The “Search” for God
Growing field of neurotheology explores biology of religion


by Aalok Mehta

September 8, 2008

From identifying the parts of the brain that are activated during mystical experiences to determining how and why humans evolved such a capacity in the first place, the budding field of neurotheology is trying to pin down the neurological bases of religion and spirituality.

Progress had been slow because scientists working in the area, also known as biotheology or spiritual neuroscience, needed to develop new tools and interdisciplinary relationships to conduct their work. But the increasing availability of better scanning technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and multichannel electroencephalography (EEG), has made a big difference. The field will also get a big boost with the release of results from an ambitious European project to explore the biology, evolution and psychology of religion.

The Europeans may just be getting started, but other scientists are already producing results, and for a variety of reasons. Some researchers hope the work will shed light on other difficult concepts in neuroscience such as consciousness and memory. A few are seeking better ways to harness the power of religion to treat illnesses and improve daily life. And many simply want to better understand one of the most deep-rooted aspects of human experience.

“I’ve always considered these questions very important—as important as our understanding of the beginning of the universe,” says Mario Beauregard, a University of Montreal psychiatrist who has investigated the existence of a “God spot,” a single region in the brain dedicated to religious experience. “I’m not sure we can answer all the questions about the mind/consciousness/brain, but I think we can go much further.”

The subject has generated its share of controversy. Philosophers and religious scholars, for instance, have expressed concerns that the programs smack of materialist approaches, ignoring vital aspects of religion. But “religion, everyone would agree, is, for the vast majority of human beings, absolutely central,” says Patrick McNamara, a neurology and psychiatry professor at Boston University who is looking at how dopamine levels affect religious behavior. “Not studying it just seems silly to me. You just have to study it in a respectful way and keep an open mind about it.

“If you’re really religious, then you don’t need to be afraid” of what science might find, he adds. “So religion has got some brain correlates. Every other experience we have also has some.”

Evidence throughout the brain

The budding field already has turned some conventional beliefs on their head. Beauregard, for instance, conducted fMRI and EEG studies of a group of 15 Carmelite nuns to test the idea that the temporal lobe alone controls religious experience. Doctors at the University of California at San Diego proposed the theory about a decade ago after observing that people who experience temporal lobe seizures are more prone to spiritual-themed hallucinations and more likely to be interested in religion.

Since the nuns were unable to summon up religious episodes on cue—"that's a product of God's will, according to their faith," Beauregard says—they were asked to relive their most significant mystical experience while being imaged. (Most of the study participants said they were able to reach a more religious frame of mind despite the noisy hum of the MRI scanner, he says.) The researchers adopted that tack because previous studies on actors had found that memories produce brain changes similar to a genuine experience.

Both experiments suggested that, contrary to the single-area hypothesis, religion’s effects on the brain are similar to other complex, higher-order processes and are distributed over at least six brain regions.

“We saw activity in middle temporal region, as reported before. But we also saw activity in many other brain regions associated with a variety of other activities,” Beauregard says. “It’s clear mystical experience seems to be supported by a broad array of neurological processes.”

Among the areas where the researchers saw activity were the caudate nucleus, orbital frontal region and parts of the brain stem, all tied to emotion; the medial prefrontal region, believed to be responsible for perceptions of self; and the superior and inferior parietal lobules, which help produce self-representations of the body in space. The imaging surveys suggest that these are tied in some way, respectively, to the extreme bliss, sense of surrendering to a higher power and notion of freedom from the physical body common in religious experiences, Beauregard says.

Universal experiences

Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, also has found that a variety of brain regions are associated with religious practices—and that many of these processes remain very consistent among people of different faiths.

Newberg’s studies, which employ a combination of fMRI, positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging, have involved Tibetan Buddhist meditators, Franciscan nuns and Sikh meditators. He has also studied glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues,” and has worked with people taking meditation classes in order to track changes over time.

Newberg found that, in large part, the nuns and Buddhists displayed similar brain patterns, including reduced activity in the orientation center of the brain, which may explain why people report “blending” into foreign objects during religious experiences.

Though there were also some differences in the brain responses, it’s clear “that generally, the brain seems to be set up in a way that makes it easy to have these kinds of experiences,” Newberg says. “These are universal experiences.”

Newberg is hoping that a better understanding of this commonality will lead to new ways to treat medical disorders, especially those currently lacking effective treatments.

Religion has a profound effect on the health of the mind and body, he says. Meditators can achieve remarkable control over their physical functions, and a number of studies have suggested that religious belief can improve health outcomes and extend life span.

“We can find ways to reduce anxiety, treat depression and increase memory” by studying  spirituality, Newberg says. “So this is especially important for mental health.”

Transmitters and belief

McNamara, meanwhile, is looking at what medical treatment can reveal about religion.

To test a hypothesis about the essential role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in religious belief, McNamara conducted surveys of religiosity—the depth and intensity of spiritual belief—among people with Parkinson’s disease, in whom the neurotransmitter is gradually depleted.

McNamara found a corresponding decrease in interest in religious concepts, a phenomenon that “seemed to increase with the stage of the disease” in about half the study participants, he said.

McNamara is now studying whether levodopa replacement therapy can reverse this effect by subliminally exposing people taking the drug to religious words and then testing recall to assess “access” to spiritual concepts.

Predicting the future?

Soon, neurotheologists may have a host of new questions to answer. The first results from the 2-million-euro Explaining Religion project, funded mostly by the European Union, are expected around October, says Harvey Whitehouse, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oxford and one of the project’s leaders.

The program, which was launched last September, brings together researchers from about a dozen institutions to explore the science of religion. Most are based in Europe, but experts from Yale University, Washington University, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Florida Atlantic University are also participating.

The project’s leaders hope to create a systematic description of the features common to most religions and explain what may bias people toward those beliefs. The project also will look at some of the notable differences among world religions to help build a computational model that researchers hope will both explain the history of religion and enable predictions about future developments.

In the meantime, Beauregard plans to look at people who have had spiritual near-death experiences—including atheists whose experiences convinced them to take up religion—and “standstill” surgery patients who report vivid memories of their operations despite being clinically dead during that time.

One pressing question, Newberg says, is figuring out why the brain evolved in a way particularly conducive to religious thought. Experts have suggested that religion may have offered an evolutionary advantage despite the resources it consumes or may have developed alongside other useful traits such as creativity and self-reflection, but no one knows for sure, he points out.

Whatever the answer, researchers say, it won’t take away from religious experience, which in the end largely stands outside of the realm of science—it will just remove some of the mystery.

“We’re not trying to get rid of religion,” Newberg says. “We’re just trying to understand it better.”

“What we measure with these technologies are only correlates,” Beauregard adds. “To determine whether God exists or not—that’s something way beyond neuroscience.”