Is there a 'God spot'? The brain and religion
Over sixty people met online to hear how neurology – a scientific study of the brain and its disorders - might shed light on religious faith. The meeting was organised by the discussion group “Science and Faith in Norfolk” and the speaker was Joanna Collicutt, who is both a clinical psychologist and an Anglican priest.
Report by Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin
Neurologists can now use various forms of imaging to observe patterns of activity in different parts of the human brain. Using this approach, some neuroscientists have tried to examine what is happening when people ‘do religion’. Examples of such activities include: - reciting a psalm; meditation; mystical experience; liturgical and extemporary prayer; and thinking about religious beliefs. Dr Collicutt explained that the methodological and philosophical problems are significant and the findings from these studies are less clear than they might appear at first sight. For example, it is hard to know what to compare the measured activity with, since the brain is always active, and it is theologically questionable whether one should pray to or seek a mystical experience of God for the purpose of measuring it. Nonetheless, it now does not appear that there is a “God spot” where religious activity is localised.
Another approach is to examine clinical data of people whose brains are injured or diseased. In some cases, there are changes in the patient’s religious experience, beliefs, or behaviour. A famous case was Phineas Gage, who got a tamping iron blown through his skull. His behaviour changed from temperate, responsible and pious, to licentious, irreverent and profane. Another woman recovered from a serious accident to find she had lost her sense of God’s presence. Dr Collicutt noted cases of people whose religious life was affected by temporal lobe epilepsy. One present-day example is the writer Karen Armstrong and a famous historical example is Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his partially autobiographical novel “The Idiot”, he described the mystical “aura” that normally preceded his epileptic seizures: "… all his doubts and worries seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of sense and harmonious joy and hope... a blinding inner light flooded his soul...”
In the 1970s and 80s, neurologist Norman Geshwind proposed there was a syndrome in some people with temporal lobe epilepsy associated with hyper-religiosity, though the evidence is questionable. Michael Persinger created a famous “God helmet” to stimulate the brain to induce a sense of “presence”. Richard Dawkins exploited these ideas in The God Delusion to suggest that religious experiences are pathological ‘sub-clinical’ forms of temporal lobe epilepsy. However, Persinger’s results have proved hard to reproduce and may be more a result of suggestion than electrical stimulation.
Dr Collicutt has recently been involved in a clinical study entitled: “The neurological, psychological, and theological significance of mystical seizures”. This study, funded by the Templeton Foundation, attempted to explore ways in which the relationship between brain, the person, and their faith can be elucidated by studying a large number of epileptics. The results of the clinical survey showed that people living with epilepsy do not appear to be more religious than the general population. A tiny minority of epileptics were shown to have a range of experiences with common themes of light, intense well-being, connectivity, and wonder to which they attributed spiritual significance. These experiences are highly varied and often give a sense that there is much more to life here and now, and that life may go on after death. Those involved often keep these experiences to themselves and are careful not to mention them to their medical team. People try to integrate these experiences into their life story and personal philosophy, but this process only rarely involves formal religion (even in those from a religious background).
In conclusion, Dr Collicutt suggested that, despite some claims to the contrary, the study of the brain and of epilepsy has raised more questions than answers when it comes to explaining how people develop a religious faith and attach spiritual significance to any mystical experiences that they may have. Neurology does not suggest there is a “God-spot” within the brain. As with most forms of learning and behavioural development, spirituality reflects a broad pattern of stimuli and social relationships over an extended period rather than having a single cause. Epilepsy often creates crises and many psychologists note that faith is often related to experiences of crisis and vulnerability.
After the talk, there were wide ranging discussions and questions. These revolved around the general problem of how to make a connection between a physiological or neurological state in some part of the brain and the overall and long-term development of conscious relationships based on faith and well-being.
The Revd Canon Dr Joanna Collicutt studied experimental psychology and theology at Oxford University, and clinical psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London. Currently, she is a lecturer at Ripon College, an Anglican seminary associated with Oxford University. She is also an associate priest in a west Oxfordshire parish and an honorary canon of Christ Church Cathedral.
Her most recent books include The psychology of Christian character formation (SCM, 2015), Being mindful being Christian (Monarch, 2016), Thinking of you: A theological and practical resource for the spiritual care of people with dementia (BRF, 2017), and Neurology and Religion (CUP, 2019).
The meeting was organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group which aims to explore the broad interface between science and religious belief. The next SFN meeting will take place on Monday 16th November. The speaker will be the Revd Dr Rodney Holder from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. He will speak on the topic: “Science, Reason and Christian Belief”.
For further information, Contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit the SFN Homepage or follow SFN on Facebook.