God on the Brain: Researchers Probe the Neural Circuitry Behind Religious Beliefs

By Eliza Strickland | March 10, 2009 8:29 am

religion 1Researchers have peeked inside the brains of religious people responding to statements about God, and found that there’s no discrete part of the brain that handles religious beliefs–there’s no “God spot,” as other neuroscientists have suggested. The new study found that the neural activity in the subjects’ brains corresponded to brain networks known to have other, nonreligious functions…. “There is nothing segregated or conserved or special about religious beliefs, compared to other belief systems,” [lead researcher Jordan] Grafman said. The networks activated by religious beliefs overlap with those that mediate political beliefs and moral beliefs, he said [The New York Times].

The test subjects were read different types of statements dealing with God and religion while their brains were scanned with an fMRI machine, which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain. The scans showed that religious thoughts “light up” the areas of our brain which have evolved most recently, such as those involved in imagination, memory and “theory of mind” – the recognition that other people and living things can have their own thoughts and intentions [New Scientist].

Some researchers have hypothesized that religious beliefs are a byproduct of the neural networks used in theory of mind, suggesting that humans first evolved to imagine what other people are feeling, even people who aren’t present — and from there it was a short step to positing supernatural beings [Wired].

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 40 volunteers drawn from the main monotheistic religions responded to three types of statements about God and religion. The first category dealt with God’s involvement in the world, the second with God’s emotions, and the third with religious doctrine. The first two categories lit up parts of the brain that deal with understanding the intentions and emotions of other people (specifically, the lateral frontal lobe, medial temporal, and frontal gyri regions). The third category activated parts of the brain that deal with language and memory.

But some other researchers, like Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, say the new study doesn’t come close to investigating the deep emotions that religion can elicit. Newberg has studied people who have intense religious experiences, like speaking in tongues or meditation, and he reports that certain regions of subjects’ brains have enlarged areas of neural activation after many months of intensive meditation. He questioned whether asking subjects questions about religion when they were not in a religious frame of mind would capture much of interest about religious belief [The New York Times].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The God Experiments showcases five researchers who study religious experiences
DISCOVER: Dalai Lama Speaks Language of Science

Image: flickr / pimpexposure

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • Roberto Ruth

    Now study people that don’t believe. maybe that part is stored with anger.

  • FILTHpig

    Study the people “who don’t believe” and maybe you’ll find logic.

  • Moogle

    Study Isaac Newton, and maybe you will find both God and logic.

  • Andy

    Or we could stop acting like children here and actually think scientifically. Asking a non-religious person would likely activate many of the same areas, as many of the same questions are being asked – about emotions, and about language and memory. Perhaps memory would be a bit more important in a non-believer, as they’re not experiencing the emotions associated with religion but still – would mainly be the same regions, I’d figure.

  • Ian

    Either way, it appears a belief in God is natural. Why then does the like of Richard Dawkins continue his crusade against those who believe in a deity? Isn’t that a bit like getting angry at your bladder because you need to urinate?

  • http://www.infidelguy.com The Infidel Guy

    It’s natural to do many things. Religion has a natural cause, that doesn’t mean people can’t change their minds. I did. Being angry is natural too, a book critiquing unbridled anger is fine. Just as Dawkin’s book that speaks out against harmful religious beliefs does.

    Skeptics have always argued that God belief is more emotional than rational. This confirms this.

  • John Lerch

    I don’t see how this confirms that God belief is “more emotional than rational.” They pretty nearly were only looking at emotional issues. The doctrine question may have a logo component; but IMExperience, doctrine is more likely to elicit irrational emotionality than the rest of one’s religious experience–at least when one is dealing with other people, although not necessarily in the abstract.

  • YouRang

    It seems to me that the kind of statement needed is: “Religious belief is irrational.” or maybe “religious belief is the root cause of ALL conflict.” This last one is the irrational belief that most militant atheists cling to and I’d love to know how much their emotional centers contribute.

  • YouRang

    Sorry to add one more comment. For the experimentalist who wants to do my experiment above, I would guess that reading the last statement above with the emphasis added would turn off the emotional centers; IOW one would need to read the statement with different levels of emphasis. I guess they would need Rush Limbaugh to read it for the most inflammatory level of reading. “-)

  • YouRang

    :-)

  • Boone

    The natural man does not understand spiritual things. You can search and experiment all you desire. Until you actually want to meet God through His prescribed method, by faith, you will never be able to understand why or how people do believe in Him and know Him. You have enough faith to believe in something else you cannot see, the theories, etc. that cannot be proven and yet you all question why people can believe in God. Maybe it is because He is real. Many of you have more faith in what you believe than is required to believe in your Creator and Maker.

  • http://www.radicaldebate.com John Carter

    What distinguishes science from other philosophies is its emphasis on formulating theories based on observation, experiment and measurement. Its output is sets of provisional theories consistent with existing evidence. Its great strength is that those theories are always able to be modified, enriched or even scrapped in light of further data. This is in sharp contrast with religion, where we are asked to believe in the stultified prognostications of ancient supposedly wise men, and when these beliefs run counter to experience, to have faith in them anyway. Why should we?

  • Brian

    John…I always enjoy a good discussion on the Bible and “conflict” with evolution. I hold a Bachelors in Biochemistry and a Bachelors in Biology. I am currently working on my M.D. I intend to address this topic in a future book. For now though, I wanted to add that I do not believe there is any conflict, science and the Bible mesh very well, despite what you hear. For instance, the existence of evolution does not disprove God. In fact, if it is true, it only makes him a more powerful and almighty God. If you were God, would you want to micromanage your creation or would you want to set it up so that “survival of the fittest” guaranteed less input and management? Evolution, to the biologist, shows small changes over time. What the biochemist knows, is that ridiculous numbers of changes must occur to proteins and encoding systems for this minor change to occur. Yet another point of interest is that if you believe in evolution without God you must believe in the idea of spontaneous life. Another favorite of mine. This means that a cell must develop from nothing with the ability to replicate. Biochemically speaking, this requires an enormous number of proteins and synthetic machinery. The odds for one protein being developed are (1/20)^x power, where x equals the length of the protein in amino acids. When you consider that proteins have enormous lengths, several thousands of amino acids long, this gets ridiculous. This is speaking of one protein. Thousands are required. In my studies I have found that early education teaches evolution very convincingly in biology courses. But what runs our world…biochemistry…does not corroborate on a micro scale what the macro scale of evolution and spontaneous life proposes. While “logic” is spoken of above, I challenge all to think for themselves. Many believe they are thinking for themselves by buying into spontaneous life. It is essentially mathematically impossible. Just as the lottery is a tax on those bad in math, so is the idea of spontaneous life. Science does, through biochemistry and probability, sheds a damp light on even the possibility of spontaneous life. I’ll write a book someday, I have too much to say. Cheers!

  • http://www.radicaldebate.com John Carter

    Brian. Evolution being proved wrong wouldn’t invalidate the scientific
    method, which would simply seek a new theory that better fitted the
    facts. The notion that a god or gods create everything seems to me weak
    in this respect – and in its internal logic. What are the properties of
    gods? Where can I go to see one? Can I reproduce this creation
    phenomenon? What originally produced gods – other gods? As Stevie
    Wonder so succintly put it, believing in things you don’t understand
    is, with respect, superstition.

  • Brian

    John…great point. Thank you for your response. These are great conversations. You are certainly right about evolution being proved wrong wouldn’t invalidate the scientific method. In fact, I do agree with evolution in the context of microevolution and the ability to have single substitution gene mutations. You make an excellent argument on God from a philosophical point of view. My debate on God is that many people who believe in spontaneous life feel the need, for whatever reason, to abandon the belief in God because they somehow think it is not congruent. You take a different view, less science I feel and more philosophy but with the application of the scientific method. Let me state that the scientific method is fantastic. But let me state this, the scientific method can only be applied to the things that it can test, therefore it should not be used in the areas where it cannot reach or for which it cannot have applicability. In a bad metaphor, it is like using a oxygen sensor to detect nitrogen. My point for everything is that a belief in evolution should not cause one to disbelieve in God. Further, I ask you to step outside traditional knowledge and I ask you this…what happened before the big bang (which by the way is very consistent with the existence of a God)? What mechanism brought life? Just as it is difficult to imagine what it was like before anything existed prior to the big bang (no energy, no mass, no matter), so is it with those who believe in God. You have a belief that something must have happened prior to the initiation of energy and matter (actually first energy, then matter was created later through E=MC^2). What could possibly have existed? Nothing? How can something come of nothing? Sure, this argument could go to where did God come from, but I think that each has its own beliefs and values that are intrinsic to its system. Like I said, if you don’t believe in God, you intrisically must believe that something arose from a point of nothing and believe in spontaneous life. Oh, by the way, if you really want to go into interesting debate in spontaneous life, I challenge you to learn more about the second law of thermodynamics, which paraphrased, states that for any given spontaneous process, the entropy of the universe is zero. Anyhow, this basically in everyday life means that books don’t write themselves, they erode, things don’t get built they disintegrate. Entropy increases (entropy is a measure of the disorder in the universe). In other words, the disorder increases, does not decrease, without input of energy. For years now, it has been stated that the energy to build DNA and all the proteins arose from energy input from the sun, the only thing they could use. However, there was no ozone layer in existence at that time during the beginning of life…no oxygen to become ozone. Thus, the sun emits an enormous amount of UV-C light and a lot of infra-red (IR). Who cooks? If you heat something (with IR) it breaks down, does not build up. UV-C is why you where sunscreen, directly breaks DNA strands (and this is with an ozone layer). I digress, I just enjoy this topic. In regards to seeing God, I personally believe that the order in this environment speaks of a God. Step back from what you know from daily living. How could everything be so ordered? Atoms. Quarks. Neutrinos. Bosons. Even the arrangement of the atoms on the periodic table. When has nature brought this order? It almost violates its own law of entropy. Atoms should break down. Elements should break down. For the most part they don’t (but that is atomic physics we won’t get into). To me, after all my education now, God is very much in it. Even Albert Einstein admitted that everything is too ordered for there not to be a God. Early education without going on spontaneous life is very convincing, but once you look at it after knowing a lot more (particularly in chemistry and some physics), you see how it is filled with holes. Last note is that I wouldn’t take scientific advice from Stevie Wonder, he is an artist but I doubt he ever even went to college. Good talk though, love it all.

  • Brian

    Corretion above…I was so excited and wrote this so fast I had a typo above…I meant to say, that for the second law of thermo….FOR ANY SPONTANEOUS PROCESS THE ENTROPY OF THE UNIVERSE TENDS TO INCREASE (NOT ZERO, I WAS RECALLING THE ENTROPY EQUATION IN MY MIND WHEN I WAS TYPING THAT, WHICH HAS ITS SUMS SET TO ZERO).

  • Kings student

    Brian, I am currently studying neuroscience where i am writing an essay titled “Did god create the mind, or does the mind create god” you have provided me with a brilliant argument pro god! Your points regarding spontaneous life are brilliant and i don’t think its actually possible to formulate an argument against this concept the best line has to be with regard to the second law of thermodynamics “How could everything be so ordered? – it almost violates its own law of entropy”. You should seriously write a book! As the way in which you explai neverything makes it so simple!

  • Kings student

    * “Did god create the BRAIN? or does the Brain create god”

  • Brian

    Kings student, I would be very interested in hearing what you have to say in your essay. I have set up a yahoo account if you wish to communicate. I have a feeling if I posted my real email address I would be placed on some sort of spamming list. bbarkmd@yahoo.com.

  • http://www.radicaldebate.com John Carter

    Perhaps in your essay you could have a short section entitled ‘Evidence for God’.

  • Kings student

    ah..now this is the standard science vs religion debate coming along. Putting things into prospective; science’s aim is to explore nature. Gods domain is regarded as the spiritual world whichis a realm which simply cannot be explored with the tools and language of science therefore words such as “evidence” are inapplicable when it comes to spirituality. Personally i think that spirituality is understood pureley by the heart, mind and soul. And if open to it the mind can easily find a way to embrace BOTH realms . Unwavering faith is the only evidence for god at this present time.

  • Dsfargeg

    Isaac newton wasted a huge portion of his life examining the dimensions and details of king solomons temple, despite being heavily dissuaded by colleagues that this research was, naturally, futile and insane.

  • YouRang

    I happened to notice the line “…first evolved to imagine what other people are feeling, even people who aren’t present …”. It seems to me that my objection to the people in the Freedom From Religion (FREFOR) movement has always been a feeling from the way they write (and from most of my personal contact with most of the people holding such views) that they seem to be deficient in the ability to imagine what other people are feeling. Wow. Now I know why I’ve been so pissed at the FREFOR people all these years. I have sympathy for agnostics; but people who claim atheism rather than agnosticism seem to all be FREFOR people, and my feeling is they have no feeling to imagine about. I.E. the feelings we have that arise from imagining others feelings are the only feelings of any meaning.

  • Hey Morons

    “Researchers have peaked inside the brains of religious people responding to statements about God . . . .” Ew. Does not one of you philosophers know how to spell “peeked”?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    HM — be nice. Typos happen. I fixed it.

  • Richard

    The article quite naturally creates debate, religion is such a difficult topic to discuss unless the group is of the same opinion (it would appear). Alas this is never the case, which is where I and my atheist beleifs, wish the world could adopt a live and let live policy. All I ask is that anyone with there own religious ideas keep them to themselves.
    I have no wish to be indoctrinated (much like ur unsuspecting children unfortunately)

    Look even I can get controversial and invoke anger now cant I ??

    I could come up with at many theories as to why religion and its many forms developed since the fish left the water, but there is no point.

    Ah well I will just get on with life and try to avoid God wherever I can. Unfortunately others will try there best to interfere. Not always so peacefully either !!!

  • Richard

    Dsfargeg Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 5:57 am

    Isaac newton wasted a huge portion of his life examining the dimensions and details of king solomons temple, despite being heavily dissuaded by colleagues that this research was, naturally, futile and insane.

    ———————————————————————————————————————-

    Although the same cant be said of his work Principia Mathematica -m Which was one of the most influential works of science in our history.

    Your point is ????

  • Prem Das

    I ‘d like to respond to John Carter’s response no. 12 where he maintains that scientific discipline is based on observable data whereas religious beliefs are just hearsay evidence is not strictly true.
    The Big Bang theory is just that, a theory. Maybe not even a theory, a hypothesis. To understand the Big Bang, we have to be able to observe what it was that preceded it.
    We are not going to be able to do that anytime soon I warrant.

  • Victoria

    I was not able to access the full paper, but it sounds as if they did not use a control group of non-believers (and possibly a third group of people who are agnostic or have no opinion). Without this comparison, the study is severely flawed and the findings are unsubstantiated.

  • Sheila

    They didn’t find the “God spot” because they were looking in the wrong body part. Next time they may find Him if they take a look at the heart!

  • William Hurst

    Since there is no scientific evidence for a deity one would be logical to assume that the existence of such a deity is false. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens would likely scratch their heads as I do at the point of this study. A belief in gods, angels, demons, goblins or fairies in the garden do not make them real no matter how much or how many people believe in such things. No more than all the faith the children in the world have in the existence of Santa Clause. Santa Clause is not real either. But you already knew that right?

  • Keith

    @Kings student – Actually, if god created life, then god *must*, by definition, be part of the natural world. You don’t get it both ways. Either it has effect on the natural world, in which case science can examine evidence of it, or it is purely spiritual, therefore science can’t examine it, but it can’t have an effect of the natural world.

    Brian’s hypothesis that spontaneous life is mathematically impossible is ludicrous. Either he sucks at math or he sucks at biology. I suspect both because his delusion is interfering with his ability to process data properly. Life on earth started almost a BILLION earths after the earth formed. And it had the ENTIRE EARTH as a test beaker, not just a single test tube. Science is moving ever closer to determining that spontaneous life can, indeed, be explained.

    Brian’s problem is the same problem that scientists who were believers have had for centuries – the god of the gaps. If something can’t be explained right away with science, let’s assume that god did it, despite the lack of ANY evidence to support that theory (read: speculation or guess, NOT scientific theory). Until that is disproved and god gets pushed yet further back into the darkness of ignorance whence it sprang. How many times does the bible have to be proven wrong before people stop believing in these ancient delusional superstitions?

    One other issue to point out is that evolution has absolutely nothing to do with biogenesis. These two subjects really have nothing at all to do with each other outside of the fact that evolution requires life to be in place before it can occur. Other than that, to relate the two shows an incredible level of ignorance about biology as a whole.

  • Keith

    Yes, belief in the supernatural is “natural” to humans because we have emotions (mainly fear and hope) and imagination. But just because we can think up various fairy tales, doesn’t mean that any of them are true. Science is a methodology that we use to find out the cold, hard facts of the reality which we are part of. It is impassive and indifferent to our desire for an outcome. That is why we trust scientists to provide us with the facts about reality. That is why it is irrational and irresponsible to trust preachers with regards to the facts about reality. Preachers obviously have not just an ulterior motive, but an impassioned, driving ulterior motive to dissuade people from seeking the truth about reality because they are well aware that there is no supporting evidence in any way, shape or form that any supernatural beings exist. Discovery of reality threatens their very core of existence. In order for people to believe in the supernatural, they must, by definition, live in self-imposed ignorance.

    People also feel the need to be “right” in their beliefs. They do not want to feel like they have been gullible all their lives. And the more people that believe the same way they do, the better it makes them feel, no matter how ludicrous those beliefs are. That is why religious people want others to believe the way they do. And because there is no logical reason for people to believe these superstitions (such as the bible), these people resort to manipulating emotions (“you will burn in hell forever if you don’t stop relying on reason and believe my nonsense!”). They prey on people who are emotionally vulnerable. That is why it is so important to get into schools and indoctrinate children before they are able to examine the evidence in a rational light.

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