National Geographic contacted Neuroscience News and invited us to take part in a virtual roundtable discussion to help promote an upcoming episode of Brain Games called The God Brain. (Brain Games: The God Brain premieres Sunday, February 21, at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel).
This post is part of that discussion which begins with an intriguing, and possibly controversial question from our National Geographic friends.
Is belief in God innate in our brains, as if it were installed by some divine programmer? Or is spirituality a more complex evolving adaptation that has both helped and harmed us as a species?
This post will not provide scientific proof for, or against a belief in any one god, or religious idea. Neuroscience is still in its infancy, and not enough researchers have dedicated time, nor have funds been raised to really provide us with unquestionable proof that certain religions are right or wrong about all of their claims. This post will simply provide some ideas, possible thought experiments, conjecture and claims to get us started in this discussion.
I take the position that a belief in God, gods, souls or spirits is not innate in our brains, nor was anything installed by some divine programmer, or being. I will entertain the idea that our brains can believe concepts with very little, and sometimes no proof at all. Sometimes merely a suggestion is enough to form a belief. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to blame any one religion, or credit one being with the belief systems that may or may not be in species’ nervous systems.
One of my first philosophy professors asked on our first day of class if a book he pointed to was really on the table. One brave classmate dared to question the reality of the book even existing. The professor told her to get out of the classroom. Many of us laughed, but he refused to carry on the class until she left the room. Some lessons are difficult to forget. A few readers may choose to stop reading at this point.
This leaves me with the other end of a possible false dichotomy. Spirituality may be thought of as an evolutionary adaptation that resulted from environmental pressures. Social acceptance, mating, hunting, gathering, having more time to dedicate to survival rather than ponder difficult questions, and many other factors are sure to have played a part in our brains evolving spiritual beliefs.
Species have evolved numerous, sometimes baffling adaptations that lead to better rates of survival. We have parasites that burrow into brains, modulate behavior through chemical changes in the brains, resulting in almost sci-fi like hybrids important in the life cycle of the parasites and the hosts. We have species with other species inside them, and on them that far outnumber their own cells, and rely on those species for basic survival (see human microbiota) . Once one starts to really dig into biology, the idea of nervous systems adapting over millions of years resulting in spirituality to aid survival at some point doesn’t seem as preposterous as many may suspect.
Imagine these step if you will. Show a dog a cat and measure the brain activity. Show that dog a male dog and measure the brain activity. Show that dog a female dog, different sizes, different dog breeds, etc. and measure the brain activity. Keep repeating this type of behavior and you will eventually get results which may allow you to predict, by just seeing the brain activity readings, what that dog is being shown. Show a dog a bowl of food, ring a bell, let it smell bacon, tell it “sit”, show it a whip previously used on it, show it learned hand signals, and predictable patterns of brain activity may start to be noticed. Small dogs may show different patterns than large dogs. Certain breeds may differ in responses, males and females may differ, different aged dogs may differ, etc.. The same concept works with humans.
Show a human a snake, a spider, a gun, a religious symbol, “Fu– Yo-“, a picture of a loved one, a photo of two black holes colliding, and measure their brain activity each time. You may start to predict what is being seen by the human. Perform these types of tests on many people and you may learn people show similarities based on age, gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, upbringing, religious affiliation, books exposed to, education levels, etc. Some people may show no differences at all across all of the items tested. Sample enough people and that number will surely grow. Is any of this a surprise? Should these observations lead us to believe any one response is more important than another, or that they were innate across all the history of our species? I sure don’t think so. These probably just show that brains react to stimuli differently based on an almost unfathomable number of variables within internal and external environments, such as different genes and experiences involving aggression, eyesight, logical thinking, deaths, violence, diet, friendships, family dynamics and income. Surprise; our brains are shaped by genes and experiences.
I often think about how people react to the sight of execution devices used in ancient cultures. Many people love to collect replicas of these items, even buying gold necklaces, bedazzled with jewels, showing them off to others in their social circles. Some people worship them, kneeling down in front of them, praying to the victims of these devices. Show some humans images of these devices, and many will not only report feelings of joy, serenity, peace, and love, but their brain scans may also show regions activating that lead us to believe they are telling the truth about those feelings. Of course, crucifixes probably didn’t illicit those same feelings a couple thousand years ago in the people within the same religious denominations.
I imagine if we were to measure brain activity, or galvanic skin responses of those people thousands of years ago that saw a crucifix on a hill, or in front of a building, we would probably see patterns indicative of fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and other negative types of emotional responses.
What happens when we show people an image of an electric chair, or a replica of a noose? Perhaps given a few thousand years, those images and replicas may not cause the same reactions as they do now. Imagine if groups of people taught lessons of love, forgiveness, immortality and other ideals with those symbols always present, or worn around the necks of prominent religious figures as they provide therapies.
The Brain Games episode I was able to screen titled The God Brain briefly covers pareidolia. This is “a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the “man in the moon”, the “moon rabbit”, and hidden messages within recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds.” (from wikipedia) Most of us have seen or read about people flocking to some obscure area to get a glimpse of a religious symbol showing up on the side of a house, or on a piece of toast.
It doesn’t take a religious person to think they see something familiar in an unlikely place. You may want to view a Reddit subreddit to see how often you can experience pareidolia. An interesting observation is noted in The God Brain that giving a viewer positive or negative feedback about seeing images in static can change the frequency of reporting images in the static. Putting pressures of time on the viewer can also alter the likelihood of reporting images.
This episode of Brain Games touches on questions about spirituality, neurotheology and belief in God. Hopefully, this article and the show will help spur on discussion about spirituality and the brain. We look forward to opinions on the show and the question as to whether belief in god was installed by a divine programmer.
I’ll leave you with a few terms and links that may allow you to prepare for the episode and discussions a little better.
Useful links and terms related to this discussion and the episode:
About the Brain Games episode: Host Jason Silva travels to Jerusalem, Israel, to explore, “The God Brain.” Fascinating new research has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hardwired in our brains. Is this because a divine power greater than us installed this software? Or is it possible that the believing part of the brain has evolved over thousands of years as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us succeed as a species. Physician and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of Jefferson University Hospital has spent decades exploring the neurophysiology of religious and spiritual practice. Dr. Trevor Cox from the University of Salford, an expert on sound perception, explains how you respond to different musical keys and music played in churches. Dr. Jennifer Whitson of UCLA focuses on the psychological experience of control and sheds light on how to make sense of the environment and inexplicable events. Dr. Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol, will demonstrate that even the most nonbelieving brain can have unconscious biases, which are fundamental characteristics for supernatural thinking.