Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaia Shibboleth 3: God in the Brain?

For an update to the blog, with additional research, see the full subsequent Gaia Shibboleth article.

The Cerebral "God Spot"

In 1997 Vilayanur Ramachandran of UC San Diego (1) astounded the media world by suggesting that the brain had a 'God spot" or "God module", which united feelings of religious fervour with supreme significance.

The physiological basis for this is the fact that the emotional limbic system, and particularly the amygdala, which is responsible for integrating intense emotional feelings of paranoia and ecstasy associated with survival and threats to survival, is situated alongside the limits of the temporal lobe, which processes semantic meaning and its significance. Thus excitations linking the two could result in a simultaneous experience of extreme fulfillment and intense significance - equating to a profound religious, or mystical experience.

Ramachandran had been studying cases of temporal lobe epilepsy in which the patients experienced deep religious feelings during their seizures which they revered and found to be of great significance to their personal lives. His team went on to do a study involving comparing epileptic patients with normal people and a group who said they were intensely religious. Electrical monitors on their skin a standard test for activity in the brain's temporal lobes showed that the epileptics and the deeply religious displayed a similar response when shown words invoking spiritual belief.

One effect of the patients' seizures was to strengthen their brain's involuntary response to religious words, leading the scientists to suggest a portion of the brain was naturally attuned to ideas about a supreme being: "There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion. This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society," the team reported at a conference.

As we have noted, evolutionary scientists have suggested that belief in God, which is a common trait found in human societies around the world and throughout history, may be built into the brain's complex electrical circuitry as a Darwinian adaptation to encourage co-operation between individuals.

Reactions to this announcement were varied. Some religious people, spanning a spectrum from Christians to Muslims, raced to publish claims that this proved the existence of God and the existence of the Creator's master plan. More liberal Christians, such as the Bishop of Oxford, said whether there is a "God module" is a question for scientists, not theologians, nevertheless noting "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief".

To seal the case for the temporal lobe’s involvement, Michael Persinger (2) of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically stimulating that large subdivision of the brain, using his “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s surface. The researchers induced in most subjects the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe. Valiantly or foolhardily, he tried in on perhaps the least suggestible person on the planet, Richard Dawkins, who duly reported not a flicker of the Immanent Presence (9). Although a 2005 attempt by Swedish scientists to replicate Persinger’s God helmet findings failed, researchers are not yet discounting the temporal lobe’s role in some types of religious experience.

The difficulty with the popular science cliche of the "God spot" (3, 4) is that subsequent studies looking at specific types of religious experience from devout Nuns to meditating Buddhist monks has thrown up a much more diverse set of neural pathways, exploding the myth that there is one God designed religious system in the brain.

This should have been obvious to anyone with experience either in neuroscience or religious history because the sort of experiences Ramachandran's team were investigating were at the mystical fringe of prophets crying in the wilderness and almost diametrically opposed tot he kinds of mentality we associate with rigid conservative fundamentalistic beliefs and practices.

fMRI recordings from Beauregard's study


In a 2006 fMRI study (5), the recall by nuns of communion with God invigorated quite different regions - the caudate nucleus, insula, inferior parietal lobe (IPL) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC), among other brain regions. Each of these nuns answered a call for volunteers “who have had an experience of intense union with God” and agreed to participate in an experiment devised by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal. Beauregard and Paquette used fMRI to study the brains of 15 nuns during three different mental states - 1 resting with closed eyes, 2 recollecting an intense social experience - control states against which they compared 3 reminiscence, or revival of a vivid experience with God. The researchers found six regions that were invigorated only during the nuns’ recall of communion with God . There was increased activity in the caudate nucleus, a small central brain region to which scientists have ascribed a role in learning, memory and, recently, falling in love; the neuroscientists surmise that its involvement may reflect the nuns’ reported feeling of unconditional love. Another hot spot was the insula, a prune-size chunk of tissue tucked within the brain’s outermost layers that monitors body sensations and governs social emotions. Neural sparks there could be related to the visceral pleasurable feelings associated with connections to the divine. Augmented activity in the inferior parietal lobe, with its role in spatial awareness - paradoxically, the opposite of what Newberg and Davidson witnessed - might mirror the nuns’ feeling of being absorbed into something greater. The remainder of the highlighted regions includes the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which may weigh the pleasantness of an experience; the medial prefrontal cortex, which may help govern conscious awareness of an emotional state; and, finally, the middle of the temporal lobe.

Complementing the spatial resolution of fMRI with the time resolution of EEG, Beauregard and his colleagues found that the most prevalent brain waves are long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep, consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state. In work that has not yet been published, the scientists also spotted even lower-frequency waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and the temporal lobe that are associated with meditation and trance. “We see delta waves and theta waves in the same brain regions as the fMRI,” Beauregard says.

Brains scans from Davidson's PET study

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili (6), used a form of PET single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) to image the brain when meditating Buddhist subjects reached their self-reported peak, in which they lose their sense of existence as separate individuals. This was associated with both a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which aids with navigation and spatial orientation, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, charged with attention and planning. The neuroscientists surmise that the abnormal silence in the parietal underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe and the prefrontal recruitment at the meditation peak may reflect the fact that such contemplation often requires that a person focus intensely on a thought or object.

Richard Davidson (7) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues used fMRI to scan the brains of several hundred meditating Buddhists from around the world and found that the Buddhists’ meditations coincided with activation in the left prefrontal cortex, again perhaps reflecting the ability of expert practitioners to focus despite distraction. The most experienced volunteers showed lower levels of activation than did those with less training, conceivably because practice makes the task easier although not effortless as accomplished Buddhist practitioners claim. They had previously done EEG studies showing gamma synchrony in meditators (7).

Meditators and controls in Davidson's 2004 EEG study

Meditation may even delay certain signs of aging in the brain, according to preliminary work by neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues. A 2005 paper in NeuroReport noted that 20 experienced meditators showed increased thickness in certain brain regions relative to 15 subjects who did not meditate. In particular, the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula were between four and eight thousandths of an inch thicker in the meditators; the oldest of these subjects boasted the greatest increase in thickness, the reverse of the usual process of aging.

Newberg and his colleagues discovered yet another activity pattern when they scanned the brains of five women while they were speaking in tongues. The activity in their subjects’ frontal lobes declined relative to that of five religious people who were simply singing gospel. Because the frontal lobes are broadly used for self-control, the research team concluded that the decrement in activity enabled the loss of control necessary for such garrulous outbursts.

The quantity and diversity of brain regions involved point to the complexity of the phenomenon of spirituality. “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain,” Beauregard concludes. “These states are mediated by a neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain.”

This new area of “neurotheology” or “spiritual neuroscience" raises as many questions as it answers. It cannot, Ramachandran says be called "The God Module." It is not the final reduction of God to mere neurophysiology; but he does admit that the finding provides strength to the suspicion that belief in god is "largely protoplasmic", however the scientists emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of brain chemistry. "These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the team said. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."

On the other hand those who are committed to the scientific enterprise, and believe in exhausting all possible material explanations for "transcendence" before considering any "other worldly" possibilities, will find no surprise in the suggestion that brain neurophysiology can alter perceptions of the "transcendent."

Is the 'God spot' idea just making us an instrument - part of God's computer?

Persinger (2) argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain - that the religious bents of even the most exalted figures - Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha - stem from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences are good, he argues, is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Beauregard says: “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures. 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.” However, he points out that they are not necessarily associated with religion: “If you are an atheist and you live a certain kind of experience, you will relate it to the magnificence of the universe. If you are a Christian, you will associate it with God. Who knows? Perhaps they are the same.”

But using such vague structural clues to explain human feelings and behaviors may be a fool’s errand. “You list a bunch of places in the brain as if naming something lets you understand it,” says neuropsychologist Seth Horowitz of Brown University. Vincent Paquette, who collaborated with Beauregard, goes further, likening neuroimaging to phrenology, the practice in which Victorian-era scientists tried - and ultimately failed - to intuit clues about brain function and character traits from irregularities in the shape of the skull.

Recent research suggests that just thinking rational thoughts or even thinking about rational thoughts erodes belief in God, consistent with religion being an intuitive non-rational process. "Will Gervais asked 93 university students to rate their own belief in God and other supernatural agents such as angels. Then, several weeks later, they underwent "priming" for analytical thinking – they were asked to unscramble sentences that included words such as "ponder" and "rational", read text written in hard-to-read fonts, or even just look at a picture of Rodin's sculpture The Thinker. Controls were given less analytically charged tasks: looking at Myron's Discobolus, or The Discus Thrower, unscrambling sentences containing words such as "shoes", or read text written in easy-to-read fonts. Ara Norenzayan and Gervais then asked the students to again rate their supernatural beliefs. The students who had been exposed to analytical priming consistently downgraded their belief in the supernatural, regardless of their previous degree of belief. This was also true of 148 adults tested online. The simplest way to explain these effects, the team conclude, is if intuitive thinking leads to belief, and analytical thinking suppresses or overrides this process. That gives analytical thinking a causal role in disbelief." (Analytical thinking erodes belief in God New Scientist 26 April 2012 Debora MacKenzie).

Developmental Predispositions

In the "The God issue: We are all born believers" (New Scientist) Justin Barrett claims childrens' propensity for agent-based explanations, a tendency to explain the natural world in terms of design and purpose, an assumption that others have superpowers - makes children naturally receptive to the idea that there may be one or more god which helps account for the world around them.

He claims agency based reasoning begins early. In the first year of life children distinguish between the movement of ordinary objects and the movement of agents. The babies first watched either a red disc chasing a blue one or vice versa until they got bored. Many of these experiments used animated discs that did not remotely resemble a human or animal. When the experimenter reversed the chase., by nine months, the babies noticed the difference and started watching again (Perception, vol 33, p 355).

He points out that such agents do not have to be visible and cites his own experiments to shows this propensity continues into adulthood. College students were asked to narrate their actions while placing ball bearings over holes on a board. Periodically an electromagnet sent the ball bearings racing around in violation of intuitive physical expectations. Almost two-thirds of the students spontaneously referred to the ball bearings as if they were agents, making comments such as, "That one did not want to stay", "Oh, look. Those two kissed", and "They are not cooperating" (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 3, p 208).

He than cites other experiments in which children prefer purpose-based explanations. Four and 5-year-olds thought it more sensible that a tiger was "made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo" than that "though it can eat and walk and be seen at the zoo, that's not what it's made for" (Journal of Cognition and Development, vol 6, p 3). Likewise children under 10 tend to embrace creationist explanations of living things over evolutionary ones - even children whose parents and teachers endorse evolution (Cognitive Psychology, vol 42, p 217). Experiments with adults suggest we do not simply outgrow this attraction but that it must be forcibly tamped down through formal education (Cognition, vol 111, p 138).

In another experiment 12 to 13-month-old babies viewed two animations: a ball knocking over a stack of blocks (obscured by a barrier during the actual striking), and vice versa with the blocks starting in a disordered heap and finishing in a neat stack. Like adults, babies were also surprised, in that they looked longer at the second animation. This suggests that babies find a ball creating order more surprising than a ball creating disorder. In a second experiment a ball-shaped object with a face moved purposefully behind the barrier and either apparently ordered or disordered the blocks. In this case, the babies found neither display more surprising (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 107, p 17140).

He suggests the most straightforward explanation is that babies have the same intuitions as adults: people, animals, gods, or other agents can create order or disorder, but non-agents, such as rolling balls, only create disorder.

He then goes on to claim children may presume that all agents have superknowledge, superperception and immortality until they learn otherwise. When shown a gourd expected to contain tortillas but actually containing boxer shorts, Maya children aged 4 to 7 gave a graduated response showing awareness of supernatural powers when asked which of the following agents would now the right answer without looking - the all seeing and all knowing Catholic god Diyoos, the Maya sun god, who knows everything under the sun, forest spirits whose knowledge is limited to the forest nuisance bogeyman called Chiichi' and a human. The youngest children answered that all the agents would know what was in the gourd. By age 7, the majority thought that Diyoos would know that the gourd contained shorts but the human would think it contained tortillas. They were also sensitive to the shades of difference in the other supernatural agents' level of knowledge (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 8, p 235).

The trouble with these ideas, as admittedly put forward by a professed theologian is that the first is simply a natural propensity essential for any mammal to learn rapidly to deal with an agent-filled world of predators kin and prey essential to animal survival, and the latter two are already working with children of an age which has already been exposed to ideas of craftsmanship and strong cultural and religious influences.

None of these three suggest in any way that God is a natural reality and tend to imply the opposite - that it is a cultural feature which takes advantage of natural propensities in the developing mammalian consciousness of our natural and highly cultural environment.

This point is extended in the following article "Science won't loosen religion's grip" is that while religion capitalizes on such 'fast' easily accommodated processes at an early age, theology and science require a much more complex process of examining and questioning such simplified assumptions, effectively classing religious fervour as a natural but over-simplified view of reality which science has trouble replacing because nature has proven to be vastly more complicated and couter-intuitive than our easily assumed naive beliefs.


1. Connor Steve (1997) 'God spot' is found in brain LA Times, 29 October.
2. Persinger, Michael (1987) 'Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs', Praeger Publishers.
3. Doubt cast over brain 'God spot' (2006) BBC News 30 Aug http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5296728.stm
4. Biello, David (2007) Searching for God in the Brain Scientific American Oct 38-45.
5. Beauregard M, Paquette V (2006) Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns Neuroscience Letters 405/3 Sept.
6. Newberg, Andrew, D'Aquili Eugene, Rause, Vince (2001) Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Random House.
7. Brefczynski-Lewis J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B. & Davidson, R. J. (2007) Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 11483-11488.
8. Lutz, A., Greischar, L., Rawlings, N.B., Ricard, M., Davidson, R.J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16369-16373.
9. Barnes, Julian 2008 Nothing to be Frightened Of Jonathan Cape

No comments: