Scientists See God on the Brain
- arrticle from livescience.com Mon Mar 9, 5:41 pm ET
Scientists See God on the Brain
Science can't say whether God represents a
loving, vengeful or nonexistent being. But
researchers have revealed for the first time
how such religious beliefs trigger different
parts of the brain.
Brain scans showed that participants fell
back on higher thought patterns when reacting
to religious statements, whether trying to
figure out God's thoughts and emotions or
thinking about metaphorical meaning behind
"That suggests that religion is not a
special case of a belief system, but evolved
along with other belief and social cognitive
abilities," said Jordan Grafman, a cognitive
neuroscientist at the National Institute of
Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.
Such results fit with previous research which
shows that no single "God spot" exists in
the brain. Both believers and nonbelievers
participated in the new study, detailed in
this week's issue of the journal Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.
A first part of the study established a
range or spectrum of religious beliefs relating
to God's perceived involvement in this world,
God's perceived emotion, and personal experiences
as opposed to abstract doctrine. The second part
examined how participants responded to religious
statements reflecting those beliefs, with the
help of fMRI scanners.
The brain scans showed that people use known,
higher-function brain regions to sort out their
thoughts on God and religion. For instance, parts
of the brain linked with theory of mind (ToM) lit
up when trying to understand a supposedly detached
God's intentions - although individual minds varied
wildly when pondering a more involved God.
A possible explanation: "Probably because we
would tend to use theory of mind when we were
puzzled, concerned, or threatened by another's
behavior," Grafman told LiveScience.
People again relied on theory of mind, as well as
brain regions that detect emotion through facial
expression and language, when they read statements
reflecting God's anger. Statements of God's love
stimulated regions connected with positive emotions
and suppression of sadness
Unsurprisingly, statements of religious doctrine
activated parts of the brain that help decode
metaphor and abstractness. That contrasted with
statements reflecting religious experience, which
prodded the brain to retrieve memories and imagery
of self in action.
Even statements that believers or nonbelievers
disagreed with produced intriguing results.
"Reading a statement that you have been asked to
compare your own personal beliefs with certainly
will activate your own belief system," Grafman
pointed out. He and his colleagues observed brain
regions relating to disgust or conflict lighting
up in response.
One question that remains unanswered is
whether religion evolved as a central functional
preoccupation for human brains in early societies,
or whether it simply relied on brain regions
which had evolved for other types of thought-processing.
Future research may also try to see if human brains
respond similarly for different religions, given
that this study focused only on Western Christian beliefs.
"The more interesting studies will wind up
comparing different belief systems with similar
dimensions to see if they also activate the same
brain areas," Grafman said. "If they do, we can
better define why those brain areas evolved in humans."