For thousands of years, humans have contemplated the idea of a power higher than themselves. Today, there are billions of people around the world who believe in a divine being, and religious belief shapes human society in profound ways. But why do so many of us believe? Philosophers a long time have pondered the phenomenon that they call the “leap of faith.” But in recent years, neuroscientists have taken up the question from a different angle, and tried to figure out the process by which religious belief occurs inside your head. They’ve sought to locate the area or areas of the brain where spirituality occurs and probed how religious belief is influenced by our sensory processing equipment. While there’s still much to be learned about the neuroscience of religious belief, they’ve already made some intriguing discoveries that may help us to better understand this powerful force in many of our lives.
Where does belief happen in your brain?
In an experiment on Brain Games: The God Brain, people in Jerusalem—an ancient city that is sacred to three different major religions—are asked if they would change their views on various unimportant subjects, such as their favorite color or which comic book superhero they prefer, in exchange for a small amount of money. Most are willing to do so. But when believers in God were asked if they would change their belief for money, they invariably refused. Atheists, interestingly, were just as resolute. That’s evidence of how the brain treats religious belief differently than other ideas, and just how strongly it becomes established in the brain.
Over the decades, scientists and scholars have pondered the nature of religious belief and experiences. As a 2007 Scientific American article detailed, one researcher reported that he could artificially stimulate religious feelings by having subjects wear a helmet that stimulated the brain with electricity. (Other scientists reportedly were unable to duplicate those results.) Others speculated that religious belief might originate in a specific part of the brain that some thought might be specially wired for spirituality.
But neuroscience now seems to show that there is no single “God spot,” according to Dr. Andrew Newberg, who’s spent decades studying spiritual beliefs and practices. “Prayer, meditation, speaking in tongues – there are lots of different parts of the brain that get involved in these kinds of religious and spiritual practices and experiences,” he explains. “And I think that ultimately makes sense when you look at the richness and diversity and all the different aspects of what religion and spirituality do bring to people.”
“Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain,” University of Missouri brain researcher Brick Johnstone told the Huffington Post in 2012. “Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”
Neuroscience now seems to show that there is no single “God spot,” according to Dr. Andrew Newberg.
That was borne out by a study in the mid-2000s by Canadian neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, who used imaging to study the brain activity of Carmelite nuns as they described profound religious epiphanies that they had experienced. He discovered that memories of a spiritual connection with God were accompanied by increased activity in the caudate nucleus, a small region that plays a role in learning, memory and developing feelings of love. But they had five other neural hot spots, including the insula, which monitors body sensations and governs social emotions.
When Newberg and colleagues scanned the brains of Tibetan Buddhist meditators, they saw a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, an area of the brain that normally helps a person to have an orientation in space and time.
Spiritual practices can actually change the brain itself. Research shows that people who practice meditation for 15 years or more, for example, have thicker frontal lobes than others who don’t meditate. And even shorter-term meditators develop an asymmetry in the thalamus, a deep-brain structure that’s involved in activities such as regulation of consciousness and sleep, and sensory and motor signal relay. One important question for researchers, Newberg told Time magazine in 2009, is the extent to whether some people already possess these tendencies, so that spiritual practices only accentuate them further.
How your senses affect the religious experience
Your brain’s visual processing system also handles religious symbols in a different way that it looks at other images. Normally, the brain’s visual cortex analyzes much of what we see, making quick decisions about significance that the conscious, reasoning part of our brain isn’t even aware of. But when we’re shown religious symbols, the visual cortex actually decreases in activity, as if it doesn’t want to interfere with contemplation.
“Religious symbols seem to evoke something at the very basic levels of our brain,” Dr. Newberg explains. “How our brain just processes information, visual information from the world around us, in a different way than maybe when we’re looking at other types of symbols with no religious connotation.”
Dr. Newberg has done experiments in which he’s asked subjects of various ages to draw an image of the idea of God in their minds. Some depict God as a person. “We see a face, we see eyes,” he says. “It’s just easier for us, as human beings, to relate to something which is infinite in a very personal kind of way.” Others, though, envision God as a symbol, such as the cross that figures prominently in Christian belief, or as an element of nature, such as a cloud. There’s also a third category. “We start to see people moving into a more abstract way of thinking about God,” Newberg says. “Different swirls, colors, a heart, even a question mark.”
Interestingly, virtually all of the younger subjects drew God with a human face. That may actually be an indication that their brains haven’t yet developed abstract thinking abilities, a shift that usually occurs at around age 12.
But faces and the sense of connection they represent are important to older believers as well. Research shows, for example, that people who believe in the supernatural are more included than others to experience a phenomenon called pareidolia, in which their brains see patterns—such as faces—where they aren’t actually present. Our brain’s tendency to spot faces may help to explain why some people see religious phenomena in everyday objects, such as the face of Jesus on a tortilla.
Sacred places, such as houses of worship, also influence our senses in ways that shape our religious experience. The design of cathedrals, with their high ceilings and vertical lines, draw our eyes upwards to the heavens, and use visual elements such as geometry, patterns and contrasts between light and darkness to infuse our brains with a sense of contemplative awe. Sound is another powerful influencer, as anyone who’s been awed by the powerfully resonant bass of an old-fashioned church organ probably can testify. “You associate power for example, with how much bass that's in the instrument,” explains Trevor Cox, an expert in sound perception. “That's probably why lots of churches have really big organs with huge great pipes on them, because that gives you a really powerful sound. And of course, you want God at some points to appear to be powerful.”
The Neuroscience of God
Regardless of the neurological nature of belief, there’s plenty of evidence that faith can have a powerful effect upon your existence. Long-term research by University of Texas social demographer Robert Hummer, for example, has found that people who don’t attend religious services have twice the risk of death over an eight-year period as people who go to church once a week. And a study by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center surgeon and Episcopal priest Dr. Daniel Hall found that church attendance seemed to add two to three additional years to a person’s life.
As Newberg explains in an essay on his website, researchers can study how the human mind experiences religious faith, but they can’t verify or disprove your spiritual beliefs. “Our research indicates that our only way of comprehending God, asking questions about God, and experiencing God is through the brain,” Newberg explains in an essay on his website. “Whether or not God exists out there is something that neuroscience cannot answer.”