Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God?

Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God?

What's the Big Idea?


Our Lady of Lourdes appears 18 times to a miller's daughter collecting firewood in a small market town in France. A young woman leads an army through critical strategic victories in the 100 Years' War, claiming to be guided by divine insight. In the very first hours of the 20th century, a student asks God to fill her with the holy spirit and begins to speak in tongues. 

Are these incidents case studies in undiagnosed mental illness, spiritual transcendence, or something nebulously in between?

Watch our interiew with Dr. Andrew Newberg, a pioneer in the field of neurotheology:

It's an interesting and elusive question for neuroscientists, with big implications on our understanding of consciousness. As the Nobel-prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel has said, reductionism -- the idea that a system is nothing more than the interactions between its parts -- is an extremely successful theory of biology, but as a "theory of everything," it fails to provide us with a sufficient explanation of a few basic, fundamental elements that shape human perception.

Particularly, religion. Why do we care whether or not God exists? And why do so many people believe? A new generation of neuroscientists is addressing those questions directly, with the ambitious goal of measuring what happens to the human brain during spiritual experiences. Dr. Andrew Newberg is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine and a pioneer in the field of neurotheology. Newberg doesn't identify with a particular religious group, but he's fascinated by the profound significance and persistence of human faith throughout history.

To measure the effects of trance states and ritual on the brain, he uses a technique called single photon emission computed tomography, in which subjects are injected with a chemical that emits gamma rays. A computer collects the information transmitted by the rays and constructs from it an image of the brain depicting blood flow to the various regions. The more blood flow to a particular region, the more brain activity. Using this method, Newberg has studied the brains of Franciscan nuns during prayer, Tibetan monks during meditation, and Pentecostals speaking in tongues.

What's the Significance?

What he's found is surprising: religious feeling is not invisible. The common thread among mystical and spiritual practices is that while people are engaged in them, the lobes of their brain can be seen working together to create a powerful emotional experience. "When we looked at [subjects'] brain scans, instead of the frontal lobes going up, the frontal lobes actually went down [in blood flow]. Which makes sense in the context of what they are describing is happening to them," Newberg explains. "They don't feel that they're purposely making it [happen]. They feel that they are being basically overcome by the experience." 

He believes that what subjects describe as their interaction with God is a shutting down of their concentrative, willful attention in order to allow this experience of transcendence to happen. "For them it's the spirit of God which is moving through them. I can't prove that or disprove that on the basis of a brain scan, but I can see the changes that are going on in the brain while they're engaged in this very, very powerful and very deep spiritual practice... It certainly looks like the way the brain is put together makes it very easy for human beings to have religious and spiritual experiences."

The question, then, is not whether we're wired for what we've come to call spiritual experiences exist, but how a tendency towards the transcendent makes us better adapted to live and survive in the world around us. What is the evolutionary purpose of belief?  

A hint lies in the fact that it's likely the repetition rather than the content of a ritual that makes it effective. It doesn't seem to matter whether a person chants or recites a verse or thinks a specific thought; a transcendent or meditative state is achieved through practice, strengthening connections in the brain around a particular idea or task. Religious practices may in fact be useful in a secular context. Whatever they mean to you, there's evidence that simple rituals like breathing deeply when you're stressed can improve your mental health and help you cope with the world, even if you're skeptical about whether there's a divine plan behind it.

Joan of Arc lifted the Siege of Orléans in just nine days.

Bernadette Soubirous was living in a one-room basement when she saw her first vision of an illuminated woman, which she referred to as "acquero" meaning "that."


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com 

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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