Neuroscience and God

The current issue of Scientific America Mind looks at how neuroscientists are using brain scans to study the biology of spiritual experiences. The fMRI images seen here are from a study by University of Montreal researcher Mario Beauregard and his colleagues. The scientists scanned the brains of nuns as they recalled religious epiphanies to see which areas of the brain lit up. From Scientific American Mind:
 Media Inline 434D7C62-E7F2-99Df-37Cc9814533B90D7 1-1 Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine–a new discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual neuroscience”–not only might reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them happier, healthier and better able to concentrate. Ultimately, however, neuroscientists study this question because they want to better understand the neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives of so many. “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures,” Beauregard says. “It is as important to study the neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.”

Scientists and scholars have long speculated that religious feeling can be tied to a specific place in the brain. In 1892 textbooks on mental illness noted a link between “religious emotionalism” and epilepsy. Nearly a century later, in 1975, neurologist Norman Geschwind of the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital first clinically described a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes, large sections of the brain that sit over the ears. Epileptics who have this form of the disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading Geschwind and others, such as neuropsychiatrist David Bear of Vanderbilt University, to speculate that localized electrical storms in the brain’s temporal lobe might sometimes underlie an obsession with religious or moral issues.
Link (Thanks, Jason Tester!)

Previously on BB:
• Scanning nun brains for god spots Link
• Business of brain scans Link


  1. The epiphany/epilepsy link is an interesting one. I’ve read that St. Paul’s epiphany on the road to Damascus may have been an epileptic seizure. (I even think epilepsy was known as “St. Paul’s Disease” in some parts of the world).

    Given the incredible impact that Paul has had on the modern world, it’s fascinating to think that his conversion to Christianity (and thus the resulting conversion of much of the world) was the result of one man’s neurological disorder.

  2. If religion is just electricity in the brain, then so are language, sex, and art.

  3. Slashdot has a bit about this today that references a Scientific American article on some researchers who already have something working which induces “religious feelings.”

    To G. Park regarding Paul: seeing as he’s the one who butchered the message of Christ beyond all recognition, my money’s on his having a pathological personality disorder along with his epilepsy.

  4. Teresa: Of course they are. Well, at least our perception of them is “just” electricity in the brain. What else would they be?

    It doesn’t belittle them to say so; it’s a fact, at least as far as we know.

  5. @Teresa: Then, if it’s all the same, can I substitute extra helpings of language, sex, and art instead of religion?

  6. DCulberson: Sure. Anything past that gets into the problem of how sensory perception relates to the external universe.

  7. If you could induce this sensation, you’d have a great brainwashing / indoctrination tool.

    (Recall that scene in Real Genius where an annoying character is surreptitiously fitted with radio-receiving tooth fillings, and the Voice of God orders him around…)

  8. I have TLE with strictly simple partial psychic seizures, And I’m an atheist.

    There’s nothing about these seizures that couldn’t be compared to drug experiences. I think the same personality types that attribute great spiritual revelations and religious experiences to, say, LSD, are the same types to put supernatural labels on their seizures. It’s altered consciousness for seconds/minutes at a time.

    I think the too much credit is given to the “God Lobe” aspect of the temporal lobes. I think the correlation is just that the temporal lobes are just so often the foci of simple partials.

    Decline of pirates, increase of global warming…

  9. Sex, Drugs, Rock’n Roll.!! No wait, that was earlier. Then in 1970 this book was published: The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East The sex, drugs, rock’n roll crowd had ‘rediscovered’ the effect of mushrooms before the book was published. Ah, skip the organized religion part as it causes more brain damage than the drugs.

  10. The Athiest: This is proof that God does not exist. Like we’ve been saying all along, there is a natural explanation for everything. It’s all in your head.

    The Christian: This proves God’s existence. Since religious feelings do not have any apparent evolutionary advantage, the only explanation is that God has built in a way to communicate with his people.

    The Agnostic: …

  11. This reminds me of the “entheogens” in Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire book.

    @Theresa, DCulberson, et al on the “everything is just electricity in the brain” thread:

    Theresa jumps right on one of my favorite topics: the interaction between our sensorium and whatever is out there as the so-called “real world”. Every sensation that reaches our brains goes through our sensorium – one set of “filters” – and is then processed by the relevant portions of the brain – another set of “filters” – and finally we have information we can think/emote about. Lots of solipsism, phenomenology and existentialism to be found in this area. I recently was conversing with a few friends about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and one of her statements – roughly “It is and I know it”, referring to objective reality – provided a good basis to build on. Unfortunately, woe is me, I forgot the rest of that conversation – I’ll have to ask my friend again if I get the bug to try and build up my philosophical worldview from scratch again.

    While it may appear to be a specious argument – “it’s all in your head” – there is some truth there, at least by my way of thinking. Everything we know is all in our heads. That we can apply the things in our heads to make predictions to others about what will enter their heads after we do something that is supposed to affect the “real world” shows that this isn’t necessarily so. Unfortunately I am not well equipped to argue this topic, though I’m certainly game to discuss it.

    Hmm – from “searching for the part of the brain that is “responsible” for religious experiences” to “what is reality”. Eh, I do that sometimes…

  12. I think it is fair to say that spiritual experience can be as varied as the diversity inherent in the universe itself. In fact all experience has a spiritual character. We nevertheless distinguish spiritual experiences from what we consider normal experience. All the same, spiritual experiences can be divided into three broad categories.

    The most common type has a powerful ecstatic organic component that transcends the organic ego-centric self. There is an experience of various degrees of supremely joyous organic union with the whole of life in the biosphere as a living reality. This can easily be interpreted as union with God although there is nothing to indicate this directly. I have explicitly experienced this kind of ecstatic union turn around to reveal the other side as the suffering face of humanity. This suffering face is seen, directly facing in front, as a transparent image with unimaginable depth behind it. It is the archetypal genotype of all humanity reaching back through our tragic history to the very beginnings of the human species. This archetype corresponds to what is known in Christian theology as the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Spirit. The organic union side of this type of experience is accessible to limited scientific studies since there is a powerful organic resonance with the human archetype throughout the body.

    The other two types are related and are not accessible to meaningful scientific study. They both involve what is known in Taoism and Buddhism as the Void, as well as in some esoteric Christian and Muslim sects. The Void is cosmic in nature as opposed to organic and it can be accessed directly in personal experience through years of intensive meditation or more rarely through a quest into the nature of truth unrelated to traditional religion. The Void is the direct experience of boundless and timeless Being, embracing All without specific content of any kind. The Void is an awesome ocean of quantized experience that spans and integrates the whole of space and time, the whole of creation, the whole of history. It is the master memory bank of creation. To experience it for a few seconds can change a lifetime. Sometimes the Void can be experienced through the flimsy veil of the physical universe. Sometimes the physical universe vanishes completely, including one’s own body, but without any feeling of loss of
    identity. One just becomes One with All Being. This is not an organic “feeling”. There is no bliss, no sorrow, no joy. It is an awesome balanced cosmic realization experienced with total conscious clarity in pure wonder. This is sometimes interpreted after the fact as there being no self, or no God, or as union with God, but there is nothing specific in the experience to indicate any of these verbal interpretations. It is profound beyond the reach of imagination, yet little can be said about it. Some Buddhists equate it with enlightenment or with Nirvana. Some claim to have had the experience when it is
    clear from what they say that they are mistaken.

    The third general type of spiritual experience is very rare. It can not be accessed through personal efforts. It transcends and subsumes the Void and with it the whole of creation. These experiences come uninvited to specific individuals in meaningful response to their quest. They are never capricious and they always come at the sole discretion of the Supreme Intelligent Source of All Being. They come at the discretion of God, who can manifest in various explicit ways that are seen and known. Nothing is hidden. One shares the Void with the conscious will of God. One is a dumbstruck observer unable to entertain an independent thought except at his sole discretion. He reveals what he wills in a way that is not deniable without denial of one’s own existence. Revelations of this kind can be unbearably intense and as such they can incur great risks to the individual involved. These generally mute revelations can be extremely difficult to meaningfully interpret with the rational intellect, since language can not reach directly. The cosmic order determines the meaning implicit in language, not vice versa. The risks can extend to one’s sanity, to one’s life, and to one’s spiritual integrity, which probably accounts for why they are rare. One visually sees more that what is normally seen just through the eyes. These insights are not hallucinatory and can not be drug induced. They are always profoundly meaningful. Although such insights are intensely visually explicit both objectively outside, and subjectively inside or “behind” the mid coronal interface of the body they implicitly carry an intension in them to help. They can even come to protect. They can last from moments to hours. I know from many such encounters that one can learn to assimilate them meaningfully into normal experience and so defuse the risks. They lend meaning to life transcending death for which one can only be grateful. There is an article at describing one such cosmic insight.

    With best wishes,
    Bob Campbell

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