Is there a single “God-module” in the brain?

There has been a growing interest among neuroscientists in asking questions about the neural basis for consciousness, for prayer, for spiritual awareness. There has also been an outpouring of popular books on the topic such as The God-Shaped Brain by Timothy Jennings, How God Changes your Brain by Andrew Newberg, The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard, and The God Gene: How Faith is Hard-Wired into our Genes by Dean Hamer.

In his talk at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Dr. Jonathan Fritz, Associate Research Scientist in the Institute for Systems Research at the University of Maryland, described some of the recent systematic research in this neuroscientific exploration of religion in normal subjects that asks “What is the neuroscience of prayer and belief?” and wrestles with the question: Are we hard-wired to believe in God? Is there a specific God-module in the brain? This is an area of investigation that has been called by some “neurotheology.

What is “neurotheology”? It is the descriptive study of the neural activation patterns and brain regions associated with religious beliefs, including prayer, meditation, and a sense of awe, and mystical experiences, that occur in all cultures. The object of these behaviors may be God, supernatural powers, or sacred beings such as angels. From a “neurotheological” perspective, spiritual and religious subjective experiences have an adaptive evolutionary value, and a neurological basis in our brain networks. One challenge in the field is that there are many different kinds of spiritual experiences that include prayer, awe, the perception that time, fear or self-consciousness have dissolved, oneness with the universe, ecstatic trance, sudden enlightenment, altered states of consciousness, meditation and so forth.

Using an array of modern neuroscience techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Dr. Fritz demonstrated that the number of brain areas and structures involved in religious experience is quite extensive. (However, he cautioned that one possible explanation for the large number of brain areas engaged in religious experience is that different researchers used different techniques and methods to induce a religious experience).

While results suggest that regions of the prefrontal, temporal and parietal cortex and subcortical reward pathways such as the basal ganglia and nucleus accumbens are more likely to be activated during religious experience, there is no evidence whatsoever that specific brain regions or mechanisms are solely devoted to religious experience per se. Were we to list all the brain areas and structures which have been ever reported to be involved in religious experience, then we can see that virtually all the brain is involved. Thus, religious experience does not involve a specific neural system and probably requires joint activation of a family of systems, each of which is usually involved in other, nonreligious contexts.

Brain scans using fMRI or other methods alone cannot fully describe a mystical state. Indeed, because fMRI depends on blood flow, which takes place on the order of seconds, fMRI images do not capture real-time changes in the firing of neurons, which occur within milliseconds in the moment-to-moment experience of religion, prayer, or spiritual ecstasy. But this does not mean that it is not worthwhile to explore as best we can, with our limited scientific tools, the spiritual dimension of our lives.

This research indicates that the only way we have of comprehending God, asking questions about God, and experiencing God is through our brain. Although we can study what happens in the brain when we seek God, we have only preliminary glimpses at the answer. The big questions are still to be answered. Did God create our brain in such a way as for us to be able to worship God? Or did we just evolve that way?

Ultimately, whether or not God exists “out there” is certainly something that neuroscience cannot answer.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and is based on a talk delivered by Dr. Jonathan Fritz on March 27, 2017).