Sci-Phi: God and the brain

Mat Iredale on the natural basis of supernatural thinking

Why is it that humans are so attracted to religion? Is there something about our brain that predisposes us to religion – is there even a unique domain for religion in the human mind – or is it just a coincidence that markedly similar religions have arisen from otherwise vastly different human societies?

Recent research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and archaeology has given rise to a new science of religion that is beginning to provide answers to these questions that “promise to change our view of religion” according to the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

One finding that is emerging is that humans do seem predisposed towards a religious world view. As Boyer points out, unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasised mates. Boyer suggests that the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.

He concludes that it is “a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved.” Boyer thinks that this may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents in which people believe have moral concerns: “Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think ‘the gods know that I stole this money’ than ‘the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast’.”

Research has also shown that tacit assumptions are extremely similar in different cultures and religions, unlike conscious beliefs, which differ widely from one culture or religion to another. Boyer believes that these similarities may stem from the peculiarities of human memory. Experiments suggest that people best remember stories that include a combination of counterintuitive physical feats (in which characters go through walls or move instantaneously) and plausibly human psychological features (perceptions, thoughts, intentions), a memory bias that contributes to the cultural success of gods and spirits.

Other experiments suggest that children are predisposed to assume both design and intention behind natural events, prompting some psychologists and anthropologists to believe that children, left entirely to their own devices, would invent some conception of God. But this should come as little surprise, given that our minds have evolved to detect patterns in the world. We tend to detect patterns that aren’t actually there, whether it be faces in clouds or a divine hand in the workings of Nature.

Our cognitive predisposition towards a religious world view helps to explain the failure of the once popular prediction that the spread of industrialised society would spell the end of religion. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber, together with various other sociologists, historians, psychologists and anthropologists influenced by their work, all expected religious belief to decline in the face of the modern developing world. Not only has this not happened, but as the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris points out, religion remains one of the most prominent features of human life in the 21st century with orthodox religion being “in full bloom” throughout the developing world. Whether it is the rise of Islamism throughout the Muslim world or the spread of Pentecostalism throughout Africa, Harris says that it is clear that religion will have geopolitical consequences well into the 21st century.

Harris was part of a Los Angeles-based research team that recently carried out the first systematic study into the difference between religious and non-religious belief. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure signal changes in the brains of thirty subjects (fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers) as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious statements, Harris et al. were able to compare those parts of the brain that “lit up” when the subjects were asked a serious of questions that were either of a religious nature or religion-neutral.

Whilst admitting that gradations of belief are certainly worth investigating, the authors wanted their experiment to characterise belief and disbelief in their purest form. They therefore excluded from the trial anyone who could not consistently respond ‘‘true’’ or ‘‘false’’ with conviction to the various statements. In a similar manner, the statements shown to the subjects were designed to elicit only a yes or no answer, rather than a maybe, and were designed, as far as possible, to have the same semantic structure and content. The statements were shown to the subjects in groups of four (true and false; religious and nonreligious), for example: The Biblical God really exists (Christian true/nonbeliever false); The Biblical God is a myth (Christian false/nonbeliever true); Santa Claus is a myth (both groups true); Santa Claus really exists (both groups false).

After each statement was shown, the subjects pressed a button to indicate whether the statement was true or false. The statements were designed to produce roughly equal numbers of believed and disbelieved trials. What they found was that while the human brain responds very differently to religious and nonreligious statements, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, seems to be governed by the same areas in the brain.

Contrasting belief and disbelief yielded increased activity in an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, thought to be associated with self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behaviour. The authors report that this region showed greater signal “whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc. or statements about ordinary facts.”

A comparison of all religious with all nonreligious statements suggested that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with response to conflict and which has been negatively correlated with religious conviction, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements.

The authors admit that one cannot reliably infer the presence of a mental state on the basis of brain data alone, unless the brain regions in question are known to be truly selective for a single state of mind. As the brain is an evolved organ, with higher order states emerging from lower order mechanisms, very few of its regions are so selective as to fully justify inferences of this kind. Nevertheless, they argue that their results “appear to make at least provisional sense of the emotional tone of belief. And whatever larger role our regions of interest play in human cognition and behaviour, they appear to respond similarly to putative statements of fact, irrespective of content, in the brains of both religious believers and nonbelievers.”

They conclude that there is no reason to expect that any regions of the human brain are dedicated solely to belief and disbelief, but that their research suggests that these opposing states of cognition can be discriminated by functional neuroimaging and are intimately tied to networks involved in self-representation and reward. And they argue that their results may have many areas of application, “ranging from the neuropsychology of religion, to the use of ‘belief-detection’ as a surrogate for ‘lie-detection,’ to understanding how the practice of science itself, and truth-claims generally, emerge from the biology of the human brain.”

Further Reading
“Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?” by Pascal Boyer, Nature, 455, 1038-1039 (23 October 2008)
“The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”, S. Harris, J.T. Kaplan, A. Curiel, S.Y. Bookheimer, M. Iacoboni, et al., PLoS ONE 4(10): 2009

Mathew Iredale’s Sci-Phi column appears every issue in tpm

Leave a comment ?


  1. Religion seems to be like depression: a mental disorder that results in a skewed view of the world that the possessor believes to be a true one. I take pills that ameliorate my depressive state of mind, at least to the extent that I cause less of a problem to others. It’d be useful if the pharm companies could come up with a similar treatment for religion sufferers.

  2. An intersting article that raises more questions than it answers. For example, to explain how a belief is possible (how it is “conceptualised) does not itself explain why it is believed to be true.

    Neither does the fact that something is widely believed or believed by children explain why they believe it.

    And neither of these lines of inquiry address the philosophical questions of whether any religious beliefs (or some part of then) are true, known to be true, or can reasonably be believed to be true.

    The correlation with brain states may perhaps shed some indirect light on why it is (probably) believed, though perhaps less than an analysis of testimony by believers.

  3. andrew (a different one)

    an interesting article; its quite tempted me to get at least one of the book’s in further reading.

    and tony; any mental state can be called a “mental disorder” if we are using “a skewed view of the world” as the indicator of whether a thought is the result of a “disorder”.

    eg; i have not eaten since yesterday, i smell food on the wind. there is a dheli nearby. these three triggers spawn a mental state wherein the importance of sating my hunger causes a change, or “skews” my list of priorities at this time. is the hunger a mental disorder? no it isnt, it is simply the result of a need causing a shift in priorities.

  4. @Andrew: by ‘skewed’, I meant a view of the world inconsistent with reality. And I was being a tad provocative :)

  5. andrew (a different one)

    and you certainly provoked :D

  6. I agree that this leaves a few too many questions. Overall, I must digress to the point that this article mainly points out that both belief and disbelief come from the same region of the brain. In most religions one would then name that the “faith” region of the brain, because both belief in God and disbelief in God require “faith” because there is currently no proof either way.
    I think the more important thing to look for here, would rather be what makes them CHOOSE to put there faith in God, Science, Chaos, or whatever else they may choose.
    Faith is obvious, but WHY put faith in something without proof anyway?
    I believe the Bible has a great answer: Hebrews 11 (not sure of the verse) Faith is the substance of all things HOPED for.

    If you put faith in God, than that means you can believe in a life that you can be saved from, and that has purpose greater than your own.
    If you put faith in Science (because in the end, science hasn’t proven any more than religious theorists have) it means you can believe in a universe that can be recreated and controlled by You, the individual with enough study.
    A depressed enough person may believe its all random [Athiest], simply because he doesn’t care. (Personally, I can’t think of a better reason. Although I’m sure there is one. And the same goes for the other possible beliefs as well.)

    My point is simply that one can have faith based mostly on what they WANT to believe. Rarely have I seen someone who truly put there faith in something based PURELY on the reality they perceive. But rather on the reality they HOPE for.

  7. James. While I can gran that in some semantic sence your statments are correct in some fashion I donot at all see my atheism as requiring any faith. I made basicly this same comparison in responce to another article. I don’t see it as requiring any “faith” to not believe in fairies or unicorns. I donot see any difference w my lack of faith that any god exists.

    Also beliefs in science precepts are as far from faith as a belief could be. Faith is belief w/o suficient evidence. Often theist are open and up front in this and see it as a virtue. “Come to me as a newborn child” is I believe a relevent bible quote.

    Science holds only things for which there is suficient evidence to be true or correct. And even then often t margin of error, innacuracy or doubt is included. When new evedence comes in scientific beliefs change. Also science is completly up front about how it doesnot know all t answers. If it did, it would stop.


  8. On a different subject; I understand that computer analisis of brain imaging has procceded such that w a succes rate aproaching 100% they can recognise recognition in ones brain such that it can serve as a reliable lie detector for instances where aplicable.

    A suspect can be shown a scene where a murder took place. If this suspect has been there befor he will recognise this scene. This recognition shows as a patern called a murmer. If this suspect says that they have never been there, then one knows him to be lieing and that this suspect has actualy been there.

    And further I have seen on “60 Minutes” a devise and technique that Judy Stall (and I) charactorised as reading ones mind. Subjects were shown a list of ten objects. Afterwards their brains were scanned. W a success rate that in this case did achieve 100% t patterns of images from brain scans were read and w/o fail all ten items were deduced from these brain scans.

    Charactoristicly all personel running this experiment charactorised this less extravegently than did Judy Stall and me. Pattern recognition was their expresion, as I remember. I found it absolutly incredible myself.


  9. It is not surprising that belief in something and dis-belief in something impacts on the same area of the brain, as both can be classified as a belief or a particular mindset.

    It would be interesting to know what area of Paul’s brain was impacted on in the road to Demascus, or Augustine’s brain as he lay postrate before the fig tree in his garden.

    It would be safe to assume that in both cases both belief (and dis-belief) was knocked out of them as what they experienced was beyond either one.

  10. Well B, that’s just it. With science, you in the end have no proof that there either is or is not a God. None whatsoever.
    In fact, because we essentially have no proof how correct our idea of what “faith” is; it is safe to assume that your idea’s on what faith is is in fact a “faith”.
    “Come to me as a newborn child” is what Jesus said when people were asked HOW to have faith. Newborn children understand at the very least that they know nothing, and therefore can accept what they see in the obvious.
    However it is NOT obvious whether there is or is not a God. Therefore, either way you have faith if you have made a decision as to one side or another.
    If you call yourself an athiest because you have not decided yet, than truly that is not athiesm, but closer to one of those other ‘ism’s. I forget the name.
    But if you have specifically decided that there is no God, than you do so on faith. Not with any evidence.

  11. It seems that the study, or at least the analysis of the study, assumes the human bain is an “evolved” organ. If this is not assumed, would it change the conclusions of the analysis? If studies are done with an assumed naturalism, are not conclusions from such studies at the least slanted, more like biased to a certain view of the world, which may or may not be true? Science should be unbiased on such things, a naturalistic world view need not be assumed. There was a time, when Science took no bias, but what was proven, which is even today not much. Postulated, yes, proven, no. It would give these studies more credibilty to be done under a neutral framework than to assume naturalism or theism as a framework.

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