Brain study shows there is no magic spot for religion

Researchers have discovered that the brain has no ‘special’ area when it comes to religion. There are instead several general networks within the organ that respond to religious thought.

Dr. Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and his team questioned 40 volunteers, drawn from the main monotheistic religions, about their religious beliefs while observing blood flow in their brains with a fMRI.

Extra blood flow reflects the activity of neurons in certain areas of the brain. The study showed participants used more of their higher thought patterns when dealing with concepts associated with a higher being as their brain lit up on the scans.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Independent reports:

“Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures,” said Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington. “Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.”

The study consisted of a series of statements ranging the involvement of God’s influence of the subject’s daily life. Some of the statements were;

“God’s will guides my acts.”

“God is angered by my sins.”

“God dictates celebrating the Sabbath”.

The responses for each statement showed that brain networks known to have nonreligious functions had activity.

The New York Times reports:

“There is nothing segregated or conserved or special about religious beliefs, compared to other belief systems,” Dr. Grafman said. The networks activated by religious beliefs overlap with those that mediate political beliefs and moral beliefs, he said.

Scientists have differing beliefs when it comes to if religious beliefs have a biological base. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief in order to survive when those without that belief were overwhelmed. Others contend that religious belief is a side effect of a trait in the brain when trying to understand the outside world. They argue that religious belief is why the human brain is intelligent and adaptable because of a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, questions the study’s results. He doubts that using statements to correlate religious belief can be captured on a brain scan.

Newberg is quoted in the New York Times:

“Religion has so many different aspects that it would be very unlikely to find one spot in the brain where religion and God reside,” Dr. Newberg said. “There may be other elements that science is not capable of measuring.”

Dr. Grafman is interested in how people cope with everyday moral and religious questions. He is quoted by the Independent.

“When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us the opportunities to believe in God. When we don’t have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations,” said Professor Grafman, who believes in God. “Maybe obeying supernatural forces that we had no knowledge of made it easier for religious forms of belief to emerge.”


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