God on the Brain: Researchers Probe the Neural Circuitry Behind
Religious Beliefs

Religious Thoughts and Feelings Not Limited to One Part of Brain

Published: March 9, 2009

Brain researchers trying to understand the neural basis of religious belief have
concluded that the brain has no special region or network for this task. Rather, it
depends on general networks that exist for other purposes.

A team led by Dr. Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke questioned volunteers about their religious beliefs while
monitoring the blood flow in their brains with a scanning machine. Extra blood flow
is assumed to reflect the activity of neurons in a specific region of the brain.

Different networks of neurons sprang into action when subjects were asked their
view of three sets of statements about the religious beliefs, Dr. Grafman and
colleagues report in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One set of statements concerned the degree of God’s involvement in daily life —
for instance, “God’s will guides my acts.” The second concerned the degree of
divine wrath imputed for transgressions (“God is angered by my sins”). In the third,
subjects were tested on their views of religious doctrines (“God dictates celebrating
the Sabbath”).

In all three cases the neural activity in the subjects’ brains corresponded to brain
networks known to have other, nonreligious functions. These include the theory of
mind networks, used to predict other people’s intentions.

“There is nothing segregated or conserved or special about religious beliefs,
compared to other belief systems,” Dr. Grafman said. The networks activated by
religious beliefs overlap with those that mediate political beliefs and moral beliefs,
he said.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the
University of Pennsylvania, said Dr. Grafman’s findings were in line with other
research that has so far failed to find any specific structure in the brain that is
dedicated to religious belief. “Religion has so many different aspects that it would
be very unlikely to find one spot in the brain where religion and God reside,” Dr.
Newberg said.

But he expressed doubt as to whether the biological correlates of religious belief,
as visualized in brain scans like those taken by Dr. Grafman, in fact captured all of
what religion is. “There may be other elements that science is not capable of
measuring,” Dr. Newberg said.

In his own work Dr. Newberg looks at subjects undergoing religious experiences,
like speaking in tongues or meditating. In “How God Changes Your Brain,” a book
being published later this month, Dr. Newberg reports that certain regions of
subjects’ brains have enlarged areas of neural activation after many months of
intensive meditation.

He questioned whether asking subjects questions about religion when they were
not in a religious frame of mind would capture much of interest about religious

Dr. Grafman said Dr. Newberg’s studies were another good approach to studying
religion, but he said he was confident his sets of religious statements activated
relevant neural circuits. With the statements, “we are immersing people in their
belief system,” he said.

Dr. Grafman said that religious cohesion for a common purpose, and the ability to
infer what others are thinking, would each have been favored by evolution, along
with the theory of mind networks that serves both systems.

The New York Times.