Tag Archives: god and the brain

God on the Brain

We were looking at lab experiments demonstrating the healthful benefits of prayer and meditation. Other, less spiritually-minded researchers have approached religious phenomenon as a kind of pathology, much as Freud did.

In the 19th century, a link was noted between some kinds of epilepsy and religious fervor. This link was studied by Norman Geschwind at Boston’s V.A. Hospital in the 1970s, who claimed temporal lobe epilepsy could cause religious obsession.

A decade later, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger built a “God Helmet” that bombarded the temporal lobes of healthy people with an electrical storm and could fake – he claimed – a “spiritual” feeling. Persinger got a lot of attention for his helmet but an attempt in 2005 in Sweden to duplicate his findings failed. Atheist Richard Dawkins put the helmet on and didn’t feel anything but mild nausea.

Another team at the University of California at San Diego claimed to have identified the “God Spot,” a specific region of the frontal cortex that is overstimulated during religious ecstasy.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Richard Strassman gained global attention for his claim that many so-called religious phenomenon were caused by dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogenic compound occurring naturally in trace amounts in the brain.

And Dan Hamer at the National Cancer Institute inspired cover stories in both Time and Newsweek after isolating a specific gene called VMAT2 that he claimed correlated with “spirituality.” It mediated the production of neurotransmitters related to our moods, although only an atheist would think religion always makes people feel good.

Now we had a “God Gene” to go with the “God Spot.”

Then there was backlash as even committed materialists like Persinger and Hamer realized media were overstating the case. In a New Yorker article, Dr. Jerome Groopman concluded: “To believe that science is a way to decipher the divine, that technology can capture ‘God’s photograph,’ is to deify man’s handiwork.”

One methodological problem, of course, is that most religious people aren’t mystics, and it’s a long pilgrim’s progress from a nun in a tube to explaining a global social movement.

Even as the Dalai Lama himself addressed 14,000 neuroscientists at a conference on the topic of the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in 2006, a different Canadian team found not one but six regions activated by prayer, including the caudate nucleus (memory and love) and the insula (sensations), and concluded: “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain.”

And one of the team members even compared such experiments to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology, which sought to explain behavior using skull shape.

Interestingly, while the researchers may have believed they were explaining God away, some of the nuns involved in the original SPECT scan studies themselves felt the opposite: excited God himself could be seen, at least indirectly.

Who’s right?


This Is Your Brain on God

Happy New Year, Seekers! Welcome to another year of Searching for an Answer to the Ultimate Question.

The Big Banana has proved particularly slippery to locate in a lab, which doesn’t stop people from trying.

So far, lab tests for God have attacked religious phenomena from two flanks – as what William James in his classic Varieties Of Religious Experience called “healthy-minded” and “sick-minded.”

On the former track, studies in the 1960s showed church attendance correlated with better health. That this effect wasn’t due solely to social support was later verified in comparisons of secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.

Also in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard began to study the “relaxation response,” the physiological benefits of mental states such as prayer and meditation. And a generation later, as brain imaging equipment grew smaller and cheaper and the West rediscovered Tibet, meditating brains (including the Dalai Lama’s) were subject to even greater scrutiny. They were found to have higher baseline levels of activity in the left prefrontal lobe, the brain’s center of attention and well-being.

In addition, practiced meditators were calmer, less easily startled because their “amygdalas are less trigger-happy,” in the words of Harvard neurohistorian Anne Harrington.

Starting at the turn of the millennium, researchers shifted from observing states of relaxation to “explaining” religious phenomenon.

In a well-known experiment conducted in 2001 by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, meditators and nuns were strapped into a jet engine-like machine called a SPECT scanner and injected with radioactive dye at peak moments.

The scans also showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. More interestingly, there was decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the region in the top rear of the brain responsible for orienting us in space.

Conclusion: the feelings of “unity” and “oneness” reported by mystics in many religions may be caused by prayer-induced spatial disorientation.

Speculation abounded, with one team of neuroscientists even suggesting that the Christian trinity and the historical evolution of religions mirrored the three parts of the human brain – the brain stem (survival), limbic/hippocampal (emotion), and neocortex. (In the 4th century, Augustine already made a connection between the trinity and a three-part human brain, although he claimed the cause-and-effect flowed the other way: that we mirrored God.)

One of the original SPECT researchers, Andrew Newberg, cautioned in a 2010 interview: “One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that.”

Next Time: Is God just an epileptic brain lesion?!