What Religion Does To Your Brain

By: Brian Bigelow,
What Religion Does To Your Brain

Whether or not there really is an Almighty may be a matter of debate, but the neurophysiological effects of having a religious belief is a matter of science and can be measured.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the latest research.

No matter if you are a true believer, an atheist, or simply don’t believe at all, the effects of religion on the brain are hard to deny.

Having some sort of religious belief has been shown to increase lifespan and better help in the coping of health issues.

In fact recent research in the field of “neurotheology” (the neuroscience of theology) has uncovered some incredible discoveries.

Discoveries that are sure to change everything we thought we knew about spirituality.

For example, some researchers suggest that religious experience stimulate the same brain areas as sex and drugs.

And other studies show that damage to certain brain regions can give you the feeling as if someone is with you in the same room, a presence. Even if there is nobody there.

Findings like this have intrigued researchers and have given insight as to how religion affects our health.

And the question is, do the neurobiological aspects of religion mean that it could all be recreated?

If religious experiences prove to be biological in nature, does having the right scientific understanding help us create the concept of God?

And while researchers certainly don’t have all the answers, they are beginning to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Giving them a scientific understanding of divinity that appears to be quite different than what the scriptures show.

How Different Religions Affect The Brain

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Research Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Villanova, PA, suggests that different religions have very different effects on the brain.

More specifically, they activate areas of the brain in different ways.

Several studies show that both meditating Buddhists and praying Catholic nuns, for example, have an increase in frontal lobe activity in their brains.

This translates into better focus and attention, increased planning skills and an ability to project into the future and create complex arguments.

In addition, prayer and meditation both reduce activity in an area of the brain called the parietal lobes.

However, nuns who pray using words instead of visualization like meditation do have more activity in the areas of the brain that process language.

The interesting thing is that other religions can have the opposite effect on the same brain regions.

One example, is the recent findings that Islamic prayer which is associated with surrendering completely to God reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, frontal and parietal lobes.

The prefrontal cortex is typically associated with executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making.

Therefore, any religion that focuses on releasing control would in fact see a decrease in activation of these areas.

Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll?

In a recent study, scientists found that religion activated the same areas of the brain typically associated with sex, drugs and other addictive behavoirs.

Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. and his team from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

When researchers asked the test subjects whether or not they were “feeling the spirit” and to what to degree, those who reported the most intense feelings showed increased activity the pleasure and reward processing areas of the brain. These are the same areas typically activated when we engage in sexual activity, listen to music, gamble or take drugs.

The participants also reported experiencing a sense of peace and physical warmth.

"When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded," says Michael Ferguson one of the study’s authors.

These findings are consistent with other studies that found that participating in spiritual activities increases the level of serotonin. Serotonin is the “happy” hormone and makes you feel good. It also releases endorphins, which is our body’s internal morphine.

Could out of body experiences be in your body?

Thanks to recent advances in neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been better able to understand how our brains process what we consider to be a “spiritual” experience.

What causes that feeling of someone being present in the room, or that we've stepped outside the confines of our body.

"In the last few years," says Dr. Anderson, "brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., agrees. "We are able to even understand when a person gets into 'ecstasy mode,'" he says, and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.

"When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change," Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium.

And research tends to support his theory.

In a study of Vietnam Vets, those who were injured in the prefrontal cortex were more likely to report mystical experiences.

"These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the 'out of body' and 'extended self' sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to”, says Prof Giordano.

"If 'beings' join the mystical experience," Prof. Giordano goes on, "we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed."

Can we 'create' God on demand?

Now that researchers are able to trace religious experiences to certain parts of the brain sing the latest imaging techniques, does that give us the ability to create these experiences at will?

It may sound strange, but back in the 1990’s Dr. Michael Persinger — the director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada — designed what many called the "God Helmet."

This device was able to simulate religious experiences by activating certain parts of the brain using magnetic fields.

In Dr. Persinger's experiments, about 20 religious people — which accounted for about 1 percent of the participants — said they felt the presence of God or claimed to see him present in the room when wearing the device. However, 80 percent of the participants also felt a presence of some kind, they just didn’t identify it as "God."

When asked about the experiment, Dr. Persinger says, "I suspect most people would call the 'vague, all-around-me' sensations 'God' but they are reluctant to employ the label in a laboratory."

"If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the God definition might be challenged”.

However, he also said "We have to be careful about how similar such experiences are.”

Even with findings like these,religion is unlikely to go anywhere.

The architecture of our brains won't allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains were designed to fulfill.

"I would argue that until our brain undergoes a fundamental change, religion and spirituality will be with us for a long time." Says Dr. Newberg.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, there is no arguing that spirituality does indeed affect the brain in mysterious and powerful ways.

And who’s not to say that our brains are simply doing what our creator designed them to do?

There will be those that use these studies to refute religion and the Bible.

However, additional discoveries are being that give hope to those who do have faith in God.

If you have questions after reading this article, I encourage you to watch this video now.

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