The Science Behind Religion?

Science and Religion

As seen in Pegasus Pages (December 2012).

Recent advances in neuroimaging and neuroscience have led experts in the field to question if the circuitry in our brain is directly linked with the belief in God. Minty Htun and Shree Ganguly investigate the science behind this idea. 

Much of the evidence that complements this theory comes from clinical research into Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). This type of epilepsy is different from the common perception, where someone has a powerful involuntary contraction of muscles in their body, as TLE only occurs focally in one specific region of the brain – the temporal lobe. In this case, seizures present themselves as cosmic experiences entailing bright lights, mysterious voices, and powerful presences.

This sparked the curiosity of Canadian professor Dr. Persinger who, like most medical students, was aware of the fact that TLE patients tended to be extremely religious and wanted to test his theory that any person could experience these visions if their temporal lobe were to be stimulated. He achieved this by using a simple device known as the ‘God Helmet’, which stimulates the temporal lobes with a magnetic field. He left his subjects in a dark, soundproofed room, blindfolded, as he monitored their brains whilst they were subject to the God Helmet. Amazingly, the majority of non-TLE cases reported that they felt some kind of a religious presence.

V. S. Ramachandran, a leading neurologist, was enraptured by Persinger’s findings. He theorised that TLE patients are incredibly receptive to religion as the neural pathways in the limbic system are strengthened from seizure activity. The strength of these pathways determined the quality of their emotional life, and so, the stronger they were, the better the quality of their emotional life. Ramachandran believed that, due to these strengthened connections, the emotional response of a TLE patient towards even the most menial objects or words, such as a table or a grain of sand, would be far stronger than that of the average person. These subjects produced a greater volume of sweat due to the constant heightening of their emotions. You and I, on the other hand, would only have such a response to objects of serious importance to us, such as a picture of a loved one’s face.

Thus, to test his theory, Ramachandran set up an experiment where he attached a Galavanic Skin Response (a sweat sensor) to his subjects, the TLE patients, and to the control group of non-TLE patients. He then flashed ‘charged’ words in front of the subjects. The words were either ‘neutral’ (e.g. ‘table’), ‘religious’ (e.g. ‘God‘), or ‘erotic’ (e.g ‘sex‘). He expected that TLE patients would demonstrate a heightened response to all the words and the non-TLE would only respond to erotic or particularly violent words.

However, surprising even Ramachandran himself, the TLE patients only had a strong response to religious words, whilst their response to the neutral words were the same as that of the non-TLE patients and their response to the erotic words, extremely diminished.

If the TLE subjects only had a heightened emotional response to the religious words, that shows that the strengthened neural pathways increase one’s religious inclinations. Does that mean that some people’s temporal lobes are particularly geared towards the idea of religion, or indeed, of God?

Unfortunately, few clear conclusions can be drawn. What does emerge is that there are circuits in the brain, probably connected to the limbic system, which are involved in religious experiences; these circuits are hyperactive in some epileptic patients. We don’t know if we should treat these patients because to do so, we are assuming that these religious visions are abnormal. But are they abnormal or exceptional?

Genius is a rare trait, yet it is celebrated, in the same sense that perhaps these few may not be a bracket of anomalies, but instead a remarkable group. Have these circuits evolved specifically because of our religious culture are they are the by-products of circuits that are designed for our emotions? Or are they, in fact, a means of communication with greater forces? We are still a very long way from finding the core of the religious brain, or the ‘God module’, as Ramachandran refers to it, but the simple idea that modern technology and knowledge can allow neuroscience and imaging to simply probe the brain, and furthermore, use science to answer the biological side of religion, is astounding in itself.

Photography: by Noel A. Tanner on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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