Sunday, 7 August 2011

Belief, Science and the Human Brain -- By Emily H

It has been a common saying from atheists that “God is all in your head.” A more fitting position might be this one suggested by anthropologist Pascal Boyer (referenced in the 2nd Edition Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft), “People do not invent gods and spirits; they receive information that leads them to build such concepts.” Boyer, as well as other researchers, suggest that this “received information” could be of the brain’s own making. He suggests that religion is an accidental by-product of the way the human brain works. Humans come to the conclusion that there is a higher power, or spiritual entities because of the way our brains make connections between unrelated occurrences. Here is an example. Brian wore green socks when his baseball team won, he concludes that he must wear those same socks for the rest of the season or else the team will fail. Religion exists in much the same way. Brian prays for the baseball team to win and if they succeed it was because the prayer was answered. It is simply human nature to seek patterns where none exist. We see shapes in the clouds and constellations in the night skies. Now the question remains; why do our brains work this way?

Spiritual experiences are universal and multi-cultural. Forever, people from all kinds of religions and belief systems have claimed to have a connection with a spiritual entity. Many even report visions of these entities and their revelations are regarded as fact. How do so many people from different times and places share this theme? Science may hold the answer. Scientists have proposed that a part of the temporal lobe affects how a person reacts to religious stimuli. They refer to it as the God module. This theory is supported by CAT scans of Buddhist monks meditating and Catholic nuns in prayer. Interestingly enough, this research shows that spiritual experiences are universal because of shared human biology. All human brains have the God module.

One example of spiritual experiences and “visions” can be seen in Reverend Lovasik’s Illustrated Book of Saints. He describes St. Teresa of Avila, a Catholic nun in 1500’s Spain. She was often “blessed” with holy visions. She is also the patroness against headaches. She suffered headaches because of her divine premonitions. The book states, “In 1582, Jesus appeared to Teresa with many saints. She begged Him to take her to Himself. After prayer, her soul was taken to heaven.” Today we realize that visions can really be dangerous hallucinations. St. Teresa also had a condition that can now be recognized as epilepsy. The God module, as discussed earlier, is in a region of the brain that is over-stimulated in people with epilepsy. It is very possible that St. Teresa and the many people of various religions, who claim a special connection with a spirit or God, just have an over-stimulated part of the temporal lobe.

Another theory to explain premonitions and the sensed feelings of God is external stimulation of the temporal lobe. It can be in the form of natural occurrences in nature, like earthquakes or solar eclipses that affect electromagnetic fields. John Geiger writes about such stimulation in his book The Third Man factor. He also includes details on an experiment done by the famous the famous psychologist Michael Persinger. In 1988 Persinger developed a device dubbed the “god helmet.” Persinger began the project after theorizing that there was a link between hallucinations and electromagnetic disturbances.

These disturbances can be produce internally by the brain or externally by electric devices. The “god helmet” tested his hypothesis, “If all experiences are generated by brain activity, then experiences of God and spirits should also be produced by the appropriate stimulation.” The helmet, which let off weak magnetic fields to the temporal lobe of the participant, resulted in inter-hemispheric changes. Most of the people experimented on, reported a strong, sensed presence. Many felt absolutely sure that another being was in the room, even though the testing was done in seclusion. One journal released by Persinger on the findings of his experiments even reported that a subject claimed to encounter a “religious entity.”

Geiger continues in his book to explain how human brains can be internally stimulated during times of stress and extreme emotion. Visions can appear during times of peril to any person, secular or religious. What a person bases their beliefs on could really just be waived away by science. Did they really see their dead grandmother talking from beyond the grave? Did Jesus appear to them? Did God speak to them? Was there really a guardian angel in the room? Or was their temporal lobe just internally stimulated? An even simpler explanation is that the experience was due to the power of suggestion, or it was an overactive imagination. It is up to people on an individual basis to decide how to perceive sensations and visions. It is up to everyone to make connections…or not to.

Faith, as defined in the dictionary, is absolute belief in and devotion to God. The faith of many people would, and does, stand unwavering against the science presented in multiple books and journals. Just as it is impossible for some people to believe in God, it can be equally impossible for people to believe in scientific arguments. By presenting this information I don’t mean to force anyone into believing differently. I just mean to present some of the information I’ve gathered. It is up to the reader to, investigate, and think critically about arguments before letting anything define their beliefs. Who knows what they may come to believe. After all, the brain works in mysterious ways.

Works Cited
Stein, Rebecca and Stein, Philip The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft 2nd Edition 2008: 24-29 and 218-221
Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik Illustrated Book of Saints 1974: Introduction and 94
Geiger, John The Third Man Factor 2009: 16-19 and 166-172

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  1. Speaking of superstitious baseballers, it's kinda revealing that they're only like that for batting, that's where all the risk is and there's no co-operation then either. We're the most susceptible to superstitions in high-risk situations. Makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

    I think my god module has shrivelled. Speaking of, did you know Epilepsy was known as the Holy Disease? Hippocrates (known as the father of medicine and the man to formulate the Hippocratic oath) complained about this.

  2. I did not know that, Mike. Interesting. A lot of diseases and disorders in the past were thought to have supernatural origins (most things seem to be due to demon possession!) But it's frustrating that some people seem stuck in that age of our medical understanding and still attribute natural illnesses to supernatural phenomena.

  3. Interestingly, epilepsy had a tendency to make one a fringe religious leader and possibly, in the case of Paul and Muhammad, the leader of a new religion. It gave you visions (drawn from your beliefs) which back then translated to visions of god and a feeling of euphoria. Speaking in tongues might also originate from this.

    Epilepsy with seizures though had a habit of making one look demon possessed.

    Schizophrenia is probably the saddest case in this sort of thing. People heard voices, often menacing voices and so were always considered demon possessed.

  4. This is really interesting. I really want one of those helmets now. Fashion statement!

  5. I actually thought about the when I read the story of Saul/Paul in the Bible. Paul's dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus seemed very similar to an epileptic fit.