Articles by Natural Health Author Barbara Minton




Are We Wired to Worship? Neurotheology Aims to Explain the Relationship Between the Human Brain and Religion

by Barbara Minton
See all TBYIL articles by Barbara Minton

(The Best Years in Life) Are we hardwired to embrace religion and spirituality? It would explain why so many of us experience being talked to by God, the unity of prayer, and the calming peace right before death. We may soon know, as scientists have begun to question what goes on in our brains during such extraordinary events. They have given birth to a new science known as neurotheology, a multidisciplinary field of scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between the human brain and religion.

This young science began in the 1980s when Michael Persinger, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at a university in Canada, isolated an area in the temporal lobes that is the seat of intense emotion and meaningfulness in humans. In an effort to simulate that emotion and meaningfulness in his 80 subjects, he stimulated that area in their temporal lobes with a weak magnetic field, hoping to produce in them the sensation of an ethereal presence in the room. Those who witnessed the experiment said he got the religious experience he was looking for.

Meanwhile Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the brain and perception laboratory at U.C. San Diego announced his discovery of a ‘God module’ in the temporal lobes, the part of the brain that he too saw as being behind the apparent need for religion. Ramachandran and his colleagues used electric monitors to study the God module for the purpose of comparing epileptics, ‘normal’ people, and those who were extremely religious. They found that the brain activity of both the epileptics and the intensely religious responded in a similar fashion when words invoking spiritual beliefs were displayed. The ‘normal’ group did not.

What was behind this phenomenon? The most interesting explanation was that a seizure stimulates a part of the brain that acts as the God module. According to Ramachandran, “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 next generation of researchers, headed by Mario Beauregard, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate brain activity in Carmelite nuns during the time they reported feeling the presence of God. The imaging allowed them to determine which regions of the brain became active in various conditions. In the height of the nuns’ religious fervor, Beauregard was able to discern distinct patterns of activity in several areas of the brain, which he concluded were “mystical experiences.”

In Switzerland, Olaf Blanke and his team discovered that electric stimulation of specific areas of the brain can trigger out-of-body experiences. One of their investigations involved a female patient of Blanke’s who had epilepsy. He treated her temporal and parietal lobes with electric simulation. After each session, she described herself as floating above her own body.

The junction of the temporal and parietal lobes might have been instrumental in extreme events in world religions, thought Shahar Arzy, a colleague of Blanke. He pointed to the fact that many of the world’s religions feature revelations that took place on mountains, and he noted that similar experiences were had by the non-religious at high altitudes as well. He suspected reduced oxygen levels lowered resistance to stress and loss of inhibition.

Could the great charismatic figures throughout history have been epileptic? Did the oracle of Delphi experience a hypnotic state induced from high levels of gases in the narrow cave where Delphic priestesses delivered their messages? Neurotheology has yet to answer those questions.

The near-death experience is the subject of neurophysiologist Kevin Nelson, at the University of Kentucky. His investigations have revealed that dream states result from stress and sleep disorders, including sleep paralysis. According to him, as those with dream states start to wake up, part of their brains remain in the REM phase of sleep. This can lead to paralysis and scary hallucinations. Sixty percent of his subjects who had experienced a range of near death experiences reported symptoms of sleep paralysis, while in the group of those who had no such experiences, just 24 percent exhibited sleep paralysis symptoms.


In a paper published in 2014, Alireza Sayadmonsour from Tehran University refers to neurotheology as spiritual neuroscience. For him, one legitimizing aspect of neurotheology is the study of overarching brain functions to determine how theological concepts might be derived. He emphasizes that his brain functions describe broad categories, which include:

*Holistic function - We might understand that all the cells and organs comprise a whole human body. From a religious or spiritual perspective, we might understand a concept of absolute oneness as it pertains to God.

*Quantitative function – Quantitative processes of the brain help to produce mathematics and a variety of quantitative-like comparisons about objects in the world. It appears to also have heavily influenced the ideas of philosophers such as Pythagoras, who used mathematical concepts such as geometry to help explain the nature of theology and the universe.

*Binary function – This function allows us to set apart two opposing concepts, such as good and evil, justice and injustice. Much of the purpose of religion is to solve the psychological and existential problems created by these opposites.

*Causal function – The ability of the brain to perceive causality is essential to religion. When the causal processes of the brain are applied to all of reality, it forces the question of what is the ultimate cause of all things.

*Willfulness and orienting functions – There is evidence that frontal lobe activity is involved in executive functions such as planning, movement, behavior, and language. Evidence also shows the frontal lobes are activated by medication or prayer practice in which there is intense concentration.

What does this all mean?

With the advent of self-conscious awareness, the human became the first animal to conceive of its own mortality and inevitable death, says Matthew Albert in his book The God Part of the Brain. This awareness produced extreme anxiety, and a cognitive mechanism was selected into us that compelled us to believe in an alternative, spiritual reality, that would allow us to perceive ourselves as able to transcend physical death and live forever in an afterlife.

For Albert, the knowledge that all the cultures of the world since the dawning of time have believed in some form of spirituality represents an integral part of our genetic makeup. The fact that certain plants or chemicals can trigger a spiritual experience in us shows that some part of the brain is receptive to these stimuli.

One possibility according to Ramachandran is that religion sprung up to reinforce tribal loyalty or kinship ties and clan stability. He thinks that neurotheological findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of genetics or brain chemistry. “These studies do not in any way negate the validity of the religious experience of God”, he said. “They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved.” He added, “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.”

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About the author:

Barbara is a school psychologist and the author of Dividend Capture, a book on personal finance. She is a breast cancer survivor using bioidentical hormone therapy, and a passionate advocate of natural health with hundreds of articles on many aspects of health and wellness. She is the editor and publisher of AlignLife's Health Secrets Newsletter.

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