Our brains are wired up for god
Leigh Dayton, Science writer | March 10, 2009
THE brain of every human being, from believers to atheists, has been revealed to contain at least three “god spots”, all linked to religious beliefs and thoughts.
A team of US researchers has obtained strong evidence that religiosity is managed by the same parts of the brain that are used every day to interpret other people’s moods and intentions and to analyse experiences.
Moreover, the spots exist in the brains of ordinary people, not just those whose extraordinary religious experiences have been triggered by brain injury or neurological conditions like epilepsy.
Scientists, philosophers and theologians have long argued about whether religious belief is a biological or a sociological phenomenon. Britain’s controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins contends that religion is essentially a cultural virus, spread from brain to brain.
Others argue that it arises from the structure of the brain itself.
The new findings by researchers at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland — obtained by non-invasive brain scans of 26 Americans — have gone far to resolving the debate.
Jordan Grafman and his colleagues wrote in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the evolution of the brain networks that handle religious thoughts “was likely driven by their primary roles in social (thinking), language and logical reasoning”.
According to University of NSW evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the study shows that religion taps into existing parts of the brain that evolved to handle complex social interactions.
“It exploits existing parts of our brain,” Associate Professor Brooks suggested.
He agreed with the US team that, regardless of whether god existed, the work showed that religious beliefs did exist and could be studied rigorously.
Dr Grafman’s group broke down religious belief into three “psychological” components: god’s perceived emotion, god’s involvement with the world and doctrinal, or knowledge, aspects of religion.
They then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch what went on in the brains of volunteers as they evaluated statements about religious belief.
The scans revealed that the volunteers’ brains evaluated the actions of other people in the same way they contemplated god’s mood and involvement with humanity.
The imaging also pinpointed an association between a person’s previous religious teachings and a part of the brain involved in memory and speech.