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April 28, 2003






Are humans 'hard-wired' to believe in God?
___By Amy Ellis Nutt
___Religion News Service
___SANTA CLARA, Calif. (RNS)--The human brain, even at its ancient, primitive core, is less an organ of impulse than a machine of reason. We are built to make sense of things. Our brains restlessly scan the world for patterns in chaos and causes in coincidence.
___We crave explanation and, when faced with the ineffable, sometimes we create the answer.
___For billions of people, the answer to the most ineffable question of all--"Why do we exist?"--is God.
___Neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph has spent years studying history, anthropology and biolo
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(Photo illustration by Andre Malok/RNS)
gy in his quest to understand the universality of spiritual experience and its historical development.
___In his studies of the brains of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, radiologist Andrew Newberg seeks out the relationship between neural activity and mystical experience.
___Both men believe the connection between the brain and spirituality suggests there is a physiological basis for religion--that human beings, in essence, are hard-wired for God.
___Joseph, of Santa Clara, Calif., believes there is a neurological, even genetic, explanation for religious belief and spiritual experience.
___Homo sapiens, he theorizes, have developed the capacity to experience God primarily through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain. The amygdala, along with the hippocampus and hypothalamus, make up the limbic system, the first-formed and most primitive part of the brain, where emotions, sexual pleasure and deeply felt memories arise.
___"These tissues, which become highly activated when we dream, when we pray ..., enable us to experience those realms of reality normally filtered from consciousness, including the reality of God, the spirit, the soul, and life after death," he explained.
___Joseph, who has a doctorate in neuropsychology and is the author of a comprehensive textbook, cites his own clinical and historical research, as well as studies of epileptic patients who have experienced religious hallucinations, as evidence that "spiritual experience is not based on superstition but is instead real, biological and part of our primitive biological drives."
___The short, solidly built scientist, 51, is the founder of an independent publishing company in Santa Cruz called University Press. Some of the company's non-fiction books concern astrobiology, the science of consciousness and, in a recent collection of essays, neurotheology--the study of the relationship between brain function and spiritual experience.
___There is a maverick, even provocative bent to much of Joseph's writing. He has published a half-dozen books of his own at University Press, including "The Transmitter to God: The Limbic System, the Soul and Spirituality," and he continues to research a number of subjects, many of them in evolutionary biology.
___For the past 20 years, Joseph has been mining neuroscience, astronomy, history, religion, archaeology and anthropology for clues about the meaning of intense religious ecstasy during which a person may see an image of God or hear the voice of an angel. Joseph believes those experiences are the result of hyperstimulation of the amygdala, which releases large quantities of natural opiates. The same opiates are released in response to pain, terror and trauma, as well as social isolation and sensory deprivation.
___"Hyperactivation of the amygdala, hippocampus and overlying temporal lobe gives a person the sense that they're floating or flying above their surroundings," he explained. "It can trigger memories and hallucinations, create brilliant lights, and at the same time secrete neurotransmitters that induce feelings of euphoria, peace and harmony."
___Many religious people might view the cause and effect in reverse--it is the divine inspiration that activates those areas of the brain, instead of the other way around--but to Joseph, the order is irrelevant. For him, the more important question is "Why?"
___"There are creatures living in caves who don't have eyes," he said, "because there's nothing for them to see. But we have a visual cortex and an auditory cortex, because there are things we were made to see and hear. You don't develop a brain structure to help you experience something that doesn't exist."
___In other words, humans are hard-wired for God because there is a real God to experience.
___Matthew Alper, author of "The 'God' Part of the Brain," believes this assumption is flawed. "We're capable of repression, of phantom limb pain--our capacity to believe what isn't there is also sometimes helpful."
___Joseph acknowledges this but argues there is an equally possible alternative explanation for spiritual experience--brain development.
___"Maybe the ability to experience God and the spiritually
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TO UNDERTAND what happens to the brain during deep religious meditation or prayer, Andrew Newberg has brought Franciscan nuns, Tibetan monks and others to a laboratory in the radiology department of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. (Patti Sapone/RNS Photo)
sublime is an inherited limbic trait. Maybe we evolved these neurons to better cope with the unknown, to perceive and respond to spiritual messages because they would increase the likelihood of our survival."
___Humans became genetically predisposed to spirituality, Joseph suggests, because belief in a divine being makes humans stronger.
___Proving this argument, however, is an entirely different matter, according to Massimo Pigliucci, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
___"It is possible that if there is an advantage--that believing in an afterworld or God reduces anxiety or allows you to better navigate the world--that nature selected for that belief. But there's no evidence for that, and not only do we not have any evidence, there is no way to gather the evidence. It is inconceivable that you could do an experiment on survival of people who believe in an afterlife, because human beings in the past evolved in a totally different environment than any of us live in today."
___The lack of opportunity for empirical studies does not deter Joseph. He sees similarities across cultures in near-death experiences; beliefs in ghosts, spirits and demons; and symbols such as crosses, triangles and circles, as further evidence of the neuro-anatomical basis of spirituality.
___"If you're a scientist and you find people having the same experience, colored by their own cultural differences, all over the world 4,000 years ago and among both children and adults, you have to say, well, there's something there that's worthy of scientific explanation."
___Huddled in a shoe box of an office buried deep inside the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Andrew Newberg also looks for God. Although he believes the limbic system is important in explaining religious phenomena, he does not think it is solely responsible. The complexity and diversity of those experiences, he said, must involve other higher brain structures, specifically the autonomic system.
___Newberg's day job is radiology. Three days a week, he takes pictures of kidneys, lungs and hearts, looking for signs of disease. Two days a week, when he has willing subjects, he takes pictures of the brains of deeply religious people, looking for signs of God.
___Newberg, 36, is conducting brain-imaging experiments trying to identify those areas where neural activity is linked to religious experience. In so doing, Newberg is taking Joseph's theories about the relationship between the limbic system and spirituality one step further.
___A dozen times over five years, Newberg has brought in men and women, Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, to peer into their brains as they meditate and pray.
___In the first experiment, involving a Tibetan monk, Newberg attached an intravenous line to the subject's arm and had him meditate inside a small, darkened laboratory on the third floor of the hospital. When the monk was deep into meditation, Newberg injected a chemical tracer into the IV line.
___A minute later, the monk was placed on an inclined table, his head directly beneath three rotating lenses of a massive, high-imaging machine known as a single photon emission computed tomography camera.
___Images from the SPECT scans were filled with pools of neon green and red. The patterns represented increased and decreased blood flows to various parts of the brain, especially the lobes. Newberg found areas of increased blood flow in the frontal lobes, where higher thinking takes place, and decreased blood flow in the back or parietal lobes, where spatial orientation takes place.
___The frontal lobe activity, Newberg said, might be an indication of heightened activity in the amygdala, as Joseph theorizes, although better imaging techniques would be needed to prove it.
___Newberg acknowledges that at some scientific level, the question of the existence of God will forever remain unanswered. "You can't throw open that veil of the brain and get outside of your own brain and see what's going on in the objective external world."
___Even if science can't pry open that door, Newberg remains at peace.
___"Regardless of the perspective you take, the idea of God doesn't go away. I don't think we would ever say we could prove or disprove God just on the basis of our imaging studies. ...
___"What we're really talking about is that ... human beings are always going to have this sense of connection to God, defining God broadly, whether we create it ourselves or whether there really is a God."
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