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The God-part of the Brain


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The God Experiments

The December issue 2006 of Discover magazine has an interesting article entitled, The God Experiments. Five key views about God/spiritual experiences are put forth.

1. Inventing God. Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University in New York wants to explain God away. He has written a book entitled, Faces in the Clouds. Guthrie maintains that belief in supernatural beings is the result of our tendency to project human qualities onto the world. Religion is just systematic anthropomorphism that enhanced our ancestor's chances of survival.

2. God-Part of the Brain. Andrew Newberg has written the book, Why God won't go way: Brainscience & the Biology of Belief. (see review below) He scans peoples brains using SPET while they are having a spiritual experience. Newberg concludes, an "evolutionary perspective suggests that the neurobiology of mystical experience arose, at least in part, from the mechanism of the sexual response."

3. God might be a cerebral mistake. Michael Persinger states that the left temporal lobe of the brain gives us our sense of self. When our brain is disrupted (by injury, drugs, trauma) the left side of the brain may interpret activity in the right side of the brain as another self (out of body, or mystical experience).

4. The God Gene. Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute is trying to link religion/spiritually to a specific gene called VMAT (vesicular monoamine transporter) as a result of twin studies. He has written the book, The God Gene.

5. The Spirit Molecule. Rick Strassman traces spiritually to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine (DMT). In his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, he states that DMT triggers mystical visions. He thinks DMT is produced in the pineal gland deep in the brain.

The God Machine. Todd Murphy a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger is marketing the "Shakti headset" which is a scaled down version of Persinger's God machine so one can explore your consciousness.

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What I find interesting is the research done on the brain that shows there may be a God-part of the brain in the temporal lobe. Michael Persinger stimulates the temporal lobes with a magnetic field to produce spiritual experiences. He can seemingly change an atheist into a theist. Vilayanur Ramachandran has also done  research. See This Is Your Brain on God.

Vilayanur Ramachandran

In October 1997 Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist delivered a paper entitled "The Neural Basis of Religious Experience." He presented evidence how the brain processes spiritual experience. He noticed that people with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLP), have stronger religious feelings. This may indicate that the temporal lobe is where religious experiences occur. See news article 'God spot' is found in brain by Steve Connor. 

Michael Persinger

At Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada Michael Persinger has a lab set up to induce religious experiences. A person puts on a motorcycle helmet equipped with electromagnets that product a magnetic field that causes micro seizures (overactive neutrons) in the temporal lobe of the brain. These micro seizures cause spiritual and supernatural experiences. People will feel a sense of presence in the room (like God, angels or aliens), or have an out-of-body experience (like a near-death experience). 

According to Persinger the sense of self is in the left hemisphere of the temporal cortex matched by a corresponding sense of self in the right hemisphere of the temporal cortex. When these two hemispheres become disorientated there will be a sense of another self. When the amygdala is also stimulated, emotional feelings will be enhanced causing intense spiritual feelings.

A number of events can trigger these spiritual or supernatural experiences. 

  1. Very Stressful events-like a car accident, or surgery.     
  2. Decrease in oxygen to the brain- like at very high altitudes. A centrifuge can cause out-of-body experiences.
  3. Extreme changes in blood sugar levels.
  4. Fasting
  5. Many hours of Sleeplessness.
  6. Temporal lobe seizures
  7. Electromagnetic disturbances in the earth
  8. Drugs
  9. Trances from repetitive acts like chanting or dancing, meditation.

Mirror Neurons

How do we know what people are feeling? Scientists now think it is because of "mirror neurons. See full story at http://www.newscientist.com/features/features.jsp?id=ns22751 This is called the most important unreported story of the last decade. See also http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge69.html 

Is the Brain hard-wired for God?

Hard-wired for God?

The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience

Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili are authors of the book, "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief," and an earlier one, "The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. The two also wrote an article for Science & Spirit titled, "Wired for the Ultimate Reality: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience."

Book Review

Why God Won’t Go Away: Brainscience & the Biology of Belief

By Andrew Newberg, M.D. Eugene D’Aqulli, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause

Chapter One: A Photograph of God

The first chapter tells about brain scans (SPECT) done on  Buddhists during meditation and nuns during prayer. The mystical experience is photographed, and reduced to a series of neurological events. The authors posit that our biology compels spiritual urges (p.8). The orientation area of our brain works unusually during spiritual experiences, but not improperly.

Chapter Two: Brain Machinery

This chapter details the inner workings of our brain. The left orientation area of the brain creates a spatial sense of self, while the right side creates the space in which the self can exist. This orientation area is important for religious or mystical experiences. The mind is the phenomenon of thoughts, memories, and emotions that comes from the perceptual processes of the physical brain. The mind has the ability to enter altered states of consciousness. The question is whether these altered states are normal or abnormal. The authors claim they are not abnormal just unusual.

Chapter Three: Brain Architecture

The autonomic nervous system regulates the fundamental functions of our body like heart rate and blood pressure. This system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system is the body’s fight-or-flight response. It is an aroused physical state. The parasympathetic system conserves energy and keeps the body’s systems in balance. It is a quiescent physical state. When both these states are pushed to a maximum, altered states of consciousness are reached. Intense physical or mental activity can trigger altered states. Meditation and prayer can bring sensations of great bliss.

The Limbic system interweaves emotions with thoughts. Electrical stimulation to the limbic system can produce hallucinations, out-of-body sensations, and illusions. The main parts of the limbic system are: the hypothalamus (the master controller of the autonomic system), the amygdala (gives emotional value to stimulus), and the hippocampus (regulates emotional equilibrium).

Chapter Four: Myth-Making

Neanderthals were the first to bury their dead with ceremonies and make crude alters which is evidence of their religious behavior. Biologically we are driven to make sense of the world, so myths are made. The word “myth” used by scholars does not mean a story is untrue. The power of myths is not its literal interpretation, but its universal symbols. Myths help alleviate our existential fears in a dangerous world like death and suffering. Myths focus on a crucial existential concern, then frame it into irreconcilable opposites, and finally reconcile those opposites often with spiritual powers.

 I disagree with the authors that mystical experiences are at the base of these myths. For example, I think that death and resurrection were seen in nature with the changing seasons, in the circling stars, and in planting seeds, and not because of some mystical experience. 

Chapter Five: Ritual

Research reveals that repetitive rhythmic stimulation can drive the limbic and autonomic systems causing altered states of the mind like the transcendence of self. Uplifting congregational music can cause a mild degree of transcendence. Dancing, singing, chanting, and praying can all cause degrees of transcendence and bliss. Rituals turn beliefs into spiritual experiences that proves their reality.

Chapter Six: Mysticism

Medical research proposes many causes for intense religious states, from fatigue, emotional distress, to obsessive thinking or mental illness. Psychiatrists believe that mystical experiences are illusions triggered by the neurotic regressive urge to reject an unfulfilling reality, and return to infantile bliss. These authors conclude the opposite. “Significant research, in fact, seems to show that people who experience genuine mystical states enjoy much higher levels of psychological health than the public at large” (p.108).

There are major differences between the spiritual experience and a psychotic episode.

Mystical Spiritual Experience

Psychotic Episode

Ecstatic and joyful

Confused and frightened

Break with reality welcomed

Involuntary and distressing

Loss of pride and ego

Religious grandiosity

Other researches have found a link between epilepsy and spirituality. Some would say St. Paul had an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus. These authors do not think seizures can explain away spiritual experiences because: seizures are frequent and regular with the same voice and message while mystics have a variety of experiences. Hallucinations from seizures are fragmented and dreamlike in nature while mystics are persuaded that their experience was real. Let me add that this does not make it real because you felt or experienced something.

The authors believe, “the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience” (p.125).

Chapter Seven: The Origins of Religion

“God is dead….Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead….God. –Graffito (p.128)

Nietzsche saw God as just another vestige of the pre-scientific past that man would soon outgrow. Those that still cling to God lack the courage to face the world without Him. “Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based in mystical experience, and that religions persist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exist” (p.129).

The authors feel that religious beliefs and behavior are good for us and our survival. “Studies have shown that men and women who practice any mainstream faith live longer, have fewer strokes, less heart disease, better immune system function, and lower blood pressure than the population at large” (p.129). Dr. Harold Koeing of Duke University Medical Center stated, “Lack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to forty years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day” (p.129-30). Not only does religion lead to physical benefits, but also superior mental health to the surprise of modern psychiatrists. Until DSM-IV (1994) “strong religious beliefs” were classified as a mental disorder.

Research shows that religious beliefs can improve mental and emotional health. Drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide are lower among religious people than the general population (p.130). Religious people are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Religious communities foster strong social support networks, and frown on risky indulgences like promiscuous sex, and drugs. Prayer and meditation have health benefits. The strongest point of religion is its power to alleviate existential stress. A higher power is in control that can help you. Religion gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

The authors believe that God is not the product of our mind, but God was discovered in mystical or spiritual encounters through the transcendent mind.

Chapter eight: Realer than Real

Mystics claim that a higher plane of reality exists that is literally more real than this material universe. Spiritual experience opens a higher reality that is more real than the material world. The authors claim, “The neurobiological aspects of spiritual experience support the sense of the realness of God.”  I would disagree. Subjective experiences may not always give objective truths. When a hand is amputated some people still feel the hand is really still there. Because a spiritual experience feels more real, does not make it real. My dream may feel real. Much of this is subjective evidence that the authors take as solid objective truth.

Chapter Nine: Why God Won’t Go Away

The author attempts to level all religions to an underlying mystical experience of an Absolute Unitary Being. A personal god is seen as divisive. All religions are seen as taking different paths to lead us to the same goal of unity. The authors conclude that mysticism is the most practical and effective hope for improving human behavior. This is nave view.

Contrary to what the authors think, the search for mystical or spiritual experiences seems very egotistical. A whole life of meditation to experience a few moments of oneness with the universe seems very self absorbed, and selfish. In the real world people do not have hours every day to meditate themselves into a higher level of consciousness. Other researchers would see it as a lower level of consciousness where the brain is not functioning properly.

Conclusion

I agree with the basic tenant of this book that God will not go away because our brains are wired a certain way, but the rest of the book is highly speculative, and open to a number of different interpretations. Just because a person has a certain subjective spiritual experience or feeling, does not make it objective evidence for a higher reality.

The "God" Part of the Brain

Matthew Alper wrote The "God" Part of the Brain from the evolutionary point of view. Alper tries to explain how our brains developed the believe of God. He sees it as a survival advantage. His web site is at The "God" Part of the Brain.

Where God Lives in the Human Brain

The book Where God Lives in the Human Brain is written by Carol Albright and James Ashbrook. Carol Albright is the executive editor or Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. This book helps you understand how the human brain works and understands God.

Of Mind and Spirit

Researchers are studying the brain to better understand religious feelings. Atheists see support for their position; religious people say the work is simplistic. Article by Shankar Vedantam in the Philadelphia Inquirer 7/2/01. See http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2001/07/02/magazine/BRAIN02.htm

Life-after-death Debate Rises Again

A British scientist studying heart attack patients says he is finding evidence that suggests that consciousness may continue after the brain has stopped functioning and a patient is clinically dead. See http://www.msnbc.com/news/593912.asp

Other News Articles

Agnostic studies God and the brain By Melissa Dribben
There's always a guy like Andrew Newberg in high school. The smart, intense, fast-talking kid who's forever thinking thinking thinking, hunched over the lunch table with friends arguing about whether one can objectively prove - I mean, really prove - that a piece of apple pie is real. The one who would ignore the cheerleaders at halftime because he was off on some verbal odyssey, searching for an answer to "How do we know we exist?" See http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/special_packages/inquirer_magazine/7530560.htm

”After a deeply religious, near-death or meditative event, Newberg says, "people describe the experience as more real than reality. More vivid." They also report losing their sense of individuality; limits of body, space and time seem to dissolve. Studies he and his colleagues have done show that in those moments, the brain reacts in specific patterns.

The scans indicate that the frontal lobe - the part that allows you to focus and concentrate - becomes active. That makes sense, Newberg says, because the person's attention is intensely focused on God, breathing, a mantra or whatever. At the same time, the parietal lobe - the part that helps you locate yourself in relation to your environment - goes dark and quiet. That, too, makes sense in explaining the feeling of unifying with a larger, boundless universe.

The really intriguing question, Newberg says, is what do we make of these findings? They could be interpreted to mean that the idea of God is merely the result of specific brain activity, that the brain in essence creates God. And that may be the case, he says.

But he's not convinced.

"If we go with the presumption that the brain processes our information about reality, then we are left with a secondhand sense of what the world is about," he says. "You can't get outside your own brain to know reality."

This is when he goes into the apple pie analogy: You know you're in the presence of apple pie through your senses. The aroma, taste, sight, even memory of apple pies from the past fire up the neurons in your brain and tell you this is buttery crust, cinnamon, and sweet mushy mouthfuls of Macintosh.

Newberg says he could scan the brain when it's sensing apple pie and show a pattern of activity. But what would that prove? You wouldn't say that because the brain is engaged in all this activity, perceiving pie, that it is the source of the pie, he reasons.

So why, he asks - just because religious experience produces a pattern of brain activity - should scientists conclude that the brain is the source of God?

That question, however fascinating, has troubled other researchers, including David Wulff, who sees it as a subject beyond scientific boundaries.

MEDITATION MAY CUT STRESS, IMPROVING MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH 
An intensive program that teaches meditation skills may help people reduce the psychological and physical effects of high stress, according to a new study. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/07/010710074320.htm

BRAIN-DEVELOPMENT TIMELINE FOR MAMMALIAN SPECIES
A team of Cornell University neurobiologists has modeled key milestones in brain development across nine mammalian species, from hamsters to humans. They have, for example, pinpointed the date after conception when the cells that make up the retina of the eye are formed.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/07/010711060444.htm

Biology of Belief

Article about the book Why God will not go Away: Brainscience & the Biology of Belief  By Andrew Newberg, M.D. Eugene D’Aqulli, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause. See http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-000057791jul15.story? 

God on the Brain by Jerome Groopman. See   http://www.newyorker.com/THE_CRITICS/BOOKS/ 

Is Spirituality Good for Your Health?

Brain Storm: Neurotheology is the belief that religion is all in the mind. See http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,74-2001373571,00.html

Religion versus science might be all in the mind - By stimulating the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, Michael Persinger has been able to induce in hundreds of subjects a "sensed presence" only the subjects themselves are aware of (The Sydney Morning Herald).

Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer - in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.

Neuroscience - psychiatry (30 Apr) - Following the lead of many other researchers, Professor Ramachandran proposes a neurological and evolutionary approach to phenomena that were traditionally labelled "mental illness".

Searching For Meaning In Life May Boost Immune System - Pursuing goals related to living a meaningful life may boost the activity of certain cells in the immune system, according to a small study of women who lost a relative to breast cancer.

Other Books

The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions
by Joseph Giovannoli

The Mystical Mind : Probing the Biology of Religious Experience
by Eugene G. D'Aquili, Andrew B. Newberg

Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps : Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience
by Jensine Andresen (Editor), Robert K. C. Forman (Editor), Ken Wilber (Editor)

The Humanizing Brain : Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet
by James B. Ashbrook, Carol Rausch Albright, Anne Harrington

Neuroscience and the Person : Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action Series)
by Robert John Russel (Editor), et al

Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature
by Warren S. Brown (Editor), et al