Homo sapiens have been called a religious animal. We ponder over our dead, look to the skies in wonder and bemusement, and curse the heavens when things don’t go our way. But where do these feelings originate?
Recent studies from the field of cognitive neuroscience (and more specifically in the new field of neurotheology) have shown that the religious mind might not come from on high. Instead, it might come from within.
These studies started with what is now colloquially referred to as the “God Helmet.” This retrofitted snowmobile helmet was built such that it could exert light magnetic fields over certain parts of the brain. These fields, as we would come to find out, could induce religious experiences.
The parts of the brain that were the focus of the God Helmet were the temporal lobes. Primarily, this is because, since antiquity, they were known to have been involved in religious experience. This knowledge was gleaned from temporal lobe epilepsy, an affliction that yielded seizures in the eponymous brain region.
The temporal lobes are situated in the middle-outside of the brain, underneath the frontal and parietal lobes. If you were to move in from the outside of the skull inward toward the ears, you would land at their epicenter. The area contains things like our auditory cortex, different components of our visual pathways, and—more to the point—certain areas involved in religious experience.
When those with epilepsy lapse into a seizure, suffering excessive and incessant signaling between the two temporal lobes (we have one in each hemisphere), they often have religious experiences. Frequently, this entails the feeling of a “presence.” This presence could be a god, important religious figure, or indicate that a ghost, angel, or demon is in the room.
Ancient Greeks called temporal lobe epilepsy “the sacred disease,” which suggests that the relationship dates back to antiquity. Similarly, reports of epilepsy are thought to have occurred for such notable historical and religious figures as the Buddha, Mohammed, Ezekiel, St. Paul, and Joseph Smith. Clearly, the temporal lobes contained something crucial for the religious experience.
The God Helmet, originally invented by Stanley A. Koren and Michael Persinger (hence its original name as the Koren Helmet), aimed at stimulating these temporal lobes in a way such to evoke these religious experiences.
In essence, the helmet was retrofitted with a handful of electrodes, which, when activated, would lightly stimulate the general region of the temporal lobes. In about 80 percent of people who were stimulated by the helmet in this way, a religious experience was induced.
Amazingly, those who were stimulated were of multifarious religious backgrounds. Some were atheists, others Roman Catholics, and others still Buddhists or Hindus. In each group, a religious experience was felt. Typically, this experience was in the religion to which they adhered. In atheists, the experience was more general or in a religion they were familiar with.
While feeling the presence of God or gods was rare, the more typical experience was a felt “presence.” This presence was something other-worldly and often awe-inspiring. The feelings of religious sentiment were induced from a few electrodes placed on the brain.
If you can induce an experience in the brain that replicates those that normally convince people into religion, it suggests that the experience does not actually indicative of an external entity. Instead, it suggests that the sentiments come from inside the brain independently of external reality.
Regardless, the practice of neurotheology is hoped to be mutually beneficial, enhancing both religion and the study of its manifestation in the brain. Whether we’re able to find a localized god module is beside the point.
Wherever the future takes us, it’s clear that we’ll move in the direction of a deeper understanding of how religious experience takes hold in the brain. The information is likely to be awesome.