This is Your Brain on God

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Debate has long raged between atheists and the faithful about whether God is all in our heads, and the discovery of a so-called "God module" in the brain has only fanned the flames. While a group of neuroscientists at the University of San Diego were studying the brain patterns of epileptics, they stumbled across something they weren't expecting: that epileptics who suffer a certain kind of seizure are often intensely religious, reporting an unusual number of visions, communications with God and even paranormal experiences. Further tests revealed that there's a specific place in the temporal lobe (the aforementioned "module") which flares up when faithful subjects are asked questions about their faith, and that this spot was a common focal point for electrical discharges during epileptic seizures. Those San Diego neuroscientists quickly issued forth a theory: that "there may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion, which may have evolved to impose order and stability on society." So did our brains create God -- or did God create our brains?

Another fascinating neuro-religious study hit the news tongues.jpgin 2006, concerning evangelical Christians who "speak in tongues" during church services. Tongues-speakers have long claimed that their glossolalia is something greater than themselves speaking through them; that they give themselves up to the sacred during services and are in a state of benevolent possession (also known as being "baptized in the Holy Spirit," "getting the ghost," and so on). University of Pennsylvania researchers decided to see what was really going on in the evangelicals' heads, so they took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues at church and found that, much to their surprise, the results did little to cast doubt on the womens' own descriptions of their state. While speaking in tongues, the language centers as well as the frontal lobes -- the thinking, willful part of their brain that controls most behavior -- were quiet. While these women were dancing and shouting, speaking in a gibberish that would take more concentration to invent on the spot than normal speech, their speech and behavior centers weren't doing much. Which is to say, the images supported the women's interpretation of what was happening to them; it was as if they were under the control of something else, in a state of mental possession. (Watch people speak in tongues here.)

We're hearing more all the time about religion through the lens of neuroscience, and much of what's come out has been like the two examples above -- a fascinating mixed bag. What do you think? Do these studies prove or disprove anything? Can science and religion be friends and play nice?

May 28, 2008 - 5:26am
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