Neurotheology - The God-Shaped Hole in the Head
Created | Updated Jul 13, 2005
Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief | Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion | On Medieval Heresy
The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control
In Philadelphia, a researcher discovers areas of the brain that are activated during meditation. At two other universities in San Diego and North Carolina, doctors study how epilepsy and certain hallucinogenic drugs can produce religious epiphanies. And in Canada, a neuroscientist fits people with magnetized helmets that produce spiritual (?) experiences for the secular.
- The Washington Post, Sunday, June 17, 2001
Neurotheology is a new and exciting scientific field that hit the headlines in 2001. It attempts to examine what specifically is happening in the brain when someone has a 'religious' or 'spiritual' experience in a strict neurobiological sense.
Everything we experience, we experience through our brains. When we eat a chocolate bar, a specific pattern of neuronal activity occurs. The same can be said of all sensory experience, from watching a beautiful sunrise, to listening to a terrible pop song. It therefore follows that religious and spiritual experiences should leave their own telling imprints on the brain. Neurobiologists use sophisticated brain-imaging technology, such as PET1 and SPECT2 scanners that can monitor and map neuronal activity by measuring changes in blood flow within the brain itself, as blood flow correlates with neuron activity. Neurotheology uses this remarkable technology to track an individual's brain activity during religious experiences and times of deep spiritual awareness.
Neurotheologists have found that the spiritual experiences of people, from Tibetan monks3 to Franciscan nuns have certain things in common. It would seem that prayer and meditation produce very similar results, both as described by the people experiencing them, and in the brains of volunteers as viewed by neurobiologists. Such experiences are very often described in terms that blur the lines between self and 'not-self'; people describe how they are at one with the world or universe and that they no longer existed as separate entities. They also describe how they feel the presence of God, how they are at one with Him and how they hear His voice. They even feel absorbed into His being, or speak of His being permeating theirs. They experience timelessness, infinity, centring, quieting, nothingness, and out-of-body experiences. Can all of this really be described and witnessed using a glorified X-ray machine which tracks blood around your head? Strangely enough, yes...
The Superior Parietal Lobe
The superior parietal lobe is the area of the brain that orients you in space. It also marks the distinction between self and non-self, and has the job of perceiving where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. During deep meditation or prayer, when one is focusing deeply, the area associated with attention - the prefrontal cortex - is lit up on the brain scan. However, the parietal lobe is a dark area of low activity; prayer or meditation is indirectly blocking sensory inputs to this area of the brain. When the superior parietal-lobe is blocked, it cannot find the boundary between self and the world, the brain has no choice but to perceive the self as endless, interwoven with everyone and everything.
The Temporal Lobes
The temporal lobes are located at the lower part of the brain on both the left and right sides, behind the ears. Various parts of it are important for the sense of hearing, for certain aspects of memory, and for emotional behaviour. The middle temporal lobe is specifically responsible for emotions such as joy, awe, and other emotional aspects of 'religious' experience. The lower temporal lobe is the brain's visual association area; it connects images to emotions and memories. It's involved in the process by which images facilitate prayer or meditation. For example, when an image of a cross or an icon triggers a feeling of awe, it is because the brain's visual association area learns to link those images to those feelings.
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
Epilepsy can be described as abnormal bursts of electrical 'crackling' in the brain. This abnormal brain activity, when it occurs in the temporal lobes, triggers vivid religious visions, and even voices. Famous sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy include Lewis Carroll, Joan of Arc, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K Dick, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dostoevsky, Muhammed, Van Gogh, Moses, and Saint Paul.
It has been found that electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes of non-epileptic volunteers produces visions as experienced by sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy. Michael Persinger of the Laurentian University in Canada has constructed a helmet that generates a weak magnetic field that, when worn, triggers bursts of electrical activity in the temporal lobes not dissimilar to the activity seen in temporal lobe epilepsy sufferers. Volunteers who took part in Dr Persinger's studies describe their sensations as supernatural or spiritual in nature; they experience out-of-body experiences and a sense of the divine. Such mini-electrical storms can be produced when an individual is suffering from a period of anxiety, personal crisis, oxygen deprivation, low blood sugar, or fatigue. It is no surprise that people 'find God' in these situations.
The temporal lobe is also important for speech perception. A common experience of temporal lobe epilepsy sufferers is 'hearing the voice of God'. It is speculated that this arises when an individual misattributes inner speech (the 'little voice' inside your head) to something outside of his or herself. This can happen when sensory information is restricted, as happens during meditation and prayer. Stress and emotional arousal can also interfere with the brain's ability to define the voice's source. In a 1998 study by psychologist Richard Bentall of the University of Manchester, researchers found that an area of the brain known as the right anterior cingulate lit up on the brain scan when a person heard something in the environment, and that the same thing happened when they hallucinated the sound. However, this area stays quiet when the person imagines hearing something - it is the brain's way of discerning what's real and what's not, allowing the brain to 'tag' the source of sound. This region seems to contain the neural wiring that detects events as originating from the external world. When the epileptic electrical 'crackling' wrongly switches it on, people are fooled into thinking the voice is coming from outside themselves.
The Power of Ritual
Ritual can produce deep spiritual experiences by itself, such is its power. Dancing, drumming and incantations all focus attention onto one single intense source. They also invoke powerful emotional responses. It is this combination of heightened emotion and exclusion of sensory input that seems to be key. Together, they send the brain into overdrive and, when this happens, the ever-watchful hippocampus, which is responsible for maintaining balance in the brain, slams on the brakes. Certain areas of the brain are cut off, such as the area responsible for orientation - the same spot that goes 'dark'4 during prayer and meditation. This area, deprived of neuronal input, loses the ability to determine what is 'self' and 'not-self', where the self ends and the outside world begins.
Whether an individual is experiencing neuronal deprivation in the parietal lobes or neuronal 'crackling' in the temporal lobes, spiritual experiences can be explained in terms of neurological activity.
Prayer and meditation both require concentration that can indirectly block sensory input to the certain region of the brain that is responsible for the perception of the boundary between self and 'not-self'. The temporal lobes facilitate prayer and have been found to play a role in the emotional aspects of prayer. Epiphanies are experienced when the temporal lobes crackle with uncontrolled electrical activity - a disease known as temporal lobe epilepsy. This causes vivid visions and the perception of voices coming from outside oneself. Neurotheologists have even replicated this effect by inducing similar abnormal electrical activity with an electromagnetic helmet!
'Religious' or 'spiritual' experiences are ubiquitous amongst all peoples. This phenomenon must have a common underlying cause. The question remains; is neurotheology directly witnessing how people tap into the divine, a common truth that people throughout the ages have discovered time and time again? Or, has neurotheology found common biological structures in the brain that unwittingly generate 'spiritual' experiences, which are interpreted by the individual through the lens of their religion? Whatever the answer, neurotheology has made leaps and bounds in understanding just where and what shape the 'God-shaped hole' is within the heads of human beings and what role certain areas of the brain plays in religious and spiritual belief.
From the neurology of belief comes a wider understanding of how belief can arise from the human system. The next Entry examines this, The Biological Basis of Belief