21:00 09 March 2009 by Andy Coghlan

Once we had evolved the necessary brain architecture, we could “do” religion, brain scans.

The research shows that, to interpret a god’s intentions and feelings, we rely mainly on the same recently evolved brain regions that divine the feelings and intentions of other people.

“We’re interested to find where in the brain belief systems are represented, particularly those that appear uniquely human,” says lead researcher, Jordan Grafman of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke inBethesda,Maryland.

The researchers found that such beliefs “light up” the areas of our brain which have evolved most recently, such as those involved in imagination, memory and “theory of mind” – the recognition that other people and living things can have their own thoughts and intentions.

“They don’t tell us about the existence of a higher order power like God,” says Grafman. “They only address how the mind and brain work in tandem to allow us to have belief systems that guide our everyday actions.”

Core elements

In the study, the researchers gave 40 religious volunteers functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they responded to statements reflecting three core elements of belief. For each statement, they had to say on a scale how much they agreed or disagreed. The volunteers were believers in monotheist religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

First, volunteers responded to statements about whether God intervenes in the world or not, such as “God is removed from the world”.

Here, brain activity was focused mainly in the lateral frontal lobe regions of the brain where theory of mind takes shape, enabling us to interpret other people’s intentions. The regions link to mirror neurons which enable us to empathise with other people.

Second, the volunteers mulled statements on God’s emotional state, such as “God is wrathful”. Again, and as the researchers predicted, the activated areas were those where theory of mind enables us to judge emotion in others, such as the medial temporal and frontal gyri.

Finally, the volunteers heard statements reflecting the abstract language and imagery of religion, such as “Jesus is the Son of God” or “God dictates celebrating the Sabbath”, or “a resurrection will occur”. Here, volunteers tapped into areas of the brain such as the right inferior temporal gyrus, which decodes metaphorical meaning and abstractedness.

Recently evolved

Overall, the parts of the brain activated by the belief statements were those used for much more mundane, everyday interpretation of the world and the intentions of other people. Significantly, however, they also correspond with the parts of the brain that have evolved most recently, and which appear to which give humans more insight than other animals.

“Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions,” say the researchers.

“It’s not surprising that religious beliefs engage mainly the theory-of-mind areas, as they are about virtual beings who are treated as having essentially human mental traits, just as characters in a novel or play are,” comments Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford.

“But it nicely reinforces my claim that it is the higher orders of intentionality that are crucial in the development of fully fledged religion as we know it,” saysDunbar.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106).

COMMENTS from readers…

To me this study only seems to indicate that humans use the same brain processes to analyse hypothetical statements about imaginary figures as for analysing real-world situations, and does not give any indication about what makes people believe it to be real rather than hypothetical. It would have been a more convincing study if they had repeated the experiment with a group of non-believers or adherents of a different type of religion like buddhism, and again with all groups and similar questions on another imaginary figure such as Santa Claus. My guess is that the same brain regions would light up in all cases, but who knows what surprises are out there?

If there is a specifiable evolutionary basis for religious experience, then that in itself does actually provide some support for the claim of higher order beings or a spiritual aspect of the world. We have eyes to sense the visible, ears to sense the audible, and hands to sense the tangible – thus, a religious or spiritual faculty implies its own objects of sense.

The spiritual faculty is commonplace among all peoples and throughout all time periods, except for the realm of modern industrial secularism, where it has atrophied. Today’s scientist is blind to this easy fact because he is himself an historical aberration: he is not a god among the savages, as he imagines, but a brain-damaged trauma victim unable to recall the past.

The purpose of religion — at any rate, the Christian religion — is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you.        — Frederick Ward Kates

Christians, at their best, know that often they don’t know. They do not have all the answers. They do not have God in their pocket. We cannot answer every question that any bright boy in the back row might ask. We have only light enough to walk by.

–Howard A. Johnson

The Elements of Prayer Its ground: God, by whose goodness it springeth in us. |ts use: to turn our will to His will. Its end: to be made one with Him and like to Him in all things.

–Julian ofNorwich

Refuge in Him

Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. Psalm 2:12b

Outside of Christ, we are refugees in need of a refuge. Our soul seeks asylum in Almighty God. Our spirit is on a search for security and peace. It is refuge in God that we want deep down within our innermost desires. Otherwise, we wander around earth un-tethered to truth. We are induced into thinking things are OK outside of our Savior’s care. But there is something more significant that comes by slowing down and investigating our own authenticity. Refugees need a place of safety and trust. It is in refuge with Him that we can believe Him. There is an intimacy with Jesus that invites us into refuge.

Even if your faith is as slender as a spider’s thread, you can still trust in Jesus. It is the object of your faith that matters more than the amount of your faith. His refuge is not just reserved for the robust of faith. It is especially available to those of us who are flailing away in faithless fear. We have lost our way and we need to get to a wise weigh station to evaluate our faith. It is in refuge with Him that we are blessed with clarity and conviction. God is our refuge and God is our strength. He is a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, but will believe that the very best is found by faith in Him. Hope exists.  Wisdom Hunters