The God Brain – Is Religion Hardwired?

National Geographic Channel will shortly air “Brain Games: The God Brain” (premiering Sunday, February 21 at 9 pm ET). As part of a virtual roundtable, Brain Blogger was selected to screen the episode and address the thought provoking question raised therein:

The question of whether religion has been hardwired into our brains or an evolutionary adaptation has been debated for decades, however, more recently we have uncovered scientific underpinning for both possibilities.

The question of whether religion has been “hardwired” into our brains or an evolutionary adaptation has been debated for decades, however, more recently we have uncovered scientific underpinning for both possibilities.

It should first be noted that our brains process all of our experiences whether actual (reading this article right now) or imagined (your dreams tonight). Your reality is just that… your reality, and not that of your neighbors.

There are innate programs that are run by our brain’s CPU such as breathing, heart rate control, and sneezing. Complex tasks such as tying our shoes are generally run by multiple brain processes spanning visual perception to motor skills. Is the religious experience just another brain program?

Barrett equates religion to language acquisition where “we come into this world cognitively prepared for language; our culture and upbringing merely dictate which languages we will be exposed to.” Brain Blogger’s own Dr. Jennifer Gibson discussed how “the brain seems predisposed to a belief in all things spiritual” back in 2008.

Scientists have approached the question of the neurobiological underpinnings of the spiritual or religious experience in largely five different ways:

First, a variety of brain imaging and monitoring techniques such as EEG, MRI including functional MRI (fMRI), PET, and SPECT have compared data on brain activity and blood flow in specific spiritual practices. Some studies have identified specific brain areas that are consistently active (or suppressed) during the religious practice.

Second, capitalizing on the religious/spiritual experience seen with hallucinogenic agents, LSD, ecstasy, and other drugs which act on the serotonergic system have been used to study metabolic changes.

Third, patients with neurological and psychiatric diseases such as temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia are used as a prime population of spiritual experiences or alterations in religious beliefs.

Fourth, studies are done with prayer and meditation for a host of physical and mental health conditions such as anxiety and hypertension.

Fifth, psychologists and anthropologists deemed that children left to their own devices would have some conception of God. Some attribute this to our innate sense of detecting patterns in the world (as to discern predators or prey in nature), while other propagate the notion of a “supersense” — or a cognitive tendency to infer hidden forces in the world working for good or ill.

As the original question remains unanswered, we are early… the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena remains in its infancy. There is mounting evidence of a biological correlate to these phenomena, however, this does not necessarily negate an actual spiritual component.

Keeping thinking.


Newberg AB (2014). The neuroscientific study of spiritual practices. Frontiers in psychology, 5 PMID: 24672504

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, & Cohen MS (2009). The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief. PloS one, 4 (10) PMID: 19794914

Nencini P, & Grant KA (2010). Psychobiology of drug-induced religious experience: from the brain “locus of religion” to cognitive unbinding. Substance use & misuse, 45 (13), 2130-51 PMID: 20388013

Image via Bruce Rolff / Shutterstock.

Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN

Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN, is a board-certified neurologist and pain specialist, medical educator, and scientist. He is the executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation (GNIF). He is a published scholar in biomarkers, biotechnology, education technology, and neurology. He serves on the editorial board of several scholarly publications and has been honored by the U.S. President and Congress.
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