What Does God Look Like?

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A neuroimaging study published in the journal Nature demonstrated that when a well-recognized face was shown to an individual, a single neuron in the person’s brain would fire. The researchers were able to show that a single unit in the left posterior hippocampus would fire “to all pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston.” But the neuron did not respond to pictures of Jennifer Aniston together with Brad Pitt. In a previous study, the researchers found that individual neurons would fire selectively to various images—like animals or buildings. So it is possible that some people could have a single neuron that would fire when they see a familiar picture of Jesus—or Buddha. “That neuron could represent the cornerstone of their religious training and belief.” This adds a whole new way of looking at God as you understand Him.

The study mentioned above was “Invariant Visual Representation by Single Neurons in the Human Brain.” Here are links to the abstract and the full article. The above speculation of the possibility of a “God neuron” in your brain was by Andrew Newberg in his book, How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg wondered if it was possible that people could have a neuron or specific set of neurons that fired when they were asked to envision God. “As brain-scan technology becomes more refined, I suspect we will see that each human being has a unique neural fingerprint that represents his or her image of God.”

Newberg described how we are born with a neurological mechanism to identify objects. The first objects an infant learned to identify were family members and caretakers. We see this when a stranger looks at an infant and gets a frowned response. The child’s brain labels each new object it learns to recognize; the first of many steps that turn an image into a concept or a word. The simplest kind of word for a child to learn is a concrete noun, “because it refers to something the child can see, touch, or taste.” The neurological capacity of young children to comprehend abstract objects won’t fully develop until adolescence, so they can only readily understand the simplest concepts.

A young child’s brain has no choice but to visualize God as a face that is located somewhere in the seeable physical world, and that is what we find when we analyze the pictures drawn by children younger than ten.

Brain-scan studies show that nouns are linked to visual-object-processing regions of the brain. Each time a novel idea is introduced, there is increased activity in specific areas of the right hemisphere of the brain—“the same areas that construct our visual representations of reality.” So when a child is introduced to a spiritual concept, their brain will automatically give it a sense of realness and personal meaning. The brains of children who continue in religious education will modify their “spiritual map” as they are introduced to new ways of conceptualizing God. “So its not surprising to see children’s pictures becoming more complex as they mature.”

A German professor of religious education, Helmut Hanisch, did a study where he compared drawings of God from West German children, who attended Christian-oriented schools, to those of children who attended school in East Germany, where an official antireligious doctrine had been in place.

In the religious group, children between the ages of seven and nine represented God as a face or a person around 90% of the time. By the time they reached the age of sixteen, only 20% drew pictures of faces or people. Instead, they preferred symbolic representations of God. But this did not happen with the East German, nonreligious students. By sixteen, “80% of the nonreligious children still used people to symbolize God.” The following chart illustrates the findings of Hanisch, as they were shown in Greenberg’s book. The vertical axis reflects the percentage of images that were abstract. The horizontal axis reflects the age of the children.

There were also differences in their comments about God. The older religious children described a loving sense of God, while the nonreligious children saw God as powerless and weak. They often referred to war, misery, suffering and poverty. One 12-year old girl said: “I don’t understand why God is allowing all this. Therefore I don’t believe in God.”

Young people do not have the cognitive skills to articulate abstract concepts of God, but they can use their visual imagination to comprehend spiritual realms. Even in the adult brain, ideas appear to be associated with internal visual processes, and mathematicians often think in pictures when they describe the invisible forces of the universe. Even when we imagine the distant past or future events, we activate the visual-spatial circuits of the brain. In fact, if you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something, the brain’s first impulse is to assume that it doesn’t exist. Thus, for anyone, the brain’s first response is to assign an image to the concept of God.

Newberg said without this capacity for visual imagination, we would be barely able to think. Even when we sleep and dream, this capacity for visual imagination remains active. But children do not have the neural capacity to easily separate fantasy from fact, so they form beliefs that blur the boundaries of reality. Think here of the child who insists there are monsters under their bed. Children readily believe their nightmares are real, “while adults have advanced neural processes to help them analyze perceptual discrepancies.”

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If you tell a child that God can see you, or listen to your prayers, then the child’s imagination will associate those qualities with the eyes and ears of a face. If you tell the same child that God gets angry, the brain will generate images of frowns, gritted teeth, or perhaps fists banging against a wall—visual constructions that represent how a child perceives anger in other human beings. If you tell your child that God performs miracles, then the internal imagery takes on superhuman traits. For example, one boy drew God with a cape and a large S on his chest.

Newberg said that based upon his research, he thought the more a person examined their spiritual beliefs, the more their experience of God would change. And if you could not or would not change your image of God, you might have problems tolerating people who held to different images of God. He said if you clung to your childhood image of God, you limited your perception of truth. He thought this was a drawback for any religion that insisted upon a literal, biblical image of God. “If you limit your vision, you might feel threatened by those who are driven to explore new [or different] spiritual values and truths.”

For both the secular individual and the biblical Christian, there is validity in what Newberg says. The reality of radical Islamists and Westerners who reflexively oppose all Islamists as a result, clearly illustrates Newberg’s observation. The growing criticism of conservative Christian beliefs with regard to changing social and political mores is another example. Even within Christianity we find infighting and disputes over how to interpret the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the form of church government, what happens during the sacrament of communion, and so on.

However for the biblical Christian, there is a potential confusion, and perhaps a danger of slipping into postmodern or theological relativism, in what Newberg said as well. In order to avoid this, clearly make a distinction between God and how you image (view) God. What remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is God, and not how you imagine Him to be. Greenberg used the sense of the “image of God” because he was describing how children and adults visualize complex abstractions like God.

But when applied theologically to human beings, the term “image of God” has the sense that they were created (not visualized) in the image of God. Here “image” is used metaphysically and not visually. All humans are images of God in a metaphysical sense. So regardless of the differences in how they understand or view God (how they imagine Him), all people should be given the same toleration and respect as human beings created in the image of God.

Secondly, be aware that as a Bible-believing Christian, authority and power lies with God and His revealed Word, not your understanding (your image) of Him. Regularly Christians impute onto their views (images) of God the authority and power properly owed only to Him and his Word. And if there is any questioning of that personal image, they react as if the person questioned God, and not just their understanding of Him. I’d suggest such a Christian has implicitly violated the second commandment (found in Exodus 20), which forbids making an image of God. We see this more explicitly stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism, where it says the second commandment forbids the making of any kind of image of God, “either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image of likeness.”

So what does God look like to you? If you want, you can replicate an experiment Newberg has done with different groups of religious and nonreligious people—get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and draw a picture of God. He suggested that you be spontaneous and draw whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about the quality of your art, but complete the drawing in two minutes. When you finish, write a brief description of its meaning below the picture.

Nearly everyone pauses for a long time—even longer than when we asked, “What does God feel like?”—which tells us there is increased activity occurring in many parts of the brain, especially in the visual, motor, association, cognitive, and emotional centers. Indeed, the question appears to be so neurologically challenging and psychological provocative that some people simply refuse to draw anything. Children, however, have no difficulty with the request, and delight in drawing their impressions of God.


God Circuits in the Brain

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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

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© 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.”