporal lobe sensitivity predict your tendency to have religious visions and your belief in them? It would be an interesting area to research on.


There are other methods that generate the same kind of results within the brain that originate outside of the brain. Psychedelics like psilocybin, MDMA (aka Ecstasy) and LSD create effects that are similar to religious visions. These drugs alter the state of consciousness and users claim to interact with spirits.


It is still inside the brain isn’t it? The serotonin and opioid set of neurotransmitters are stimulated by these drugs. They turn on the feel-good factor in the brain. Shamanism, an ancient religious healing practice used psychedelics to heal patients, relying on this feel-good factor.


The answer may be buried deep inside our brain too. Another interesting theory is put forward by Julian Jaynes in his controversial 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind he argues that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics - resembled that of modern schizophrenics. Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, the ancients heard voices, summoned up visions, and lacked the sense of metaphor and individual identity that characterizes a more advanced mind. There is a possibility that some of these ancestral synaptic leftovers are buried deep in the modern brain, which could explain many of our present-day sensations of God or spirituality. This is an interesting point, because it hints at the possibility that a more evolved brain might lose these ‘ancestral synaptic leftovers’. In that case, will the brain stop believing in spirituality?

While considering the different explanations for sensations of God and religious visions, it is important to remember that the human brain is indeed capable of such contemplation. Yet the difference and variations in such contemplation leads to the existence of so many different theories to explain it. There are the non-believers, and believers of different religious faiths.

Yet it is hard to miss the transcendental characteristic of a lot of these experiences. Tales of miraculous events abound through history. Healing, escape from near-death and returns from the death are some events that reinstate people’s faith in the outer-worldly. One that eludes the mind or the brain. As a student of neurobiologist though it is my tendency to look at the brain to account for these.  










Further Reading

'How to wire your Brain for Religious Ecstacy' by John Horgan; <>

Your Brain on Religion:Mystic visions or brain circuits at work? Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Copyright May 7, 2001. <>


Suggested Reading 

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins 




James's picture

Interesting stuff... I've

Interesting stuff... I've been interested in neurotheology for a long time as well. By the way there's a new book out on Jaynes's theory that might interest you: "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisted" edited by Marcel Kuijsten. It touches on many of these topics... the Foreword was written by Michael Persinger.

Paul Grobstein's picture

transcendence and the brain

Perhaps an experience can be "transcendental," and still inside the brain?