October 2001

Is the Capacity for Religion Hardwired into Our Brains?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Einstein felt it. It’s what draws people to church, prayer, meditation, sacred dance and other rituals. Chances are you’ve felt something like it, too–in the mountains, by the sea, or perhaps while listening to a piece of music that’s especially close to your heart. In fact more than half of people report having had some sort of mystical or religious experience. For some, the experience is so intense it changes their life forever.

“But what is ‘it’? The presence of God? A glimpse of a higher plane of being? Or just the musical equivalent of deja vu, a trick the brain sometimes plays on your conscious self?”

With these questions the journal New Scientist (04/23/01) introduces its article “In Search of God.” It describes the work of scientists on the neurobiology of religion.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili studied religious experiences. They brought some skilled meditators who were willing to undergo brain imaging into the lab one at a time and had a technician inject an intravenous tube into one arm. Then each volunteer began to meditate normally, focusing intently on a single image, usually a religious symbol. The goal was to feel one’s everyday sense of self begin to dissolve, so that the person becomes one with the image. “It feels like a loss of boundary,” says Michael Baime, one of the meditators, who was also a researcher in the study.

Hidden in the next room, Newberg and d’Aquili waited. When the meditator felt the sense of oneness, he or she would tug on a string. The researchers then injected a radioactive tracer through the intravenous line. Then a scanner measured the distribution of the tracer to yield a snapshot of brain activity at the time of binding. The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate activity–a sign of the meditator’s deep concentration. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active when the volunteers were merely sitting still. This was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates. The left hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of his or her own body image, while its right hemisphere equivalent handles its context–the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, reasoned the researchers, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.

“When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don’t disturb them any more,” says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. As the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.

Besides this sense, these religious experiences also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the “emotional brain,” or limbic system, deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain. This system comes from way back in our evolution. Its function is to monitor our experiences and label especially significant events, such as the sight of your child’s face, with emotional tags to say, “This is important.” During an intense religious experience, researchers believe the limbic system becomes unusually active, tagging everything with special significance, as being characterized by great joy and harmony.

There is much evidence that the limbic system is important in such experiences. People who suffer epileptic seizures restricted to the limbic system, or the temporal lobes in general, sometimes report having profound experiences during their seizures. “This is similar to people undergoing religious conversion, who have a sense of seeing through their hollow selves or superficial reality to a deeper reality,” says Jeffrey Saver, a neurologist at UCLA. Epileptics have historically tended to be the people with the great mystical experiences. Neurosurgeons who stimulate the limbic system during open brain surgery say their patients occasionally report experiencing religious sensations. And Alzheimer’s disease, which is often marked by a loss of religious interest, tends to cripple the limbic system early on.

Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, uses a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce all sorts of surreal experiences in ordinary people. A weak magnetic field rotating in a particular pattern about the temporal lobes will cause four out of every five people to feel a spectral presence in the room with them. If a loved one has recently died, the experimental subject may feel that person has returned to see them. Religious types often identify the presence as God. “This is all in the laboratory, so you can imagine what would happen if the person is alone in their bed at night or in a church, where the context is so important,” Persinger says. His experiments show that mystical experiences consist of not only what we experience, but also how we interpret it.

“We are hardwired to have experiences from time to time that give us a sense of presence, and as primates we’re hardwired to categorize our experiences. And we crave social interaction and spatial proximity with others that are the same. If you have a God experience and the belief is that you have to kill someone who doesn’t believe as you do, you can see why the content from the culture is the really dangerous part.”

Skeptics of religion claim the brain’s hardwiring proves that God has no real existence, that it’s all in the brain. But Newberg isn’t so sure. “…if you’re a religious person,” he says, “it makes sense to design the brain so that we can have some sort of interaction.” He contends that reductionist science, powerful as it is, has its limitations. “Just as physicists cannot fully understand the electron as either a particle or a wave, but only as both at once, so we need both science and a more subjective, spiritual understanding in order to grasp the full nature of reality.” He is arguing from analogy here, and such a type of argument has its dangers. What does understanding the electron as a particle or a wave have to do with a professed need for a more subjective, spiritual understanding in grasping the nature of reality? The analogy does not seem to apply. I suggest that it may still be possible to gain a full understanding of “subjective” experience by further physiological study of the brain. It may still all be in the brain after all.

The Gods of War

God Bless America.

God is Great.

These are the mantras from opposing sides in a war of words, a clash of ideologies suddenly turned bloody.

Tonight at Six: The forces of Good against the forces of Evil.

Why not? It’s great for ratings. It’s the kind of comic book view of the universe that is easily marketed to the impatient consumers of the image and the sound bite.

And, it is nothing new. Many of us remember the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years, the war against the “Godless Communism” of the Cold War. What about “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord?” and so on, righteous slaughtering in the name of Jehovah, Jesus, Muhammad, the People or the State: all gods of one sort or another.

But there is good religion and bad religion, even as there is easy patriotism and hard patriotism.

Good religion values life. It expects much of humanity, and forgives much. It takes the long view. It stresses compassion, love, justice. Although it may involve symbols, it never confuses the manipulation of symbols with the lives of individuals.

Much the same can be said of patriotism. It’s easy to wave or pledge allegiance to the flag, to sing “God Bless America.” It’s not so easy to pledge allegiance to the Constitution, to pluralism in the face of conformity, to the rule of reason in the face of horror and loss.

The Gods of War are cruel gods. They must be forever consuming someone, or they lose their power. The spectacle is truly awesome to those not in the storm of fire and metal and sudden death. The gruesome rite of holy war so easily becomes a rallying cry, a war story, another symbol to incite even more death.

The bloodstained survivors don’t remember symbols. They remember their dead. They remember the inhuman fury from above.

When people are faced with the incomprehensible, language often fails them. At such times, mantras are some comfort. I have no problem with this.

A humanist, however, without scripture or prayer wheel or rosary, can only take refuge in hope: that the peacemakers will be heard, that the spiraling madness will expend itself and that sanity will finally return.

–Richard Garrard

A Plea For Peace

Letter to the Editor

We are moved by the alarming news and crisis our country is facing. This is a great nation founded in the belief that “all men are created equal” and that we are the “land of the free.” May each of us have the strength to assist in every way possible to help and comfort those who are suffering, hurting, and in fear.

Our nation is one of justice and due process and we seek humbly for wisdom, constraint, and patience as we search to bring to justice those responsible for these acts of terrorism.

May we reach out to all those affected by this tragedy, providing refuge for those who lost security, strength to those who have been weakened, and peace to those in turmoil.

In peace,
Tawna Skousen