(NaturalNews) During the concentration of prayer, the encompassing peace as we draw near death, a mystical revelation, or the sense that God is talking to us, we experience the most intense experiences of our lives. Since the beginning of time, people have imbued such experiences with religious significance. But in recent years, scientists have begun to explore this spiritual realm, asking their own questions about what goes on in our brains during these extraordinary events. They have been coming up with some fascinating answers that have given birth to a new field of brain science: neurotheology, the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality.
Early Studies and Results
In a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, Michael Persinger, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience and psychology at Laurentian University in Canada, isolated an area of neurons in the brain's temporal lobes that repeatedly fire bursts of electrical activity when one contemplates God or has feelings of spirituality. Attempting to try to stimulate these bursts, Persinger isolated an area near the front of these temporal lobes, the amygdala, an almond shaped organ that infuses events with intense emotion and a sense of meaningfulness.
He then passed a controlled electrical current through coils on the head of his 80 subjects, creating a magnetic field that mimicked the firing patterns of the neurons in the temporal lobes. This resulted in an induced spiritual experience. The subjects reported an "opiate-like effect with a substantial decrease in anxiety, a heightened sense of well-being" that gave them the sense of not being alone. This sense was described by some as a religious experience.
At the same time While Persinger conducted his experiments, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Ph.D., director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, also tuned in to the cosmic consciousness. He announced that he had discovered the 'God Module' in the brain which could be responsible for man's evolutionary instinct to believe in religion.
Ramachandran and his team studied the brains of people with an unusual type of epilepsy that affects the brain's temporal lobes. The study compared epileptic patients with normal people and a group who said they were intensely religious. Electrical monitors on their skin, a standard test of activity in the brain's temporal lobes, showed that the epileptics and the deeply religious displayed a similar response when shown words invoking spiritual belief.
According to the Ramachandran led research team, the most intriguing explanation is that the seizures cause an over-stimulation of the nerves in a part of the brain dubbed the God module. "There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion. This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society." The results indicate that whether a person believes in a religion or even in God may depend on how enhanced is this part of the brain's electrical circuitry.
The idea of a single God module is regarded by most scientists, including Ramachandran, as too simplistic. A Canadian researcher, Mario Beauregard, and his student used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain activity of Carmelite nuns while they were reliving the experience of unio mystica, an intense sensation in which they report feeling the presence of God.
With fMRI imaging, changes in blood flow in the brain may be monitored in almost real time. This allows researchers to see which regions of the brain become more or less active in different conditions. Beauregard observed that the nuns' ecstatic state was associated with a distinct pattern of activity in several areas of the brain. The researchers concluded that "mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems".
Other researchers have probed the experiences of people with temporal lobe epilepsy with interesting results. In Switzerland, Olaf Blanke and his colleagues found that electric stimulation of specific brain regions can trigger repeated out-of-body experiences. Although these experiences are somewhat common, they were not rigorously studied until Blanke came upon a case of a woman he was treating for epilepsy.
A part of the woman's brain near the junction point of the temporal and parietal lobes was stimulated with an electrode, producing the experience. Every time that part of her brain was stimulated, she described the experience as floating above her own body and watching herself.
Brain Mechanisms and Religious Experience
Shahar Arzy, a colleague of Blanke's, purposed that the junction between the temporal and parietal lobes may have played a part in some of the pivotal events in world religions. As Arzy and co-authors pointed out, many of the world's religions feature revelation experiences that take place on mountains. Many non-religious, non-mystic mountaineers have also had similar experiences while in the mountains. Time spent at high altitudes may affect the brain, according to Arzy, and "facilitate the experience of a revelation".
Arzy suggests mechanisms that could be involved in this experience. High altitudes have a significantly reduced level of oxygen which can affect the temporo-parietal junction. Stays at high altitude, particularly in solitude, might lead to low resistance to stress and loss of inhibition.
History is full of charismatic religious figures. Could any of them have been epileptics? Were the visions of Bible characters like Moses or Saint Paul reflective of temporal lobe epilepsy? There is no way to know.
Researchers suggest that these issues may have played a part in one of the mystical phenomena of ancient times, the oracle of Delphi. George Papatheodorou, an emeritus professor of geology at Patras University, and his colleagues examined the narrow cave where the Delphic priestesses were believed to have delivered their messages. They found high levels of methane, ethanol and carbon dioxide in the cave's air. "The site lies on a fault where gases leak out. These gases cause an oxygen reduction that induces a mild hypnotic state that could well produce hallucinations," he told the Greek Kathimerini newspaper.
Brain Mechanisms and Near-Death Experiences
Neurophysiologist Kevin Nelson, a researcher at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, is exploring the powerful spiritual phenomena of the near-death experience. His results have led him to believe that these experiences may be dream-like states triggered by stress and a common sleep disorder known as sleep paralysis. When people with this condition begin to awake, part of their brain stays in the random eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. They experience inability to move, resulting in frightening hallucinations.
Nelson studied 55 people who experienced near-death phenomena in a range of circumstances, including heart attacks, traffic accidents, and fainting spells. He found that about 60 percent of them reported symptoms of sleep paralysis. In a matched group of 55 healthy volunteers with no near-death experiences, only 24 percent had symptoms of sleep paralysis. Nelson concluded that his findings "anticipate that under circumstances of peril, a near-death experience is more likely in those with previous REM intrusion".
Matthew Alper reports belief that these new research findings have sealed the gap between science and religion, at least for him.
In his 2003 book, The God Part of the Brain, Alper says that with the advent of self-conscious awareness, humans became the first animal that could conceive of its own mortality and inevitable death. In order to survive the excruciating anxiety produced by this awareness, a cognitive mechanism was selected into us that compelled us to believe in an alternate, spiritual reality, one that allowed us to perceive ourselves as able to transcend physical death and therefore live forever in a type of afterlife.
The fact that all cultures from the dawn of time have believed in some form of spiritual reality as well as engaged in specific religious practices implies that spirituality and religiosity represent an integral part of our genetic inheritance. The fact that certain plants or chemicals can trigger a spiritual experience in us demonstrates that there exists some part of the brain that is receptive to these stimuli.
Alper finds support for his hypothesis in the research on temporal lobe epileptics as well as religiously-oriented "organic psycho-syndromes" in which people with head injuries, afterwards, become excessively religious.
This leads Alpers to imply that there is no spiritual reality, no god, no soul, no afterlife, nothing that transcends or supersedes the physical realm, invalidating every brand of spiritual or religious belief that exists. The greater implication is that cognition, emotion, perception, and sensation are derived from our genetic makeup in conjunction with the environment in which these genetic potentials are nurtured. The fact that we have no control over either of these variables suggests that there is no such thing as free will.
Needless to say, Alper has been roundly criticized for such a harsh world view.
However, he sees benefits from his conclusions. As much as the religious impulse serves to bond society with mutual values and a sense of hope, it also prompts us to certain discriminatory behaviors and the commission of all sorts of hateful acts and atrocities. If religiosity is accepted as a biologically based impulse, we may be able to curb its potentially harmful excesses such as those that have led our species to acts of hostility, war and genocide. We may be able to focus our attention and energies on the here and now instead of some dubious concept of afterlife.
According to the Ramachandran team, it is not clear why such dedicated neural machinery for religion may have evolved. One possibility they saw was the encouragement of tribal loyalty or reinforcement of kinship ties and the stability of closely knit clans. These scientists emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of brain chemistry. "These studies do not in any way negate the validity of the religious experience of God," the team cautioned. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."
Carl Kinsely, an expert in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia says the implications of research investigating the relationship between the brain, human consciousness and a range of intangible mental experiences is fascinating. "People have been tickling around the edges of consciousness and this sort of research plunges in", Kinsely said. "There is the quandary of whether the mind created God or God created the mind." He believed that any conclusions are very premature.
As Ramachandran has said, "We are only starting to look at this. The exciting thing is that you can even begin to contemplate scientific experiments on the neural basis of religion and God."
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-up, God on the Brain
The Seattle Times - Today's Top Stories National News, Oct. 29, 1997, Brain Region May Be linked to Religion by Robert Lee Hotz
Life & Style Dec. 8, 2006, Neural Pathways to Enlightenment by Stephen Pincock
Suite 101.com< The God Module and Humanity, Interview with Matthew Alper by Francais Tremblay
Wired, Nov. 19, 1999 This Is Your Brain on God by Jack Hitt
Lights Out by T. S. Wiley with Bent Formby, Ph. D., Pocket Books, 2000
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.