God Circuits in the Brain

© adamfaheydesigns | stockfresh.com

© adamfaheydesigns | stockfresh.com

Michael Persinger said he reproduced every aspect of the “God” experience in a laboratory. He modified a snowmobile helmet that had solenoids placed over the temporal lobes. The device produced magnetic fields patterned after physiological sources in an attempt to enhance the probability of activating the brain structure from which the signal was derived. “What we have found is that individuals who show a temporal lobe sensitivity or creativity and who are very religious—in that setting—they will have a religious experience. We can generate the presence, which is defined as “God.”

The device is known as the “God helmet,” as many subjects have reported having some sort of a mystical experience or altered state while wearing it. Persinger claims that 80% of his subjects reported feeling something when the magnetic fields were applied. He calls one of the most common sensations the “sense of presence.” This is feeling like there is someone else in the room with you when there is none. The results of his experiments have been mixed, as several effects reported by Persinger have not been replicated.

He disputes the failed replication attempts, saying that the experimenters did not actually replicate his process as claimed. You can watch a shorter video and a longer video on Persinger’s God helmet. The longer one includes commentary on a session with Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist. Dawkins said: “Unfortunately, I didn’t get the sensation of a presence.” He said he was disappointed, as he would have liked to experience something like what religious people experience.

The above research with the so-called God helmet is within a controversial field called neurotheology, which is “the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices.” Aldous Huxley was the first to use the term in his novel, Island. Other researchers object to the term, preferring expressions such as the neuroscience of religion. Following the thought of Laurence McKinney, many researchers into neurotheology hold that religious thought is a recent development tied to the evolution of the pre-frontal cortex in humans.

Andrew Newberg and others posit that neurological processes driven by the repetitive, rhythmic stimulation of human ritual contributes to transcendental feelings of connection. He said that ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience. “Rituals add substance to our beliefs, and the more intense the ritual, the more likely we are to have a religious or spiritual epiphany.” But rituals are hard to study because there are so many variables to consider. But, he said they are beginning to discover that thinking about God changes our brain. “The moment we encounter God, or the idea of God, our brain begins to change” (Newberg, How God Changes Our Brain).

Different religious activities have different effects on specific parts of the brain, but this does not make the results any easier to interpret. For example, praying silently affects one part of the brain, while praying out loud affects another part. And if you repeat the same prayer over and over, one part of the brain may be activated in the first few minutes, another part might quiet down ten minutes later, while other brain functions will change after forty or fifty minutes of intense prayer.

Newberg theorizes that different areas of the brain influence our perception of God. The frontal lobe creates and integrates all your ideas about God—positive or negative, including the logic used to evaluate religious and spiritual beliefs. The thalamus gives emotional meaning to your concept of God. The occipital-parietal circuit identifies God as an object that exists in the world. The parietal-frontal circuit establishes a relationship between YOU and GOD. “It places God in space and allows you to experience God’s presence. If the amygdala is overly stimulated, it suppresses the frontal lobe’s ability to think logically about God and elicits an emotional impression of an authoritative, punitive God.


Newberg noted how his past research focused on individuals who were deeply committed to their religious and spiritual beliefs, but he discovered that even if you could take God out of the ritual, you could still influence the brain. “Spiritual practices are designed to stimulate dramatic experiences, but you can also transfer nearly any religious ideology from one spiritual practice to another and still receive the same neurological benefits from the experience.” He cited the research of Herbert Benson in the early 1970s, when he extracted key elements from Buddhist meditation to develop the relaxation response. Read “The Brain and God,” for a further discussion of How God Changes Your Brain.

In Religion and the Sciences of Origins, Kelly James Clark said that while neurotheology has the potential of reducing God to nothing more than electromagnetic brain stimulations, there is precious little evidence to support the claim. “According to the creators of the God helmet, God-spasms (religious beliefs) are the products of perfectly natural electromagnetic processes.” If there is a natural explanation for religious belief, you eliminate the need for a supernatural one. “But so far, they have failed to come up with a natural explanation.”

Above, Andrew Newberg commented on the difficulty in scientifically studying religious rituals because of the multiplicity of variables to consider. This also impedes the scientific proof or disproof of God. First, many people see God as an infinite, all-powerful, and all-knowing being. “In contrast, we are finite, fairly weak, and limited.” So how can we know if our beliefs about God and the universe are accurate or true?  Wouldn’t we have to experience and evaluate every possible variable, every potential perspective?

Even if we could test every religious belief and spiritual practice, each of us has a brain that will interpret the data and experiences in very different ways. There may be a universal or ultimate truth, but I doubt whether the limitations of the human mind will ever allow us to accurately perceive it or find any common ground, especially when it comes to the reality of God.

Newberg noted those who believe they have received the word of God, either directly or through scriptures. “But even the Bible cannot fully capture the reality of God. Our understanding will always fall short, no matter how perfect the words may be.” I think this is true for all religious and spiritual beliefs. And I also believe it is consistent with the teachings of the Bible, which for me, is the perfect, special revelation from God to humanity. IT is revelation from God and thus true. WE are limited and could never perceive the full reality of God or his revelation in the Bible.

There is a plain revelation of the invisible attributes of God, his eternal power and divine nature, in the created order (Romans 1:20). And yet God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways are not our ways. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Humans have both a physical (soma) and a psychological (psyche) nature. They are then psycho-somatic unities of body and soul, so finding evidence for physiological brain activity as a believer experiences God is to be expected. The shared human nature of believers and nonbelievers indicates that similar physiological brain activity should be expected as they experience what they understand to be God. The difference is in where the individual’s faith is grounded. For Christians, that faith is in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:8-9 says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

If Christianity is true, there will be a final, indisputable experience of God where science, religion and spiritual experience will coincide.  I wonder what brain scans would show then.


The Brain and God

© NejroN | 123f.com

© NejroN | 123f.com

Have you ever wondered what happens in your brain when you pray or meditate? Andrew Newberg, who is a neuroscientist did wonder. Working with psychiatrist Eugene d’Aquili in the early 1990s, he began using SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to photograph brains during religious experiences. They found volunteers from three very different religious groups: Tibetan Buddhist monks, cloistered nuns and Pentecostals who speak in tongues. “If the brain houses such things as souls, they did locate them: Everywhere.”

Newberg first scanned the brains of the monks and the nuns. Their frontal lobes, the part of the brain Newberg referred to as “the attention area” lit up. The thalamus, which is a pea-sized area that sits at the top of the brain stem, also lit up. Among other things, the thalamus sends sensory information to the frontal cortex where “heavy thinking” occurs. “Whatever was happening in meditation, the thalamus was making it feel very real.” But the real surprise was elsewhere in the brain. The parietal lobe, the part of the brain that helps orient us in relation to the things around us, shut down. “The neurological changes were significant and very different from how the human brain normally functions.”

Their sense of time and space was suspended as they entered the peak of their transcendent experiences. The response was almost identical when the nuns prayed and the monks meditated.  An article by John Barry shows a photo of the baseline and meditation states of a praying nun with the parietal lobe showing more yellow, meaning less blood flow activity during meditation. Here is an abstract for the original article in which Newberg published his findings. Here is a later study where Newberg looked at changes in the brain during two different meditation practices done by the same individuals.

This evidence confirmed our hypothesis that the benefits gleaned from prayer and meditation may have less to do with a specific theology than with the ritual techniques of breathings, staying relaxed, and focusing one’s attention upon a concept that evokes comfort, compassion, or a spiritual sense of peace. Of course, the more you believe in what you are meditating or praying about, the stronger the response will be.

However, when Newberg did brain scans on members of a Pentecostal church while they spoke in tongues (glossolalia), there were very different neurological effects. During centering prayer and meditation, there is an increase of frontal lobe activity and a corresponding decrease of parietal lobe activity. Activity in the limbic areas of the brain decreases. This combination generates “a peaceful and serene state of consciousness.” With glossolalia, the frontal lobe activity decreased—the opposite of what happened with the nuns and the monks. Parietal lobe activity increased and frontal lobe activity decreased.

Instead of focusing one’s attention on a specific phrase or ideal [as in centering prayer or meditation], which increases activity in the frontal lobe, the practitioner surrenders voluntary control—and thus a significant degree of ordinary consciousness—by deliberately slowing down frontal lobe activity. This, in turn, allows the limbic areas of the brain to become more active, which neurologically increases the emotional intensity of the experience.

There were changes in several brain structures with the Pentecostal individuals, suggesting there is complex brain activity occurring during glossolalia. Interestingly, both the nuns and the Pentecostals felt the study demonstrated that God could intervene and directly influence the brain.

In an article for the journal Zygon, Newberg said that a number of researchers claim that “because there is a neurological correlate for a religious phenomenon, there is nothing more to that phenomenon.” He observed that the presence of neurobiological activity during a religious phenomenon does not necessarily mean it caused the phenomenon. “That is, if the brain activity changes during a mystical communion with God, it is not clear whether the brain activity caused that experience or responded to that experience.”

In How God Changes Our Brain, Newberg said his research has shown that different parts of the brain produced different experiences of God. These experiences then affect the way we perceive or think about God, the world around us, our minds and even our lives. The frontal lobes “provide us with a logical concept of a rational, deliberate, and loving God.” The limbic system generates an emotionally meaningful experience of God. “If either part of the brain malfunctions, unusual thoughts and perceptions can occur.”

At the other end of the neurological spectrum, if both the frontal cortex and the emotional centers of the brain remain inactive when a person contemplates God, God will hold little meaning or value. This is what we believe happens in the brains of nonreligious individuals, and our preliminary brain-scan studies with atheists points in this direction.

Newberg himself is not religious. He’s Jewish by birth, but does not actively practice Judaism. Nevertheless, his brain research into spiritual and religious practices is fascinating. It is also consistent with a biblical understanding of what’s happening. Newberg himself is helpful here. He commented that a correlation between neurobiological activity and religious phenomenon isn’t necessarily causative. It could be a response to the religious phenomenon. For the biblical Christian, that would be God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

And here we come up against the first-cause argument for the existence of God by Thomas Aquinas.  But I’ll leave that for another time. For further discussion of this topic by philosopher Peter Kreeft, try here. Scroll to the bottom for a ink to an audio lecture on “Arguments for God’s Existence” that includes the text of Kreeft’s article, “The First Cause Argument.”