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Have scientists located religion’s “G-spot”?

11 Mar

Scientists believe they have found the "God spot" in the human brain.  They say religion is an adaptive part of our evolution.

Scientists believe they have found the "God spot" in the human brain, the part that "controls" religious experience. They say religion is an adaptive part of our evolution.

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“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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Some scientists believe they have pinpointed the brain’s “G-spots” – the pleasure centers relating  to religious experience and those that “control religious faith”.   They argue that these biological foundations for religious tendencies in humans are a product of human evolution – a necessary part of our survival.

The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.

The article below highlights the results of a study published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.   According to this study volunteers were asked to think about religious and moral issues, while scientists observed areas of the brain for neural activity associated with those thoughts.  What they discovered is that religious and moral beliefs activate the same areas of the brain.   These areas include portions of the frontal lobe (which is unique to humans among animals), as well as the temporal and parietal lobes.

No one knows exactly why these areas of the brain show increased activity with regard to religious and ethical issues, nor the reason why these same areas are active during moments of intense religious experience and perceived absorption into the Divine.  One scientist, Professor Grafman, points out:

“There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday”.

Indeed, our moral and ethical beliefs influence a wide-range of other core, fundamental beliefs that we hold, and consideration of the effects (both in this world and the next) of choices and actions undoubtedly has an affect, to some degree or another, on many interrelated belief systems.  This may explain why several areas of the brain are active upon such considerations and not just one.

Yet, if religious thinking is “embedded in a whole range of other belief systems” it would seem that there is some underlying cause or reason for that.   The first quote above suggests that the reason for this is that of ignorance seeking understanding, a  search for a scientific or even “supernatural” explanation for things we experience but can make no rational sense of.   This appears to be false on the face of it.

Often, science offers up a rational, methodical, observable answer for a phenomena, but those of religious inclinations may disregard the findings of science altogether.  For example, science posits the notion of evolution, which is, in part, based upon observable data.  Yet there is a large body of theologians who discount such theories because their religion tells them differently.  For them, it is a “matter of faith” that God created the world and the universe.   If religious inclinations are based upon biological processes attempting to make sense of and order the world rationally, then it begs the question, “Why do religious people, in the face of compelling, rational, observable, scientific data, reject those theories for something abstract, unobservable and non-empirical?”

I believe the reason for this lies in the nature of the religious experience – an important issue that the article below does not address.  One of the best texts regarding religious experiences is William James’, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.   Mr. James took an empirical look at the many types of religious experiences, observed the similarities among them, then showed the four characteristics these experiences share:

1.  Ineffability

2.  Noetic quality

3.  Transience

4.  Passivity

According to James, all truly religious experience are ineffable: they cannot or should not be put into written words.  This is because the experience is one of “other-worldliness” or “greater reality”, such that normal words and concepts cannot accurately portray what the experience was.   Religious experiences also contain a noetic quality, which means they impart some sort of wisdom or knowledge to the individual.  Although the experience itself is beyond words, the person believes they have gained some insight into themselves, the world, or society as a whole.  This knowledge is not empirical, but subjective.  Such experiences are also short-lived, but, nevertheless, so profound that the individual seeks to recapture the experience again and again.  In so doing, James adds that most realize the passivity of the experience – one cannot make it happen whenever desired.   The individual has no control over the experience.   It cannot be recreated in a lab, to be studied, monitored and recorded.

All this study below shows is that certain parts of the brain are active at certain times under certain conditions.  This does not point to a “God spot” or any such area of the brain, which is responsible for – that is, causative of – human beings’ inclination towards the Divine.   Since 95% of the world believes in one form of God or another, we are still left with the begging question, “Why?”  If this is merely a result of evolution or neural activity, why is the “God impulse” so widespread?  It strains reason to think that such beliefs are simply a result of physical processes in the brain – that religion and morality is simply a bi-product of thought – or that such profound, life-changing experiences are merely physical, chemical actions of our brain.

Furthermore, if religion is an adaptive belief system designed for survival, why does religious history abound with stories of individuals who died or were martyred because of their faith?

While I love science, sometimes scientists are a little short-sighted and have a hard time accepting data that cannot be empirically measured, quantified, recorded and cataloged.   The scientific method itself demands such qualities of a verifiable experience, which precludes non-empirical data such as that purported by spiritual people.   With respect to the Being of God and that of religious experiences, scientists almost always miss the mark in attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God according to such empirical methods.  Even scientists who believe in God and who seek to use science to find a physical connection between humans and God always fail to provide the proof they seek to show.

Proof for the existence or nonexistence of God is impossible and misses the point.

For the religious follower, one should seek the experience of God first, then all proofs are meaningless because the mind then knows God.   They argue that God can only be known directly, not through concepts and theorems, but through an open heart and mind.

I believe that the reason for this is that Spirit comes first, then the mind, … then the physical – of which the brain is part.  The physical world and perceptual sensation is an end-result of Spirit and Mind.  Perception is a product, not a source.

As such, pointing to the result/product itself (the physical world and perception) for substantiation of the cause (Spirit and Mind)  or in hope to understand the processes that gave rise to the result, is based upon error.    Utilizing a purely empirical scientific method to study the physical brain, thinking this will give us insight into the mind and Spirit, will not tell us anything beyond the constraints of physically perceivable phenomena and the range of “acceptable” answers we allow.  We have already framed the answer and results with our expectations, which themselves arise from the beliefs we hold.   Quantum physicists call this the “observer effect.”

Scientists do the same when they study physical phenomena to try to gain insight into the spiritual.   Their results are framed by the fundamental beliefs they hold.  These beliefs give rise to the accepted means of measurement, which further frames the results.

The limits of the scientific method are built in to frame the results in terms of what is accepted FIRST to be true.    For empirical scientists and atheists, the fundamental reality is the physical world of sense experience and perception, and it is taken as truth that studying physical phenomena can give greater understanding of our reality.  Religious believers, on the other hand, may believe that the spiritual world is ultimate reality, while the physical world is illusion.  This leads to entirely different schools of thought, which have been attempting to reconcile their opposing views for ages.

Theologians and scientists are still grappling with that conundrum, attempting to look to the brain for insight into the Spirit.  They will exhaust themselves, for they will find only what they expect to find, again and again, framed by the questions they ask and the expectations they have.   If they’re searching for the physical processes that “give rise to” religious belief, they’ll find the processes which appear to do so.  If they search for the source of physical processes to begin with, then an entirely different answer emerges.

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Belief and the brain’s ‘God spot’

Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that control religious faith. And the research proves, they contend, that belief in a higher power is an evolutionary asset that helps human survival. Steve Connor reports

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.

Scientists searching for the neural “God spot”, which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief.

The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.

“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.”

Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

The latest study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved analysing the brains of volunteers, who had been asked to think about religious and moral problems and questions. For the analysis, the researchers used a functional magnetic-resonance imaging machine, which can identify the most energetically-active regions of the brain.

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, Professor Grafman said.

“There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday,” Professor Grafman said.

The search for the God spot has in the past led scientists to many different regions of the brain. An early contender was the brain’s temporal lobe, a large section of the brain that sits over each ear, because temporal-lobe epileptics suffering seizures in these regions frequently report having intense religious experiences. One of the principal exponents of this idea was Vilayanur Ramachandran, from the University of California, San Diego, who asked several of his patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy to listen to a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while measuring their levels of arousal and emotional reactions. Religious words elicited an unusually high response in these patients.

This work was followed by a study where scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field produced by a “God helmet”. Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings – the helmet’s wearer reports being in the presence of a spirit or having a profound feeling of cosmic bliss.

Dr Persinger said that about eight in every 10 volunteers report quasi-religious feelings when wearing his helmet. However, when Professor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist and renowned atheist, wore it during the making of a BBC documentary, he famously failed to find God, saying that the helmet only affected his breathing and his limbs.

Other studies of people taking part in Buddhist meditation suggested the parietal lobes at the upper back region of the brain were involved in controlling religious belief, in particular the mystical elements that gave people a feeling of being on a higher plane during prayer.

Andrew Newberg, from the University of Pennsylvania, injected radioactive isotope into Buddhists at the point at which they achieved meditative nirvana. Using a special camera, he captured the distribution of the tracer in the brain, which led the researchers to identify the parietal lobes as playing a key role during this transcendental state.

Professor Grafman was more interested in how people coped with everyday moral and religious questions. He said that the latest study, published today, suggests the brain is inherently sensitive to believing in almost anything if there are grounds for doing so, but when there is a mystery about something, the same neural machinery is co-opted in the formulation of religious belief.

“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.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/belief-and-the-brains–god-spot-1641022.html

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2 responses to “Have scientists located religion’s “G-spot”?

  1. Joseph

    March 11, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Here’s another fun fact: our brains are 2/3 fat. if we think only with our brains, we’re all a bunch of fatheads.

     
  2. Joseph

    March 12, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Here’s another fun fact: our brains are 2/3 fat. if we think only with our brains, we’re all a bunch of fatheads.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

     

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