God And Religion: Is It All In Our Heads?by Jennifer Gibson, PharmD | June 15, 2008
Science will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God or any higher power. Isn’t this the cornerstone of faith, after all: a belief that needs no proof? Or perhaps, maybe the proof has been in our brains the whole time.
Our perceptions, emotions, and reactions to the world around us begin at birth, and shape our attitudes and interactions throughout our life. Through these beliefs, we learn who to trust, what to expect, and how to cope. The formation of beliefs involves the complex interplay of various areas of the brain. Though the exact mechanisms cannot be clearly defined, scientists know that the formation of beliefs involves physiologic changes in the brain. Studies have shown changes in activity in primitive areas of the brain at varying levels of belief and disbelief, and religious beliefs are no exception.
How else do we experience God, if not through our brain? Our brain processes every experience we encounter — sensory, somatic, emotional, and metaphysical. The brain must process and interpret our experiences through our beliefs, emotions, and previous encounters, and through the brain’s physical and chemical structure and function. Increased activity in the front portion of the brain has been seen in Tibetan Buddhist monks performing meditation and nuns participating in prayer. However, this portion of the brain also shows increased activity during tasks that require intense focus or attention. While this finding may seem a less than substantial argument for the scientific basis of religion, it is interesting to note that changes in brain activity at baseline were seen in these subjects, even when not involved in focused religious activities. Have their brains been changed from the spiritual practice and beliefs or were their brains more susceptible to having powerful religious experiences from the beginning?
The temporal lobes are known to be involved in religious and spiritual experiences; the amygdala and hippocampus are involved in religious visions and emotions. This calls to mind the connection between brain disorders and supernatural experiences that has been observed for more than a century. For example, patients who experience epileptic seizures, particularly in temporal lobe epilepsy, report experiencing religious premonitions, auras, or encounters in the period surrounding a seizure. Do these findings prove a neuronal mechanism for religious experiences?
The brain seems predisposed to a belief in all things spiritual. Scientists have been able to induce religious experiences and sensations in people by applying a weak magnetic field over the temporal lobes and by injecting subjects with hallucinogens. Further, religion is a heritable trait. Twin studies show that religious intensity is, at least in part, linked to genetics. Can we achieve the same effects from religious practices as we can from drugs? Is the brain just hardwired for religion no matter what our experiences or background?
Religious beliefs, experiences, and practices and the role they play in our lives are not simply defined. They exist from a complex interaction of culture, upbringing, and emotional experiences. And science. Throughout human history, we have been seeking definitions, structure, clarity, and peace. We find all this in religion. Is religion just a byproduct of evolution that enables us to cope with life’s struggles or was the brain intelligently designed by a creator to appreciate the world in all its spiritual wonder?
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Harris, S., Sheth, S.A., Cohen, M.S. (2008). Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Annals of Neurology, 63(2), 141-147. DOI: 10.1002/ana.21301
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Koenig, L.B., McGue, M., Iacono, W.G. (2008). Stability and change in religiousness during emerging adulthood. Dev Psychol, 44(2), 532-543.
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