Your Brain on God

Image courtesy of flickr.com member Sue Clark

Are science and religion as mutually exclusive as most like to believe? Perhaps not, NPR suggests in this series of articles and interactive media relating the study of neuroscience to religious experiences. GLIMPSE contributor Dr. Michael Persinger makes an appearance in part two of the series, ‘The God Spot.’ The article explores the possibility that the perceived presence and feeling of God is simply a product of temporal lobe stimulation. Persinger subjects the author of the article to his ‘God helmet,’ a contraption that stimulates the right temporal lobe with weak magnetic fields (the same helmet written about in our Text issue). And indeed, the author felt something when the helmet was placed on her head. While it might seem like an oversimplification to claim that spiritual feelings exist only because of neurons firing off, it’s a compelling idea that forces us to truly question what our brains are capable of.

We’re especially intrigued by ‘The Biology of Belief’, part four of the series. The article examines how much power the mind actually exerts over the body. Persinger claims the temporal lobe is responsible for spiritual encounters, but we have no say in the actions of our neurons. AIDS Researcher Gail Ironson studied the effects of prayer on HIV patients and found that those who prayed regularly maintained a higher volume of immune cells than those who did not believe in God. These findings may not be conclusive but they are refreshing. We may not be able to bend spoons and open doors with the power of thought, but being able to stave off an incurable illness is not a bad trade-off.

Is figuring out a way to measure faith harmful? Does it make religious experiences any less valuable if one knows the neurological source? The idea that science and religion have possibly found common ground can be a bit of an uncomfortable one; however, maybe we’ve seen them as opposing fields of studies for too long. Perhaps now is the time to start thinking differently.

Allison Nonko

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