Scientists discover the brain’s ‘God spot’… and show that faith helps human survival
Scientists searching for a ‘God spot’ in the brain have found three areas that control religious belief.
A study of 40 participants, including Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, showed the same areas lit up when they were asked to ponder religious and moral problems.
MRI scans revealed the regions that were activated are those used every day to interpret the feelings and intentions of other people.
‘That suggests that religion is not a special case of a belief system, but evolved along with other belief and social cognitive abilities,’ said Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.
Scientists, philosophers and theologians continue to argue about whether religious belief is a biological or a sociological phenomenon.
Some evolutionary theorists believe a belief in a religious power may have helped our ancestors to survive great hardship compared to those with no such convictions.
Others argue that it arises from the structure of the highly adaptable brain itself.
In the latest study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Grafman and his colleagues asked three types of question, while performing brain scans.
First, volunteers were asked to think about statements about whether God intervenes in the world, such as ‘God’s will guide my acts’.
This activated the lateral frontal lobe regions of the brain, used by humans to empathise with eachother.
Then they were asked to dwell on God’s emotional state. When it came to statements such as ‘God is wrathful’, the areas that lit up were the medial temporal and frontal gyri, which helps us to judge emotions of others.
Finally the participants were asked to contemplate abstract statements such as ‘a resurrection will occur’. This time they tapped into the right inferior temporal gyrus, which we use to understand metaphorical meaning.
In all three cases the neural activity in the subjects’ brains corresponded to brain networks known to have nonreligious functions.
‘There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures,’ Professor Grafman said.
‘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 every day.’
The networks activated by religious beliefs overlap with those that mediate political beliefs and moral beliefs, he said.
Dr Andrew Newberg, director of the Centre for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times that Dr Grafman’s findings were in line with other research that has so far failed to find any specific structure in the brain that is dedicated to religious belief.
‘Religion has so many different aspects that it would be very unlikely to find one spot in the brain where religion and God reside,’ Dr Newberg said.
But he was doubtful that brain scans like those taken by Dr Grafman could capture all of what religion is.
‘There may be other elements that science is not capable of measuring,’ Dr Newberg said.
Future research could look at whether human brains respond in a similar way for different religions, given that this study focused only on Western Christian beliefs.
‘The more interesting studies will wind up comparing different belief systems with similar dimensions to see if they also activate the same brain areas,’ Dr Grafman said.
‘If they do, we can better define why those brain areas evolved in humans.’