March 15, 2009

No More God Spot?

ResearchBlogging.orgBack in 2005 when I was an enthusiastic undergraduate, I was amazed at the scientific knowledge that proliferated on theories of religion. After reading Ramachandran's impressive Phantoms In The Brain and gaining an acquaintance with the neurobiological structures that underly religious experience, I became aware of scientific research that was suggesting the existence of a "God Module" in the brain, a system of specialised neural circuitry that appeared to be the central mediator of religious emotions and feelings as well as other things. The evidence seemed to point towards the temporal lobes and the larger limbic system as the location of this "God Spot", as evidenced by this 2004 TIME article: 'Is God In Our Genes?' It sounded great, we were finally boiling down religion to it's essential neural components! And I'll be honest in saying that I was an enthusiastic follower of this theory.

Now I haven't followed the progress of this line of research in the intervening years, and I'm unsure as to where the research stands on that particular point, but I understand through recent developments such as a recent announcement by Scientific American that a much more lateral theory has been developed that basically says that religious feelings co-opt different brain circuits, those that are engaged in more more mundane pursuits such as politics, music, food, and so on. On the face of it, this theory makes much more sense. Religion, like many things, has many facets including contemplation, group activities, dietary requirements, social obligations, and many others, and so it stands to reason that these activites are moderated by the same neural circuits that moderate them in non-religious contexts! In fact the paper, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, claims to reveal three psychological dimensions of religious belief (God's perceived level of involvement, God's perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge) in networks that process Theory of Mind (ToM) regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery. ToM, in short, is the ability of individuals to understand their own and other people's mental states in terms of beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc. You know your own thoughts, and you know that other people have their thoughts too, because you have a Theory of Mind.

Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al. discuss the aim of their research; to define the psychological structure of religious belief and to reveal the brain areas activated by the cognitive processes involved. They give a nod to previous "God Spot" research by acknowledging how they have largely focused on the neural correlates of rather vivid and unusual experiences, sufferers of temporal-lobe epilepsy (which was mainly responsible for linking religiosity with the limbic structures), executive/prosocial aspects of religion being linked to the frontal lobes, and mystical religious experiences being linked with decreased parietal lobe activity. They mention that all these findings rarely corresponded with each other and generally didn't succeed at discovering a psychological architecture that underlies religious belief. Regarding the dimensions, the authors mention that factor analytic studies showed how the perception of God's involvement and anger are key components of belief, and this formed their first hypothesis that these concepts would quite naturally be related with the prefrontal and posterior regions of the ToM structure that deal with intent and emotion. Remember, ToM is the ability to understand one's own and others' mental states, so it stands to reason that understanding God's involvment in world affairs or his being angry for some reason or other fits nicely under ToM conceptions of intent and emotion. The second hypothesis proposed to test doctrinal knowledge being mediated by neural circuits processing abstract semantics, and that experiential knowledge engages circuits that process memory recall and imagery. The third hypothesis proposed that adoption of religious belief uses networks used in cognitive-emotional processing.

Just so we're clear, this study isn't aspiring to make any kind of statement on religious belief one way or the other. All it's trying to do is figure out whether religious belief uses "normal" neural circuits that are used for a variety of everyday things or thoughts, or whether "specialised" circuits are being used solely to process religious thoughts and ideas.

Multidimensional scaling (MDS, similar to factor analysis in concept) was applied to ratings of conceptual dissimilarity so that they appropriate correlated within the structures of the three aforementioned dimensions. They don't appear to have mentioned the use of any standardised scale measuring religious beliefs so I can only assume they created their own list of statements (can be seen in supplementary data). 26 particpants with variable levels of self-reported religiosity performed the ratings. Interestingly, Dimension 1 (D1) correlated negatively with God's perceived level of involvement (-0.994), D2 correlated negatively with God's perceived anger (-0.953) but positively with God's perceived love (0.953), and D3 correlated positively with doctrinal (0.993) and negatively with experiential (-0.993) religious content. After that, they fMRI-scanned 40 new participants and measured their brain activity while they listened to the statements being read out to them.

Excuse me for getting bogged down in the details, but at the end of the day this is what was discovered: "the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions." In other words, religious beliefs and feelings use the same brain networks as beliefs and feelings about politics, food, martial arts, music and whatever else form your hobbies and interests.

D1 indeed hit ToM circuits in order to "understand God’s intent and resolve the negative emotional significance of his lack of involvement." D2 indeed hit the more emotional ToM circuits when, considering God's emotions of love or anger, activated the same areas that respond to fear and happiness respectively. And finally, D3 engaged areas dealing with the decoding of metaphorical meaning and abstractness (doctrinal), and areas that generate memory and language-based projections of oneself (experiential).

This image shows the effect of D3 on the brain: Experiential (above) and Doctrinal (below). Activations for experiential knowledge are displayed as a spectrum whereas doctrinal activations are represented in purple. This seems intuitively reasonable; theoretical or 'bookish' knowledge of religion is localised in a small area when activated, as compared with experiential knowledge that recruits larger areas in order to 'remember' spiritual experiences, projecting it within one's mind with all of the emotion associated with the event. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it's simply a descriptive statement of what's going on neurologically under different religious circumstances. However, in assessing the overal effect of religiosity on the brain, it was discovered that religiosity is modulated in brain areas that tend to be related with stronger episodic (mainly autobiographical) memory retrieval and imagery, and suggested that the religious participants had a greater and more meaningful understanding of the religious statements that were read out to them. Hardly a surprise.

Regarding the last hypothesis dealing with the acceptance or rejection of religious beliefs, some interesting results were reported for the religious group. Disagreement with religious statements among the religious group activated anterior insulae areas commonly associated with emotional-cognitive integration, suggesting that rejection of religious beliefs involves a larger role for emotions in that process. The researchers explain away this finding as saying that negative emotions (such as aversion, guilt, fear of loss) in the religious participants may have been triggered by disagreeing with the statements, and that this could be viewed as a normal event where one encounters statements that go against one's belief system. Results were not reported for the non-religious participants, implying nothing worthy of reporting, so this activation amongst the religious must have been pretty high to merit a mention. The lady doth protest too much, methinks! ;-)

The researchers conclude their paper by relating their findings to their hypotheses and basically patting themselves on the back for a job done well. An important disclaimer relates to the fact that the measured religiosity was that of a sample of modern Western society, and the findings may differ with respect to other cultures. Quite an obvious experimental drawback but it remains to be seen whether the results will remain relatively consistent if or when replicated.

But what does all of this mean for research on the neuropsychological effects of religion? For a start, it shows rather well that religious feeling cannot strictly be said to be located in a single area (as per "God Spot"), but employs general neural circuitry. One may dream of a blissful holiday in quite the same way as one dreams of a blissful afterlife, one may respond well to smiles or bullying in quite the same way as one may respond to "God's love" or "God's anger", and one may interpret theological metaphors and relate them to one's life in quite the same way as one may enjoy reading and analysing a good piece of literature, and relating that to one's life!

Another interesting consideration relates to the evolutionary development of the brain. As the authors suggest that their findings now provide a "psychological and neuroanatomical framework for the processing of religious belief" that may be a specialised human function. Kalanit Grill-Spector, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, notes that other primates share the same brain structures although it is debatable as to whether they use them in the same capacity. Other critics note that this study simply analyses a "thinking" brain as opposed to a brain actively undergoing a religious experience. This is such a lazy methodological criticism that I wonder how it can even be considered seriously. It is facetious to think or even expect a "visionary" or prayerful brain can be appropriately analysed, difficult as the process is already, what to speak of asking others to do so. I suggest that this type of armchair logic is unsuitable and unhelpful in further understanding this already very complex topic.

The final sentence is worth a quote: "Regardless of whether God exists or not, religious beliefs do exist and can be experimentally studied, as shown in this study."

This article carries further thoughts.
Kapogiannis, D., Barbey, A., Su, M., Zamboni, G., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106


  1. What? No comments? That's hard to believe. Or maybe not, I got nuthin, except thanks for the posts. rb

  2. 1) I am interested in the evolutionary aspect of these findings. The fact that primates do not likely use their similar brain structures to the capacities that humans do supports a theory of my own. I ask that the readers of this post consider how obtaining new knowledge can either be very dull and unmemorable or it can be very memorable and an emotional experience. This new knowledge causes an extremely happy and fulfilling feeling deep inside myself. I BELIEVE that every human in the world, of every single religion and culture, is forced to approach their religious (or non-religious) beliefs using only their upbringing and their past-experiences. This limitation of ours, regarding our inability to conceive of how short of a time period we live and die in when compared to the history of man, or the world, or the universe, has caused us to adopt and live by the best, or most persuasive, religion or theory that our limited existence will allow us to experience. Out of all the philosophical theories that I have read about, I tend to believe the ones that seem to have better, or more realistic, logic…Jumping to the point of my personal theory, I BELIEVE that obtaining new knowledge of the human brain, and thus the nature of mankind, is a psychologically significant experience and should be dealt with extremely delicately. How do I suggest we do this? If everyone can realize that we all have the same ‘desire for otherness’, which has manifested itself in the form of organized religions, making US completely understand that we are biologically, neurologically, and thus psychologically similar to everyone else. Hans Kung’s notion of the need for a New World Ethic would allow us to embrace our newly realized commonality. My only alteration to the religiously universalized concept of the “Golden Rule” would be to make it an active statement rather than a passive or neutral one. That is: GO OUT AND DO GOOD FOR YOUR NEIGHBORS, HELP AS MANY PEOPLE OUT IN THE WORLD AS YOU CAN, MAKE YOUR LIFE GOALS AND YOUR CURRENT OR FUTURE PROFESSION SOMEHOW AIMED AT MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE. Eventually, once enough people realize that doing good things also makes you happy, the world will suddenly become a noticeably better place for everyone and everything the resides on IT.

  3. "Other critics note that this study simply analyses a "thinking" brain as opposed to a brain actively undergoing a religious experience. This is such a lazy methodological criticism that I wonder how it can even be considered seriously."

    I don't think this is a lazy argument, I think its a pivotal point. Its called validity.

  4. Hi Vivien,

    I agree that to analyse a brain that is actively ungoing a religious experience would turn up some interesting insights indeed. But how can we be sure that such an experience is taking place? It is difficult to track these things down.