A team of US
researchers trying to understand the neural basis of religious belief has
obtained strong evidence that religiosity is managed by the same parts of the
brain that are used every day to interpret other people's moods and intentions
and to analyse experiences.
interested to find where in the brain belief systems are represented,
particularly those that appear uniquely human," New Scientist quoted lead
author Jordan Grafman of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, as saying.
found that such beliefs ''light up'' the areas of our brain, which have evolved
most recently, such as those involved in imagination, memory and ''theory of
mind'' - the recognition that other people and living things can have their own
thoughts and intentions.
tell us about the existence of a higher order power like God. They only address
how the mind and brain work in tandem to allow us to have belief systems that
guide our everyday actions," said Grafman.
For the study, the
researchers gave 40 religious volunteers functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) brain scans as they responded to statements reflecting three core
elements of belief.
For each statement,
they had to say on a scale how much they agreed or disagreed. The volunteers
were believers in monotheist religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
responded to statements about whether God intervenes in the world or not, such
as ''God is removed from the world''.
Here, brain activity
was focused mainly in the lateral frontal lobe regions of the brain where
theory of mind takes shape, enabling us to interpret other people's intentions.
The regions link to mirror neurons, which enable us to empathise with other
volunteers mulled statements on God's emotional state, such as ''God is
wrathful''. Again, and as the researchers predicted, the activated areas were
those where theory of mind enables us to judge emotion in others, such as the
medial temporal and frontal gyri.
volunteers heard statements reflecting the abstract language and imagery of
religion, such as ''Jesus is the Son of God'' or ''God dictates celebrating the
Sabbath'', or ''a resurrection will occur''.
tapped into areas of the brain such as the right inferior temporal gyrus, which
decodes metaphorical meaning and abstractedness.
Overall, the parts
of the brain activated by the belief statements were those used for much more
mundane, everyday interpretation of the world and the intentions of other
however, they also correspond with the parts of the brain that have evolved
most recently, and which appear to which give humans more insight than other
are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are
mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological
theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive
functions," the researchers said.
The study has been
published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.