God found inside the brain

published Oct 08, 2007, last modified Jun 26, 2013

We've long known that everything that makes us, well, us, is a consequence of brain chemistry as opposed to all that mumbo-jumbo about "spirits". Now, a group of scientists has successfully triggered "God" using a special helmet:

From the relevant article at Richard Dawkins' blog:

In a series of studies conducted over the past several decades, Persinger and his team have trained their device on the temporal lobes of hundreds of people. In doing so, the researchers induced in most of them the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe.

So we now know that we can trigger those exact same feelings of awe and religious experience inside our brain. You must note that the helmet wraps the head -- it doesn't wrap the waist, arms, liver, kidneys, heart or any other organ. Gee, I wonder why! (sarcasm alert) Maybe it's because all that religious mumbo-jumbo is really just brain chemistry? Mind you, this is a fact that we've known all along for decades now.

Anyway, I'm sure the "magical thought" clique will immediately jump to the conclusion that the magnets are somehow interacting with the spirit-brain link or something -- even though they continually insist that the spirit cannot be detected using technology. Not a surprise there -- it's convenient to selectively flip-flop around theses if you do it to perpetuate your comfortable ignorance.

Persinger goes even further:

Persinger thus argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain. He opines that the religious bents of even the most exalted figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha—stem from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences are good, argues Persinger in his book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (Praeger Publishers, 1987), is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Praying before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of eating. God, he claims, is nothing more mystical than that.

The only thing that bugs me is that a 2005 rerun of the experiment failed to produce positive results. However, other experiments shed some extra light -- we now know how a brain affected by religious experiences "looks like":

The height of this meditative trance, as they described in a 2001 paper, was associated with both a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which encompasses the upper back of the brain, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which resides behind the forehead. Because the affected part of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence during meditation underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is charged with attention and planning, among other cognitive duties, and its recruitment at the meditation peak may reflect the fact that such contemplation often requires that a person focus intensely on a thought or object.

Interesting. More:

Newberg and his colleagues discovered yet another activity pattern when they scanned the brains of five women while they were speaking in tongues—a spontaneous expression of religious fervor in which people babble in an incomprehensible language. The researchers announced in 2006 that the activity in their subjects' frontal lobes—the entire front section of the brain—declined relative to that of five religious people who were simply singing gospel. Because the frontal lobes are broadly used for self-control, the research team concluded that the decrement in activity there enabled the loss of control necessary for such garrulous outbursts.

I guess religions around the world better rush to the invention of "God in a Box" -- lest they risk going into technologically-motivated obsolescence.